Spiritual warfare in Africa
Scapegoats are always welcome. Some Christians blame evil spirits for many of the problems of life, including their own personal deficiencies and failures. A recent book on the subject refers to a woman who cast out demons from her toaster when it broke down. Is there really a demon behind every bush and under every bed?
Some years ago news reports described a ‘whispering campaign’ against a bishop who was candidate for the primacy of the Church of England. His supporters claimed it may have been inspired by the followers of rival candidates, or by clergy whom he had offended in the past.
Dirty tricks, shady deals, late night plotting and manoeuvring surface in the politics of every human institution and at every level – and too often in church leadership. African churches are not exempt: tribal allegiances, personal ambition and the possibility of material gain may play a central role in shaping decisions and votes.
A few weeks before graduation a Bible school in northern Congo was shaken when a sick student claimed he was the victim of witchcraft attacks carried out by a classmate. He said that he regularly saw his supposed antagonist come at night in his dreams and touch him, and the next morning he would wake up ill.
As the story circulated, the atmosphere on campus changed; suspicions abounded, and the accused student, who was supposed to graduate and begin his ministry within a few weeks, found himself ostracised by several of his companions.
Sudan was divided by civil war for decades. The south of the country suffered huge devastation and unimaginable suffering: starvation, mutilation, slavery, drought, disease, homelessness and all the horrors of war. Reports claim that over two million were killed and four million displaced.
Among the factors contributing to the war was the increasing Muslim fundamentalism of the north (one of whose aims is the elimination of the church) and powerful western oil interests, whose activities and profits helped keep the northern war machine rolling.
Tax men in a small central African town decide to impose a charge on mission planes. All the evidence shows that this never happened before, but they calculate that $12,000 should cover existing obligations. As the situation warms up, a mission leader and the church president go to the government offices to argue the case. A little later they hear ‘unofficially’ that, if they send over $400, that will deal with the problem.
A missionary begins work among an unreached group. Members of his family experience illness, sometimes severe, in the first months of his new ministry. Language and culture acquisition are slow. He receives a visit from local religious leaders telling him to leave, and soon after there are threats to the family’s security, and their home is broken into and possessions stolen.
Spiritual warfare is implicit in all these examples, but not in the simplistic sense expressed in the theology of those who cast demons out of toasters. It is the conflict facing every believer and church. Becoming a Christian actually means the beginning rather than the end of spiritual struggle.
The believer has certainly been redeemed from the domination of his own sinful nature (Romans 6:18, 22). Christians are no longer slaves to sin, as they once were, but sons of God who have been liberated from its power and penalty. However, they still experience the ‘remains’ of sin, enticing them to do evil and challenging the reality of their repentance. The result is an ongoing battle.
So, while Paul can say unambiguously that the Roman believers had been freed from sin, he still urges them, ‘do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires’ (Romans 6:12). The experience of Christians through the ages is that their biggest spiritual problem is with themselves and their own hearts.
Redemption also means freedom from the ‘world’. Jesus told his disciples, ‘you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world’ (John 15:19). What does that mean? By the ‘world’ the New Testament means human society united in rebellion against God, and sharing a sinful mindset, which John calls elsewhere ‘the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does’ (1 John 2:16).
So, being redeemed, believers no longer belong to ‘the world’. However, they still live in the world, where they have become ‘foreigners’ and pilgrims, and are under constant pressure to conform to its norms and expectations, its thinking and behaviour. At the same time they may experience hostility, for the world hates them just as it hated their Saviour, and wants to reclaim them. Here again there is spiritual conflict.
And Christians are redeemed from the power of Satan. The unbelieving world lies under his control (1 John 5:19), and he is its ‘prince’ and ‘god’ (John 12:31; 2 Corinthians 4:4), but God ‘has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves’ (Colossians 1:13).
Nevertheless, Satan remains the arch-adversary of God, who aims to destroy all God’s work, and therefore pursues the church to try and recover those who have been rescued from him (Revelation 12:13-17).
More than that, he uses every means possible to halt its mission and the proclamation of the gospel. So, there is conflict with Satan – ‘your enemy the devil prowls round like a roaring lion seeking for someone to devour’ (1 Peter 5:8).
Spiritual warfare, then, is a conflict that arises from two facts – the redemption Christians have received and the mission that God has entrusted to them.
It is a conflict from which they do not escape until they leave this present world. Nor can they concentrate on just one front at a time. They most often face a hostile alliance of two or even all three of their ‘spiritual enemies’ at once. And, although Satan is active in all of this, that does not diminish the responsibility of individual believers for their own failure.
Paul tells the Corinthians that they should not let Satan tempt them because of their own lack of self control (1 Corinthians 7:5), and elsewhere he speaks of some who need to repent of the false doctrine they have embraced, and so escape from ‘the devil’s snare’ (2 Timothy 2:26).
By temptation and seduction, Satan exploits the tendencies that already characterise men and women, but does not coerce in such a way that they simply have no choice. To believe that would be to avoid our personal responsibility for our own sin and that of our churches; indeed it would mean denying the reality of human sin altogether.
Interpreting the fight
Different adversaries that the Christian must face are exemplified at the beginning of this article. The unprincipled pursuit of power within the church embodies the very spirit of the world. Lording it over others is one of its highest values, and one that is totally reversed in the kingdom of God – ‘not so with you’ (Mark 10:43).
It echoes the attraction of Satan’s first temptation, ‘you will be like God’, and appeals to the pride and egotism that continue to trouble believers. Among its consequences are animosities, suspicion and divisions, not to mention the ruin of the church’s testimony.
Sorcery is a reality recognised in the Scriptures: the practitioners of magic arts are listed among those excluded from the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:8; 22:15).
However, witchcraft accusation itself is part of the traditional African worldview in which suffering almost always has to be attributed to somebody. When Christians accuse, they conform to the pressures of their world, seek to become the focus of attention, and set in motion an often vicious process of vengeance.
Satan is certainly satisfied with the breakdown of relationships and the use of violent retribution against supposed offenders. In and around Aru, a town in north-eastern Congo on the border with Uganda, reports suggest that 800 people died over a few weeks one summer during witch-hunts in which personal and family vendettas were settled.
The conflict in Sudan was a stark illustration of the callousness and brutality of the human heart, and the preoccupation of the world with material values. Satan himself doubtless exploited human wickedness in his efforts to disperse and destroy the Sudanese church of Christ.
Revelation 13 powerfully suggests the way in which he calls up political powers that will then take the offensive against the people of God: ‘and the dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea…’
Corruption is the quick fix that ‘gets things done’, the oil that keeps the machinery moving. It can save hours of time and energy in a society where almost everything is helped along with kitu kidogo (‘a little something’). But it bypasses questions of righteousness and justice. It is corrosive for givers and receivers, and for the entire social and economic structure that they are part of. But that’s ‘the way things are done’.
And, finally, the hostile alliance between Satan and the world which discourages those who bring the good news is found throughout the history of the church. Paul experienced this constantly: ‘I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me’ (Acts 20:23).
Facing the enemy
What is the biblical response to all this? First, the church must never respond to attack by using the methods of the world: ‘though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world’ (2 Corinthians 10:3-4).
She does not answer whispering campaigns by starting her own; she does not take up guns and bombs against her persecutors, but prays for them (Luke 6:38); she does not reply to false accusation with counter-accusation or retaliatory sorcery; she does not short-circuit a problem with a bank note.
The centuries of bitterness caused by the Crusades, and their consequences for evangelism among Muslims, are enough to prove the disastrous effects of waging war as the world does.
We must recognise the ‘depth’ of the conflict in which we are engaged. It is easy to lash out against those who hurt us, while failing to realise that they are not the real enemy at all – ‘for our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’ (Ephesians 6:12).
This implies a spiritual perception and wisdom that come from minds transformed by the Spirit and the Word of God. It is only in this way that we can see beyond the obvious, visible difficulties to the underlying spiritual dynamics that confront us. The New Testament warns us more than once about Satan’s subtlety and wiles, but it is easy to forget, to fall into his snares and make matters far worse, if we are not self-controlled and alert.
Righteousness and justice are central to the church’s conduct of its spiritual warfare. Paul’s well-known instruction on ‘the armour of God’ comes at the conclusion of three chapters of exhortation. In it he reminds the Ephesians that as they attempt to ‘live a life worthy of the calling’ they have received, they will face the opposition of Satan and the ‘principalities and powers’ that he commands, whose purpose is to undermine their testimony (Ephesians 4).
Accordingly, as he describes the ‘armour’, Paul’s focus is on truth, justice, faith and so on. The struggle with the powers of darkness involves things like doing honest work, speaking wholesome words, maintaining sexual purity and upholding God-honouring relationships (Ephesians 5).
As God’s people live in that way, Satan is frustrated in his purpose. But when their lives are characterised by backbiting and gossip, immorality, dishonesty, self-seeking and the like, the ‘evil day’ has already come – and they have fallen.
We may need to fight in other ways too. When there is unrighteousness or doctrinal error in the church there must be discipline. Churches that do not have the backbone to deal with faithlessness within are already pretty well incapable of taking the gospel to the world.
There may also be times when it is appropriate to make representations to our governments and call upon them to pursue righteousness and justice. There are areas of Africa where the moral conscience of our western nations is muted, and self-interest produces catastrophic consequences. In democratic societies Christians can speak up.
Paul constantly stresses the importance of prayer. Satan is certainly stronger than human believers; the world hates and persecutes them; and they struggle with the constant pressure of their own waywardness.
In the face of all that, it is only by God’s help that they can stand fast and carry out the mission he has given them. So, they should pray for themselves and ‘for all the saints’, specifically for Paul as he seeks to proclaim the good news of Christ – and so by implication for all those engaged in that work (Ephesians 6:18-20).
The Lord Jesus himself emphasised the importance of prayer when faced by Satan and temptation, not only by his teaching but also through his own practice of prayer, especially in the garden of Gethsemane. And the prayer he gave to the disciples teaches them to ask that they should not be led into temptation, but rather delivered from ‘evil’ – or ‘the evil one’. Elsewhere Paul commands prayer for rulers too, particularly so that the church might experience peace and be able to make progress in its mission (1 Timothy 2:2-4)
Revelation 12:11 summarises the means by which ‘our brothers’ overcome Satan. There is ‘the blood of the lamb’ – Christ’s atoning death that redeems, freeing his people from slavery to Satan. That is the only ground on which they can stand: the assurance that they are freed from him for ever, because of what Christ has done.
There is the ‘word of their testimony’. The nations hear the good news of salvation through the testimony of the redeemed, and as they believe so they are freed and Satan is robbed of his possessions. Faithfully speaking the gospel means engaging Satan in combat – it is the ultimate act of aggressive spiritual warfare.
And, ‘they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death’. The gospel advances through the messengers’ willingness to suffer for the gospel’s sake. Christ himself declared that following him involved taking up the cross, and Paul spoke of the afflictions that he endured for the sake of the church (Colossians 1:24).
It is when the grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies that it produces fruit (John 12:24). The warfare to which we are called involves dying rather than killing. There is no room here for easy discipleship, nor for superficial triumphalism.
However, most profoundly of all, we should realise that God works even through the vilest of Satan’s deeds. The greatest crime ever committed must be the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The New Testament indicates that Satan conspired to bring that about, and yet it was through that same cross – his ultimate crime – that he and all his forces were disarmed and decisively defeated (Colossians 2:15).
The sufferings of the people of Sudan were horrendous, and yet the church there grew, and it did so not only in spite of what Satan is doing but even through some of the evil perpetrated. Such a reflection should not make us complacent about evil, and certainly not fatalistic. But it assures us that the victory of our Saviour is certain. He will rescue his own from every evil attack, and bring them safely to his heavenly kingdom (2 Timothy 4:18).
How are we fighting? When a Congolese believer is looted by members of a hostile tribe and his home is burned, and yet he has no hatred in his heart towards those who robbed him of all he possesses, he fights well.
When a Lendu Christian sheltered his Hema ‘enemy’ (or vice versa) he fought well. Or when the honour of a church leader is attacked by rivals ambitious for power themselves, and yet he carries on with his work and seeks reconciliation, leaving God to care for his reputation, he fights well.
And we fight alongside African believers when we pray for them. Some of the issues they contend with are very different from those we face in the west: witchcraft, corruption, social and political collapse and disorder, violence and persecution.
Others are similar. The world, the flesh and the devil wage war against all of God’s people. Spiritual warfare is the norm. What is important is how we respond.
The author has had an extensive Bible teaching ministry in the Democratic Republic of Congo