by Katherine Seat
“Aren’t you scared while your husband is away?”
“I’ll lock the door at night, and the windows have bars on them.”
“Locked doors can’t keep out ghosts.”
I don’t think I actually rolled my eyes or laughed out loud, but that was my attitude. In my early years in Cambodia, we lived next to a house full of Christian women training for ministry. When my husband was away, they worried about me. They didn’t seem to believe that I was genuinely unafraid, and I could not understand why they were afraid.
I didn’t know if I believed in ghosts or not. But what I did know was that because of Jesus, I had nothing to fear. I told them that the God of the Bible is stronger than any possible evil spirits, ghosts, or demons. He is the creator of all things, and Jesus has already conquered death. I felt satisfied that I’d given them the right reasons for why they didn’t need to fear.
I’m not the only Australian who gives off vibes of disbelief when Cambodians talk about the spirit world. My Cambodian husband Soeun also faced this attitude. When he was in Australia, he tried to explain some of his childhood to an Australian seminary student. Soeun’s friend was asking him about life in Cambodia. They were talking about all sorts of everyday things like rice, fish, and evil spirits. The conversation was progressing normally until he got to the evil spirits. It was surprising for Soeun when his friend’s tone of voice became incredulous.
“So people see a head floating around?”
His friend thought seeing spirits sounded like a crazy idea.
A huge chasm lies between Cambodian and Australian culture. The unseen world is part of life for Cambodians. In Australia, ghosts are more at home in a movie or book. As an Aussie married to a Cambodian, I find myself staring across this huge chasm. Even though I’ve lived in Asia for over ten years, I’m realising I haven’t been taking enough notice of this difference.
It’s unbelievable that people actually believe in evil spirits—that was Soeun’s friend’s response. This view might be typical of Westerners. But zooming out, we see that Westerners are actually the odd ones. Many, maybe most, cultures around the globe have an awareness of the spirit world. And if I understand correctly, throughout history most people also considered the unseen as a regular part of their life, including in Biblical times.
Our Western culture only stopped doing so recently, around 300 years ago during the Enlightenment. Since then we have used science to explain everything. Using science is all I’ve ever known, so I felt surprised to realise I’m in the minority from a worldwide and historical point of view.
My Current Life in the Chasm
My family and I only moved to a village a few years ago. We are near an area of historical and spiritual significance, and visible reminders of history are everywhere. We are daily surrounded by the local animism that’s mixed with Hinduism and Buddhism.
My husband keeps noticing that people here live under fear more than anywhere else he has lived in Cambodia. For example, they might not go to a peer’s funeral. Some avoid using their own name in phone calls near temples at night, and we know of one family who moved house within 24 hours in response to a dream.
One day two pythons slithered into our yard. I was surprised that the neighbours didn’t want to kill and eat them. Instead they advised us against capturing the snakes as it would anger the Neak Da (territorial spirits). Pythons are believed to be Neak Da’s pets. To keep ourselves safe, we should have honoured the snakes by spraying perfume on them and letting them go free.
Our neighbours were surprised to see that Soeun isn’t afraid of Neak Da. They know we are Christians, but they did not know that would have any bearing on how we interact with the unseen world. Perhaps their knowledge of Christianity came from foreigners who wouldn’t appear to believe in Neak Da anyway.
As far as we know, there were no other Christians in our immediate area before we moved here. So we were very excited when a few neighbours decided to believe in Jesus. In the days and weeks that followed, some strange things happened. People had dreams. Evil spirits were seen flying around our house. People heard strange noises at night. It looked like the new believers had disturbed the spirit world. It was as though the spirits weren’t happy. They had had the place to themselves, and now some people had ruined it by following Jesus.
We, along with our prayer supporters in Australia, had been praying for our neighbours. I couldn’t wait to write a newsletter and tell them the good news! But when I went to write the newsletter, another strange thing happened. I found myself staring across that chasm again. Talking about flying heads had seemed so matter-of-fact when I was talking to my husband. But when I imagined Australians reading about it, it seemed crazy. I toned the news right down so they wouldn’t feel uncomfortable seeing the chasm.
Living Under Fear
Something else has happened since we moved to the village: my mental health has become worse. Not only do the locals here live under more fear than in other places, I do too. It could be a coincidence, of course, and some might say it’s related to the spirit world. I do know that from a scientific understanding, my brain is tricking me into feeling fear when the rational part of my brain knows there is nothing to fear.
A counsellor explained to me that those fears are actually my brain reliving feelings that I’ve had in the past. The “smoke detector” part of my brain is supposed to alert me when there is danger. But mine is sending danger signals even when I am safe. It’s a post-trauma response from events that transpired a decade ago. Somehow it has come to the forefront of our lives since we moved here four years ago.
Psychology has helped me learn about how my brain works, and this awareness has been so helpful. And hearing and reading God’s word is a constant part of my life. But for me in this season, those things have only reached the rational part of my brain. I know the correct answers, but I still feel stranded in yesterday, always in danger.
The right answers haven’t brought me relief from the recurring dread. The only thing that makes me feel safe is God’s people —praying friends and pastors who seem to represent the presence of God.
It makes me think back to the right reasons I gave my concerned neighbours. Did it really help them as I had thought it would?
Learning to Listen to the People We Serve
When my family moved into a fearful neighbourhood, I began to experience my own fear. It has debilitated me in some ways, and it definitely makes life harder. But it also helps me to understand the people around me.
I now have some experience of what it is like to live with fear. When I see the people around me changing their behaviour according to the unseen, my thoughts and feelings are totally different from when I saw it in my earlier years. The intensity of their emotions can’t simply be dismissed or argued away.
Locals live with the fear of the spirit world. If I want to have deep connections with them, I need to be aware of what it is like for them to live with evils spirits as a real part of their everyday life. When we minister to people in situations like these, we must have an awareness of their needs and worldview.
For many of us from the West, our church traditions are heavy on studying the Bible with a focus on rational thinking. Sometimes a truth might be applied to correct our thinking, when in fact it’s not a “thinking” issue. While correct thinking is vital, we sometimes miss the role that emotions play in our life with God.
All of this makes me wonder if an emphasis on cognition hinders our ministry to those from the Global South? My husband’s Australian friend just totally dismissed the whole idea as being crazy. If he had wanted to show respect and build rapport with Soeun, he would have needed to take the ideas seriously.
I made the same mistake. I thought I was taking it seriously. I didn’t completely dismiss my neighbours’ fear of ghosts; I explained why we don’t need to fear them. But just because I know different worldviews exist doesn’t mean my “right” answer will fix people’s problems. Curiosity and compassion are a better first response. We should listen before we speak. This is easier said than done, of course. Dismissing an idea because it sounds crazy, or thinking that you have the answer to something you barely understand will be counterproductive to sharing God’s good news.
My own struggle with fear has led me to re-evaluate my response to the neighbour women who were so concerned about my safety. I now regret that I gave them the right answer of why they shouldn’t fear, without stopping to realise that they were afraid. Now I know that even if I have the right answer to counter my own fear, it’s possible to still feel afraid. I know what it’s like to have people try to help me without acknowledging my fear. When that happens, their help feels more like harm.
My prayer is that the next time I’m faced with concerned neighbours, I will seek to connect with them emotionally rather than thinking I can quickly correct their thinking with an out of context Bible verse.
I pray I will stop to listen and seek to understand the other person’s perspective first.
I pray I remember that God was here long before me.
I will pause and ask, “What is God already doing in this person’s life, and can I join in?” rather than “How can I fix this?”
I pray these things for the sake of his Holy Name. Amen.
Katherine’s childhood church in Australia launched her on a trajectory to Asia. After a decade of preparation she landed in Cambodia and married a local Bible teacher.