In another post a day or two ago, Dave Miller related to us an experience he had a couple of years back concerning what seemed to be a demonic influence over a professing Christian. For most of us who have been in the ministry for any length of time, we have either experienced or know those who have experienced what can best be described as demonic influences over the lives of people that we truly believe are sincere, professing Christians.
Yet as Dave indicated, and as I agree with: this creates a tension between experience and theology for some of us. So what do we do with the questions about the demonic and the Christian?
As Dave mentioned in the comment stream—when it comes to the Greek in the Gospels, we don’t really find this idea of demon possession vs. oppression vs. influence that we tend to find in our popular language today. The language simply points to a person either being demonized or having a demon, with various results. Some are mute (Matthew 9:31ff), some have seizures (Matthew 17:13ff), some have the demons speak through them (Luke 4:33ff), some are forced to do strange things (Luke 8:27ff), etc. In almost all of the cases of biblical demonization where we are given details, the demons to various extents exercise control over a person’s body.
The question at hand for us is: can demons do this to Christians?
Let’s start with the basics first. What we know for sure demons can do. They can bring temptation. Even though James describes most of our temptations as welling up from within us due to our own depravity (James 1:12-15), we know that Satan the prince of demons tempted Jesus. So some temptation comes from without, and surely demons can try to influence us and tempt us to sin.
And if we listen to the words of Job, it would also seem that demons can inflict certain physical injuries upon God’s people—such as sickness or disease, much like Satan did with Job, and this is even possibly the case with the “daughter of Abraham” in Luke 13.
Yet even though they might be able to tempt us and make us sick, can they internally force us to act in a way that is contrary to our nature and desires? Can they exercise control over us and force us to do things or say things?
Let’s consider some of the promises God gives.
1 Corinthians 10:13—No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
In regards to temptation, God will not let us be tempted beyond our ability and he will provide a way out. Some popular notions of demonic influence today involve people losing control and acting in anger or rage, or saying blasphemous things, etc.—things like these that are sins. If demons can do more than tempt us, if they can control us and make us sin, then such a promise as Paul gave does not stand. If God is faithful to not let us be tempted beyond our ability to bear it and if he is faithful to provide us a way of escape, then he will not let any outside influence force us into such sins.
Matthew 12:29—Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house.
The greater context of this verse is demonization. Specifically, Jesus heals a man who was blind and mute because of a demon. This riles the Pharisees who accuse Jesus of being satanic and casting out demons through the power of their prince—Beelzebul or Satan. Jesus shows the faulty logic of their argument with the words that any kingdom divided against itself will not stand. Then he says in 12:28, “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”
We know it was by the Spirit of God Jesus cast out the demons. In this context, verse 29 refers to Jesus binding the strong man—the demon—to plunder its house, or take back the body to be free of demonic control. Conversely, though, the Bible teaches that in Christ we are each a temple or house of the Holy Spirit. The strong man is now the Spirit of God within us. If our body is to be plundered (and therefore controlled) by a demon, the Holy Spirit must first be bound. Job teaches (as well as Luke 22:31) that even Satan must have God’s permission/allowance before he can attempt to influence or inflict one of God’s people. If that is true for the prince of demons, how much more true then for other demons? And what demon can overtake and bind the Spirit of God?
1 Peter 5:8-9—Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.
James 4:7—Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
Two great promises that say the same thing. We know that Satan is powerful, we know he is destructive, and we know he has great anger towards God and his people. Revelation 12 describes the scene where Satan sought to destroy Jesus but failed, and he was cast down to earth from heaven during Jesus’ ministry. He was the adversary who accused the brothers and sisters night and day before God, but now he roams the earth in wrath looking to make war against the followers of Jesus. Nonetheless, we have overcome him by the blood of the Lamb.
To the believer, Satan and his demonic minions are more bark than bite. They might be able to influence us but instead of exercising control over us, we can resist. And if we resist they flee. And the way we resist—humility and faith.
Finally, Ephesians 6:10-11—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.
This is, of course, the beginning of the armor of God passage—the very things like righteousness, peace, and faith we wear to “withstand in the evil day” and “extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one.” It is a passage that reiterates the fact Satan is angry and at war against us; a passage that reminds us there are spiritually dark forces surrounding us that do want to destroy us.
But the very thing Paul says we are standing firm against is not demonic control over our lives but satanic schemes. Louw and Nida define “scheme” as “crafty scheming with the intent to deceive.” And that seems to be Satan’s primary tactic. Jesus said Satan is a liar and father of lies. Paul said Satan disguises himself as an angel of light—something good. It’s the very thing he did in the garden—not possess Eve but to possess a serpent and deceive Eve into disobeying God. And it’s the very thing John says of his work in Revelation—the beast and false prophet carry out their work and win the world to themselves through deception.
Perhaps then the largest demonic influence that can come in the life of a believer is found in the form of deception—Satan and his minions trying to convince us that we are not the righteous children of a loving Father-God through the blood of Jesus. Therefore we are faced with doubt, discouragement, self-condemnation, and false criticism. Such things are the “flaming darts of the evil one”—arrows that hurt but come from without and have nothing to do with control within.
So we put on the armor to remember who we are in Christ, to stand firm in faith, and therefore to watch the devil flee.
What about these experiences that we hear about where even some Christians seem to be controlled by demons?
Well, experiences are tricky things. We all have various experiences where we may think one thing is happening, be it spiritual or physical, when the truth is something else is going on. We also have plenty of real experiences—if we cannot trust our senses the vast majority of the time then what good are they?
I even had an experience last night. When I read things like Dave’s post and the ensuing comments and hear stories, it makes my hair stand up on end. In part because the Bible does tell me that the demonic is real and dangerous, but also in part because such stories are downright creepy, especially in light of some modern horror fare in pop culture and the remnants of childhood fears.
Last night I went to bed and about a half hour later I woke up. It felt like my room was darker and there was some sort of presence surrounding me, and it even felt as if my bed was shaking a little. A sense of dread came over me. And to top it off, I could hear my dog in his cage in the next room growling. I’m not sure how long this experience lasted but it seemed like several minutes. But then I went from being half awake to fully awake. Turned the light on, even got up and went to the bathroom, and then returned to bed and everything was fine—went back to sleep and no problem.
When it happened, one of the thoughts that went through my head was “demon.” Yet did I have the experience because there actually was a demonic presence in my room? Or was it because I was in a frame of mind where I could not fully comprehend everything around me and process various stimuli, and I already had the thoughts of the demonic giving me a creepy feeling from earlier in the day?
I go with the latter and not because I don’t believe in demons or neglect the reality of their hateful warfare. Instead it is due to the fact that the ability for us or our animals to sense a demonic or even supernatural presence in such ways is more a factor of mythology than biblical theology (save for possibly Balaam’s donkey—but that was a special case in which the donkey actually spoke to Balaam as well, and certainly not presented as normative).
So I had an experience but have no reason to believe it was actually what it felt like at the time (and my dog growls almost every night—it happens when you live in a neighborhood with a bunch of dogs, cats, and other critters running around that go bump in the night).
We cannot build theology off experience, no matter how much we might want to. Instead we must let the theology of the Bible be our interpreter of experience.
With this in mind, then, it does truly stand that in some instances the so-called Christian who is demonized is not actually a Christian. It is a simple reality throughout the Bible: there are people who can deceive others and are even self-deceived when it comes to “being a Christian.” Yet, when the person shows continuous spiritual fruit, faith, and a love for God, this is not a satisfactory answer.
In other cases, then, it may be psychological. Let’s face it—we humans are complex beings. We are physical and spiritual. We have imaginations that can run deep, and subconsciouses that even seem to run wild (just see the strangeness of many dreams!). There are many dimensions that go into our experiences and our interpretations of them.
When it comes to stories I hear about Christians struggling with what seems to be the demonic, there is, sadly, often some sort of childhood trauma involved—whether death of a loved one, divorce, abuse, or the likes. Such realities are heart wrenching and produce a lot of pain.
Different people react to such trauma in different ways. In some cases, you hear about “lost time”—the person has shut the door to the memories of such events. I have even heard of a few situations where the person created elaborate stories such as alien abduction, or re-imagined the events into a nicer experience. Is it not then possible for a person from a Christian worldview to attempt to deal with the pain through the images of the demonic?
In such cases, the problem is not an actual demon but a deeper emotional and psychological scar that needs great love, time, and counseling driven by the atoning blood of Christ and the transformation of the Spirit.
One final possibility I want to present does come from the actual work and influence of demons—deception. As Satan is the father of lies and a deceiver, perhaps in some cases he or his demons feed and influence certain fears and thoughts in our lives so that we think we are experiencing the control of a demon when really we are not. Such deceptions also must be met with the blood of Christ and the armor of God to stand firm against his schemes.