I debated putting the word “Heck” in the subject line there, but look – I’m partial to a truly awful pun. However, I’m not partial to truly awful theology and/or spiritual abuse. Hence, I need to pull on my big girl panties and talk about what I said I’d talk about at the close of my last article: deliverance. It came at the conclusion of a discussion about mental health and Christians, specifically whether or not Christians can suffer from depression. For the longest time, depression, anxiety or other mental illnesses have carried an unfortunate inference in Christian circles: that they may be somehow, in some cases, spiritually underpinned. Read my last piece for my thoughts about that. But now we move on to the chunkier part of the argument: deliverance. Oh brother.
I’ll start with a story, perhaps a cautionary tale. Once upon a time, I was struggling with a few dud hands life had dealt me. I found a counsellor that did wonders. I was making progress. Then I got in a *ahem* discussion with my pastor. He “suggested” strongly that I drop that counsellor and do something else. I said, “No thank you, this is working and I want to stick with it.” Next came a big reaction and the “suggestion” that I fly to a neighbouring country to go through a power-deliverance experience with a minister flown in from America. When I say “Power-deliverance” I mean the hard-core evangelical experience of being prayed over and having someone command spirits to come out of you. That was not my cup of tea, because I wasn’t dealing with demons. I was dealing with grief, loss and a few weird/traumatic curveballs. Even if this wasn’t the case, it still didn’t exactly sit right with me.
Anyway. The message I got from that interaction was “You are under the influence of demons. They need to be cast out of you.” I was flabbergasted. I sat on the couch and blinked while my wonderful husband recognised the signs of PTSD raising its head again and flew in to bat for me.
Thank God he did. Because I believe a power-deliverance experience like that would have been profoundly damaging for two reasons: It would have been administered without true consent, only guilt and shame over alleged “demonic influence” that would have lead me to discount the validity of my choice in all of this, and because being in the atmosphere described by the people who went to see this deliverance person would have undoubtedly triggered my PTSD. That would have looked like some evidence of demonic influence, and a vicious cycle would have continued. Gentle, qualified counselling however, worked great. (Side note: I am doing very well now. Thanks for asking!)
I tell this story for a couple of reasons: the practice of “deliverance” isn’t gone from the church. Not even close. Christian mega-church “Bethel” recently launched a gay conversion therapy program which would likely have some element of deliverance in it. If you plug the term “deliverance ministry” into a search engine, you will get all sorts of hits. But simplest truth is this: many Christian people have experienced it. Some feel good about it. Some say they feel good about it. Some really don’t.
I admit I sit in a place of privilege here. I know my own mind. I know the Bible to a fairly decent (though not scholarly) degree. I’m well read. I am a level-headed and self-assured person who has witnessed a good many Christian lurks and quirks over the years. It is with all of this in mind that I assert the following: there are three types of deliverance. You probably REALLY don’t need the third.
I’ll say straight off the bat that this is an uncomfortable topic for me. But I’m writing about it because as the NAR and Neocharismatic movements gain speed, as pseudo-Christian doctrines can be taken up without so much as a reference check, and as paganism and Christian spiritual warfare appear to show significant overlap in the Venn-diagram of modern spiritual practices, its important to know BS when you see it. And its important to know what you need, and your rights when you are speaking with the clergy.
Before you say it: Yes, Jesus engaged in power-deliverance in the New Testament. We see it when he cast the demons out of the man who self-identified as having a legion of demons within him (Mark 5, Luke 8). Now, this is an interesting one, because we are talking here about a raving lunatic so dangerous he could not be held with chains. We also witness Jesus converse with the man and then agree to send the evil spirits into the pigs (2000 of them. Bacon exports from the Gerasene Region were poor that week).
Now: we don’t know what significant psychiatric disorder this man may have had. We know he lived in a time where modern medicine did not exist, but spiritual practice was a lot more common. He was dealing with God made flesh, who had perfect knowledge of the situation. Therefore human error is removed from the equation.
The world has changed. Deliverance practitioners are now thoroughly and completely human with imperfect knowledge. They are largely unqualified (I mean, I haven’t read of a university with a degree in casting out demons – have you?). We have modern medicine that can bring calm when needed. We have anti-psychotic medication for extreme cases like the Gerasene man in Luke 8 and Mark 5). There is literally no reason or excuse for someone in 2019 to be forced into an exorcism. (When I say forced, I mean forced literally, or made to feel such shame that they submit under emotional duress). By and large, I don’t think this is what happened in the Gerasene case (but that’s a much larger conversation – too big for this tiny blog)
And side note: in John 8: 52, Jesus was told he was demon-possessed and then the pharisees tried to stone him. So thats fun. ANYWAY! On to the meaty part of this blog article. What do I believe every Christian needs to know about deliverance?
The first type of deliverance is Salvation. When you read through the gospels and their account of Jesus death on the cross for the forgiveness of sins and humankinds reconciliation to God through Him, you read a powerful, all-encompassing and complete process. John 19:30 sees Jesus utter “it is finished.” Revelation 1:18 and surrounding scriptures chronicle Jesus’ descent into Hades to take the keys of death and hell. Ephesians 1:7 and 13 talk about the gifts of salvation and of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps most poignantly Phillipians 2:11 says “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” I.e. Once you believe in Jesus and have accepted the gift of the Holy Spirit who dwells in you, that’s it. This is the bit where you can all sing Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, sealed, delivered.”
I could delve into all sorts of exegesis and hermeneutics about all the scriptures used here, but that would be a thesis in and of itself. The critical takeaway point is this: what Jesus did is thorough, complete and a finished work of deliverance in and of itself. We accept that then there’s no space left open for demonic possession. Ephesians 1:13 even calls it the “Seal” of the Holy Spirit. To say that someone can be born again and still demon possessed is a fallacy.
Another day, I will debate what salvation means. But for now, I’ll point you to Romans 10:9 and John 3:16 and get on with my day.
The second type of deliverance is the word of God. Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians will likely be familiar with the old exclusion clause that helps deliverance ministries get around the complete nature of deliverance at the point of salvation. They say things like “Okay. You aren’t possessed, because if you are a Christian you can’t be, but you might be under the influence.” This is where the second type of deliverance comes in: it is the gradual strengthening of a person as they know more about the word and nature of God, and know more about their own mind and how it works. Romans 12:1-2 says “Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind that you may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”
I like the word “prove” here. I think of a math proof – where the answer to a problem is explained via the process the mathematician used to get there. It’s not a matter of having someone pray for you to be all transformed and then “wham bam” I’ve totally changed how I think. That simply doesn’t last. Its the crash diet of Christianity. Old habits return. We see this in the parable of the empty house in Matthew 12:43-45 (where the tenant is evicted from the house, returns finding it empty, and brings seven friends back). It’s a simple illustration that we can’t just get rid of one way of thinking, living and being, and replace it with nothing. Old habits die hard. That’s why we learn, we study. We take in the scriptures, think about them, enact them and have them become part of our lives. It’s a gradual process of transformation and frankly, it’s beautiful.
Now I’m going to do something heretical here and suggest that the use of the word ‘mind’ in this scripture should suggest to us that we look after the mind in the same way we do the body. i.e. If there is something not quite right, we get help. If you are a reader of my blog, you’ll know I love therapy. I don’t just go when I’m not doing well. I go when I’m doing well so I might learn to do better. The wisdom I have gained from understanding how my mind works has been life-changing. I recently spoke to a person who had been advised by her pastors not to go see a secular therapist and had lived with decades of torment. My heart broke for her. That is bad advice. It’s like telling someone only to go to a Christian doctor when the only specialists available to save a life might be non-Christian.
A good therapist is qualified in the science of Psychology. They will counsel you towards your goals and in accordance with your own values. You will get value out of it. It’s worth shopping around for. So here is the heretical bit: the ‘mind’ is hard to define, but its largely thought of as the brain in action. When the Dalai Lama asked “Can the mind change the brain” in the 1980’s, he was laughed at. Then science caught on to what he was talking about, and now we have a far better understanding that we run our brains. They don’t run us. The field of neuroplasticity is proof of this.
There is a long-held argument in Christian circles that our mind and our spirit are different things: that we are a tripartite being comprising mind, spirit and body. However, there is another, lesser-known theory buried within Christian scholarship that holds to a dichotomy rather than a trichotomy. I err on the side of ‘dichotomy’. But regardless of which side you come down on, here is something I believe solidly: While you are learning about your faith, your God, and your guidebook (being the Bible), it is a good thing to also learn about yourself. Was it Socrates who said, “Know thyself?” It is a profound and beautiful thing when you can reflect on your own growth, or reflect on how the Bible in all its complexity might help you grow. This growth, led by the word and spirit of God, is a form of deliverance.
So now for the third type of deliverance: the power ministries. Green vomit. Exorcisms. Etc. I did a bit of searching on this before writing this blog piece. I was aghast to discover that it hasn’t really progressed in its rational or methodology since Derek Prince Ministries released a document on it in 1985. Detailed in that document was a whole lot of demonology in dot point format with no real rationale or exegesis attached to it. I’m sure, in other corners of the internet, there is better documentation on it. I’m also sure that people can use all sorts of out of context scriptural arguments to back up their positions. The fact of the matter is that for the most part, the stuff I’ve read has relied upon “divine revelation” to spell out how to approach exorcism. This, for me, is wildly concerning.
Now I want to flag a danger here: it is so easy for the area of exorcism to cross over into abuse. It is so easy for it to happen without genuine or even explicit consent. It is so easy for a person to be shamed into it, or for it to be based on bad theology.
This is dangerous. So very dangerous. It is my belief that, in this day and age, it should be avoided at all costs. When the first two deliverance options are complete in nature and process, there is no need for the third. If you feel there is a need for the third, I’d encourage medical assistance, counselling and more time dedicated the process of healing and transformation before you opt for the third. Do the work first. In life, as in mental health or even diets, you can’t cut corners. This could be a serious psychiatric problem that exorcisms might only make worse.
I’ve seen a few of these “casting out demons” moments in my time. If anything, I believe it gave someone an experience that was profound enough to allow them to tell themself a different story and empower them towards recovery. I cannot tell you what else (if anything) happened. But sometimes that’s all that is needed: that boost that allows the mind to break out of the familiar pathways it has been caught in for years and experience something new. But in other situations, all I can see in power-deliverance ministries is bad theology and stage-craft. I am not all-knowing. There might be something in it. But for me, it’s a hard pass. Leave it to the Son of God and the original apostles. Guiding people through the first two options, and when needed referring to mental health professionals, should be all we need.
I don’t discount the power of prayer. It is clearly Biblical. It is clearly a practice that has carried down through cultures and generations. It can be helpful and calming. If someone needs or requests prayer for assistance, then more power to them. Support them. But don’t overstep the mark of what they are actually asking for. God isn’t waiting for someone to pray for you so He can do something. He already sent Jesus to do it. He needs no middle man. And I can’t stress this enough: shame, guilt, or feeling like someone thinks you need deliverance doesn’t mean you need to go through with an exorcism.
A moment of willingness to seek out or submit to prayer should not be used as an opportunity to be subjected to exorcisms or power-deliverance. I believe that this is an overstepping of consent at best, and spiritual abuse at worst. If in your own time you experience some profound moment in which something becomes clear and you become changed, wonderful. Bookmark that moment and celebrate it. But for someone else to step into that place and do it for you concerns me a little.
The human mind/spirit is an amazing thing. In it dwells the power to hurt and heal, grow and change, learn and develop. When we harness that mind in combination with faith in a Saviour who has done all the supernatural stuff that will ever be needed, then we have a complete picture of deliverance.
That, I believe, is all we need.