I had just delivered my first sermon at a new appointment. I shared my testimony of how God had reached me at a very dark time in my life. I shared how he had miraculously intervened to eventually deliver me from the grip of the evil one when I finally surrendered my life to Jesus Christ, bowed my knees to him and confessed with my tongue that he is Lord (see Philp 2:9-11 and Isaiah 45:23) (You can find more about my testimony by scrolling down to the first 6 articles on this blog). A woman came to me after the service – tears streaming – to tell me how much my testimony had moved her. She said she had a son in his early 20’s that she was also very concerned about. She said he was into witchcraft and was at times exhibiting very disturbing and frightening behavior. Sometimes he would get a very strange look in his eyes, which sometimes rolled back so all you could see was the white, and at times he seemed to speak other languages.
My first response was to encourage her to continue to pray for him. I also assured her that I would pray with her. We began our prayer together for her son right then and there. I tried to reassure her by telling her that my mother, as well as many others, had prayed for me for a decade until I finally surrendered my life to God through faith in Jesus. I hoped it wouldn’t take so long for her son.
A little over a month later I had the opportunity to meet the young man at the funeral of a relative. I introduced myself shortly after I gave the benediction for the committal service in the cemetery. My first encounter with Ronnie (not his real name) was a bit intense. After I introduced myself, he tilted his head back slightly and responded with the typical pleasantries, but in a strange tone of voice reminiscent of a hiss.
Later at lunch with the family I sat with Ronnie and some other family members and just tried to talk to get to know him a little bit. Things were much more mellow at this point. He told me about where he worked and some of his interests. I told him a little about myself and invited him to come to church sometime. I also asked if he’d like to get together sometime to talk. He said he would and gave me his phone number.
One day I called to see if he’d like to go to lunch. He said he would. Over some Chinese food I shared my testimony with him and why I am a follower of Jesus. Ronnie said he thought Jesus was pretty cool, but not a lot of his followers. He also objected to the idea that Jesus could be the only way of salvation. He thought of Jesus as only one of many ways to ultimate reality and happiness. I understood where he was coming from, but tried to explain that Jesus himself precluded that possibility by claiming to be the only way to the Father (John 14:6) and that the general context of the Bible, which claims to reveal the one and only true God who alone deserves to be worshipped as God, makes the interpretation of Jesus statement pretty straightforward. As the argument of C.S. Lewis implies, (Mere Christianity, p. 45), based on his own claims Jesus must be viewed as a lunatic, a liar, or the Lord. Ronnie wasn’t really buying it though.
After this, nevertheless, he did come to church some. I remember one sermon – although I can’t really remember the topic – where he seemed to respond quite enthusiastically. Again we planned a time to get together to talk. One day he came by the church and we talked in the fellowship hall for a few hours. Ronnie brought a small velvet bag with gems that he used for power, as he explained to me. In response I asked him about praying to the One who made all things, including those gems. He acknowledged the possibility, but went on to talk to me about “the law of attraction,” a technique he also used to try to bring positive things and power into his life.
I explained how I had also believed in just such a technique in the past, although I called it “the law of believing” in a nominally Christian context. The idea is that through thinking and speaking positively you can attract the good things into your life, positive vibes from the universe in new age circles or the blessings of God in churches that practice these principles. But I also explained that through surrendering my life to Jesus as he is revealed in the Bible, I learned that life is not about me getting everything I want, but giving everything I have for the one who died for me. I shared how Jesus actually taught not to concern ourselves with our own desires but to seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness (Matthew 6:19-34), and how blessings from God follow obedience to God’s will (i.e. Psalm 1). Ronnie was intrigued, but far from convinced.
Over the course of a few months we talked a few more times privately, sometimes at great length. Ronnie continued with his occult practices and kept singing their praises to me. Yet he also grew more and more comfortable with me and enjoyed talking with me. One day he opened up to me about how he had witnessed something incredibly horrifying and traumatizing when he was a little boy. He also shared other struggles in his life. On more than one occasion he asked me what I knew about demons. He said, he had a friend who had a troubling and increasingly disturbing “dark presence” he couldn’t get rid of. Ronnie talked about looking into spells that might make the “dark presence” go away, but also wondered what I thought.
I knew enough to know that we can give the demonic too much attention and credit bordering on a spiritually unhealthy obsession, or we can deny the existence of the demonic altogether. As C.S. Lewis said in the beginning of “The Screwtape Letters,” demons “themselves are equally pleased with both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” But I also believed that only the power of God Almighty can ultimately and conclusively deliver anyone from spiritual captivity under the power of the evil one. I suspected right off the bat that Ronnie wasn’t really just asking for a friend. I talked about the need to surrender to God. As James 4:7 says “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (ESV).
Ronnie, however, wasn’t yet willing to surrender his life completely to the one true God. But neither was he ready to stop talking to me and coming to church on occasion. I invited him to join us for a class designed to introduce people to the Christian faith and explore the possibility of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ called “Alpha.” He gladly accepted the invitation and never missed a session over the course of 14 weeks.
After one of those sessions when we were talking about prayer Ronnie told me about a friend of his, Jack Door (not his real name), who really needed some help. He said I didn’t know his friend, but I had met Jack’s mother when she came by the church for help with food and for prayer. Ronnie, said Jack needed to get his car repaired so he could get his job back and get out of a bad situation at home. I told him I would pray for Jack and, in fact, prayed right then and there.
Immediately after that, I took my mother home. On the way back to my house I saw a young man walking on the other side of the road headed in the same direction. As I passed by him, I suddenly felt like I needed to turn around. I did, and I pulled up next to the pedestrian. As I rolled the window down, he bent over so he could see into the passenger side car window, and I said, before I even realized what I was going to say, “Is your name Jack?” “Yeah …” responded the young man. “Jack Door?” I asked. “Yeah …” he responded somewhat perplexed. I said, “I know this is going to sound crazy, but I was just talking to a friend of yours, Ronnie, and I prayed for you earlier today and God just told me to turn around and pick you up.” He said, “yeah, that sound’s pretty crazy man!”
Crazy but true! I offered Jack a ride and he accepted. He was headed to his grandparents house about 20 miles away after having a big fight with his dad at home. I told him a little more about what Ronnie had shared with me and Jack filled in the details. I talked to him about Jesus and invited him to come to church. I got his cell number as I dropped him off.
A couple of days later I felt led to give Jack some money, even though things were financially quite tight in my own household. My wife and I prayed about it, and decided on an amount. It was just enough for Jack to get his car fixed so he could get his job back and get his own place. Jack came to church one Sunday after that, but with his work schedule wasn’t able to make it much after that.
Ronnie was pretty amazed by it all when he heard about it, but still wasn’t willing to give God all the glory. He was still clinging to the idea that Jesus was just one way among many possible ways to human happiness and spiritual enlightenment and power.
During the Alpha session on the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit, Ronnie actually prayed along with others to receive the Holy Spirit. Afterwards, though, I could tell that nothing much had really changed for him. I suspected that he had only prayed to add another power source to the mix of what he was still determined to cling to. He was just trying Jesus by addition rather than submission it seemed.
Nonetheless, it was quite remarkable that Ronnie, a guy who was practicing witchcraft, was there for every single Alpha class session, while long time church members couldn’t say the same. Nonetheless, he never really surrendered his life to God through Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life.
Eventually Ronnie moved and we lost contact. A couple of years went by before I heard from him again. Then out of the blue one night he sent me a text message, which just simply said, “Hello Cliff how are you?” I replied that I was well and asked him how he was doing. He said, “I’m okay. I’m not where I want to be, but I’m thankful that I’m not where I used to be.” I said, “Where are you now? Physically and spiritually?” His reply … “Physically, I’m still in ______ county. Spiritually, I’m trying to walk with Jesus as best as I can.” My reply, “Praise God!” I assure you there were more exclamations marks in my soul than there were in my messenger app.
A few days later we got together for lunch again. He told me he was the one who was plagued by that “dark presence” and after he surrendered his life to Jesus Christ as the way he was finally delivered. There was an obvious and truly very positive change in him. He was humble to the word of God. He had become a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). I just talked to him earlier today and he’s still walking with the Lord. Interestingly, however, there were many things that he didn’t remember clearly from all of the time we had spent together years before. One of those things was the incident that God orchestrated with his friend Jack, (again not his real name), although Ronnie was quite amazed by it at the time.
At any rate, there are several degrees of demonic possession or oppression, some more direct, personal, and intense than others. Generally speaking possession can be thought of more in terms of an internal struggle and oppression as more of a struggle with an external presence. Traumatic experiences of evil and its effects, occult practices, and heavy alcohol and drug use, among other things, can make one more susceptible to direct possession or oppression. While the more direct personal cases are rare, Richard Gallagher, a psychiatrist, reported in the Washington Post mid 2016 that the number of identified cases of demonic possession in the U.S. has been on the rise over the last decade or so. Unsurprisingly, this is concurrent with an increase in drug and alcohol abuse and participation in occult practices among other things. (For another psychiatrist’s account of evil and demonic possession see Dr. M. Scott Peck’s books, People of the Lie and Glimpses of the Devil).
But bondage to the forces of evil is not just an individual issue. Whole cultures can find themselves in the grip of evil to varying degrees. Just scanning the list of the seven deadly sins would tell you that American culture, including much of the American church, is very unhealthy spiritually.
Jesus used the analogy of an individual plagued by demonic possession to warn about the fate of the Jewish people as a whole at the time.
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.” Matthew 12:43-45 ESV
In fact, 1 John 5:19 tells us “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” As Ephesians 2:1-3 indicates all of us, everyone born into this world dead in sins, before we are delivered through faith in Christ, live under the influence of the prince of darkness, “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (v. 2). In a sense every non-believer is in need of deliverance from the powers of darkness, to be delivered from “the domain of darkness and transferred [into] the kingdom of [God’s] beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13).
That deliverance may come through a combination of various practices: preaching, teaching, witnessing, personal study and prayer, or through more intentional rituals of exorcism in some of those rare cases. But in every case ultimately the only way is through surrender to God through faith in Jesus Christ, the way, the truth, and the life.
In some of the accounts of revival meetings during the “Great Awakenings” there were reports of people convulsing, screeching, screaming, and, even, howling. I suspect there were many people delivered from direct forms of demonic possession, not that all cases would be that stark and dramatic. The Gospel believed brings deliverance in more ways than one, but ultimately there is only one way out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light.
Followers of Jesus are called to continue this ministry of deliverance by proclaiming that Jesus is Lord and forgiveness of sins through repentance and faith in him. It’s needed now more than ever. Jesus said, those who believe in him would do the works he did and greater (John 14:12). And “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” and “he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38). God has called us and equipped us to do the same, knowing that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Victory over the devil comes through surrender to God through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ. To God be the glory!