Moving to Africa has plunged us into a radically different environment. I joke with Stacey that we would be prime candidates for the voyage to Mars, having already journeyed to a new world. I can stand next to a neighbor, see with fully functioning eyes the exact same event, and walk away with a drastically different impression. This reality was vividly demonstrated a couple weeks ago when we endured a ferocious storm here in the village. People’s roofs were ripped off and flung into the surrounding forest. Lightning was striking all around us and the thunder was terrifying. Both Stacey and I rejoiced knowing that the God we worship is Lord of the storm.
The following day we were marveling at the power of the storm with our neighbors. One of them told us that the storm was actually caused by a witch doctor. She said that when someone has stolen from a field, people will go to the witch doctor to get revenge. The witch doctor will call up a storm which will thrust the guilty party into the street and kill them, still clinging to what they stole. Stacey was somewhat dumbfounded, especially as this neighbor has recently been asking about baptism.
This situation is just one of many that has demonstrated that the Kwakum have a remarkably spiritual worldview. We have mentioned here before that at (as far as we can tell) every Kwakum funeral they perform a ceremony to determine who caused the death. This includes motorcycle accidents, prolonged illnesses, and unexpected sudden deaths. The Kwakum are not looking for a murderer as we might think of one. They are looking for the person who caused the death spiritually. This could be by curse or even by casting one’s spirit into an animal. But it is clear that my neighbors believe that every death has a spiritual cause.
Now, what about you? Do you believe that? Do you believe that any death has a spiritual cause? I can say that before coming here I would probably never have attributed a death to spiritual causes. And I thought that coming to Cameroon would cause me to believe more deeply in the presence of Satan and his demons. However, living here has had somewhat of the opposite effect. I know that only God can control the weather (see God’s argument to Job in Job 38). So, I know that when our neighbor attributed the storm to the witch doctor, she was wrong. It was not that our worldviews are just different, but that she was attributing to man something that only God can do. And my temptation is to then say that the Kwakum are wrong in all of their attributions to the spiritual realm. But such a reaction would be wrong, not because it is culturally insensitive. Ignoring Satan and his demons is wrong because it is unbiblical. Peter reminds us:
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world (I Peter 5:1:8-9).
Peter did not ignore the presence of the spiritual. He told us that the devil prowls around like a roaring lion. More than that, he tells us that we should respond to the present attacks of the devil: “RESIST HIM!” Now, what does that mean? How can we resist the devil? I have been in houses here in Cameroon where you can find Jesus’ name written above the front door. When I asked why they would write it there, they said that it was to prevent witches or evil spirits from entering their homes. I have found that many people here in Cameroon have added Jesus’ name to their list of magic incantations that protect them and their families. I don’t believe that this is what Peter was going for. But, here are three biblical ways I believe we can resist the Devil:
1. Acknowledge the Devil and his demons
This first way to resist the Devil is not something I would need to say to my neighbors here. But for those like me who are tempted to deny the ability of the Devil to impact my life, we must acknowledge he can do just that. CS Lewis wrote of demonic strategy in his fictional book The Screwtape Letters. In this book he imagines what an experienced demon (Screwtape) would say to a trainee (Wormwood). At one point, Wormwood asks if he should ever reveal himself to his charge. Screwtape explains that for the English culture at that point it would be counterproductive to reveal himself. Why? Because English men of that day considered themselves too sensible to believe in demons, and it was better to let them just pretend that demons did not exist. He said that in the case that the Englishman starts to believe that a demon might be affecting him he should just deflect. He said,
“The fact that ‘devils’ are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you.”
I believe that one of the ways that Satan works in the West is to make us believe that he does not exist. We think of all of the ways that people create a caricature of him and we reject the caricature without ever thinking about who he really is and how he really works. And in doing so, we become less biblical, and we are at a loss to resist him.
2. Be watchful
Peter tells us that we need to be watchful, considering that the devil is like a roaring lion. We cannot be watchful if we are not acknowledging his existence. But we also cannot be watchful if we do not know how Satan works. If you are only looking for people carving pentagrams on heads or casting their spirits into animals to kill their neighbors, you will miss much of what the Devil is doing. Now, I do believe that at times Satan uses signs and wonders (see 2 Thess 2:19), but that is really only one of the ways he attacks. We know that Satan is a liar and a murderer (John 8:44). But since he often disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14), I think that we have to be watchful because he does not always attack in ways we would expect.
For instance, in Galatians 4, Paul calls the Galatian Christians not to turn back to the “elementary principles of the world” (v 3) or “those that by nature are not gods) (v 8). These terms are clear connections to demonic activity. But what were the Galatians being tempted to turn back to? Paul says “You observe days and months and seasons and years!” (v 10). The Galatians were in fact being tempted to turn back to the Mosaic Law as a means of getting right with God. Is that the way you would expect the Devil to tempt people? To turn them to the Law? No! But the Devil often works in ways we would not expect.
Here among the Kwakum, I have found that my neighbors believe pretty much anything they hear (other than the Word of God).* The result, I believe, is that Satan is not overly involved in signs and wonders. He doesn’t need to appear physically if he can encourage someone to lie and say they saw the spirit of their dead mother. If it is said, and people believe it, the lie is just as strong. Further, our village is full of strife. People are often in the streets yelling at one another (they are doing it as I type). Strife, bitterness, and anger are the work of the devil, as much as possession.
As Christians we need to be watchful. We need to ask, “How might Satan be working in this circumstance? How might he be lying? How might he be calling me to trust in my own works? How might he be stirring my heart to murder and strife?” We need to be wary, we need to be watchful, and we need to resist.
3. Cling to God’s Word
In Jesus’ parable of the four soils (Matthew 13:1-9), he describes seed landing on the path, where it was immediately gobbled up by birds. In his explanation in verse 19, he says, “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path.” One of Satan’s main talents is snatching away God’s Word and leaving people void of understanding. To resist this demonic ignorance, we must cling to the Word. We must search and strive to understand and to be changed by it.
When my neighbors try to use Christ’s name as a charm, they are not being glib. It is not a joke to them. They deeply fear the power of spirits and witches and long to be protected. They have heard of Jesus, and have heard that he is very powerful. They sinfully try to take his name and use it for their own ends, but they do so because they genuinely do not understand. They have tried to incorporate Jesus into their current worldview, full of manipulatable spirits. For them, Jesus is just another spirit to use for their own means.
This is a dangerous place to be (see the warning to Simon the Magician in Acts 8), but I have great hope for them. Up until this point they have been the hardened soil of the path. What little Word that has been sown in their hearts has been gobbled up. But as the Word is translated more and more into a language they truly understand, and should the Lord send his Spirit, I believe we will see more and more fertile soil. But the change will come only as they understand and cling to the Scriptures. I pray that those of us who have had the entire Bible in our mother-tongue will see ourselves in no less desperate of a situation. We too can harden our hearts, we can quench the Spirit, we can fall into the snares of the Devil. And the only answer for us is the same: we need God’s Word. We need it to help us to see the real dangers of Satan, of his sometimes subtle schemes, and of our only path of salvation.
*This is not specific to the Kwakum. Napoleon is quoted as saying, “Man will believe anything as long as it’s not in the Bible.”
** Image from https://www.intellectualtakeout.org