How to Take Unruly and Stubborn Thoughts Captive

You know those moments when you’re sitting back in the peace and quiet of your home (possibly a rare or common thing in your home) and one of those thoughts pops into your head. A fear, a what if, a lie, a sin from the past, an unkind thought of another, a false assumption, or some other kind of unruly thought. As much as you don’t want to think on it, it’s there and flourishing. These thoughts are stubborn and sticky. Like a fly you keep chasing away, they return, just as determined as before to sink deep into your mind. It seems that no matter what you do, these thoughts continue to return whenever you have a quiet moment to yourself.

As those who have been redeemed by Christ, we should have heavenly thoughts. As Paul says to the Colossians, 

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory (Col. 3:2–4). 

But how do we do this? How do we take those thoughts captive and make them obedient to Christ? By installing Philippians 4:8 as a guard over our minds.

What Is an Unbiblical Thought?

Before we form a plan for conquering our unruly and stubborn thoughts, we need to be able to recognize them. These thoughts are tricky—they know how to twist God’s Word and make what is dark appear as light (2 Cor. 11:14). This is how Satan gets us; in Eden, Satan led Eve to doubt God’s command and then twisted it (Gen. 3). We need a discerning filter to run our thoughts through to see if they line up with the truth. Philippians 4:8 is this filter.

Finally brothers and sisters, 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 anything praiseworthy—dwell on these things (CSB).

This is our command from God: dwell on these things. If a biblical thought is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy, then an unbiblical thought is the opposite. It’s false, shameful, unfair, impure, detestable, appalling, inferior, and blameworthy. An unbiblical thought seeks to tempt, corrupt, and ruin. It distorts the truth. It blasphemes God. It calls into question that which God has promised and proclaimed. It would hurt others if they heard it. These are the kinds of thoughts we want to capture and destroy.

What Is a Godly Thought?

As we capture each of our thoughts to examine and test with God’s Word, we can use Philippians 4:8 as our “thought filter” or “glasses” through which to consider each thought. If a thought can’t pass through, it isn’t to be dwelled on. And what does Philippians 4:8 call us to dwell on? That which is . . .

  • True: honest, real, correct, and truthful, the opposite of myths and lies. Though the world says truth is something you can determine, we know that God alone is the source of all truth.
  • Honorable: respected, dignified, moral. “Paul is saying, Get your mind off of low and base things. Get your mind out of the gutter. Get your attention off frivolous things. Focus on the honorable.1
  • Right: just, righteous, upright, and faultless. That which is obedient to God’s law or approved by Him. 
  • Pure: sacred, chaste, innocent, clean, and untainted by sin. Separate from evil and sin.
  • Lovely: acceptable, pleasing, or amiable.
  • Commendable: well-spoken of. “That which is highly regarded or thought well of. It refers to what is generally considered reputable in the world, such as kindness, courtesy, and respect for others.”2
  • Excellent: morally excellent or virtuous, or pure.
  • Worthy of praise: to be admired, approved, or praised.

If you are thinking on that which is true, honorable, right, and pure, there’s no room for the unruly and stubborn thoughts to get a foothold. We can’t simply banish the unruly thoughts—we need to replace them with something better.

Practical Steps for Taking Our Thoughts Captive

How do we apply this practice of filtering our thoughts through Philippians 4:8? How do we dwell on those heavenly things? 

Keep a thought journal. 

In either a physical journal or a note on your computer or phone, keep a log of those unruly thoughts when they pop up. Take note of the following:

  • What was the thought?
  • What provoked the thought? This may help you determine what triggers these unruly thoughts so you can catch them earlier.
  • Why was it unhelpful or sinful? (Use Scripture to back it up.)
  • What is a right and godly thought to replace it with? (Use Scripture to back it up.)

Eventually you will get into the habit of doing this without using a journal.

Philippians 4:8 thought list. 

Make a list of things you can think on based on Philippians 4:8. Whenever one of those unruly thoughts pops up, refer to your list.

Listen to content throughout the day that fits Philippians 4:8.

If you’re struggling with unruly thoughts, try listening to Scripture, audiobooks on Christian living, or worship music and hymns.

Memorize Scripture. 

What better thing to fill your mind with than Scripture itself? Like the psalmist, let’s store up God’s Word in our hearts so that we might not sin against Him (Ps. 119:11).

Strength in the Holy Spirit.

The practical means nothing if we aren’t filled with the Holy Spirit. When we are saved, the Holy Spirit comes to reside inside us and change our hearts and minds to love God. The nonbeliever might be able to implement some of these practical tips and change their thought life, but what good is that without salvation from sin and death? Where is their hope? They are hopelessly going forward in their own strength. But we have the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead empowering us to obey and love God (Rom. 8:11). If we want to take our thoughts captive and make them obedient to Christ, we need to be changed by Christ first. We need to be people who have trusted by faith in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for the forgiveness of their sins. 

Those unruly thoughts that seem to rule our minds? They can be taken captive. In the power of the Spirit, we can recognize them, take them captive, and fill our minds with that which is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy. Unruly thoughts don’t need to rule us anymore.

1 Steven J. Lawson, Philippians for You, God’s Word for You (Good Book Company, 2017), Kindle, 200.

2 John MacArthur, Dr., The MacArthur Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 1725.

About the Author

Lara d’Entremont

Lara d’Entremont

Lara d’Entremont is first a wife and a mom to three little wildlings in rural Nova Scotia, Canada. While the wildlings snore, she primarily writes—whether it be personal essays, creative nonfiction, or fantasy novels. She desires to weave the stories … read more …

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