Sunday, April 22, 2007

Valor is My Breath: The Joy of Intercession

Most Christians will tell you they believe in the power of prayer, but at the same time, most Christians don’t live like they do. So, having recently pointed toward intercessory prayer as the proper focus of spiritual warfare, I thought it would be worthwhile to share my own testimony on the subject.

Intercessory prayer has been a large part of my faith-journey since high school, but even I have difficulty keeping up the discipline. It’s easy to find oneself in a season where prayers come slowly, and answers to those prayers never seem to materialize. Recently I found myself in just such a place, and so I wanted to share the story of how God drew me back into the fight.

When I was in my junior year of high school, I read an article about a man who took a dare to pray for Africa every day for 45 days. Within the course of those days, this man, who had never been to Africa before, was able to travel to Uganda, and there met the president of that country, influenced him to show merciful justice to political prisoners, and was later requested to assist in the selection of government ministers. (The story is called “Uganda, a Bet, and a Prayer,” by Doug Nichols, if you want to look it up).

Inspired by this story, I decided to accept the same dare. I searched for the country that seemed to need the most help, and settled on the Sudan. At that point, Sudan was still struggling through its brutal 30-year civil war between the north (largely Islamic) and the south (Christian and animistic), with the slave-trade thriving in the midst of the horrors of war. It was a place where the Muslim world met Christian tribes in violent overlap, a place regularly ravaged by famine and drought. So I started to pray for the Sudan and for its leaders—President Omar al-Bashir and John Garang, leader of the south at that time—making this the central aim of my intercessory ministry.

After going to college and studying under Dr. Jon Arensen, who had served in southern Sudan for twelve years, I had the opportunity to go to Sudan myself. So in 2004, after more than four years of praying for Sudan, I set off alone to join a team of workers in the capital city of Khartoum. I lived there for three months while assisting on a linguistics project. It was around that time that we finally saw the resolution of the civil war against the south, or at least the best chance for peace that the region has had for many years. But those were also the days when the Darfur conflict began to intensify, and even now, despite belated international intervention, it still seems to go on.

The peace with the south was an incredible answer to prayer, but other than that, I saw little fruit from my years of intercession. But just because we don’t see the answers doesn’t mean that they aren’t coming.

A month or two ago I heard a story about something that happened in the Sudan seven years ago, just after I had first begun praying. This was a secondhand testimony, and unfortunately, due to the sensitive nature of Christianity’s status in the Sudan, and especially in the north, I won’t tell the story in full. But it was the dramatic testimony of how God called a young woman through a dream from halfway across the Middle East to come and witness in the Sudan. So she traveled on her own all the way across the desert, and her journey carried her into direct contact with the highest leaders of Sudan. As a result of her warnings and witness, sweeping changes came to the capital city.

I had never heard this story before, but I can testify that I was surprised at the amount of freedom given to Christians in Khartoum (a city officially under a form of Islamic sharia law) when I came there in 2004. Churches worshiped openly, and there was even a multi-denominational open-air evangelistic campaign in the middle of the city. In addition, the radical Muslim politician who had helped raised the new Islamic government in Sudan, Hassan al-Turabi, was under house arrest during that time. If the secondhand testimony about the young woman’s witness is to be believed, all these developments can be traced, at least in part, to that meeting eight years ago. And that was when I had started praying.

I’m not saying that it was my prayers alone that effected these great changes. But I know that my prayers, along with the prayers of thousands of others who lift up Sudan and its leaders, were directly used and answered in those events. I have been a part of the work of God in Sudan. Mountains have been moved, and they are still moving. The shaky peace between the north and south is a miracle of incredible proportions. And I’m sure that even among the current bloodshed in Darfur, more miracles are happening.

I don’t know all of the theological answers as to why or how God uses our prayers in conjunction with his sovereign will, but I know that he commands us to pray and that he does, indeed, use our prayers. He has given us this incredible privilege of being an active part of his work in the world. Just as we can build up the kingdom of God among those immediately around us, so we can build up the kingdom of God half a world away. And that is simply extraordinary.

Some might object and say that intercession is a special gift given to only a few—‘prayer warriors,’ we call them. And it may well be a spiritual gift in its own right. But for those of us who don’t have the gift, we aren’t excluded us from the responsibility or the honor of prayer. I don’t have the gift of generosity, but that doesn’t give me permission to be a miser.

We are commanded (and shown by example) throughout the New Testament to join in intercessory prayer, especially in lifting up our Christian brothers and sisters around the world. This would be a difficult command if we never saw any fruit from prayer. But we have the promises of God that prayer does indeed bear fruit. The power to shake whole nations for the sake of Christ has been placed within our hands. It is a quiet and unglamorous role for ministry, but God uses it in ways that defy our imaginations. I expect that one of the brightest and most beautiful revelations of heaven will be in looking back at our earthly lives and seeing all the ways that God used our prayers to do his extraordinary work around the world.

It is my honor and delight to be bound in spirit to the awesome work of God in the Sudan. It is a road rich in tears and longings, but it is more than worth the journey. I can’t always see the fruit of my prayers, but I have seen enough to know that God is using them in breathtaking ways. I believe that he is still using those prayers, and I would urge you, brothers and sisters in Christ, to take up the call to pray. Adopt a community or people group or country of your own, and allow God to use you in active participation with his kingdom-purposes. When we get to heaven and look back at our lives, even if we served no other role in ministry, we will have the honor and absolute joy of seeing God’s work made manifest through our prayers.

Below I’ve added a poem I wrote about my own intercessory ministry a few months ago, as I was returning from a long period of prayerlessness. (Note: ‘Imminya’ is the personal name for God from some of my fictional works). More than anything else, it reflects the centrality of intercession to my spiritual life. It’s called “Valor is My Breath.”

I stand against the world now,
And valor is my breath.
Here I find my life, my heart,
Within this simple act.
I have broken my vows
And my commission,
But in this moment I return;
Now I take them up again,
And I will shake the world.
I cannot live without this task,
Cannot find my heart.
Here is where I come to life,
In a surge of faith unseen
And unlauded sacrifice.
Here I am courage,
Here I am strength,
Here I am the vicar of Christ
To a broken, bleeding world.
This is my battlefield,
And I have been idle too long.
This is the mission
That pleases You greatly.
So now I take up arms
Against the princes of this world,
And now I break their thrones.
This violent peace is my best defense,
And here I rest my heart.
Take this sword and use it well;
May each stroke be as Your own.
And in all the silent battles
That rage from this stout heart,
In every breath and battle-cry
May You be glorified.
Alone I stand,
But not alone,
For here You carry me.
Be Thou my tower and my rock;
Imminya, be my shield.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

How Are We to Wage Spiritual Warfare?

I had the onus of a specific request placed on me recently—to write some reflections on the topic of spiritual warfare and to take special note of my African experiences. This is an area of interest to me, but one which, I freely admit, I don’t know much about. I have many more questions than answers, but perhaps the questions will be helpful in pointing us in the right direction as a church. I don’t believe that this is a topic that demands as much attention as some Christians would have us believe (or at least not in the form they present it), but I do think it’s worthy of far more attention than most Americans give it. We are all called to be warriors in the kingdom of God, to fight spiritual battles for the sake of the gospel, and that is no small commission. We should learn how to do it well.

When it comes to questions of the spiritual realm, and specifically the demonic, C.S. Lewis hits the center of the mark in his preface to The Screwtape Letters: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” The American church is all over the spectrum on this. Most of us go through our day-to-day lives without even giving a second thought to demons. Others seem to be obsessed with them. In researching this topic, I found some intriguingly fanciful books in our seminary library, including one that claimed to know that demons named “Ahab” and “Jezebel” were behind much of the lack of spiritual power in the church’s men and women, respectively, and that the Babylonian goddess Ashtoreth is responsible for the feminist movement.

To those who live their lives in willful ignorance of the spiritual forces at work in the world, I would urge that this issue be seriously considered. And to those who “see a demon behind every bush,” I would suggest that we have missed the forest for the trees. In his book Breaking Strongholds in Your City, C. Peter Wagner thanks his “less informed critics” for keeping him conscientious in his studies of spiritual warfare. I think this article would probably fit into that category. I’m not very well-informed on this subject, but it is of interest to me, and I’d welcome any additional thoughts or critiques.

Anyone who takes the Bible seriously must take the demonic realm seriously as well. One of the clear agendas of the gospels is to portray Jesus’ authority over these dark powers. However, a biblical theology of demons doesn’t tell us much more than that. The Old Testament, in contrast to the gospels, is almost entirely silent about demons. It does far more in attacking idols and foreign gods, so some have conjectured that demons and pagan gods are one and the same (for example, “Beelzebub” is not merely a demonic prince cited in the gospels, but also appears as “Baal-zebub,” the god of Ekron, in 2 Kings 1:2). But to be honest, we don’t know much about the connection between demons and pagan gods. Some later OT writings imply that idols and foreign gods aren’t real at all in the spiritual sense. Satan makes a few interesting cameos, but other than his sporadic appearance and the intriguing cases of harmful or deceitful spirits actually sent by God (1 Sam. 16:14; 1 Kings 22:19-23), the OT tells us little on this matter.

Though the NT tells us more, one must admit that outlining a robust theology of spiritual warfare is very low on the priority-list of the writers. Clearly, spiritual warfare is a proper part of kingdom-life, but we are seldom told how to do it, and those passages that do address the subject are rather vague. Perhaps the clearest statement we have comes from Mark 9:29, where Jesus instructs his disciples that a certain kind of demon can only be cast out by prayer. The best exposition of spiritual warfare in the Bible (at least to my knowledge) is the famous passage in Eph. 6, which tells us that our battle is against “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” But when Paul instructs his readers how to go about this battle, he gives no strategies for “warfare prayer” or “spiritual mapping.” Rather, he tells them to gird themselves with defensive weaponry in order to stand fast in their faith and to live the Christian life in righteousness and active witness. When Paul finally gets around to addressing prayer, which is the focal practice of most discussions of spiritual warfare, he focuses exclusively on intercessory prayer rather than on directly attacking or claiming authority over spiritual powers.

This is a topic which should be addressed carefully. Not only is there a lot that the Bible doesn’t tell us, but there are a lot of curious things that it does tell us which seem to go against the grain of what we’re usually taught about demons. This extends further than the OT instances of God sending harmful spirits. 1 Peter 3:19-20 appears to allude to 1 Enoch’s interpretation of the odd story of the “sons of God” in Genesis 6. According to early Jewish traditions, this is a tale of spirits (possibly demonic, depending on how one uses the term) who mated with human women and were locked up by God until the final judgment. This, then, would apparently be a different class of beings than the demons Jesus confronts during his ministry. Moreover, 2 Peter and Jude both warn against “slandering celestial beings,” and both contexts imply that these celestial beings aren’t angels (Jude explicitly puts Satan in this category as a being who shouldn’t be slandered or spoken about without understanding). Perhaps these are demons. Or perhaps there are other classes of spiritual beings, rather more independent in their allegiance than angels, who also have power over earthly affairs. We just don’t know.

This doesn’t mean that the Bible isn’t concerned with spiritual warfare. But it does mean that the Bible isn’t as concerned with it as with the glorious truths of the gospel and the importance of living a faithful and obedient life. In the relative dearth of explicit biblical treatment of this subject, Christians have filled in the gaps with their own experience. And rightly so, for we can learn much that is true from experience. For me, experience has confirmed the biblical worldview of demonic powers, but it has done little beyond that. I saw a few exorcisms during my time in Angola, and it was clear that there were evil spiritual powers at work. I have seen women who came to the pastors for help, and in the middle of a prayer which they had been listening to quietly, they suddenly burst into wild trances, sometimes fearful and sometimes angry. I have spoken to Angolan men who freely admitted the power of evil spirits in their lives, especially as harnessed by the witchdoctors. Many of the stories they tell would be impossible to deny, even if one appealed to psychological manipulation. For instance, one man told of a village a bit further down the Kubango River, where a certain man’s son had been eaten by a crocodile. After doing some asking around, the man discovered that the crocodile had been sent by a witchdoctor at the request of a jealous neighbor. When confronted, the neighbor admitted to the deed—he had asked the witchdoctor to have a crocodile eat the man’s son. There were even first-person witness accounts of dark magic that my discipleship group told me, including demonic manifestations at a witchdoctor’s funeral right in Menongue, the city where I worked. Evil spiritual forces are a known factor of life in most Third-World countries.

Beyond this simple confirmation of the biblical worldview, however, my experience falls short. The exorcisms I witnessed seemed at least temporarily effective, but they also seemed to be a bit syncretistic in their methods and attitudes (using the Bible and Jesus’ name as magical charms in themselves—one pastor even began beating a possessed woman with his Bible).

Other Christians have much more extensive experience in this realm than I, and it seems to me, in reading some of the literature produced by the spiritual warfare movement, that it is these experiences which drive their understanding and their methods. A number of Christian counselors, even here in America, have developed a detailed demonology based on their interactions with evil spirits in people’s lives. Many missionaries, also having come into contact with spiritual powers, incorporate symbolic and direct spiritual warfare tactics into their ministries. The practices of “prayerwalking” and “spiritual mapping” emerged largely from charismatic impulses, in which the Holy Spirit gives specific insights about the spiritual realities behind a certain place. Now armies of prayer warriors are marching through unevangelized countries, praying against the local demonic powers. Some even suggest that this spiritual mapping—uncovering the spiritual background of a place through research into local history, sociological observation, and discernment through prayer—is the key to breakthrough to revival.

I’m not criticizing these practices. If counselors do indeed have to face demonic spirits from time to time, they should at least have some idea what to do. No doubt missionaries are keenly aware of the reality of demonic powers, and they understand the power of prayer better than I do. Prayerwalks in unevangelized countries may well be one of the causes behind the dramatic worldwide expansion of the gospel. Furthermore, I admit that charismatic insights, direct from the Holy Spirit, are very rare events for me, so I would be out of place to assume that those who do receive such insights are merely engaging in flights of fancy. However, I would urge that such practices be subjected to the rigorous tempering of the biblical perspective, because I get the feeling that we often lose our proper outlook.

I should also address the issue of “territorial powers,” since this is one of the base assumptions of contemporary demonology and spiritual warfare studies. It is assumed that the same demonic powers rule over specific locales for long periods of time, if not permanently, and that by discerning the nature of those powers, warfare-prayers are given an added power. Aside from the issue of charismatic insights concerning specific locales, which I’m not qualified to speak about, I can say that we don’t know much biblically about territorial powers. The only passage that is regularly cited is Daniel 10, in which an angelic character tells Daniel about his wrestling with the “prince of Persia” and the “prince of Greece,” often interpreted as demonic powers (and apparently refers to Michael as an angelic “prince”). Even if these characters are interpreted as demonic rulers, which probably isn’t the only interpretation available, it must be noted that nothing in this passage actually directs Daniel to the sort of warfare-prayer which many Christians now advocate. Aside from this example, most if not all of the instances of demons in the NT (at least that I’m aware of) are attached to persons, not places. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that demons couldn’t be geographically organized. There seems to be a belief in early Christianity that angels are associated with specific churches, so I suppose demons could be associated with specific places or groups of people as well. I am in no position to overturn the experience of hundreds of missionaries who attest to territorial powers in the venues of their ministry.

What does trouble me, though, is the assumption that this form of spiritual warfare is the answer we’ve been looking for. Not only does the Bible never tell us to pray directly against demonic powers, but this development is fairly recent, as even its leaders admit. I’m a bit of a conservative, and so if no practice has ever been used fruitfully in the long history of the church, I am very wary of accepting it. There are certainly instances of “power encounters” with demons throughout church history, but these take the nature of casting demons out of people and destroying pagan shrines. To my knowledge, there has never before been a movement of Christians who assumed that they could directly discern the organization of specific spiritual powers and then directly attack them. That should give us pause.

No doubt it is very beneficial to research local spiritual history in order to pray better for our communities, because history does indeed affect the present situation in countless ways. But I’m not convinced that it’s either wise or efficacious to pray directly against specific spiritual powers. The picture of intercession in the Bible is overwhelmingly about beseeching God for the sake of people, not against spiritual powers. Is it wrong to pray authoritatively against spiritual powers? No, I don’t think so. In fact, if the Holy Spirit leads us in that direction, that is precisely what we should do. But why do we need to know the specifics of local demonic powers? Is God’s power restricted when we pray “Lord, please break the power of the evil spiritual forces in our community” rather than, “Lord, please break the power of the Ahab and Jezebel demons in this place”? For that matter, why would either of these prayers be better than, “Lord, please bring your light into our community”?

In short, spiritual warfare is an essential part of Christian life. But, first and foremost, it should consist of conventional intercessory prayer rather than prayer-assaults on demonic powers. Second, we should never assume that this no-holds-barred spiritual warfare is the key to revival. Revival is a work of God, and when he chooses to send it, no demonic power can stand in his way. Revival comes with an understanding of sin and grace, and it comes from faithful living and fearless witnessing. Third, we need to embrace the Ephesians 6 paradigm and, rather than focusing exclusively on offensive assaults on spiritual powers (which is more God’s task than ours), we need to focus on equipping the church to stand its ground in faithfulness. And finally, we should embrace the biblical focus toward spiritual warfare—that the battle has already been won by Christ, and that the church is the vehicle of Christ’s authority on earth. Let’s not get so wrapped up in a spiritual battle we don’t understand that we miss the point of the victory of Jesus Christ.

And a final caveat—these observations and critiques are written as a relative outsider to this movement, so I may have missed the real emphasis and thrust of these spiritual warfare efforts. I’d love to hear some responses.