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What is a Spiritual Foothold?

A casual reading of the Bible might lead you to the conclusion that whenever you rebuke an evil spirit in the name of Jesus, that the demon must leave. After all, Jesus' disciples "returned with joy, saying, 'Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name' (Luke 10:17 NASB)." Such, unfortunately, is not the case.

Further reading will reveal that even Jesus' disciples could not always cast out every demon: "Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not (Mark 9:17-18 NIV)." In this case, the problem involved the disciples' lack of faith. Prayer—some Bible translations state "prayer and fasting"—would also have been necessary for the disciples to succeed (Mark 9:29).

But I guarantee you that this is just "the tip of the iceberg." There's a lot more to understanding spiritual footholds, and the information in this article is fundamental to understanding and resolving mental health issues.

Let's start with what the Bible says about spiritual footholds: "In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold (Ephesians 4:26-27 NIV)." Ephesians 4:27 is also translated "do not give the devil an opportunity (NASB)" and "nor give place to the devil (NKJV)." Giving the Devil a foothold, as a result of anger, results in emotional and/or physical torture (Matthew 18:21-35).

I do not believe that spiritual footholds are limited to anger issues. My conviction on this matter is based on personal, social and clinical experience, as well as on my understanding of Scripture.

In simple language, a spiritual foothold (my preferred terminology) means four things: 1) Demons, as a result of the foothold, have the ability to cause you emotional and/or physical distress in some way. 2) Demons determine the level and timing of the aforementioned distress. 3) Demons do not necessarily have to leave right away as a result of prayer, prayer and fasting, being rebuked in the name of Jesus, being commanded to leave in the name of Jesus, or the utilization of faith or any other of your spiritual weapons. 4) Demons, as a result of the foothold, gain the ability to pressure you to sin in various ways. If you yield to this pressure, footholds are maintained or strengthened—and new footholds may also be developed.

Some examples of likely spiritual footholds:

  • Depression.
  • Anxiety.
  • Bitterness.
  • Persistent "hallucinations."
  • Addictions (Drugs, pornography, gambling etc.).1
  • Inability to stop thinking about people you don't like.
  • Inability to stop worrying.
  • Inability to control violent urges.

Footholds almost always come about as a result of sin. This includes the sin of unforgiveness that is the result of abuse. Occasionally, God will allow a foothold for other reasons (Job 1:1-22).

Some sins that are likely to result in a foothold include the following:

Footholds vary in strength. They range from the temporary emotional distress that can occur after someone is less than cordial to severe suicidal depression that may be the result of years of abuse.

Footholds vary in duration. A foothold may last only a short time, as when you realize you need to forgive someone for a minor transgression. Or they can last a lifetime, as when you refuse to forgive others for their wrongs.

Footholds for specific anger issues can sometimes seem to be largely dormant for years. That is, you may not realize how much power Satan has until you come under a serious spiritual attack, in regard to the issue, years later.

Two examples of spiritual footholds are found in the Old Testament. They follow.

First David, Israel's second king. David foolishly allowed himself to be humiliated in front of his men by allowing Shimei to repeatedly curse him and also throw stones at him (2 Samuel 16:5-14). I say foolishly because David was the government and thus had both the right and the ability to punish Shimei and stop this deplorable behavior. David then made a second mistake: He failed to forgive. As a result, he was tormented by this memory until the day he died (1 Kings 2:1-46).

Next, Saul. Saul, Israel's first king, also experienced a spiritual foothold. His foothold was the result of anger, jealousy and fear (1 Samuel: Chapters 15-19).

1 Samuel 16:14 explains what is happening when Satan exercises a spiritual foothold: "Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord (demon) tormented him (NIV)."

Spiritual footholds allow Satan the power to create distress up to the maximum afforded by the foothold and also to determine the timing of that distress in accordance with his purposes: "Now it came about on the next day that an evil spirit from God came mightily upon Saul, and he raved in the midst of the house, while David was playing the harp with his hand, as usual; and a spear was in Saul's hand. Saul hurled the spear for he thought, 'I will pin David to the wall.' But David escaped from his presence twice (1 Samuel 18:10-11 NASB)."

As you can see, Satan's objective was to have Saul murder David. And he used the foothold in an attempt to accomplish that objective.

Now, the obvious question: How do you get rid of a spiritual foothold? Realize that while some footholds can be overcome quickly, others may require years of effort. Just keep using prayer and the Word of God. Persistence is the key.

This is very much a war. It is not realistic to expect yourself to win every battle, but it is essential that you keep trying and never give up.

Make a diligent effort to avoid sin—especially the sin that is the basis of the foothold that you're trying to get rid of.

More information is provided in other articles published on this site. You may want to start by first reading the following articles: Ephesians 6: Putting on the Armor of God and Spiritual Warfare.

1 Drug addictions also involve physical factors.

Next Topic: Ephesians 6: Putting on the Armor of God.

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Scripture quotations marked "NKJV™" are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation.
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Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.