Over the past year, I've been visiting with pastors and asking, "Have you ever encountered anything in your ministry that you would consider spiritual warfare?"
While the answers weren't unanimous, the clear majority responded in a very similar way. At first there was silence. Then the pastor would look at me as if sizing me up, then look down, then look me in the eye and slowly respond: "Let me tell you a story, and I hope you don't think I'm a wacko."
The pastors I talked to—Baptist and Methodist and Anglican and Anabaptist and non-denominational, liturgical and free-form, contemporary and traditional—each shared a story that included elements of the supernatural.
For more than half of those I talked to, this included confrontations with demons, usually speaking through the mouth of a person who had been tormented for some time, who had sought relief in therapy, in medication, and in support groups, but without success. But deliverance came only after an encounter with someone willing to address the presence of an evil spirit and the sin that gave the spirit its "foothold" (Eph. 4:27).
Others told stories of "atmospheric changes," where a harmonious congregation is suddenly marked by a climate of fear, suspicion, distrust, or bitterness. Again, many efforts at conflict management were tried, but lasting change came only after issues of sin and spirits were addressed.
Does this sound strange? It certainly did to me. And just a few years ago, I would have dismissed such stories as fanciful and unbelievable. But within the last two years, I found myself involved in at least two such situations, where medical and therapeutic treatments had been tried with very limited effectiveness. And freedom came only after directly addressing the spiritual roots of the situation.
As I talked with pastors, some even told me stories of accusing voices in their own heads, making recurring charges: "You are an imposter! Your ministry is worthless. Your words are empty! You can't be a Christian." The result: debilitating discouragement. Despair, especially as a result of believing lies, accusations, or half-truths, is a common form of spiritual warfare.
After hearing such a story from pastors, I asked, "Is this something you have been able to talk about with anyone?" The answer was usually no. I knew Leadership Journal needed to bring this topic into the open.
As Mark Roberts, formerly pastor at Irvine Presbyterian Church in California and now an influential blogger, puts it: "For millions of Christians throughout the world today, especially in the southern hemisphere, the reality of supernatural evil powers is assumed. That's not true for a good many Christians in America and Western Europe, however, who deny the existence of evil outside of that in human hearts and social structures."
So while many in the modern world deny the existence or relevance of evil spirits, the battle with these adversaries has been part of the Christian life ever since Paul wrote: "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" (Eph. 6:12).