Spiritual Warfare: The Devil and the Missionary
Trevor Johnson has been laboring among the Northern Korowai since 2007.
(This article has been edited for digital publication)
What if you knew you had a prowler around your house, a mass murderer, someone known for his deception, manic evil intentions, and violence? Someone notorious for having absolutely no mercy, sizing others up for how best to destroy them. You would probably be terrified.
The truth is, we all have such a prowler, His name is Satan: devil, serpent, father of lies, god of this world.
Some Christians downplay his power, rationalizing that since God is in control, we really don’t have to worry about Satan or even how we should act. As long as we believe in Jesus, everything will be fine. Others take it too far in the opposite direction, seeing the devil “behind every tree,” and even blaming him when they succumb to temptation.
The truth is that Satan is powerful, even terrifyingly so, but he is not sovereign. God is. It is truly frightening to peer into the face of evil like this and realize it is indeed a genuine threat. But it is also comforting to learn of God’s absolute control of this world and of our lives. It is heartening to be informed of the complete saving perfection of Christ’s work on the cross. And it is emboldening to realize we have a Warrior who promises to fight beside us and provide us with the armor we need to defend ourselves against the blazing arrows of the evil one (Eph. 6).
Many Reformed brothers act as if the devil is not even in the equation anymore. And we do see that a shift in thinking has occurred during 2,000 years of Church history. In the early church, did you know that baptismal rituals contained an exorcism and a rebuke to the devil? In the early years, the church Fathers also spoke frequently on demons, asserting that the strength of the Gospel was demonstrated by its ability to make evil spirits flee, where it was preached. In his book On The Incarnation, Athanasias is typical when he writes: “And how does it happen, if he is not risen, but is dead, that he expels the false gods who by the unbelievers are said to live, and the demons whom they worship, and persecute and destroy them? For where Christ is mentioned, and faith in him, all idolatry is eradicated, all demonic deceit is revealed, and no demon even tolerates that the name is mentioned, but hurries to flee, as it hears it mentioned. This is not the work of a dead man, but a living and first and foremost God” (Der Incarnatione Verbi, 32).
During the Middle Ages the work of the devil was often highly stressed. Too highly perhaps. During the time of the Reformation, there was a shift away from an emphasis upon the works of the devil to how our sin gave a foothold to Satan. The devil became less of an external monster and more of an internal voice of temptation. This was a corrective, in large part, to some of the Medieval excesses. But the Protestants also had their own excesses as well. Remember that Luther once threw an inkwell at what he said was the devil. And the Protestants still killed their fair share of witches and those who appeared possessed.
Then the Enlightenment came and antisupernaturalism grew, in part due to the abuses of the previous era. Many people became deists and the sciences began to dominate. The Western church became a child of its time and began to deny demons and anything supernatural, including the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ. Much of Christianity became functional deism.
Satan is personally out to attack Christians, especially ministers
The devil is not a blind force. He has a personality and attacks in particular ways. He is brutally perceptive and focuses his hate upon specific Christians. An impersonal force cannot seethe with hatred toward you and plot your destruction, but Satan can and does. He targets Christians and especially ministers. Charles Spurgeon warns us, “...as the birds peck most at the ripest fruit, so you may expect Satan to be most busy against you.” This is not to mean that missionaries are more holy; but they are more visible. And the falling of a minister or missionary can cast the faith of many into doubt.
The devil studies us to know our weaknesses. Spurgeon again instructs us that, “Satan knows how to look at us and size us up from heel to head...” He may pin-point one man’s weakness as lust or sloth or anger and dig his claws into that particular area. “The eye of malice is very quick to perceive a weakness…” and “The enemy, like a fisherman, watches his fish, adapts his bait to his prey, and knows in what seasons and times the fish are most likely to bite.”
In the book of Job, we see that Satan already knows everything about this righteous man. When God asks Satan if he has considered Job, the answer is YES, Satan has STUDIED Job! Job had become the chief object of Satan’s intense research. Satan may be studying you right now!
Satan even requests us by name. Jesus tells Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Luke 22:31-32).
This is an incredible picture. Satan’s wrath was not undirected, but rather focused upon this one individual. The devil had him in his cross-hairs; his sights were upon Peter’s frame to fell him. His hatred was aimed specifically, and his request was by name. How terrifying it is to know that Satan may seek us out by name.
But just as particularly and just as personally, Christ prayed for Peter. As pointed as Satan’s arrows of destruction were, they disintegrated to nothing under Christ’s perfect, personal protection of Peter, which He grants also to us.
Satan is powerful
This personal enemy of ours far surpasses us in ability, intellect, strength, and skill. He is among the “sons of God” in Job and one who masquerades as an “angel of light”, according to the apostle Paul (2 Cor. 11:14). The devil is of such concentrated malevolence that other fallen angels are not his peers but his subordinates only and are actually called “his angels” (Matt. 25:41). He is not merely among the fallen angels but is the head of their activities and is the chief antagonist of God.
This chief antagonist has many alarming abilities:
He can cause disease. “So went Satan forth from the presence of the LORD, and smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot unto his crown” -- Job 2:7. See also Luke 13:16.
He can impede the work of evangelism. “Wherefore we would have come unto you, even I Paul, once and again; but Satan hindered us” -- I Thes. 2:18.
He can afflict God’s servants. “… there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me” -- 2 Cor. 12:7.
He can use people as his tools. “And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel” -- I Chron. 21:1.
He can influence some to speak as his mouthpiece. “But he [Jesus] turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men” -- Matt. 16:22-23.
Satan’s power can further be seen in the quickness and ease of the fall of man. Even in their perfect state, Adam and Eve -- with terrifying rapidity and only feeble resistance -- succumbed to the frightening power of the devil to destroy all that is good and beautiful.
Even though the devil has been utterly defeated, he is by no means weak. His humiliation does not show his impotence. Instead, it displays God’s great strength. Only our Savior could have defeated him so totally on the cross, making “a shew of them openly, triumphing over them” (Col. 2:15).
Satan is deceitful
One of Satan’s favorite weapons is deception. His very nature is to lie and beguile (2 Cor. 11:3). He is the father of lies (John 8:44), using half-truths, cunning speech, and even the Word of God -- distorted and wrenched out of context -- to snare his victims.
Satan is evil
His very nature is evil, evidenced by what Scripture calls him:
Serpent, dragon, and deceiver -- “And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world…” Revelation 12:9.
Roaring lion -- “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” -- 1 Peter 5:8.
Wicked one – “When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart…” -- Matt.13:19, 38.
Murderer -- “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him…” John 8:44a.
Father of lies -- “When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it” -- John 8:44b.
Tempter -- “And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread” – Matt. 4:3; see also 1 Thess. 3:5.
God of this world -- “In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not…” -- 2 Cor. 4:4.
Prince of the devils -- “But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, This fellow doth not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub the prince of the devils” -- Matthew 12:24.
Prince of the power of the air -- “Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience” – Eph. 2:2.
Accuser of the brethren -- “…for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night” – Rev. 12:10.
Satan as accuser and adversary
Though other “adversaries” appear in Scripture (1 Sam. 29:4; 2 Sam. 19:22), the Adversary—Satan the accuser -- appears in Zechariah 3.
Whereas Jesus is our comforter and advocate in this passage -- even in His preincarnate state --Satan is the prosecutor who continuously condemns us before the divine tribunal, flagging us as polluted and unclean. Whereas the Holy Spirit convicts us of sin for our good, the accuser seeks to convict us of sin to our eternal detriment, prodding us with our iniquities to defeat us, make us hopeless, and deflate our boldness in serving God.
“And he [an angel] shewed me [Zechariah] Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD [Jesus], and Satan standing at his right hand to resist him” -- Zech. 3:1.
Satan is chief prosecutor, and most of the time he plies his evil trade without needing outright lies. His accusations sting because they are TRUE, consisting of bare justice without grace, crushing us under their weight. The text here says that even though Joshua was high priest, he was not clean on his own before God: “Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments and stood before the angel” -- Zech. 3:3.
This portrait of Satan in Zechariah agrees with the depiction in Revelation 12:10: “… for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night.” He is relentless.
Satan shames us from undertaking grand ambitions for the gospel and steals our boldness
I have talked to almost a dozen Christians about going into missionary service who have withdrawn from the process due to guilt over past sins. The remembrance of such things stole away their boldness and stripped them of holy ambitions. One man, with tears in his eyes, asked, “How can I even dare to do something like this for God after all I have done?” These past sins made them cowards, caused them to shrink back from the fight. The cross had paid their sins, and yet these old wounds made them lame for service.
But this is not how the Holy Spirit works. The Spirit convicts us of sin to cause repentance, lead us to holy action, and cleanse us for more effective service, while the devil’s reminders are aimed to sideline us and put us on the bench.
But the beautiful thing, dear Christian, is that Satan’s never-ceasing business of accusing and opposing the saints to God’s very face is shattered by the cleansing power of grace. God has cleansed you and separated you for service. Your future is bright, and God has even ordained good works for you to do (Ephesians 2). Do not shrink back!
Satan as opportunist, tempter, and inciter
From the account of David’s sinful census, we see that Satan is an opportunist without equal. He is not all knowing, but he does read people keenly.
In 1 Chronicles 21, we read of Satan stirring up David to number the people, acting as a tempter and an inciter of sin. “And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.” Pride pollutes David’s motives, and Satan quickly takes advantage of the situation, fanning these sparks of sin to produce a deadly conflagration.
Satan uses even our pride and success to orchestrate our fall, sow discord, and otherwise cause pain. For the true Christian, God grants the grace of repentance, but damage is nonetheless done.
Sometimes missionaries are put up on a pedestal. They are seen as upper tier Christians and are given accolades. And Satan uses all of this against us. “Let us count our successes, let us brag upon our numbers, let us expand our own little kingdoms.”
Job 1 and 2: Satan as a bringer of misery
There came a day when the sons of God gathered in the presence of God, and Satan was there with them. Who were these sons of God? The Psalms and the book of Daniel describe them briefly (Psalm 29:1; 82:1; 89:6-9; Daniel 7:9-10), and phrases such as “angelic congregation,” “celestial court” and “heavenly council assembly” spring to mind.
Did these sons of God have regular meetings? This assembly does not appear to be a chance encounter. These sons of God came with the purpose to “present themselves.” This presentation was seemingly as a group, a royal summons from the King. God rules the universe largely through his angels, after all, so we would expect God to hold a divine council.
Satan is set apart from this crowd as being a distinctive character. He is among it, an angel, and yet very different from the others present before God’s throne. “The sons of God came... and Satan came also.” Satan, who may have sung with the sons of God at creation (Job 38:7), is now in the midst of this heavenly assembly seeking to destroy man, the crown of God’s creation.
When questioned regarding his whereabouts, Satan is vague and deceptive, “just roaming about,” and then he asks brazenly, “Doth Job fear God for nought?” (Job 1:9). The devil is a prosecutor who desires a verdict on human nature and casts doubt concerning Job’s motivations.
When given the opportunity by God, Satan takes every chance to destroy Job. There is not a shred of mercy anywhere in the devil.
“Did we just perform an exorcism?”
In West Java, a distressed man reported seeing his “family spirit” as he wore the family’s Keris amulet (a small sword), which he believed housed this spirit. This spirit repeatedly told him to kill himself.
We counseled the man, prayed for him and had him pray. As a sign of repentance, he burned the amulet. And the voices ceased, right then and there. No incantations were said, and no holy water applied, but the Word of God and prayer were the medicines. We need not believe that the amulet contained any power of its own, for many will reply that spirits cannot inhabit inanimate objects. What the amulet symbolized for the man, however, was important. Just as the Ephesians in Acts 19:19 gathered and burned their occult books, and just the Dani tribe in Papua gathered and burned their witchcraft artifacts, these are visible signs of repentance. The man recovered and returned to soundness of mind.
Sure, we may quote the Apostle Paul that an idol is nothing in this world and yet Paul and Moses both said, "They sacrificed to demons, not to God, to gods they did not know…" -- Deut. 32:16-17. Through our unbelief, we give power to demons that they otherwise would not have, for they largely work by deception.
We find these condemned practices listed by Moses: divination, soothsaying, augury, sorcery, use of charms, mediums, wizardry, and necromancy. All of these practices exert power over others or seek to know things that are not lawful to know. Now, if these things never worked at all, why do so many people resort to them? I believe these demonic practices have worked for many in the past.
A skeptical attitude takes the air out of the impact of Numbers 23:23, when Balaam pronounces that he is unable to curse Israel. If Balaam cannot exercise any power over anyone, then it is quite unremarkable that he also cannot curse Israel. The point of the story is that curses work, but not on God's people.
Simon the sorcerer is described in Acts 8:9–11. He “practiced magic” and “amazed the nation of Samaria.” How did he amaze people if there was absolutely nothing to his arts? The Bible does not say the magic was unreal, only that the magic was opposed to God.
Did you know that the Presbyterian missionary John Nevius in the 1800s wrote a book affirming demon possession? Nevius worked in China from 1854-1892 and experienced cases of demon possession and wrote a book about it.
When the accounts of possession given in the New Testament were read, Chinese Christians recognized the similarities at once. The terminology of “possession” is less accurate, however, than the Greek word used, daimonizomai (δαιμονίζομαι), being demonized or harassed/afflicted by demons.
Many claim that demon possession no longer occurs, but I see nothing explicit in the New Testament which proves this. If Satan cannot possess you, he may still sift you as wheat or become a thorn in your flesh. Certainly, to show the greater glory of Christ, there may have been a greater degree of demonic activity in Jesus' day, but what other evidence would you have for the claim that all visible demonic activity has ceased today? 1 Timothy 4:1 even attributes false doctrine in the last times as being due to demonic influence, “…in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits…” 1 Kings 22:22-23 says, “I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets…” See also 2 Chronicles 18:19- 21. Yes, unbelief and heresy is often demonic.
Hallucinations and voices
When sick from dengue fever, I hallucinated. The voices were clear, and condemning. “All your work is in vain. You are going to die here and have nothing to show for your efforts. You’ve wasted your time and have done nothing here. It is better off that you just die.” As a Westerner, I concluded that these voices sprang from my own doubting heart. But when I tell Papuans, they are all convinced it was the voice of the devil trying to discourage me.
The sago grub feast host
Talking to a tribal host of a sago grub feast, we saw the central pole that was rubbed with grease and fruits offered to Walupul, the regional spirit. The host told me he chanted and asked Walupul to enter him. After several hours, Walupul would then oblige and enter the host of the feast. He could feel Walupul’s strength at work within him and then he was able to command and make decisions about the grub feast.
How much of this is true? I don’t know. And yet, cut off from the world, tribal people all report the spirits working through similar means. They all describe the same sort of phenomenon.
We have also heard of local animistic leaders (witches, if you will) cursing a few others, who then die. In one case a swollen leg, in another case blurred vision, in another case nausea and vomiting until death. How much of this is psychosomatic, and how much is demonic? I do not know. But they still die.
We do not rely upon our experience alone, but we report to you that our experience accords closely with the stories told in the New Testament and is consistent with the devil’s strategies as drawn from Scripture. We repeat, however, that the solution is not some rite or ritual or incantation, but the answer is always the Word of God and prayer and repentance. If some act of forsaking sin (as displayed in the burning of occult objects) is seen as needful by the sinner, then do not shy away from these visible demonstrations of repentance.
I’ve known American men who have burned their pornographic magazines when they were saved, and so a tribal people burning their witchcraft artifacts is no different. Though I describe myself as a thorough cessationist, I am careful not to downplay the power of the devil. He is alive, he is full of hate and he is active and powerful. As Augustine says in The City of God, “When the fire fell from heaven and consumed Job’s household at one blow along with his herds of cattle, and when because of a storm the house collapsed and killed his children, all of which were works of Satan, these things were not imaginary.” Satan’s power is not imaginary.
Thank God that the devil is not sovereign, but God is! And God works all things for His own glory and his people’s good – even the attacks of the devil.