Text and Context in Dialogue

Home  >  Volume2  >  Number1

Wrestling With Spiritual Warfare
by Mark Johnson

We are visiting a church in the city.The service just ended and people are filing out into the bright sunshine of the courtyard. But not all are leaving right away. A small knot of believers gather around a young woman towards the back of the hall. Apparently the woman is possessed by an evil spirit. The believers pray for her while she kneels in the middle, sobbing. As the prayer gets louder and more importunate an older woman begins to accost the younger with her Bible. "Come out. Come out", she cries as she beats the poor young woman on the head. A few minutes later all is quiet. The woman gets up, for she has fallen to the floor, and, arranging her sari, exits the cold building with her companions.

Such events take place every week in many places of worship across Nepal. But are we to take the event at face value or is there something else going on here that demands to be examined? How do we know if the woman had an evil spirit possessing her? Why is the Bible used in such a physical manner in this apparent exorcism? How did the woman get the evil spirit in the first place? Could it happen to me? Are there particular places where I am especially vulnerable to such an attack? If someone is possessed by an evil spirit, what does it take to get rid of the infiltrator? These are hot questions that we must work through. "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood", Paul tells us, "but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" (Eph 6:12). Just how does that spiritual warfare take shape in our daily lives? Should we expect it to take a different shape in a different cultural context? What part do personal factors such as temperament and childhood experiences play?

The 16th century English Puritans had a keen sense of the warfare of the believer. They wrote about it constantly producing such works as The Whole Armour of God (William Gouge), The Christian Warfare (John Downame), The Christian in Complete Armour (William Gurnall), Precious Remedies Against Satan's Devices (Thomas Brooks), and The Pilgrim's Progress and Holy War (John Bunyan).[1] Their understanding of the Christian life was one of perpetual struggle. Satan had to be resisted. Indwelling sin had to be mortified. But the recent writings of some missiologists, though apparently addressing the same issues, are marked by a very different approach. Books and articles from the prolific pens of C. Peter Wagner (1989, 1990, 1991) and Charles Kraft (1989, 1992, 1994), among others, mark a departure from traditional evangelical discourse on spiritual warfare. Have these authors uncovered the real problem with modern missions, as they seem to claim? How can we assess their approach?

It is helpful at this point to clarify the things that are common in both the Puritan position and what might be called the "Third Wave"`position. Both sides of the discussion hold the truthfulness of Scripture. Neither wants to downplay the reality of evil and of evil spirits. We do not buy the liberal argument that demons are psychological phenomena, that the Bible's representation of them as personal beings is a product of a prescientific mindset. There is a world that is not open to empirical observation. We cannot do scientific experiments to determine if non-physical beings are present. What we see is not all we get. Both believe in the effective weapons of scripture and prayer in the battle against the evil one. But there are points of departure which are best examined by focusing on two issues that are of great importance to followers of Christ in this country: idolatry and curses. It is argued by advocates of the new position that one is particularly susceptible to attack from demons through these phenomena.


But is this theology consistent with the Bible's own view? In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul states categorically that "an idol is nothing" (8:4). The block of wood or stone is no more than that. It is true that the worship that is presented to idols is "offered to demons" (10:20) but it cannot thereby be deduced that the idol is a demon, or even that a demon is attached to the idol. In the Old Testament, idolatry is largely expressed in concrete terms: the worship of physical idols, images made to look like men or animals. In the New Testament, however, there is a broadening of the idea to include non-material acts. "No immoral, impure or greedy person - such a man is an idolater - has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God", says Paul (Eph 5:5). Clearly, then, Paul is indicating that unwarranted affection for anything other than the Creator himself is idolatry. It is not the material object that is in focus here but the spiritual act.

In our assessment of idolatry we must look at the relation between the material world and the world of the spirits. To the devotee an idol is the god it represents. It is not just that it represents the deity but that, in a very concrete way, it becomes the deity itself. Now the advocate of the new approach comes to such a phenomenon agreeing that the devotee does have a point—the idol is, in his opinion, indeed the abode of a spirit being. It is not, however, a good spirit, he will argue, but an evil spirit. So, for instance, when the advocate of this position encounters someone worshipping Saraswati as a deity he will reinterpret the object of the worshipper's devotion, calling Saraswati, in fact, a demon. In the same way, Hindu or Buddhist symbols printed on furniture, clothing or exercise books can be a "lightening rod" for the entrance of demons into one's home or person. There is a formal correspondence between the understandings of the two world views as they attempt to explain a given phenomenon but often a diametrically opposite interpretation of that phenomenon. It seems to this author that this position has become dominant in the church in Nepal. By such reasoning the Kathmandu Valley has been called the hottest theatre of the demonic on earth. A visit to a temple is fraught with danger as the demons "behind every idol" can then attack the unsuspecting tourist without him being initially cognisant.

So we must come at any given phenomenon with a critical eye. We agree that it is possible that a devotee of Saraswati may be engaged in the worship of demons but do not accept that Saraswati has any real existence outside of the devotee's imagination. The spirit world is real but discerning the work of evil spirits is understood as by no means straightforward. Physical, social, political, economic, cultural and psychological factors must also be taken into account before drawing conclusions.

Therefore, if our friends have turned to Christ but still have pictures of Hindu deities in their house we do not insist that they destroy the pictures. If my brother in Christ is seriously tempted to revert to idol worship by the picture hanging on his wall then that may be necessary. But it does not follow automatically. Many new believers have repudiated the worship of images long before they put their trust in Christ. The picture or statue is not a stumbling block to them. They may, in fact, find aesthetic pleasure in the picture as art as they may delight in the visual impact of Patan Durbar Square. If we find that idea offensive then we need to think again about our own approach. How many of us take pleasure in the architecture of Westminster Abbey in London? The place is full of idols and the building itself may be treated as an idol in some quarters of the Church. But we do not insist on iconoclasm.

Likewise, when we are invited to a wedding feast in the precincts of a temple (often chosen simply for its convenient location), we have nothing to fear in attending. Many may worship the idol on arrival and in so doing have communion with the demonic. But for the Christ-bhakta there is no such communion as he is not worshipping the idol. The Corinthian believers were in exactly the same dilemma. Paul's advice to them is not to dissociate from idolaters (1 Cor 5:9-10). The traditional evangelical position, then, is not to accept the view of the idolater but to subject it to the careful scrutiny of Scripture. If we try avoid all such supposed demonic hot spots we will end up, as many believers in Christ have done in this country, completely cut off from normal relations with their family and neighbours. The spread of the gospel is compromised as formerly bold witnesses become fearful and retreat into church and mission ghetto communities moving out only to make the occasional evangelistic foray into enemy territory.


Just as the idol is supposed to have power in and of itself, so the curses of a malevolent person are judged, by many, to have a certain power to effect the intention of the one who utters it, provided it is done correctly. People may resort, therefore, to a practitioner, often called a witch (Np. bokshi), in order to bring harm on their enemies. The uttering of the right words is said to have power to bring about that person's downfall or afflict him with some kind of illness. We must not deride such a belief, as it will only distance us from the people to whom we seek to minister. Fear of witches is strong even among believers in Christ. What should our response be when faced with such a situation? Some will take the effectual power of the curse for granted. What is needed, then, according to this position, is a word, or action, of greater power to counter the ill effects. What can be greater than the name of Jesus itself? But here again we have a problem with this approach on two levels: understanding and response.

Firstly, there is a problem with the understanding, the interpretation of the phenomena involved. The approach just described takes the interpretation of the curse at face value: a person with spiritual power utters an incantation and it produces the result for which it was intended. The problem here is one of epistemology. How do we know what we know? How can we learn about the spiritual realm? When a tantric healer tells us that someone has been possessed by a witch what grounds are there for believing him? Or, what grounds are there for believing that anything supernatural has happened? Someone might answer that such people are far more in touch with the spirit world than we are so they should know. But are they? Interviewing shamans is a decidedly doubtful way of getting at the truth. A shaman or tantric healer is predisposed to "recognise" an evil spiritual presence, if only because they make a living dealing with such phenomena. Such a person cannot be a reliable guide to the spirit world. Paul understood this and knew that believers had to be taught it so he tells us that the practitioner has got it wrong "an idol is nothing". Neither can a demon be relied on to give an accurate account of himself. When a counsellor interviews demons to discover their identity, as Ed Murphy [2] and Charles Kraft [3] advocate, how are they to know whether the demon (assuming the person is under such influence) is telling the truth? The problem here is one of discernment. According to Murphy the "experienced deliverance counsellor can compel evil spirits to tell the truth".[4] According to others "you just know". Such Gnostic knowledge of the mysterious is not open to discussion. But, to this author at least, that is just not good enough. Robert Priest and his associates have written brilliantly on this subject. Here they hit the nail on the head:

Epistemologically, it is inconsistent and unbiblical to assume that folk beliefs about spirits bear an intrinsic truthful correspondence to actual spirit realities. If we proceed on the mistaken assumption that we can infer truth about spirits from people's beliefs about spirits, we will invariably end up syncretistically incorporating animistic and magical notions of spirit power into our doctrinal understandings of the demonic world.[5]

To take at face value the claim that "so-and-so is ill because of a curse" or that "so-and-so is demon possessed" is a "capitulation to phenomena" as Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones called it. Bizarre behaviour may have a variety of causes. All the possibilities must be examined in detail.

Secondly, there is a problem here with the response. Here the emphasis is on technique. According to the proponents of this approach we need to get the words just right. A formula, equivalent to the Tantric mantra, is employed to guarantee the desired effect. Physical presence is important here, which is why a locality that is thought to be particularly affected by evil spirits must be circumambulated in a particular kind of prayer walk. If the "witch" used a powerful sacred text then the response must be to use a more powerful one and so we have the striking of the Bible on the head of the one who has been the object of the evil. Is this not a capitulation to the world view of the practitioner himself? "The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world" says Paul (2 Cor 10:4). It is surely not that we simply use a different, more powerful, technique? Our whole approach is different. "He that is in you is greater than he that is in the world" writes John (1 Jn 4:4). We have nothing to fear from the curse of our enemies. "Bless those who persecute you" writes Paul. "Bless and do not curse" (Ro 12:14). Our prayer, then, for the affected person is that he would learn to love his enemies and pray for those who persecute him. If we believe there is an attack of a demon then we pray that God would have mercy on the person and deliver him according to his sovereign will. We must not dictate the terms to God. He is not under obligation to give immediate relief to the individual any more than he was in answer to Job's request (Job 38-41).


This writer agrees wholeheartedly with Third Wavers that the greatest need of the modern mission movement is the power of the Holy Spirit. There is far too much reliance on human ingenuity. But just how do we acquire that power? Seven-step approaches betray a mechanistic view of our relationship with God. Will the sovereign Lord perform for us when we fulfil the right prerequisites? Paul, we are told, was given a "thorn in the flesh" which he calls a "messenger of Satan to torment him" (2 Cor 12:7-10). That Satanic attack was sent from God himself and was given for Paul's good ("to keep me from becoming conceited"). Paul's response was to plead with the Lord for deliverance. It was not simply a case of following the right formula. It required on Paul's part the necessity to "live by faith, not by sight" (2 Cor 5:7). Contrary to some, the Holy Spirit will act only when he wants to.

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So is everyone born of the Spirit. (Jn 3:8).

We are cast onto him for his power as and when he chooses to grant it. Till then we wait patiently and work for the spread of the gospel with the knowledge that a breakthrough does not depend on the perfecting of a technique but on a sovereign act of God.


  1. See Bryan G. Zacharias' helpful study of the Puritan view in his The Embattled Christian: William Gurnall and the Puritan View of Spiritual Warfare, Edinburgh and Carlisle, PA: Banner Of Truth, 1995. See also J. I. Packer, Among God's Giants: Aspects of Puritan Christianity, Eastbourne: Kingsway, 1991.
  2. "We are at war", p. 51.
  3. Defeating Dark Angels, p. 157-175.
  4. op. cit.
  5. "Missiological syncretism: the new animistic paradigm", p. 35.

References Cited

  1. Kraft, Charles 1989.Christianity with Power: Your Worldview and Your Experience of the Supernatural. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant Publications.
  2. Defeating Dark Angels: Breaking Demonic Oppression in the Believer's Life. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant Publications.
  3. Kraft, Charles and Mark White (eds.) 1994.Behind Enemy Lines: An Advanced Guide to Spiritual Warfare. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant Publications.
  4. Murphy, Ed 1990. "We are at war", in Wagner, C. Peter and F. Douglas Pennoyer (eds.), p. 49-72.
  5. Priest, Robert J., Thomas Campbell, and Bradford A. Mullen 1995. "Missiological syncretism: the new animistic paradigm", in Edward Rommen (ed.) Spiritual Power and Missions: Raising the Issues, Evangelical Missiological Society Series No. 3, Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.
  6. Wagner, C. Peter 1989. "Territorial Spirits and World Mission"Evangelical Missions Quarterly 25: 278-88.
  7. (ed.) 1991. Engaging the Enemy: How to Fight and Defeat Territorial Spirits. Ventura CA: Regal Books.
  8. Wagner, C. Peter and F. Douglas Pennoyer (eds.) 1990. Wrestling with Dark Angels: Toward a Deeper Understanding of the Supernatural Forces in Spiritual Warfare. Ventura, CA: Regal Books.

Mark Johnson is the pen name of a missionary working in Nepal. He is the editor of Voice of Bhakti.

Permission to copy any of the articles in this journal may be sought from the editor.

Letters to the editor: Voice of Bhakti welcomes interaction with its readers.

bhakti. bhakti, nom. devotion, love, loyalty