In The Man in the Leather Hat, veteran missionary Paul Long tells story after story about his three decades as a missionary pilot and church planter. When he served in Brazil, he would fly into the deep interior of the country and plant churches where people had not interacted much with the outside world. A lot of the stories, however, don’t end the way we might like.
In one story, Long went to an African village, flipped open his Bible, and began to preach. The locals warned him, saying he couldn’t preach in the place where he stood because it was the devil’s property. As he started to speak, he suddenly felt like there were icy fingers grabbing his throat. Not only could he not speak, he couldn’t breathe. As he gasped for air, the villagers began laughing at him. It wasn’t until he closed his Bible and walked away a few feet that he was able to breathe again. “We told you!” the people said. The villagers pointed him to a different place, where he was able to preach the Word. People came to faith and he was eventually able to plant a church in that village.
What do you do with that? That doesn’t end the way we would like it to end. God would not have needed any significant display of strength to defeat the devil in that situation, so why didn’t he? Long’s only explanation was that it was not a power encounter God had ordained for him; it was one he took on for himself, much like the seven sons of Sceva in Acts 19. Spiritual warfare is serious business, and no one should go looking for fights like that.
It concerns me when people in our culture fail to take this kind of spiritual warfare seriously. Many think spiritual warfare is something only mystical or weird Christians think about. The truth is, spiritual warfare is very real, and we should expect it. The devil hates you and has a horrible plan for your life. Although he cannot take your salvation, he does not want you to enjoy a life growing in sanctification, to be effective in ministry, or to be happy. He wants you to constantly fall into sin and constantly struggle with discouragement. The attacks come in many ways, and the goal is to destroy your ministry and effectiveness for the gospel.
Paul was clear about this spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6, one of the most famous passages about spiritual warfare in the Bible. I pray through this passage in my quiet time every day, asking for God to equip me with the full armor of God:
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual force of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the whole armor of God that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.” – Ephesians 6:10-13
This is especially true about overseas missions. When I speak on missions, I’m frequently asked a similar question. At conferences, events, or just after classes, people will come up to me and ask, “Do you think missionaries encounter more warfare than others?” I tell them that they certainly do, but not in the way you probably think. Spiritual warfare is an ever-present reality for missionaries, but not because it necessarily happens more often. It’s simply more easily recognized.
THE ‘FLAW OF THE EXCLUDED MIDDLE’
More than 40 percent of the world holds to some sort of animism, or the belief in personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces that have power over human affairs. In animistic cultures, adherents consider natural objects to be animated by spirits. Everything holds a life force. For many people around the world, human beings must discover what beings and forces influence them and figure out a way to manipulate their power — whether through a shaman, witch doctor, or medium.
Say you’re a new missionary, and you’ve just arrived at your unreached people group. You’re here to teach the Bible — to teach all the systematic theology you learned in seminary. So you gather together the whole indigenous group and start to teach. But you quickly realize your message isn’t connecting. Why?
The spiritual world of most American Christians features two categories: the divine realm (where God lives) and the earthly realm (where humans live). There are religious matters — faith, miracles, and other-worldly problems — and scientific matters — the senses, natural order, and this-worldly problems. There is a sacred realm and a secular realm.
Much of the rest of the world does not see it this way. For animistic people throughout the world, almost all of life is instead found in the spiritual “in between” — what missiologist Paul G. Hiebert calls the “excluded middle.” They think about local gods and goddesses, ancestors and ghosts, demons, and dead saints. There are no seminary classes for dealing with the regular onslaught of evil spirits. We know things like that existed during Bible times, but we don’t think about it. In this area, missionaries often confuse people and don’t communicate well because of their Western, two-tiered view of reality.
FIGHTING THE WAR
When dealing with spiritual warfare, we must avoid two extremes: a denial of the reality of Satan and the spiritual battle within and around us, and an undue fascination with, and fear of, Satan and his hosts. Spiritual warfare is real; perhaps we’ve excluded more than we should have of the “excluded middle.” Regardless of whether every form of superstition you face is legitimate spiritual warfare, remember many people throughout the world believe it is real. When you are on the mission field, remember that to the degree it is real in their minds, it is real to them. When you preach truth, remember what people perceive, so that you can give them the real truth so they can experience real salvation and deliverance.
Don’t see an evil spirit and spiritual warfare every time the sound system at your church feeds back, or every time your car won’t start, or every time someone in your church gets a cold. Understand there is real spiritual warfare, but maintain a biblical perspective. Don’t deny the presence of Satan and warfare; don’t run from it either. Do not be afraid of the spirits.
There is a spiritual battle for the hearts and souls of humans, but Satan has no power over God’s people other than what God permits him for the testing of their faith. God is ultimately in control. Don’t despair, wring your hands, and furrow your brow — as if we don’t know how the battle between God and Satan will conclude.
Satan and his hosts can also demonize people, but those with a demonic presence are to be pitied more than feared. If you encounter legitimate demonization — whether possession or oppression — on the mission field or in your ministry, don’t be so afraid of them. Pity them instead. They are prisoners of war, and you are there to preach the truth that can liberate them.
The focus of the Christian minister or missionary should be on love, reconciliation, peace, and justice — not on going around and looking for opportunities to engage in spiritual warfare. Don’t put “exorcist” on your business card. Regardless of all the supernatural opposition you might face, always remember that the supreme event of spiritual warfare is the cross of Jesus Christ. Consider Colossians 2:13-15:
“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” – Colossians 2:13-15
On the cross, Jesus put to shame the principalities and power that are at war against us. He is the Lord, the king, and the master of all creation. At his command, the storms of this natural world and the forces of the supernatural world alike are silenced.
Editors’ Note: This article originally appeared at http://equip.sbts.edu/publications/towers/towers-issue/2017/november-2017/spiritual-warfare-and-international-missions/