I have told the story before of one of my neighbors was being routinely abused by her boyfriend. Although she wanted to separate from him, fear wouldn’t let her. Feeling at the end of herself, she reached out to a Christian woman who told her to pray against the power of the boyfriend in the name of Jesus. This woman did just that and then watched as her boyfriend’s feet became glued to the ground when he tried to walk into the house to do her harm. He struggled and struggled to be set free, but was unable to touch her. This woman looked at him in amazement and, at that moment, knew that Jesus was real and that he deserved praise. When she told me this story a few years ago, I was in awe of God for revealing himself to her in such a powerful, tangible way.
I am now sad to say that there is more to this story. You see, this woman did not know the content of the Bible, nor did this encounter lead her to God’s Word. She saw what seemed to be the power of God, and yet she still did not know God, nor that her sin separated her from him. Throughout the years, her life has been characterized by violence, outbursts of anger, drunkenness, and open sexual immorality. I have opened the Bible with her and talked about these issues (since she claims to be a believer), but she has remained unrepentant. She now goes to a church that regularly practices power encounters (casting out demons, people being slain in the spirit, etc), but preaches heresy. Her hope is unfortunately not in the historical Jesus but instead in that experience she had with her boyfriend.
In light of this, I have to ask: Is that experience sufficient to cover her sins and make her acceptable in the eyes of God at the final judgment? Is a power encounter enough to break someone free from the hold that sin has on their lives?
Because of instances like this one, I think that power encounters can actually be dangerous in our context. Here are a few reasons why :
People Love a Good Show
The people that we work among love drama. The other day a Catholic priest came to our village to spread flowers over the graves of the dead and prayed over them. Practically the whole village came out to follow him in pristine white clothing, looking peaceful and reverent. A few days later, these same people were chasing one another in the streets with machetes and wood planks, ripping one another’s clothes off, and screaming. Then, the following day, one man was drunk and violent so his family came out and screamed at him, hit him, and neglected the children on the ground screaming in fear. This man then bit one of my friends (yes, bit him). All of this drama from the priest and his holy water to people literally biting one another in the streets all took place within the span of a week.
Because of this pursuit of hysteria, I have no doubt in my mind that I could go out on the streets tomorrow and start casting demons out of people left and right and they would give me a good show. They would convulse in the streets, shriek, and then get up clothed and in their right minds praising Jesus. This is a dangerous power.
While I believe in a God who raises the dead and does miracles, I personally believe that there is no greater miracle that he could do than to turn hysterical people who are always looking for a thrill (whether from the priest or witch doctor) into Bible readers who take turns talking. This, my friends, would be a true demonstration of the power of God.
People Replace Sanctification with the Sensational
Power encounters can also be dangerous when people replace the spiritual disciplines with sensational spiritual experiences. David Powlison in Safe and Sound writes of a missionary to West Africa who began his career with deliverance ministry and power encounters. At first, he experienced tremendous success and receptivity among the people.
But as time went by, he increasingly doubted both the legitimacy and efficacy of what he was doing. For one thing, a deliverance event, however dramatic in the moment, proved to be no predictor of any good thing in a person’s life over the long term. It did not result in blessing, or stability, or spiritual growth (69).
This has been true to our experience as well. Christ is sensationalized and his name used as a type of magic charm, while the normal means to sanctification are looked down upon as unspiritual. Powlison continues to say that there were some in this missionary’s ministry who actually did become new creatures. He writes,
In contrast, those who turned from their sins and came under Christ did live changed lives. Those whose lives became fruitful were people who did the normal things of faith…embracing Scripture, honest confession and repentance, candid faith in prayer and worship, vital fellowship and accountability, and practical obedience (69).
We asked a set of elders at a deliverance type church here to sit down with us and talk about the Bible. Oddly enough, they refused. A board of elders refused to talk about the Bible (and then went on to slander us from the pulpit at their church). This is quite telling. People attend all night prayer vigils at that church, make sacrifices to the pastors, and let them anoint them with holy water…and yet are unkind and live unholy lives. The sensational has replaced confession of sin, Bible reading, and knowledge of God. It is only when people do the “normal things of faith” that they will be changed.
People Follow Him for Bread
Power encounters can also be dangerous because they can lead people to expect Christ at no cost. One time my husband, Dave, was very sick and I shared this with a man who went on to pronounce Dave well in the name of Jesus. I thanked him for his concern and said that we were ready to submit to the will of God even if it proved difficult. The man I was talking to became visibly angry with me for entertaining the idea that God would not “submit” to his proclamation of healing.
When someone declares another healed, it makes me wonder who is the master and who the servant. Even Christ, who is equal to the Father, asked that the cup of his suffering might be taken from him and then concluded his prayer with, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22: 42). If, in my prayers over people for healing, I cannot speak the words of Christ “not my will, but yours be done,” then I have clearly wandered away from Christ into something pagan. The call to come to Christ must go hand in hand with a call to take up one’s cross, die to oneself, and follow him. Up until this point in our ministry, people have largely found the call to die and to take up one’s cross repugnant.
We have found that our neighbors will cry loudly for just about anything. In order to bring peace in their village, they bang on drums late at night to call for the ancestors. If someone wrongs them, they will expose themselves, scream, and roll around in the dirt in order to bring shame. When recent Kwakum converts were baptized these same neighbors joined in lively singing and dancing in the streets in the name of Jesus.
Then I think of Jesus who did not “not quarrel or cry aloud” nor did “anyone hear his voice in the streets” (Matthew 12:19). This is the Jesus that we preach and I pray that emotional experiences and manifestations of the power of God would come. But I pray that they would come as a response to chapter and verse Biblical content. I pray that incredible joy in the Lord would grow out of a foundation of years of Bible study. I pray that God would show us incredible spiritual power as the Gospel makes abusers into protectors of the abused; as women who used to scream in the streets become quiet and trusting; as the sick bow the knee and say, “not my will, but yours be done.” This is the power we wait for and this is the power we pursue.