Take Every Thought Captive
by Bo Stern-Brady
On an early Wednesday morning last winter, I texted my husband a happy “Good morning, I love you,” like we always do when we’re working in different cities. He usually responds right away—we’re newlyweds after all—so I held my phone, anticipating the immediate beep of an incoming text. It didn’t come. Didn’t come. Still didn’t come. I was okay for the first five or ten minutes, but once I hit the 15-minute mark, I felt the seed of a thought land in my mind and suck the air out of my lungs. The thought was this: Your husband is dead.
I know it seems ridiculous to jump from “good morning” to “he’s dead,” but it’s not ridiculous to me. I lost my first husband, Steve, in 2015 to ALS. The four-year struggle had been treacherous and created deep pockets of fear and dread in my life, especially fear of losing the people I love. I recognize this as irrational, but it’s also very real in the moment. It starts with a faster heartbeat, sweaty palms and a jumpy stomach. I’ve learned that this is the moment to act, before it turns into a full-blown panic attack. This is my opportunity to contend for the peace that Jesus promised (John 14:27).
The apostle Paul said this: “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete” (2 Corinthians 10:3-6, NIV).
This process of taking every thought captive has become an essential practice in my life. It has changed the way I deal with fear, with conflict, with discouragement, with disappointment and with jealousy. It’s changed the way I respond to my husband and my children. It’s changed the way I communicate on social media. Science tells us our thoughts are a lot like riderless horses, galloping in and out of our minds, stirring up dust, creating drama and trampling our peace. We can’t control whether a thought lands, but we can decide what we’re going to do with it at that point.
The National Science foundation, in a 2005 study, found that we think about 50,000 thoughts per day. It varies widely, but that’s an average. The amount doesn’t really matter. What matters is this next finding: 85% of those thoughts are negative (anxious, fearful, discouraging, etc.) That’s about 42,000 negative thoughts per day. And here’s a doozy: 95% of our thoughts are an exact repeat of yesterday or the day before or two weeks ago Tuesday. That is a deep brain groove of embedded negativity.
I did an experiment on this. In the midst of a really difficult day, I sat down and wrote every negative thought I could remember from that day. I wrote and wrote and wrote—from “I don’t like the weather” to “my schedule is overwhelming” to “I don’t feel as healthy as I want to feel.” Then I put all those thoughts into categories. And you know what that very long list of thoughts turned out to be? Four issues. Four main things were bothering me and triggering discouragement, but they were also the engine of a very long, very powerful train of thought. Negative thoughts left unchecked or as Paul said, uncaptured, tend to run amok and repeat themselves in slightly different, increasingly despairing ways. The bad news is you are never going to take 45,000 negative thoughts captive. The good news is you don’t have to. You just have to take the engines captive and the trains will follow.
Does that sound too easy? It isn’t. It’s difficult, but it’s good and worthy work because the battle for our peace, joy and freedom almost always begins with our thoughts. But these fights are especially tricky because they’re largely invisible. We are typically not very aware of what we’re thinking when we’re thinking it, and we are even less aware that we can partner with the Holy Spirit to change the course of our thoughts if we so choose. For a long season, I would leave a store only to find I had no earthly idea where I had parked. I can’t tell you how many times I pushed full carts through every row of the Costco parking lot, trying unsuccessfully to look like I wasn’t lost, until I eventually stumbled upon my Mazda. I was beginning to worry that something was truly wrong with me, so I made a plan. I decided to use the moment after I turned my car off but before I touched the door handle to stop and think and mark in my mind where I was parked. I have never lost my car since. Turns out, my memory wasn’t bad, my awareness was bad. Once I started paying attention, the problem was solved. That’s a small example of the way taking control of your thoughts can change your life.
For me, becoming intentional about the direction of my thoughts involves asking three questions. It might be different for you, but this is a good place to start. When I find myself in a negative groove like fear, anxiety or discouragement, I ask this:
1. What am I thinking right now?
If you watch a story on the evening news and find yourself feeling anxious or fearful afterwards, you could spend a lot of time trying to swat all those thoughts away or trying to “cheer up” or “get over it.” A better solution, however, is to stop and speak to your own soul: “What are you really afraid of right now?” Drill down to find the source of the thought or the engine of the train. Perhaps news about the pandemic has you worried for a loved one or a child. Perhaps a story about stock market volatility has you worried about your retirement or your job. Be brave enough to look right at the thought that is at the root of your fear.
2. Is this thought true?
When I identify a thought that is producing anything less than perfect peace in my heart, I simply hold it up to Jesus and say, “Jesus, is this thought true?” Often, the answer is “Nope.” I recently found myself in the middle of a week that seemed impossible. My to-do list was too long and I felt inadequate and unqualified for nearly every task on it. As the cloud of insecurity grew heavy on my heart, I stopped and held my insecurity up to the light of truth. There, in the midst of the love and grace of Jesus, I was able to anchor my thoughts to the truth that I can do all things through Him and through the strength He gives. Over and over, I let my mind take in the absolute truth of that promise, and I felt it sink into my soul and give me courage, stability and joy in the job He’s given me. Studies show that most of the things we fear never actually happen. But sometimes bad things do happen. Sometimes sorrow storms the gates and soaks our lives. Sometimes the thing that we fear is a very real possibility. That leads us to the final question:
3. What is the prevailing truth?
On that scary Wednesday, with my silent phone in hand and my husband’s safety in question, I asked the question: Is this true? Is my husband dead? And while I know now that he wasn’t, I didn’t know then. Plenty of people have endured the death of more than one spouse. I knew the possibility was very slim, but even the sliver of a possibility creates terror—that’s my brain running ahead of me, trying to keep me safe from the same onslaught of fear and sorrow I experienced in 2015. Since losing a loved one is a real possibility, I had to anchor my thoughts to a bigger truth. A better truth. A sustaining truth. I sat down, lifted my hands to Jesus and asked, “What is the real truth of my situation right now?” Within seconds, I felt the certainty of an answer: “You are held safely in My love, no matter what.” It washed over me like cool rain on a hot day, and I said it out loud, over and over again so my heart could hear it and so that it could become embedded beauty in my mind: “I am held safely in the love of God, no matter what.” All my thoughts of fear were lassoed up and held captive by that one, powerful prevailing truth.
The process of taking my thoughts captive to truth has changed everything in my life. In fact, I’ve become so passionate about it, that I built an app to help everyone learn to identify and capture the thoughts that are keeping them stuck in fear, anxiety or depression. Soulspace provides an original, free meditation every day to lead people through the process of anchoring to the unfailing truth of the way of Jesus and the love of God. Five minutes a day truly can change your life and establish a new way of thinking.
Spoiler: My husband is still very much alive, and I am grateful to have fought and won that war in the battlefield of my mind. I am even more grateful for supernatural weapons that demolish strongholds and lead to peace. These weapons are available to every follower of Jesus, we just have to take them out and use them well.
Bo Stern-Brady is an author, pastor and co-founder of Soulspace, an app that helps anchor runaway thoughts to the love of God. She has written three books including Beautiful Battlefields, the story of her husband’s battle with ALS and the beauty that can be found in the fiercest fights. Bo married the second love of her life in 2019 and they split their time between Bend and Portland, Oregon.