“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
~ Ps. 27:1 (NIV)
In a letter to the ekklesia at Corinth, Paul challenges them to be strong and bold in their daily lives, and then says this:
“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled” (II Cor. 10:3-6)
I’ve always found that a curious verse, specifically the part about strongholds. It kind of sat there in the back of my mind for a while, until I happened to be reading something that talked about the concept of obstacles between us and God as being strongholds or walled cities, like Jericho. Then something clicked.
Strongholds are kind of a foreign concept to those of us in the U.S. because we don’t have any, but the remnants of ancient strongholds are all over the world—and in particular the Middle East and Europe. A stronghold is a strategically-located fortified structure able to resist the assault of enemy forces (Google pictures of Masada or Bamburgh Castle to get a good visual). When gazed on from the outside, they are imposing and will discourage all but the most determined and able forces. They are typically very difficult to overcome, demanding long sieges or subterfuge to breach. But overcoming them is critical to winning the war for a conquering army.
These strongholds or “walled cities” can take a couple forms—the big obstacle you see in front of you that (consciously or subconsciously) you allow to be bigger than God, and the fortresses inside of yourself that are still protecting pieces of your carnal nature from being conquered. Both types of strongholds need torn down. As I got deeper into this study it kept getting longer and more complicated, so I’ve split it into two parts for simplicity’s sake. This article addresses the first—the fortress that stands between you and the Promised Land.
Read the second part in this series here
Stronghold as obstacle – a faith issue
In Numbers 13, Moses commanded the twelve spies to go into the land of Canaan and do some reconnaissance. He told them to come back and report on the quality of the land, its fruit, its inhabitants, and their cities or settlements. The spies went out in pairs and spent 40 days in the land (symbolic of a time of testing or trial), and then reported back to Moses. The land, ten of them said, was everything God and Moses had promised them—lush, prosperous, bountiful, and beautiful. But, they continued, the people were terrifying giants inhabiting mighty strongholds, who the ragtag Israelites could never hope to defeat.
Rather than counteracting the other spies’ testimony, Caleb and Joshua simply said, “Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it.” The other spies argued, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we” (Num. 13:30-31). And the children of Israel listened to the ten spies and were distraught and sought to turn back toward Egypt. Caleb and Joshua pleaded with them to reframe their perspective, saying:
“If the Lord delights in us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us…only do not rebel against the Lord, nor fear the people of the land, for they are our bread; their protection has departed from them, and the Lord is with us. Do not fear them.” (Num. 14:8-9)
The confused and terrified people wanted to stone them for saying such things. Then God showed up and Moses had to intercede to keep Him from destroying the rebellious Israelites then and there. Instead, He punished them and sentenced them to wander the desert for 40 years, with all of the adults dying during the journey and never entering the Promised Land.
The Israelites didn’t trust God to be big enough, to be powerful enough to clear their path. Even though they’d experienced firsthand the plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, miraculous manna every day in the desert, and the pillar of cloud and fire leading them, they could only see giants inhabiting the Promised Land and the big, foreboding walls of Jericho blocking their way. And they knew they weren’t strong enough to overcome them, so they tried to turn back to the life they’d had before, even though it was a life of miserable slavery. Before any battle was ever fought on the field, it was fought in the mind, and the stronghold—fear—won.
We say we have faith in God, but how big do we truly believe He is? When an obstacle is placed in front of us—be it a conflict between work and the holy days, financial difficulties, a little white lie that will seemingly make our lives easier—do we try to solve it on our own or cave to the more obvious worldly solution, or do we trust in God’s ability to work things out to His satisfaction? The trouble is that even if we do pray about certain situations or trials, we already have a solution in mind that we’re asking God to bring about. And our human minds can only see certain types and numbers of solutions, while God’s mind is infinite and He sees far more of the situation than we do. So while He might be working out a far better resolution for us in the long-term, all we can see is that He didn’t answer our prayer to our specifications.
Our expectations, or God’s?
That’s where we can set up our own strongholds. Our own paradigms and expectations of God are another kind of stronghold or walled city that we don’t often anticipate, and these can be a major hurdle, especially for people who have been in the faith longer. When we see a situation that rattles our worldview—the sudden loss of a loved one, a church split, national or world events taking an unexpected turn—do we get angry and allow it to shake our faith, or do we trust in His mercy and faithfulness and know that He is ultimately in control?
We’ve all seen people fall prey to these strongholds when God didn’t do something they believed He would, or handle a situation (whether on a personal or global scale) like they expected Him to. We study the bible and attempt to learn as much of God and His plans as we can, which involves using our own brains. But we can so easily be derailed over details, failing to understand that God clearly gives us some things and leaves the rest fairly vague. How many prophetic dates have been set over the years? How many people have slowly faded away after disputes over calendars or translations or leadership or seemingly unanswered prayer? It’s not wrong for us to think about and try to understand these things, in fact we’re commanded to study and learn. But when we allow our beliefs and our expectations of God to become bigger than God Himself, we limit God. We have made our God smaller. And we create an idol out of our own beliefs or our own faith in God (the “my faith is strong enough to…” trap).
Even Peter fell prey to this stronghold. As Jesus began to preach about His coming trials and death and subsequent resurrection, Peter was aghast and pulled Him aside to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!” Jesus responded harshly, saying “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (Matt. 16:21-23). This might actually be the harshest rebuke that Jesus gave. But it’s easy to see Peter’s side. He was looking at Jesus, his teacher and friend, whom he’d seen walk on water and feed the multitudes and believed was the Messiah and Son of God. He knew the messianic prophecies and knew God’s promise of a future kingdom, and to him it was unfathomable. What Jesus was saying and doing didn’t align with his expectations. Peter wasn’t thinking inherently evil thoughts, in fact his intentions were good—they were just coming from man’s (and by extension, Satan’s) point of view. And that’s what Jesus rebuked.
In Proverbs we’re told, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not to your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct [or make straight] your paths” (Prov. 3:5-6; deeper study on this verse here). Our “own understanding” in this case doesn’t just mean to understand a concept, but implies trying to figure things out ourselves, our own thoughts and preconceptions. This verse is telling us that if we put our trust in God and allow Him room to do things His way, He will provide. When we see a stronghold in front of us, is our first instinct to go to God and ask Him to provide a way around or through, then stand back and let Him work? Is it to ask what His will is for the situation? Or is it to beat our heads against the wall trying to figure it out on our own, or turn back because it seems too hard?
Pulling down strongholds—ultimately a question of faith
Forty years later, when the Israelites again approached the Promised Land, God told them of His expectations for them, and made another set of promises based on obedience. After enumerating the consequences of disobedience and the blessings for obedience, He reassured the Israelites through Moses, “Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid of them; for the Lord your God, He is the One who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you” (Deut. 31:6).
What is your “walled city”, your Jericho? What is the thing that stands between you and the promised kingdom of God, that will derail you from your path if you allow it to be bigger than God? And do you have a battle plan (that includes God) for conquering it?
When we’ve got a Jericho taking up our entire horizon and we’re having trouble seeing anything but how impenetrable it seems, where do we allow our minds to go? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I know that I usually end up where Paul is telling the Romans, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31). Many people stop here, and indeed, this is a good statement to hold on to. But to me, the impact of this verse is greater in context of the whole passage:
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies…Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord”
If we remain steadfast in following Him and trust in Him to work things according to His will, literally nothing—now or in the future—can destroy us. That seems like a pretty unassailable promise to me.