Recognizing the presence of demonic spirits would be easy if each demonized person had symptoms that were as dramatic as those we saw in movies like The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and The Rite. They've taught us what deliverance looks like: projectile vomiting, head spinning, levitating, a sudden drop in room temperature, a total distortion of the individual's appearance, a guttural voice, a sense of evil, and the ability to make objects fly about the room.
After being involved in deliverance ministry for more than 30 years and having seen more than 1000 people set free in the name of Jesus, I can attest that deliverance rarely looks like this, for which I am extremely grateful.
Brokenness can be covered with a smile, torment with service, and compulsive behavior with secrecy. Most of the time what others see on the outside doesn't reflect what is going on inside. We can give ourselves to the Lord, be baptized, and try to walk with him, but still be oppressed and victimized by spiritual forces beyond our control. And we can do it with a smile on our face.
Because everything we do and think and feel is the result of a mix of biological, cognitive, psychological, social, and spiritual factors, it is very difficult to say, "This is what a demonized person looks like." The Bible itself lists a broad assortment of symptoms that are attributed to demonic spirits.
In the physical realm, we see demonization resulting in muteness (Mt. 12:22), deafness (Mk. 9:25), blindness (Mt. 12:22), and bodily deformity (Lk. 13:10-17). In Matthew 4:23-25 we find the demonized among those who were ill from various diseases, those suffering severe pain, seizures, and paralysis. Mark 9:17 indicates that physical symptoms and demonization are not mutually exclusive. Jesus healed those who were sick and those who had demons. The word "healed" was applied to both.
In the psychological realm, some of the symptoms that demonized people displayed in the New Testament would be categorized as characteristic of a mental disorder today. Unprovoked violence, crying out uncontrollably, raving, and being troubled are mentioned (Mt. 8:28, Mk. 1:23-24, Lk. 6:17-18, Acts 19:13-16). These are not stable, healthy behaviors. Mental health symptoms and demonic symptoms can be similar.
In the relational realm, we see demonic involvement in Luke 8:27-28, manifesting in a man who lived naked among tombs and was impossible to restrain. This behavior would, at the least, hinder successful interaction with family, friends, and those in the community.
So Scripture shows us that virtually any physical, psychological, or social symptoms might be attributed to demonic spirits. The enemy attacks on all possible fronts, which complicates the whole process of diagnosis.
The most accurate diagnoses come not from looking only at symptoms, but at predictive life experiences. If an individual has opened certain doors, there is an increased probability that demonic involvement is present. These include (1) generational curses, oaths, and soul ties, (2) occult involvement, (3) trauma or victimization, and (4) long-term ongoing sin. These create areas of spiritual vulnerability into which demonic spirits may move.
Case Study of a Foothold
In order to see these played out in real life, let's consider a case study written by a former client we will call "Michelle."
I was number six of seven children. I never felt like I really belonged to the family. I was a burden, or a mistake. We lived in the projects of Philadelphia until I was six. We moved to a very rundown house when I was seven. Both my parents drank a lot. They became angry, abusive, and scary when they drank.