A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper he amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
I believe the enemy is real. I believe he still seeks to kill and destroy. He still deceives. He still lies. He still wars against the King.
I also believe we blame him for way too much.
We talk about how we’re “under attack” or how our ministry team is receiving a whole lot of “opposition.” And sometimes, we really believe there’s spiritual warfare going on, but often those words and phrases are simply code for “my life’s falling apart right now and I need help” or “our team members are all really angry with each other.” It’s easier to say “we’re under attack” than it is to say “we’re really drowning.”
A conversation on Facebook illustrates the problem. After a missionary described a bunch of really hard stuff that was happening in their life and ministry, a friend left the following comment: “That kind of opposition makes me think that you’re doing something powerful.”
Do we really believe that? Play that logic out a bit: “Oh, bad things are happening to you, you must be doing something right.” Or reverse it, “Oh, things are going well for you, you must be doing something wrong.” That’s crazy talk, really, but we do it all the time.
Do we really believe that the only reason difficult stuff happens to Christians is because we’re doing something right and the hounds of hell are now opposing us? It’s possible, of course, but we make the assumption automatically and apply it liberally. Is it possible that Satan and his demons are wreaking havoc on a specific missionary or ministry? Absolutely. But just because it’s a possibility doesn’t mean it’s the only possibility.
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing,
Were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth, his name, from age to age the same,
And he must win the battle.
This is not an exhaustive treatise on spiritual warfare in missions. I’m not trying to outline how demons work in unreached areas, or in an animist who’s invited spirits to manifest through him. I am trying to talk about how we talk about spiritual warfare in our families, in our ministries. I’m not so sure it’s healthy.
Defaulting to “demon” has some Biblical precedent: unfortunately, it’s the Pharisees, a group we typically avoid emulating. Remember, they cried “Demon!” and it was actually Jesus. Ooops.
David didn’t blame the demonic for his troubles; he blamed God (and his own sins), “Your arrows have struck deep, and your blows are crushing me. Because of your anger, my whole body is sick; my health is broken because of my sins.” Psalm 38:2-3
Job might have been justified in crying “Demon!” when his world came crashing down, but he didn’t. He easily could have said, “The Devil’s out to get me because I’m a good guy doing good things!” But he didn’t. He went the other direction, blaming God for taking everything away from him. (And God didn’t really deny it, although he certainly added a few theological clarifications to Job’s understanding.)
Jesus himself could have cried “Demon!” in the Garden, but he didn’t. He cried Father.
Again, I’m not saying we can’t call out and identify enemy activity; I’m just saying that we should be aware that there may be other actors, other parameters. Blaming the devil shouldn’t be our default.
Why We Need To Stop Crying “Demon!”
1) It’s not Biblical. It could be spiritual warfare. It could be demonic. But often, we don’t really know for sure. We need to remember that what we call “oppression” or “spiritual warfare” might just be the result of foolish choices. It could be the result of disobedience or God’s discipline. It could be providential protection. Often, we just don’t know. Better to cautiously say what it is that we don’t know than to boldly say what we think we know but don’t.
Imagine a person’s car runs out of gas on the way to church. You could say, “Wow, Satan must really be against you being at church today.” Or maybe they just forgot to fill up on the way home from work on Friday.
Imagine a preacher’s printer malfunctions an hour before church, preventing him from printing out his notes. It could be a malevolent plot against him and the Word, or perhaps he’s a procrastinator and God’s trying to teach him to plan ahead. I don’t know, and that’s precisely my point. We certainly shouldn’t jump on the judge’s bench and condemn the guy, but neither should we excuse any potential character flaws by blaming demons.
2) It’s not helpful. I often hear people cry “Demon!” when they’re trying to encourage someone who’s having a rough go of it. They’re trying to support a friend. Or they’re trying to make sense of their own suffering. There are better ways. When something bad happens, human nature loves to blame someone or something. But when we do this we’re playing a hyper spiritual form of the blame game. And what scares me is that once we assign responsibility to Satan, the analysis ends. No more responsibility. No more accountability. No more discernment required. Boom. It’s Satan. End of discussion. We really need to stop the automatic jump to demon blame.
3) It can block us from finding and treating the real problem. Citing “warfare” can be a wonderful excuse. Blaming demons has a magical way of putting the attention “out there.” It keeps the locus of control outside of me. Maybe it’s a spiritual attack, or maybe it’s depression. Maybe it’s both. Maybe demons are messing with your ministry, or maybe your team just needs some training in conflict resolution.
Maybe you need to attack the enemy and take back ground, or maybe you need to see a counselor. I don’t know. What I do know is that when we’re quick to blame demons, the sort of analysis and prayerful discernment that could lead us to the root never happens. And that hurts our churches, our families, and our souls.
Peter Scazzero, author of The Emotionally Healthy Church and pastor/planter of a large, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual church in New York City, makes some interesting observations about a difficult season in ministry. He says,
“Pausing and reflecting on the state of my soul were both frightening and liberating. At the time I thought all my problems stemmed from the stress and complexity of New York City. I blamed Queens, my profession, our four small children, Geri, spiritual warfare, other leaders, a lack of prayer covering, even our car (it had been broken into seven times in three months). Each time I was certain I had identified the root issue. I hadn’t. The root issues were inside me. But I couldn’t – or wouldn’t – admit that yet.”
Tort Law & Toyotas
There’s an area of American law that can help us here. It comes from tort law (which unfortunately has nothing to do with cake) and deals with liability and negligence.
Basically, proving that someone was negligent requires showing that the events that happened would have been “reasonably foreseeable to the average person.” This “reasonably foreseeable” test could help us pause for a second before defaulting to demonic.
If something bad happens, take a breath and ask, “Was it reasonably foreseeable that this might happen?” For example, your car breaks down after 20 years and 210,000 miles. Yeah, it could be demonic oppression, it could be Satan messing with you and your Toyota. Or, it could just be a really old radiator. It’s reasonably foreseeable that old cars will occasionally act old. Even Toyotas.
On the field, you get a stomach bug. Yes, it could be a spiritual attack, or it could be that you were trying to be polite and ate some food from a street vendor. In your country, street vendors don’t wash their hands or their food. So, was giardia reasonably foreseeable? If so, pause a bit before you cry “Demon!” And take some Flagyl.
To sum up, if the thing that happened would have been reasonably foreseeable, there’s a good chance you’re not dealing with spiritual warfare. It might be, of course, but it’s probably not.
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure;
One little word shall fell him.
Does your theology of spiritual warfare make you afraid? Does it scare your kids? Do you talk more about demons than Jesus? Do your conversations focus more on the power of the devil than the power of the cross? If so, you might need to recalibrate. Remember His victory. Remember His presence. Remember His coming.
There is darkness, yes, but darkness dies when the Son rises.
That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours, thru him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still;
His kingdom is forever.