Animism, alive and well

I worked with a group of southern Sudanese pastors to help them to develop a discipleship training program for their churches. Remembering my own experience, I suggested that the starting point be a study explaining the nature of grace. “Yes”, they agreed, “after we have taught about witchcraft”. It seemed extraordinary that ‘Discipleship 101’ in Sudan should begin with a study on witchcraft. But as I talked with my Sudanese friends, I came to appreciate that to understand grace, we must first realize that God is sovereign over all creation and that our world is not controlled through curses and spells. True grace cannot be understood properly by those trapped in an animistic worldview.1

What the Sudanese church is learning, we are unlearning. We walk around towns and claim them for God; we seek deliverance from family curses; we release Christians from spirits of anger; we refuse to live in places where bad things have happened. Many Australian Christians share the belief of our non-Christian neighbours that evil clings to places and has to be cleansed or it will threaten the future occupants.

My husband and I came face-to-face with this attitude when we moved into our home eight years ago. As we met the neighbours, it became clear that our house had a chequered past. One by one, they hesitantly asked, “Did you know that the people who lived in your house last grew marijuana?” The purpose of the enclosed room under our house with metal brackets welded to the ceiling and an abundance of black plastic tubs on the shelves—the room that the real estate agent pretended ignorance of—became all too clear.

Our next-door neighbours told us the story of lights shining out of our garage all night and a midnight drug raid when policemen climbed our fence and apprehended those living here. We heard about the money stored under insulation batts in our ceiling, a break-in to steal that money, and the strange lives of the couple with their wayward teenage children who were the former occupants.

But it was the reaction of Christians that disturbed me most. For years after we moved in, every time a member of our family got sick (which happens regularly in a family of six with small children!), we were told, “It’s that house!”. We were encouraged to “pray through” the house room by room to rid it of the evil spiritual influences waiting to affect us.

I found myself lying awake at night, wondering about corpses in the ceiling, feeling disturbed by the blinking red light of the movement sensor in the corner of the room, visualizing evil spirits in the darkness. (Did I tell you that I have an overactive imagination?)

I talked to our old minister, who is a wise and thoughtful man, and asked for his advice. Should we pray through the house? What should I do about my fears? He said, “Thank God that he is in control. If you like, walk through your house room by room, but instead of asking him to rid it of evil influences, thank him that he already rules over every place. Thank him that Jesus has won the victory over every evil influence.”

It took some time for the feelings to fade, but I no longer feel uneasy about our house. We’ve lived here for eight years, and I’ve fallen so deeply in love with the big rooms and the view of gums from our back verandah, I can’t imagine living anywhere else. Sure, the walls need painting and the carpet is getting shabby, but it’s been a happy and welcoming home. It’s been a place of prayer, hospitality, and learning about God’s word and love and service and thanksgiving.

I now know that no place on earth is beyond God’s authority. If people who know and love Jesus live there, it becomes a place of blessing. God rules over every place (Ps 22:28, 103:19). Jesus won the victory over every power in his death and resurrection (Eph 3:15-23, Col 2:13-15, Rom 8:31-39). When God’s Spirit lives in you, no other spirit can muscle in (Matt 12:22-30). No special words or actions are necessary to overcome evil; all that is needed is the blood of Jesus and the word of the gospel (Rev 12:11).

I pray that we can give up our animism and learn with our Sudanese brothers and sisters that God is, indeed, sovereign over all creation.

1 David Williams, ‘One to one: The essential ingredient of pastoral care’ in The Briefing #372, September 2009, p. 23.

7 thoughts on “Animism, alive and well

  1. <i>“Thank God that he is in control. If you like, walk through your house room by room, but instead of asking him to rid it of evil influences, thank him that he already rules over every place. Thank him that Jesus has won the victory over every evil influence.”</i>

    That is such a great thing to say, and applicable to more than just houses. Good story too Jean.

  2. My husband and I chatted about this for quite a while last night.  I think it comes down to what can demons inhabit/possess?  Is there ever a time when a location (be it a house or whatever) could be the chosen “home” for demonic powers or is the idea of demons inhabiting a certain space in this world wrong?  There’s no use denying that Satan is at work – it’s Biblical.  Jesus gave us the power to cast out demons.  But what can we cast them out of? 

    Having been to many different “brands” of churches over the years I must say I’ve seen the treatment of the demonic in all its extremes.  I’ve seen many a church ignore the fact that we are at war with “the rulers of the darkness of this age” and other churches see a demon in every corner, “casting them out” of people’s sore knees etc.

    What is the right answer?  I don’t know. However I do agree that walking through the house and THANKING God for his rule over everywhere, even here, is a much better way to go about it!

  3. Thanks, Liz and Gordo.

    Gordo, what else would you see it as applicable to?

    Liz, it’s interesting what you say. In the last chapter of Living with the Underworld, Peter Bolt argues that exorcisms are not the way we engage the devil – that these were specific to the time when Jesus was on earth and the apostolic period. He argues this on the basis that exorcisms are not the way Christians are encouraged to engage the devil in the epistles. But the minister I mentioned in my article, who is obviously a wise man when it comes to these things and not easily influenced by claims of “evil influences”, had been involved in what seemed to be an exorcism, rightly or wrongly I don’t know! Certainly both these men would agree that exorcisms should never be the focus of our ministry – if they happen at all, they will be the exception, not the rule. The way we engage evil forces on God’s behalf is through the preaching of the gospel (Rev 12:11).

    What I am certain of is that Christians can’t be inhabited by evil spirits or under their strong influence because the Holy Spirit lives in us. Which I would guess you agree with, and which is why I have problems with the idea that Christians need to be “delivered” from curses or a “spirit of …”. The same would go for the houses we live in.

    I think the main way I’ve had to “engage” evil forces when it comes to our house is to refuse to believe the lie that we are under the devil’s influence in any way – which is hard when you are being told this is why you are sick by people you love and respect! Looking back, this is where the battle has been fought, not in “delivering” our house or “praying through” it.

    Thanks again, Liz, these are difficult issues and it’s good to talk them through.

  4. A young man I know left home because he was told by Christians the reason he felt nervy and generally ill at ease with his mother was because she might have an evil spirit.  This young man was a Christian, but apparently the evill spirit his mother allegedly had could really hurt him if he remained at home. 

    That family has been effectively destroyed by such dangerous and false teaching.  What a tragedy.  The superstitious practices our Sudanese friends have renounced are, albeit in a different form, being practised by people professing Christ in our own city.

  5. I don’t think I agree that exorcism is confined to the apostolic period.  However this is from personal opinion and experience and not something I can back up with Scripture off the top of my head.

    I certainly agree that Christians cannot be possessed.  I have heard some say that we can be oppressed (by Satan or evil spirits) but not possessed.  But, truly, I don’t know if I believe that we can be oppressed either. 

    The Bible talks in … James?… about not letting the devil get a foothold so I think it is possible to be influenced by Satan and co but to what extent, I don’t know.  I think that this influence has to be the result of intentional action (“do not let” implies that we have some choice in the issue) and not “accident” or circumstantial such as living in the “wrong” house etc.

    I completely agree that the comments about the behaviour of past occupants of your house affecting your current state of health are completely off base.  God is sovereign over all although the Bible indicates that He allows Satan to work in this world, until such time as Jesus returns.  How much influence Satan can have over a Christian, I don’t know.

    As I said, food for thought.  Something challenging to ponder over while changing nappies and doing the washing wink

  6. Philip, that is so sad.

    Liz, smile – that is my reaction to the thought of you changing nappies and pondering the issues!

    Peter Bolt, again in the last chapter of “Living with the underworld”, argues that Satan’s influence over us is external, not internal – through the lies and persecution of the world, not through putting thoughts into our heads, for example. I suspect he’s right about this, although it’s a bit of a disappointment for me, since I’m a great fan of CS Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters” (which is full of useful insights on how to deal with our thoughts and temptations even if the picture it gives of demonic temptation is wrong, but that’s another sotry!).

    On the passage about not giving the devil a foothold – that’s Ephesians 4:27 in the NIV – verses about resisting the devil and not giving the devil a foothold / any opportunity are very clearly in the context of passages about putting off practises like quarrelling, lying, stealing, greed, bitterness and laziness (<a >Jam 4:1-10, Eph 4:17-32</a>) – in other words, living lives of obedience and love in response to the gospel. The other well-known passage on spiritual warfare – <a >Eph 6:10-21</a> – is about standing firm by holding onto our faith and salvation (maybe during persecution?) – in other words, we fight Satan by remembering the victory that Jesus has already won.

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