by Ken Baker
The author discusses a growing awareness of spiritual warfare.
Early in January, 1982, the elders of Fasavolo were considering a proposal from our church-planting team. This Gbandi village is nestled in the mountainous rain forests of northern Liberia near the Guinea border. For quite some time different missionaries on our team had spoken to the men about the deplorable, unhealthy way the women drew their water. Many people in the village were sick and dying from water-born diseases.
About 100 yards beyond the village muddy spring water flowed over the face of a rock. The flow was so slow that it took a woman about 10 minutes to fill her jug. Groups of women, children, goats, and dogs trampled around the spring and added to its contamination. Another 500 yards away was a rarely used free-flowing spring.
So, we made a simple proposal: cap the good spring and pipe the water to a reservoir. The village would have a safe, efficient water supply. We would provide the materials if the villagers did the work.
We had been there only a few months, so none of us spoke Gbandi. Consequently, we couldn’t figure out why it took so long for the elders to reply. We thought they would jump at our idea. Finally, the elders came to us and said that although they liked our idea, the answer was no. The women had voiced a unanimous veto on spiritual grounds. The dirty spring was sacred for fertility rites and sacrifices; if they disturbed it, they would become barren. That settled it; there was nothing we could do.
Frankly, I was both appalled and angry at the outcome. As a new missionary, I filtered this experience through my Western Christian grid, and it all seemed ridiculous. This was just another example of backward fear and superstition triumphing over modern reason. I just could not believe the village would reject such an obvious improvement for such reasons.
Now, as I write years later, I can see how my thinking has changed. My subsequent experience in West Africa has helped me to develop new perceptions of culture, worldview, ministry, and spiritual warfare. Back in Fasavolo in 1982, did our team miss an opportunity to confront the powers of darkness that held those people in bondage? I can’t say, because I didn’t stay there very long. However, I tell the story to point out my growing awareness and understanding of spiritual warfare. Back then, power encounter against the forces of evil would not have crossed my mind.
WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
What was my problem, which I’m sure, is not unique to me? Evangelicals believe Satan is real and that he engages us in spiritual battles. But what is our response? The apostle Peter tells us to "be on the alert" (1 Pet. 5:8), but for the most part we seem to be dull and naive when it comes to spiritual conflict. It’s not a prime concern to us.
During my youth and my education, the active role of the demonic was not emphasized. We didn’t deny it, we just gave it a minor touch in our teaching. Yes, Jesus cast out demons and I was told to put on God’s armor against temptation. But problems, whether spiritual or physical, always had explanations other than the demonic. We looked askance at people who delved too deeply into this area.
It seems that the average evangelical admits the growing impact of the occult in Western culture, but doesn’t see that it affects him or her. The evangelical church, generally, is unaware of its huge blind spot about the pervasive reality of spiritual warfare. As Unger has said so well, the Christian’s response to satanic activity "tends to be theological and theoretical rather than biblical and practical."
Only in recent years has the full reality of spiritual conflict caught my attention. Why did my envangelical environment treat the demonic as unimportant, or as something limited to "pagan lands"? Because of the way we perceive and understand reality, which is Western and scientific. Our problem is perception and world view. The way Westerners in general perceive reality is the way most Christians do. That’s why we have failed to grasp the significance of spiritual warfare.
WHEN EAST MEETS WEST
One time in Monrovia, Liberia, a young fellow in my discipleship group came to me. He wanted to return to his village to see his mother, but he had learned that his uncle had placed a curse on him because he had become a Christian and would no longer participate in the bush (Poro) society. In view of his fear and nervousness, we prayed briefly and I told him that he did not need to worry about the curse because he was a believer in Jesus. (My response still haunts me.) However, my answer did not satisfy him.
I did not see him again for more than three months. When he came back, he told me that he had become extremely ill and had almost died. All along, he had feared that he would never leave the village alive. Well, I thought, he must have drunk some contaminated water or something. With my Western scientific world view, I interpreted the events the only way I knew how, by rational deduction. But this incident, and many others like it, forced me to conclude that my teaching and counseling were totally inadequate.
My experience in this regard is not atypical. Many missionaries struggle with their response to animistic beliefs and practices. Because we are not adequately trained and experienced we either deny the reality of the demonic, or fail to appreciate its power and influence. Worse, we say it’s all superstition and fear. We believe in the natural and the supernatural, but, practically speaking, we deny the role of the spirit (angelic) world that functions in between, and which is such a dominant factor in the lives of animists. Paul Hiebert calls this "the flaw of the excluded middle."
THE INHERENT DANGER
When an animistic villager asks a missionary, "My dead grandmother is tormenting me. What should I do?" our first response springs from our Western mindset and we answer: "Don’t be afraid. At death the spirit is separated from the body and goes into eternity. Your grandmother’s spirit no longer has an existence in our world." Such an answer is theologically correct, but insufficient to deal with the problem. There’s great danger here, because the questioner is not satisfied (even though he may show it outwardly). Rather, he is confused because he knows the torment is real. What he does not know is that his affliction is demonic, an evil deception in the guise of a dead relative.
John Mibiti, an African writer, comments:
Every African who has grown up in the traditional environment will, no doubt, know something about this mystical power which is experienced, or manifests itself, in the form of magic, divination, witchcraft, and mysterious phenomena that seem to defy even immediate scientific explanations…. This mystical power is not fiction; whatever it is, it is a reality, and one with which African peoples have to reckon.
Traditionally, we in the West have relegated such experiences to the level of primitive superstitions, and the people who hold them have yet to be enlightened through empirical data. But Christians, of all people, should give animists credit for acknowledging and fearing a realm of reality that we largely ignore. The animist is not stupid, that is to say, fearing something that does not exist. He fears because it is real and powerful.
Animists must have satisfactory answers about this reality before they can truly profess Jesus as Lord of their lives. If not, they are in danger of syncretism and living a divided life. They will revert to where they have always found solutions.
Missionaries who avoid, or even deny, the demonic in daily life create a perplexing problem for the indigenous churches. On the one hand, they teach how Jesus cast out demons, but on the other they refuse to incorporate the problem of demonization within the scope of the church’s ministry. Therefore, animists find their own solutions and operate in both contexts. They look to the church for forgiveness of sin and eternal life, but go to the shaman or diviner to receive solutions to problems that the church, or the missionary, cannot answer. Unfortunately, they think that Jesus and the church are impotent in the very area where he exercises supreme authority and dominion.
All too often, missionaries tend to approach people and expect them to meet on their level of understanding. We expect them to repress their world view and experience. Unless missionaries answer their questions and deal with their problems on the receivers’ level, they may never see Jesus as Lord of their whole lives.
POWER ENCOUNTER AND MINISTRY
When power encounter is mentioned, many images spring to mind, especially the classic example of Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18). Or we may think of Jesus casting the demons out of the man among the tombs (Mk. 5). Others might consider a person being transformed from darkness to light upon receiving the gospel. But we need to be more specific. I find Timothy Warner’s definition to be comprehensive and practical.
Power encounter is the demonstration by God’s servants of God’s "incomparably great power for us who believe" (Eph. 1:19), based on the work of Christ on the cross (Col. 2:15) and the ministry of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8), in confrontation with and victory over the works of Satan and demons (Lk. 10:19) in their attacks on God’s children, or their control of unbelievers, resulting in the glory of God and the salvation of the lost, and/or the upbuilding of believers.
Perhaps it is best to identify this subject in the plural, i.e., power encounters. This emphasizes the specific instance where God’s power is demonstrated in confrontation with the forces of evil. This confrontation may take different forms, but each would be understood as a power encounter. Each incident is one battle within the larger scope of spiritual war.
Such an encounter, no matter what the form, proclaims and establishes the truth that God has absolute authority, and that the evil forces must submit to it and obey. Satan and his demonic servants cannot stand in the presence of truth. He is the father of lies and the master of deception, perverting all that is good.
In a power encounter, the demon is exposed for what he is and called to account in the face of truth. On the basis of his or her position in Christ, every believer has the delegated authority and responsibility to call the demons to account, and to proclaim the sovereign power of the Lord over the forces of darkness.
To have a power encounter ministry, one must have a keen sensitivity toward spiritual conflict. I do not mean that we should be consumed by the subject, but rather that we should be "tuned in" to recognize the presence of demonic influence or activity. As you come to understand the biblical perspective-the three realms of reality: God, angels, and man-and allow it to transform your thinking, you will begin to see your ministry in a new way. Spiritual warfare will come into sharper focus like the image in your camera lens as you adjust it.
My own thinking has been transformed by this process. I had acknowledged the existence of demons, but in practice I was oblivious to their activity and to my relationship to them as a believer. My experiences in West Africa forced me out of my naivete, because I had to reckon with the obvious presence of demonic power and the fear it generated.
My Western world view was tested and came up short. Not only could I not explain the demonic realm, I did not know how to deal with it. I came to realize how much Western rationalism had clouded my understanding of the spirit world. As I integrated a biblical world view, I also understood my spiritual authority in Christ.
Jesus commanded us to go in his authority and make disciples. He assigns us the task of moving into Satan’s territory to confront the power that holds people in spiritual blindness. As was the apostle Paul’s, our task is to turn people "from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God" (Acts 26:18). This verse proves that evangelism is one of the primary forms of power encounter.
God wills that the evil powers be resisted and their evil schemes exposed by the truth. On the basis of Christ’s victory over Satan through his death and resurrection, believers can have firm confidence in resisting the forces of darkness. In any confrontation, the demonic spirits will know that you know they are subject to God’s authority. Such conviction delivers us from fear of Satan and any of his evil desires.
I have sought to demonstrate the role of power encounter in a church-planting ministry, especially among animists. Because power encounter is not part of the usual evangelical teaching agenda, missionaries face serious obstacles. The root of their problem is the Western world view that excludes demonic spirits from functional reality. By contrast, the animistic world view sees the spirit world as the dominant force in every aspect of life. When these viewpoints clash, there is considerable misunderstanding on both sides.
The solution to this cross-cultural dilemma is a biblical world view that sees demons and angels as functioning elements in daily existence. The Bible is quite clear in its teaching about the believer’s relationship to the opposing forces of the demonic realm. Satan and demons have been defeated by Christ’s work on the cross; believers have been raised and exalted with him. Therefore, Christians can chare in Christ’s authority over all the forces of evil. We can stand firm in resisting Satan and in confronting his schemes.
The apostle Peter warns us to be alert for the prowling enemy (1 Pet. 5:8,9). Resisting and confronting demonic power should be normal for all Christians, no matter what their culture. However, this ministry focus is particularly necessary for missionaries working in animistic societies. In the context of solid biblical teaching and a loving, compassionate ministry, a ministry of power encounter will play a significant role in the conversion of animists.
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