I had been in church ministry for over 10 years when I was asked for the first time to be part of an exorcism.
Even now, I'm not quite sure that's the right word to describe what took place. Certainly it didn't look anything like what you see in movies. Nobody's head rotated 360 degrees; there were no freakishly low voices or unusual physical phenomena.
Just a man who used to be a missionary who found himself emotionally and relationally headed down paths he never thought he would pursue, unable to find solid ground to stand on. He felt somehow that his inner battle was not merely psychological. Through mutual friends I was asked to be one of those who gathered to pray for his deliverance.
I wasn't quite sure how to be present. I am from a Midwestern church background that certainly believed in the devil (I remember getting a stack of cards with Scripture verses to be used against certain temptations that was called an Anti-Satan Kit.) We would sometimes hear extraordinary stories of occult activity from guest speakers who served as missionaries or lived in cities like San Francisco. But in our tradition the casting out of demons did not play a common role. I pictured in my mind dramatic confrontations and bold prayer, but this event was not that way.
When the few of us gathered around this man, we asked him questions—what did he find troubling, what steps toward help had he already attempted, what help from God did he desire? We read Scripture together. We prayed, and asked God to deliver him from whatever kind of spiritual oppression or opposition that he was facing. I did not have any internal clarity about the exact nature of his problem or to what extent some kind of demonic presence was at work.
At the same time, it was clear that this was a human being troubled by forces beyond his ability to control, and the reality of every human condition—that God alone is our only hope—had become terribly clear in this moment of his life.
The ending of our prayer time was as non-dramatic as its beginning. We hugged him, planned for next steps and next meetings, and went home.
I ran into him recently at a ministry conference. Parts of his life have been healed; in some areas he carries wounds that may always remain. He feels free from the oppression that haunted him two decades ago. But what took place remains as mysterious now as it was then.
Charting Spiritual Reality
Medieval theologians used to say we have two ways to speak about God: the via negative (what God is not: not limited in space, not limited in knowledge, not limited in power), and the via analogia (what God is like: like a fortress, like a father, like a rock, like a lover).
The way of analogy is perhaps the most important way we have to speak of spiritual life. Often these analogies involve growth ("I am the vine, you are the branches"; "the fruit of the Spirit is …"). Others cluster around the notion that the church is like a body or a family.
But perhaps the most intriguing and controversial images cluster around the notion of the life of the soul as spiritual warfare. Why was this picture of spiritual reality invoked by the writers of Scripture, and what does it mean for the way we do ministry?
Perhaps the place to begin is here: the biblical writers lived in a world where the reality of the spiritual was taken for granted; we live in a world where that belief erodes a little more each day.