Taking Every Thought Captive – What does it mean?

Judy approaches her friends at church and reveals that she is struggling with persistent doubt and depression. She tells them she reads her Bible every day, prays, attends church, and serves others. “But the thoughts keep intruding” she confesses. One of her friends gently takes her by the hand, looks into her eyes with great concern, and says “Judy, you just need to take those thoughts captive and make them obey Christ.” The people in the circle nod in agreement and Judy politely thanks her friend. They pray together and then continue with the church activities. Judy goes home feeling much better. Later that afternoon, the depressive thoughts return in earnest. Judy is perplexed. Didn’t she and her friends “capture” these thoughts? Why are they back? Judy’s faith is strong and her friends mean well. But she cannot comprehend how to “capture her thoughts” which have plagued her for years. “Where in the Bible is this passage again?” she asks herself. She googles the words and re-reads 2 Corinthians 10. There it is in verse 5 “we take captive every thought and make it obey Christ.” “Maybe I’m just not there yet,” she says to herself.  Judy retires for the evening discouraged, praying for a peaceful night.

It’s often heard, when the church is addressing an individual’s thought-life, intruding or perverse thoughts, or even mental health, that he or she must “take every thought captive.” The King James translation employs the wording “Casting down imaginations” in the same interpretive context as above; a personal mental battle. Is this what Paul taught?

If the Apostle Paul is teaching we are to somehow capture our personal thoughts and make them obey Christ, in an individual context, he chose not to explain how.

Please notice the verbiage ‘what Paul taught’ and not ‘where we get the teaching.’ These are often two different approaches. When we examine doctrine, we must ask “is this what the author is conveying?” One of the first rules of hermeneutics is ‘if it did not mean it to the author, it does not mean it now.’

Let’s examine Paul’s context. Paul was a intentional and precise author. It is important to follow the progression of his writing. In 2 Corinthians 9, Paul teaches about the gifts of giving, the confession of the gospel, and thanksgiving. In chapter 10, vs. 2, Paul begs the Corinthians that when he is present with them, he will “…not need to be bold with the confidence by which I plan to challenge certain people who think we are behaving in an unspiritual way.” Notice his tone; Paul is about to speak of spiritual confrontation. The tone in scripture is relevant to the context.

Let’s outline 2 Corinthians 10:3-6 to help us examine Paul’s progression…

  • We do not wage war in an unspiritual way (or wage a physical war.)
  • The weapons of our warfare are not worldly.
  • The weapons we use are powerful through God for the demolition of strongholds.
  • We demolish arguments and every high-minded thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God.
  • Taking every thought captive to obey Christ
  • We are ready to punish any disobedience, once your obedience has been confirmed.

Notice the confrontational tone of Paul’s words. Directly surrounding “taking every thought captive” are “we demolish every high-minded things against the knowledge of God” and “we are ready to punish disobedience.” The word “thoughts” is not alone; Paul prefaces it with “every high-minded thing.” Battling personal mental struggles or negative self-talk does not appear to be Paul’s intent here. Such an interpretation, as well intentioned as it may be, would be foreign to Paul’s message in 2 Corinthians 10. 

Let’s examine I Corinthians 10:5 in the New Living Translation; “We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ.” This translation is in context with Paul’s spiritually confronting language here. Paul does not appear to be saying “when you are facing negative or perverse thoughts, take them captive and make them obey Christ.” Rather, Paul’s progression looks more like this.’

“We are in a spiritual battle, so we don’t fight in a physical way. As believers in Christ, we engage people in a spiritual manner and, through the Spirit, demolish popular godless arguments and so-called ‘high knowledge’ opposed to the gospel. We, through the Spirit, capture these prevailing mindsets and bring them to the truth of Christ in obedience. Because of this, we are qualified and ready to punish disobedience, because the truth is crystal clear.” 

I believe Paul is speaking of engaging a godless culture with the truth, and teaching it to obey Jesus Christ. He does not appear to be teaching an individual how to chase down and capture his or her personal thoughts. This passage is closer to the Great Commission than how to manage mental struggles. 

Paul writings, and other scriptures, do address individual and corporate thought-life.  Consider Romans 12:1-3 “Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God. For by the grace given to me, I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he should think. Instead, think sensibly, as God has distributed a measure of faith to each one.” Transformation takes place by the renewal of the mind. The renewed mind can discern the will of God and think sensibly. When Paul speaks of the mind, he is practical, not merely theoretical.

This blog post is meant as an encouragement to all who read. We are called to love the Lord our God with all our mind, as well as our hearts, souls, and strength – Mark 12:30-31. What if the key to defeating intrusive thoughts was not some attempt to chase them down, capture them, and force obedience? What if the key is to love God with our mind?

In closing, having mental and spiritual peace is not abstract and theory. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, gives another practical exhortation concerning our thoughts. Notice the progression; Paul encourages the believers to dwell or meditate on whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, and morally excellent, or worthy of adoration. Then consider the challenge of doing what they have learned, received, heard, and seen in Paul.  The God of peace will be among them, personally and corporately. The key here is dwelling, meditating, and thinking on the things of God and practicing lives based on such things, both for personal peace and for the encouragement and example to others. What God teaches is achievable.

“Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise—dwell on these things. Do what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:8-9 HCSB

God bless you, and thanks for reading. Comments welcome.

Reuben

5 Comments

  1. I loved this. There is so much truth in this. Phil 4:8-9 has always been one of my favorite verses! I memorized it as a girl in church & have used it over & over again in life. No matter what hardships life has thrown my way or hurts I have faced that verse has helped me keep bitterness & negativity from setting in my heart. Thank you for sharing this Reuben. I honestly believe mental health is a real issue in the church today. God wants us to be whole, healthy people that are free to serve him!

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