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A while ago, a certain school of wisdom proclaimed, "When in doubt, cast it out!" The slogan referred to dealing with demon possession or oppression and assumed (1) that there may be doubt whether a person is so afflicted, and (2) that exorcism can, in any case, do no significant harm and therefore might as well be tried.
I've personally dealt with a few cases of demonic possession over the years, and while pursuing my Ph. D. in psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, I immersed myself in the psychological and spiritual literature pertaining to it. Let me briefly show why I affirm the first assumption and dispute the second.
Consider the following people I've known (names and identifying details altered, of course):
1. Joan, a woman of unremarkable appearance and behavior and an active member of her mainline congregation, was serving on an educational committee interested in exploring paranormal phenomena. Some members of the committee considered such phenomena hokum; other members thought them dangerous and to be avoided.
Joan, however, had actively pursued a variety of psychic experiences-palm reading, tarot cards, and seances. She thought the committee should endorse them as an important but neglected aspect of human potential. Indeed, she considered them to be a gift of God and used various scriptural references to support her view.
2. Dave, in his early twenties, was brought to my office by his father, with whom he still lived, after one of Dave's several psychiatric hospitalizations. He was obsessed with the thought that the Devil was attacking him. He was terrified that the Devil was stronger than God. While he was in the hospital, he would awake at night screaming, "I've been damned! I've been damned!" sometimes becoming so violent he had to be restrained. Although he was heavily medicated, his preoccupation with the Devil consumed his waking moments.
3. Larry, a man in his thirties, suffered chronic physical illness and had an erratic work history, an unstable marriage, and a childhood marked by abuse. Though he no longer engaged in it, he and his family had often used Ouija boards and experimented with other psychic and occult paraphernalia and practices.
He also drank too much, occasionally becoming violent or acting seductively toward young women. He came to my office consumed by diffuse rage and full of guilt.
4. Theresa, an older woman, was furious at her support group. At one meeting, during the time of sharing before prayer, she declined to talk about her troubles. It was obvious, though, that she was in distress and that she was seeking help, but since several people had just joined the support group, Theresa did not yet trust them enough to talk.
Her suspicion was heightened when, during prayer, one young man laid his hands on her head and prayed that any demons might be cast out so that she might be free to talk about the painful material she was withholding. Afterwards, she vowed she would never again attend a group where such a thing could take place.
Each of these individuals would call themselves Christians, though their theological convictions would differ greatly. Each of them but Joan had endured extremely painful experiences and were in present difficulty. Joan and Larry had had considerable contact with the occult; Dave and Theresa were dealing directly with the thought of Satanic oppression. I could sense deep psychological trouble in Dave, Larry, and Theresa and also overwhelming rage in Larry and Theresa.
I do not doubt that sometimes demonic presence may manifest itself dramatically. But in any of these cases, should we suspect direct demonic activity? In each of these cases, there is room for doubt.
I take seriously the Gospel accounts, and therefore the possibility of demonic possession or oppression. Further, I believe Satan has a profound investment in human misery of all kinds. That does not mean he works solely or most effectively by means of possession.
Scripture gives no list of criteria for discerning who might be "possessed"-a rather strange omission if such a list were vital. The only "test" of spirits given is doctrinal (1 John 4:3) and addressed to a specific historical situation of encroaching heresy. (Note that in the Gospels, the demons had no trouble confessing the identity of Jesus.)
Further, Scripture tells us that one of Satan's characteristics is to hide-indeed, to present himself as an angel of light.
Even as dramatic a symptom as the presentation of a new personality with a new voice and new skills or knowledge does not necessarily mean the presence of an evil spirit: Multiple Personality Disorder is a known psychiatric syndrome, and I have personally known at least two persons so afflicted in whom I witnessed the radical shifts but suspected no demons.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that we may frequently experience uncertainty and have need of a spiritual gift of discernment to guide us. Even discernment itself is risky: How do we test private, unsharable certainties? How do we accurately discriminate genuine, spiritual discernment from our own idiosyncratic psychological processes? Again, we find considerable room for doubt.
Among the cases just described, I personally believe direct demonic involvement was likely in Joan and Larry only.
Despite Joan's unremarkable behavior, when I was in her presence, I experienced a presence of evil that I had felt only once in my life. Her unorthodox theology and her occult involvement suggested demonic influence, but the powerful sense of evil was determinative. She was not asking for help, however, and I have no idea what has become of her.
Larry, by contrast, was seeking help. In his presence, too, I sensed something evil. In addition, he had sensed something other than himself intermittently taking control in his life. When we prayed together, nothing dramatic occurred, but the atmosphere seemed palpably to clear, and he reported experiencing a feeling of peace.
This brief interlude by no means solved his problems, but the temporary relief he experienced seemed to be of a spiritual nature. (I grant, of course, that relief could be explained in psychological terms.)
Dave's distress, on the other hand, seemed to be a fairly typical manifestation of paranoid schizophrenia, a psychosis whose origins are largely biological. Persons so afflicted are often preoccupied with demons. "Demons" may not be a bad symbol for them to use-such people are fighting a battle that is significantly beyond their abilities-but it's not the same thing as demonic possession. In fact, it seems to be a general rule that people who rave about demons are not likely to be possessed.
And Theresa I see as an extremely ill, troubled person, disabled by her history and psychological make-up, who makes people uncomfortable with her manipulative, angry behavior, but whose trouble would likely only be increased by any type of exorcism.
If we attempt an exorcism, we should not assume that the worst that can happen is nothing. On the contrary, serious psychological damage can be done by ill-advised exorcisms.
The nature of the damage depends upon the personality structure of the person affected. In a highly suggestible person, exorcism can actually produce the symptoms it is designed to relieve.
For instance, if one asks such a person if he experiences thus-and-such (hears voices, loses control, etc.), he's likely to believe he does and may act in accord with that belief. Such persons are extremely vulnerable to psychological manipulation (intended or not), all the more so in a highly charged group setting.
With the highly conscientious, over-controlled, introverted person, the very idea that one could be influenced or possessed by a demon may heighten feelings of badness and guilt. After all, even if she rejects the hypothesis that demons are involved, such a person may think, I must be a terrible person if someone sees what I do as so evil that they would attribute it to Satan!
The self-indulgent, not-so-introspective person may find the hypothesis of demonic influence a convenient way to deny personal responsibility for what he wants to do-"the Devil made me do it." While this danger is frequently mentioned, I suspect that when a person says, in a dismissive way, "the Devil made me do it," the self-serving and not very plausible nature of the excuse becomes apparent.
These dangers are not trivial. And they are the dangers we face when working with people on the less disturbed end of the psychological spectrum-whose problems are no worse than a neurosis or perhaps a character disorder. When we try to help more disturbed people-those suffering from a borderline personality or a psychosis-the dangers become much greater.
Take Dave. Suppose I have correctly assumed he is a paranoid schizophrenic, and that, as a matter of fact, no direct demonic agency is involved. Suppose, however, that someone attempted an exorcism on him, assuring him that he could be delivered. And remember: Dave was obsessed with the thought that perhaps the Devil is stronger than God.
When the exorcism fails (as it must, if only paranoid schizophrenia produces Dave's symptoms), then Dave's worst fears have been reinforced-God did not in his case defeat the Devil-and his last state is decidedly worse than his first, no small matter in a person as ill as Dave.
On the other hand, in such a case, one ought not to make the opposite mistake of trying to argue Dave out of his delusions by assuring him that his perceptions are mistaken. Denying a paranoid person's delusions doesn't work. It simply persuades the person that one belongs to the group that is plotting against him.
In a situation like this, I would reassure Dave that I take his concern about the Devil seriously, and I would add that God is stronger than the Devil and can protect him. I would pray for the Lord's protection and healing, and remind Dave that the Lord can also work through a doctor's counsel and prescriptions. Such an approach may lack drama, but it has the merit, at least, of not making a sick person sicker.
Theresa is not quite as disabled as Dave, but she too is gravely ill. The very idea that she could have demons in her head tormented her for days and raised for her, too, the question of whether Satan might be stronger than God. She dealt with the trauma by avoiding it, by letting her anger mask her fear, and by trying to build a thicker wall of defenses to shield herself against the prospect of demonic oppression.
Some borderline persons, however, who already have difficulty keeping clear the boundary between themselves and others, may have that difficulty deepened if someone suggests by an ill-advised exorcism that their feelings, thoughts, and actions are not their own but those of a demon who inhabits and controls them. Exorcism will feed into their psychopathology and make it more difficult for them to keep their own identity clear. Again, exorcising such persons leaves them significantly worse off than they were before.
Since psychological troubles can masquerade as spiritual conflict, one should not assume the demonic in cases of strange behavior. At minimum, we should get a history of the person who is in difficulty-if, that is, the person is seeking help.
In such a history, I would note particularly any occult pursuits by either the individual or his or her family, or any deliberate pursuit of parapsychological phenomena: such activities, even if only engaged by one's family members or in childhood, are not only forbidden by Scripture but often suggest serious spiritual problems. Pursuits, however, should not be confused with spontaneous experiences: many people occasionally experience parapsychological phenomena, like precognitive dreams or clairvoyance, without suffering spiritual harm.
If the person has been seriously abused or has suffered great disappointment or pain, one may want to explore carefully whether the suffering was so great that he was tempted not only to wish evil on a perpetrator of pain but even momentarily to want help from or protection by evil powers.
Also, a person who has willfully engaged in known sin can give an opening to Satan.
And if a person seems significantly hostile toward or fearful of things pertaining to Christ, that too may be a sign of demonic activity-but just a sign.
In fact, none of these bits of history ensures anything. Each is no more than a possible clue.
When the clues, however, suggest the possibility of demonic involvement, I may gently suggest to the person, "Sometimes people find themselves fighting a battle even bigger than they have supposed. Would you mind me praying to the effect that it any evil spiritual powers were involved in the problems you've described, those powers might be bound?"
If I state the question carefully, contingently, and matter-of-factly, I can usually avoid traumatizing the person and giving her problems she didn't have before. If however, I have misjudged the case and the person seems deeply wounded or troubled, I would normally back off, and quickly.
The only exception would be if, by a gift of discernment, I judge that the spiritual battle has been engaged at exactly that moment. That is a rare, rare instance in which the sense of evil is pervasive and unmistakable. In that case, I may rebuke the powers of darkness directly and verbally.
In all other circumstances where I suspect demon possession or oppression but where it's not appropriate to verbalize it, I usually pray silently. Demons, as spiritual creatures, can "hear" whether I speak aloud or not. If one argues that one must speak aloud in order to engage the will of the allegedly afflicted person, one must weigh that consideration against the risk of harming someone who is merely psychologically troubled.
At all costs we must avoid manipulation or an overly authoritarian manner. We must never suggest that "I'm a spiritual person who knows something about you that you don't know." In addition, we must be aware of our own inner psychological dynamics; we may be confusing our ability to discern, say, anger with our ability to discern evil spiritual power.
And we must certainly eschew blaming the victim by saying, "Well, if you really wanted to be delivered, you would be." That's much like the line of the would-be but frustrated healer who tells the sick person, "If you had enough faith, you would be healed."
While it may be true that a person who does not wish to get well may remain ill and that a person who does not wish to get rid of a demon may keep it, it does not follow that all ill persons lack faith or that all psychologically troubled persons have been unwilling to let go of some demon. The problem may be entirely different.
In sum, when in doubt, be careful. The enemy may sometimes gain a great deal more from an exorcism unwisely undertaken than by an exorcism left undone.
Copyright © 1991 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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