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Home > Issues > 2012 > Spring > Fighting the Good Fight

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.

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John Ortberg is editor at large of Leadership Journal and pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California.

From Issue:Spiritual Warfare, Spring 2012 | Posted: April 12, 2012

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September 12, 2013  8:06pm

I think you went a little "soft" on evil. That bit of goodness you suggest resides in evil people is bordering on sentimentality, unless your article was more on evil oppression and not on evil possession. But when you speak of an evil person, I don't think of a Christian who falls into sin (though sin IS evil). Rather I think of a person who is totally given over to depravity and rejects any knowledge of God. I believe that it is quite possible for one to be totally possessed of evil. What about the sociopath? I don't know why they are without conscience--but I do know that without one, their life is lived totally for themselves, void of any sensitivity toward others. Hence their acts are often destructive, criminal, and heinous. Evil. And there are those who come upon history with the spirit of the anti-christ. Those who came and annihilated great numbers of people for their pleasure and gain. I can't believe there was/is a shred of goodness in them.

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April 26, 2012  1:03pm

There is a very old and wonderful book by Eastern Orthodox writers that speaks to this issue well, and in considerable detail: "Unseen Warfare" by Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain and Theophan the Recluse. I have read and reread this book over the years and always find it practical and relevant even though I'm neither Eastern Orthodox or a monk (or, in the case of Theophan, a bishop!

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April 26, 2012  11:19am

wonderfully balanced approach to a difficulty subject.

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April 26, 2012  5:43am

The author is great on some topics, but I wouldn't say he has great authority to speak on this. It's a far more complicated area than he intimates, and living or working in other nations, cultures etc gives more experience and authority. It isn't as simply explained as Ortberg suggests. But I like most of what he says especially about shining our torchlight on the Light as a lifestyle, rather than looking for sin and evil everywhere. If any light shines onto the darkness, let it be the Lord's.

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April 23, 2012  7:29pm

Satan exists, and there are times he chooses to reveal himself. He also has helpers, all those angels who followed him and were thrown out of heaven at the same time. They may or may not be seen, depending on the circumstances. While this is an excellent essay, it's value is indeterminate, as there doesn't seem to be any real description of how we should act when Satan or one of his angel allies is revealed. Yes, we are sinful, and all Christians are somewhere along the path to sanctification / holiness. But Satan is far stronger that we are, and it is only in God's Word that we find hope of victory.

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