by Bill McConnell
The rise of spiritism must be met with strong biblical knowledge and Christian fellowship.
The evangelistic camp was coming to a quiet, restrained conclusion. There was not the usual chatter and laughter as the students gathered in the dining area for a cafezinho and a final summary. They had not expected so much resistance to the gospel, especially from people who already valued religion.
Isa, the spiritist, had dominated the group discussions, the Bible studies, and informal cabin groups during the entire weekend. At first, various Christian students had argued with her, but after a while only the staff worker continued the dialogue, while the rest listened tensely. I had been in Brazil only a short time and had had little experience with spiritism, so I was among the silent ones.
Jose had been close to becoming a Christian, and the students connected to the Alianca Biblica Universitaria had hoped that he would finally put his trust in Christ. But Jose openly admired Isa’s courage and forthrightness in the midst of so many Christians. He felt there were parallels between Roman Catholicism and spiritism and often supported Isa’s interpretations of the Bible. It looked as though he was being drawn to Isa’s position. This was not the victory the students had expected from an evangelistic retreat.
As I rose to speak in the final meeting, I noticed that Isa was off to one side, her face hard, her eyes fixed intently on me. Jose was right in front of me, glancing casually around the room. Shortly after I began to speak, Jose suddenly got up and left the room. A minute later, a staff worker discreetly followed.
The conversation with Jose went on for more than an hour after our final meeting had ended. A few people, including Isa, left camp, but most waited. A few gathered to pray. Finally, with glowing faces, Jose and the staff worker emerged arm in arm. Jose had committed himself to follow Jesus. Joy and relief spread rapidly through the group and characteristic smiles and hugs marked the departure for town. God had not failed.
Jose had not remembered anything of what I had said. It wasn’t the message or any particular argument which had provoked the crisis of decision. Instead, it was the group life of the Christians that had made the difference. Jose told me later that in that final meeting, as he looked at Isa, whom he admired and wanted to emulate, he saw her defiant, hard expression and her cold piercing eyes, and he shuddered. He didn’t want to be like that. No, he wanted to be like them, the Christians. They prayed to God as if they knew and loved him. And they loved each other. At that point, he had left the room to think it over.
THE WORLD OF SPIRITS
In Brazil, our popular spiritist religions-umbanda, macumba, and candomble-are no longer limited to the lower classes. An increasing number of the upper classes and university students attend spiritist centers. In the face of those who contend that "ghosts do not exist," the worship of demons is spreading throughout the Western world.
As it does, it causes a mixture of incredulity fascination. Modern Westerners may assume that some real power is present, and that someday science will discover the "natural" causes of spiritual phenomena, thus demystifying these so-called spirits. David St. Clair, a North American journalist who spent 10 years researching spiritism in Brazil, is an example.
Do I, a white, educated American believe in the powers of the Brazilian spirits? … I must answer, truthfully, that I do (Someday) we will know how to use those mental powers (for "good" or "evil" if you like), and we will believe in them when we see them in operation exactly the way we (now) believe a television receiver when we see it turned on. We probably won’t beat drams or light candles as we do it, but to our present way of thinking it will be a miracle.
For St. Clair, to "believe" in spirits has the double meaning of accepting their existence and also of having confidence in their power to influence human behavior.
The morality of the influence is left open: "for ‘good’ or ‘evil’ if you like." While traveling by bus across Nebraska, I sat next to a young woman who informed me that she had become a white witch. She had been given supernatural powers, she said, but would use them only for good. "Who decides what is good?" I asked. "It’s just what you think is good," she said.
Years later, in South America, a university student explained why she attended both church services and spiritist meetings: "God is good and helps people. We don’t need to be afraid of him. But the demons have power to harm, and that is why we must placate them with sacrifices and offerings." She assumed that God is distant and weak, and other forces, if not as pure or good, are at least closer at hand. The concern is for power, without regard to either goodness or truth.
DISCERNING THE SPIRITS
Christians have no trouble accepting the reality of spirits, both and evil. Angels and demons are mentioned throughout the Bible, and there is no reason to think that this was only a primitive explanation for unknown forces, or that their influence was limited to Jesus’ day. The early church, like Jesus, had to deal with evil or unclean spirits (e.g., Acts 5:16; 8:7; 19:12). In contrast, when Jesus spoke of sending his followers the Spirit of God, he called him the Holy Spirit (John 14:17).
We are urged not to believe every spirit, but to "test the spirits to see whether they are of God" (1 John 4:1). We do not question the existence, but only the moral character, of many of the spirit beings. If the Bible can be used to affirm their operation, it can also be used to identify their nature.
This distinction between holy and unholy spirits is important for both our worship and our conduct. When Jesus answered the Samaritan woman’s question about worship, he said, "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:24). We might suppose it sufficient to say only "must worship in spirit," maintaining parallel the premise and the conclusion. Why did Jesus add "and truth"? He did not merely say our worship should be sincere. Rather, he said that truth is an essential characteristic of the Spirit we worship. He is the "Spirit of truth" (John 14:17), and for that reason he is worthy of our worship and trust.
In contrast, demons are by nature deceivers. They follow head, who is "a liar and the father of lies" (John 8:44). "That ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan," is depicted as deceiving mankind with erroneous ideas of God and the world from Eve onward (Gen. 3:1-5; Rev. 20:2, 3). All error and immorality can eventually be linked to its originator (1 John 4:6; 2 John 7). Being false themselves, they can offer only counterfeit good. We may believe in their existence and even recognize their power, but in no way are we to honor them or heed them.
WHAT HELP CAN WE GIVE?
First, we recognize that God is sovereign, and he limits the occult powers. Satan can only disguise himself as an angel of light. In Jesus, God has already invaded the domain of the powers of darkness (Matt. 12:19), and through the Spirit the world is being convinced of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8-11). He even turns the power of the evil spirits against them. Little did Isa realize, for example, that she became part of the means by which Jose would see the truth.
Second, we must hold firm to the truth. In their discussions with Isa, the students quickly became discouraged because they did not know the Bible sufficiently well to defend their beliefs. More basic than even through teaching on biblical themes is teaching on how to study the Bible, for there are many teachers abroad "disguising themselves as apostles of Christ," or as "servants of righteousness" (2 Cor. 11:13, 15). Preparation for spiritual warfare, as outlined by Paul in 6:10-18, not be left for an occasional sermon or considered optional.
Most important for evangelism, is the quality of Christian community, The life of the Christian students made the difference for Jose. The truth of their beliefs took concrete form in the mutual sharing, which even included him when he was trying to withdraw from them. Committed fellowship is a work of the Spirit of God, and is one of the most powerful forces for penetrating the defenses of spiritists.
Demonic forces aim to destroy our community and fellowship. Our experiences are like those of Lutheran missionary Stanley Benson in Tanzania:
In all cases that I have seen personally, the possessed individual has been isolated by the "spirit" from the group or family concerned. This isolation has taken on two forms: (a) physically Fanning away from the group … (b) or entering into a coma-like trance where no communication is possible.
This parallels descriptions of demon activity in biblical times. Evil spirits preferred isolated, uninhabited places (Luke 11:24; Rev. 18:2). Those whom they possessed were either driven physically apart from others (Luke 8:27-33), or limited in some way from full participation in the community (Luke 11:14).
Benson explains that healing or exorcism took place within the Christian community. Christians would gather to restrain affected persons to keep them from running away or hurting themselves. They would sing hymns pray, and care for a person until freed from the demon. In this way, both Christians and non-Christians were relieved of oppression, Benson likens this community ministry to the faith of the four men who carried the paralytic to Jesus: "When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘My son, your sins are forgiven’"(Mark 2:5).
In 1958, Henry P. Van Dusen wrote, "The Holy Spirit is today, as it (sic) has been through the Christian centuries, the neglected stepchild of Christian theology." In the succeeding years, however, the Holy Spirit has come to the forefront of church life and theology. It Is not surprising that Satan would try to counterfeit the authentic signs of renewal in churches that traditionally have given room to the Holy Spirit only in their creeds. The solution is neither to squelch the Spirit, nor to accept uncritically every supernatural sign. Rather, it is to study the Bible for marks of true and false spirits, and to live in the full joy and integrity of Christian fellowship.
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