A.W. Tozer once memorably said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Though I agree with C.S. Lewis’s response to this line of thinking — that “how God thinks of us is . . . infinitely more important” than how we think of him — Tozer’s point is still crucial: “We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God” (The Knowledge of the Holy, 1). How we think about God determines how we live.
Now, what comes into your mind when you think about Satan and his demons? Certainly, it is not the most important thing about you. And what God thinks about Satan and demons is infinitely more important than what we think of them. But what we think about the demonic realm is certainly not unimportant.
“We must be more willing to be considered fools than to cruelly leave people the victims of enslaving evil.”
What do we think of what God has to say about the existence and activity of devils in Scripture? How seriously do we take what he says — not just in creed but in deed? How much does a conscious awareness of spiritual warfare functionally factor into our daily life? How does it affect how we pray? How does it inform the ways we see our areas of chronic temptation, fears, family dynamics, church conflicts, physical and mental illnesses, inhibited gospel fruitfulness, geopolitical events? What kinds of strategic spiritual action do we take in response to these things?
These are important questions. Because how we think about satanic forces also determines in significant ways how we live.
Are We Ignorant of His Designs?
The New Testament authors wrote with a profound awareness of the cosmic war they were involved in. They determined to “not be outwitted by Satan; for [they were] not ignorant of his designs” (2 Corinthians 2:11).
“The devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41) factored prominently in Jesus’s life, teaching, and miracles. From his temptation in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry (Matthew 4:1–11) to the events surrounding his crucifixion (John 13:27), Satan and his forces were an ever-present reality. Jesus taught that demons actively enslave people (Luke 13:16), actively seek to gain influence over religious leaders and institutions (John 8:44), and actively oppose and seek to undermine and corrupt gospel work (Luke 8:12). He also taught that Satan understands his massive influence in the world as his “kingdom” (Luke 11:17–18). When Jesus’s closest disciples described his miraculous ministry, they said, “he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38).
When Jesus commissioned his early apostolic leaders, he sent them into a world of unbelievers “to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God” (Acts 26:18). They understood that they — and all Christians — are involved in a war in which “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
“What comes into your mind when you think about Satan and his demons?”
And they repeatedly warned Christians to “be sober-minded [and] watchful” because “your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). They did not want us to be ignorant of Satan’s designs.
The question we need to ask ourselves, especially we Christians in the West, is this: Are we ignorant of Satan’s designs?
Here’s a test case. How did you emotionally respond to my earlier mention of “physical and mental illnesses” as possibly being caused or exacerbated by demonic beings? Did it provoke some level of cultural embarrassment because the idea sounds so unscientific, even superstitious? Or did it provoke some defensive anger because, especially when it comes to mental illness, you want to emphatically state that no one should assume the affliction is demonic?
Now, before any qualification, let’s take a moment to assess our emotional reactions. If we feel some embarrassment, why? If we feel some defensive anger, why? What’s fueling our responses? How much are they fueled by an accurate biblical understanding of demonic involvement, and how much are they fueled by our personal experiences and/or our culture’s naturalistic assumptions about everything?
It’s important that we query our responses and not accept them too easily. They might expose an unbiblical imbalance or blind spot. Every era has its spiritual blind spots, and demonic forces will, by all means, capitalize on them. The first century had its blind spots, and we have ours. We are naïve to think they don’t significantly affect us. That’s why the Holy Spirit inspired the New Testament writers to instruct Christians of all eras to be sober-minded and watchful, and not be ignorant of satanic schemes.
No, certainly not all physical and mental illness is caused or exacerbated by demonic beings. The Bible doesn’t teach this, nor have the vast majority of Christians throughout history believed this. This is why at Desiring God, along with many resources on spiritual warfare, we also have many resources on mental illness, disease, and disability.
Cost of Supernaturalism
But Western evangelicals in general are not in danger of an overapplication of demonization. We are far more in danger of under-application — of a functional, unbiblical naturalism. This is partly due to cultural blind-spot assumptions. But increasingly, it is also a result of the growing cultural cost of supernaturalism.
“Every era has its spiritual blind spots, and demonic forces will, by all means, capitalize on them.”
We live in post-Enlightenment cultures that consider the biblical, supernatural worldview to be a foolish religious hangover from the Dark Ages. The very idea of a demon-haunted world is ridiculed. But not only is it considered foolish; it is quickly being considered abusive to insinuate that a person might be afflicted by a demon. From a naturalistic perspective, such an assertion only heaps shame on someone already suffering — all because people like us aren’t willing to let go of an archaic worldview whose time is long past.
This packs an emotional punch, often landing on our spiritual solar plexus. Suddenly, the issue is binary: either demons exist and the denial of them (explicitly or functionally) is cruel, or demons don’t exist and the diagnosis of them is cruel. None of us wants to be cruel; we want to help, not harm, the afflicted. But one side of the binary is cruel. One might accurately call it demonic.
For Western Christians, this means if we want to seriously engage in the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) and see many people “turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God” (Acts 26:18), we must be willing to endure the cultural shaming (perhaps eventually worse) that will come from taking demons seriously. We must be more willing to be considered fools than cruelly leave people the victims of enslaving evil.
How we think about satanic forces, and how seriously we take God’s instruction to us about them, determines how we live. The more aligned we are with the Bible’s view of reality, the more faithfully we will follow Jesus, the more spiritually helpful we will be to people, and the more damage we will wreak on the domain of darkness. But we also will bear the reproach Jesus endured (Hebrews 13:13).
The Bible is a robustly supernatural book. The spiritual war between God and his angels and the devil and his angels, and human beings on both sides of the conflict, fills its pages from cover to cover. And here’s the way it instructs us to live:
Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. (Ephesians 6:10–13)
Let’s take this seriously. Let’s not leave people captives to demonic schemes. And let’s stand firm in the assault.