One of the points of Sunday’s message is that spiritual warfare is both a bigger deal than we often think, and more normal than we often think.
But what about those times when it’s not normal? What about those times when the forces of darkness appear to manifest themselves in more direct and obvious ways? Is Ephesians 6:10-20 really good enough in those circumstances?
In his article “Stand Up to the Powers of Darkness,” biblical counsellor David Powlison shares the following story, which I trust you’ll find helpful:
Christians often argue that people living in animistic contexts need some special sort of demon deliverance. Some believe that a history of occult practices and beliefs necessitates a kind of ministry that is completely different from Ephesians 6. This may initially seem plausible because the phenomena and symptoms are bizarre. But Scripture gives striking examples of occult practitioners being ministered to by normal, biblical spiritual warfare: for example, Manasseh (2 Kings 21; 2 Chron 33) and Simon (Acts 8). Here is a contemporary story that corroborates with what Scripture leads us to expect.
A European friend of mine went to rural West Africa in the 1980s as a long-term missionary. He taught in a theological college, did church planting, and pastoral ministry. When he arrived, the implicit rationalism of his Western world view was blown away by the disturbing forces he encountered: animism, witchcraft, amulets, manifestations of bizarre voices and various other physical effects, trance states and hallucinations, a visceral sense of being in the presence of uncanny evil. He encountered these phenomena both in professing Christians and in non-Christians. He began to adopt the common demon-deliverance version of spiritual warfare, and experienced apparent success.
But as time went by, he increasingly doubted both the legitimacy and efficacy of what he was doing. For one thing, a deliverance event, however dramatic in the moment, proved to be no predictor of any good thing in a person’s life over the long term. It did not result in blessing, or stability, or spiritual growth, or freedom from symptoms. In contrast, those who turned from their sins and came under Christ did live changed lives. Those whose lives became fruitful were people who did the “normal” things of faith. Normal did not mean rote, perfunctory, or mechanical. It meant embracing Scripture, honest confession and repentance, candid faith in prayer and worship, vital fellowship and accountability, and practical obedience—what this article has been about. But the people in whom normal things did not take root continued to live in sin, fear, and animistic chaos. Normal things were the difference maker in delivering people from Satan’s power. Deliverance ministry made a lot of noise, but made little difference. It even reinforced the core assumptions of animism.
As my friend continued to reflect on Scripture and his experience, he concluded that the demon deliverance world view and practice was a failure and did not add up biblically. So what was going on with the darkly bizarre symptoms that he was encountering? The evil one and his agents were intimately involved. But most of the varied phenomena—the sense of uncanny moral evil, the lies, fear, confusion, and hostility—point toward normal human experience in a world of suffering. As touched on in the discussion of Psalm 28, people suffer terribly under many things: the hardships of disease and poverty, hostility and injustice from others, anguish of conscience, the cruelty of the Slave Master, the imminent threat of death. It is always right to earnestly cry out to God, “Deliver us from evil. Be merciful, O Lord.” But the animistic world view provided the suggestion that the brokenness of life calls for a power encounter with an inhabiting spirit. My friend came to see the deeper human need, and began to change his approach.
He started to dig carefully, to proceed more patiently, to do more pointed ministry of Word and prayer. He sought to find out what else was going on in the lives of people. He found dark secrets and relational problems—and the miseries of life that both tempt to sin and result from sin. He found secret adulteries. He found financial corruption. He found Christians who, in their anguish over a sick child or extreme poverty, began visiting witch doctors and wearing amulets. Most frequently, he found bitterness and hatred, relationships that had been broken and never reconciled. False accusations were also a common relational problem. In the context of suffering and unexpected death, the traditional culture looked for someone to blame. The finger of accusation often pointed to “witches” or “witch children” as the cause. (Even secular studies of witchcraft observe that relationship breakdowns lie behind the bizarre phenomena, and that the problem is solves by confession and forgiveness.)
In all these cases, bizarre manifestations appeared. The Liar, Accuser and Murderer is at work in all this—but not in the way it was being interpreted. The animistic worldview they lived within was yet another lie—a “teaching” that comes from demons about demons, fueling superstition and fear (1 Tim 4:1). My friend was uncovering complex spiritual and moral problems, but there was no need to sort out where “flesh” ends and “world” begins, where “world” ends and “devil” begins. The forces of evil work in concert. We don’t need to determine where the devil’s role in moral blinding and in inflicting destruction begin and end. We can’t see through the fog of war. But Christ’s truth and power address all dimensions simultaneously. We intercede with our Lord to comprehensively deliver us from evil.
My friend normalized the abnormal and humanized the bizarre, seeking to get behind confusing appearances, seeking to minister. He dealt with bizarre evil the way the Bible tells us to deal with evil of any sort: clear Scriptural truth; bold, faith-expressing prayers that plead the mercies and power of Christ; heartfelt worship; meaningful fellowship. People brought their sins, fears, and confusion to the light. They found Christ’s mercy and aid, and acted in newness of life. The bizarre symptoms disappeared. Biblical reality increasingly supplanted their false worldview.
My friend had come to mission work with a Christian faith somewhat tilted toward Western rationalism. The initial shock of cross-cultural experience had somewhat tilted his faith toward the traditional animistic worldview. Further ministry experience and biblical reflection increasingly shaped a humble, bold, truth-speaking, prayerful, loving approach to people.
True spiritual warfare normalizes the abnormal and helps people live in Christ’s reality, not the haunted universe of animism. He was waging true spiritual warfare against the powers that enslave people in the confusion of sin and fear.Powlison, David, “Stand Up to the Powers of Darkness,” Journal of Biblical Counseling 31:2, 45-47.
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