Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Made for Possession

Two weeks ago, I drove up to the village of Chipembe to meet with the leaders from three churches in that area.  After greeting everyone upon my arrival one of the men, João, pulled me aside and said that there was a woman who wanted to be baptized before our study that day.  "Elena has a problem, though. She is possessed by an evil spirit."  João said.  "But I told her that if she decided to follow Jesus, the church would have to go with her to her house.  The church will help her tear down the spirit house and everything associated with that evil spirit."

A little while later, standing beside the river, Caunia and I talked about the significance of baptism.  We talked about Romans 8 and the way that followers of Christ are promised that the Holy Spirit will dwell within them. While many people are filled with destructive, deceptive, and defective spirits, we shared the joy of the promise that God's Spirit - the spirit of life whose power raised Jesus from the dead - lives in Jesus' disciples.    

After the baptism, our group moved to Elena's house where João, Caunia, Ignacio led the exorcism.  We prayed and sang for a few minutes and then church members grabbed large rocks and a hoe and broke up the clay pots associated with spirit worship.  They burned an amulet.  Then one of the men asked Elena if there was anything else - any other item that needed to be destroyed - she showed them where to dig, and we dug up a bottle with magical medicine inside.  The church members crushed and burned all the items associated with spirit worship and covered them with dirt.  They encouraged Elena to leave that evil spirit completely behind and devote her life to Jesus.  Many of her neighbors and family members stood at the edges of our circle watching to see what would happen.  And as we left their house, Elena's husband, who is not a Christian, made a point to thank each of us.

During our meeting afterwards, we talked about ways to encourage Elena in her new life with Christ.  We looked at Jesus' story of a man freed from an evil spirit who neglected to fill his house up with a good spirit (Matthew 12).  In that example, the expulsed evil spirit finds seven of its 'bigger and badder' friends and returns to find the 'house' swept clean.  Since no one is occupying it, those evil spirits move right in.  Jesus' warning was that if a person doesn't fill themselves with the Spirit of God, then their final condition would end up being worse than when they started.  The church committed to visiting and encouraging Elena to fill her 'house' with the Holy Spirit.

In our part of Mozambique, spirit possession is everywhere.  The demonic touches all areas of life.  People spend what little money they have on divination, magical amulets, and sacrifices to the spirits.  Many people build little houses in their yards to honor the evil spirits.  Spirit possession often starts as a response to illness, and there are serious costs to keeping the spirits placated (both financial and relational).  And while some people claim benefits from being possessed by a spirit, most live in fear and frustration.

Since the spirit realm is full of secrecy for the Makua-Metto people, I try to speak openly about this topic in order to shed some light on this dark and mysterious part of life.

I often share this conviction: human beings are made for possession. 

Now that idea, that we were 'made for possession', may be a little shocking.  It's an phrase that I'm borrowing from a fellow kingdom worker here in Mozambique named Phil Henderson.  Phil lives in another part of Mozambique, but has visited our team a few times.  During one of those visits, he talked about this idea of being 'made for possession' and that concept has been extremely helpful in engaging this topic in instructive and constructive ways here in Cabo Delgado. 

We were made for possession.

There is a drastic difference, though, between being possessed by God's Holy Spirit and being possessed by a lesser spirit. 

We humans are like cups.  We were made to have our souls filled by something - and we will be filled by something.  If nature abhors a vacuum, then it is even more true in the spiritual realm.  And whatever we are filled with can't remain hidden for long.

Imagine a busy street with pedestrians walking this way and that - everyone carrying a cup filled to the brim.  When people are bumped or jostled, the cup will overflow, spilling to reveal the nature of its contents.  Every one of us is possessed by a spirit. Many are filled by aspirations of fame or fortune, or by desires to look strong, sexy or smart. But whether we are filled by something corrosive like anger or something nourishing like peace, the contents of our cup (the spirit that possesses each of us) will find its way to spillover into our lives.

Before moving to Africa, I knew that this issue of spirit possession was something I needed to prepare for.  In many ways, the Greco-Roman worldview around the time of the New Testament was closer to a typical African worldview than that of the Western perspective today.  At that time, spiritual realm was seen as ever-present and effecting human lives - “‘spirits’ or however they may be termed, could be found everywhere.” (Ramsay MacMullen, Paganism in the Roman Empire, 82)

While it is always dangerous to make broad generalizations, it seems safe to assume that "the Greco-Roman world was very conscious of demons.” (Everett Ferguson, Demonology of the Early Christian World, 59). Even though it was common to believe that demons existed, the Greco-Roman world did not have a unified understanding of their nature and function.  In my research, reading through ancient sources from around the time of Jesus, I realized that explanations of spirit possession normally fell into one of three categories.  Some people believed that those who claimed to be possessed by evil spirits were faking it - trying to get attention.  Others believed in a more natural or physical explanation and said that possession boiled down to something like mental illness or epilepsy.  And a third group believed that spirits really did possess human beings.  It surprised me to realize that those same three categories summarize the way people understand the demonic even today.  While the percentages of the population that would fall into each category would likely differ - our explanations for manifestations of the demonic have not actually changed that much in two thousand years.

It seems clear that as Christianity came onto the world’s religious scene, it used the thought forms and cosmology of the day.  Disciples of Jesus did not ignore the problem of the demonic, but instead they showed how these mysterious spiritual entities were subject to the authority of Christ.  The early church continued this tradition of freeing those possessed from their spiritual bondage.  It is important to recognize, though, that while exorcisms brought a strong reaction out of crowds, “the art itself had no great fame or audience.” (MacMullen, 50). The early church certainly did not perceive its central mission as going into the world to cast out demons.  That was, as it should have been, only part of their holistic approach to evangelism.  It was clear from my research that the church today could learn a lot from how the early church lived out their faith.  Personally, as I hoped to help the church engage the world today, I wanted to aide them in understanding their culture and encourage them to appropriately address the needs of the world around them.

That was is easier said than done.

Living in Mozambique, I felt like my brain was divided in half on this issue.  I had my American/Western perspective that was skeptical of the spiritual realm and looked for naturalistic interpretations.  But, the beliefs of my African friends and my experiences here didn't fit in those categories.

Walter Wink's books about the 'Powers' helped me bridge the gap.  Wink’s descriptions of the powers and the demonic challenged me to think about the universe using these biblical categories of spirits and possession in helpful and alternate ways.  Wink regards the demonic “as the impersonal spiritual realities at the center of institutional life” (Engaging the Powers, 9).  Even though, Wink demythologizes the powers, he at least recognizes that they are both real and potent.  His work has been helpful to me in taking a different path for understanding the demonic in the world.  While I do not follow all of his twists and turns, it has given me some more wiggle room to interpret the world around us in Mozambique in a way that holds onto the biblical texts and the best parts of my Western perspective and African experience.

Back in 2004, our team was asked by the government to leave Montepuez.  We were forced to spend over a year in another part of Mozambique waiting for an open door to return.  That time of 'exile' in Nampula was an extremely challenging time for all of us, and Wink’s books helped me to understand it as the result of bumping up against the spiritual forces and powers that dominate the hearts and minds of many in the region.  Since returning to Montepuez in 2005, his books have given me a framework for understanding ministry in this context.

Wink's books helped me to see how possession occurs on levels both personal and communal.  Wink led me to recognize how possession happens to individuals - like the story of Elena and her spirit possession.  And he revealed the function of evil spirits in groups as well - like the reasons behind our 'exile' in Nampula.  In the US, this language of communal possession, where humans submit their wills to the spirit of a group, still lingers with us.  We comment on the importance of 'team spirit', or lament the destructive tendencies of a 'mob mentality'.  We reference communities that seem possessed by a 'spirit of gossip' or corporations that are 'possessed by greed'.  Language of communal possession is all around us.

So, humans were made for possession in both individual and communal spheres.

Our response is to dedicate ourselves to the important task of filling our cups with something life giving and worthwhile.  We will be possessed by something.   Our communities will be possessed by something.  The question is: what will be the substance of that possession?  Will it be God's Holy Spirit - a life-giving spirit that moves us to serve the interests of the Kingdom of God?  Or will it be a demonic spirit - one that enslaves us to destructive patterns that damage us and those around us?

On Saturday afternoon, twelve members of the church in Chipembe walked for over two hours to the village of Ncororo to spend the night on the ground in order to worship with their brothers in Christ the next morning.  A new follower of Jesus, Elena, was with them.  From where I was seated on the floor during the worship service this Sunday, I peeked often over at her, watching her attempting to sing along and listening intently to the message.  When it came time for prayer for the sick in the community, she came forward along with others asking for God's spirit to bless and heal her.  Elena wants to be filled with a healing and life giving spirit.

May God fill Elena (and the rest of us!) with his Holy Spirit and empower us to live well.  And may he fill his churches with a Spirit of Peace!

Grace and Peace,



  1. Alan, this is your first post I've read on your blog. Thank you so much for posting it on facebook.

    What a great reminder that we were made to be filled.

    Prayers from St. Louis are being lifted up for Elena (and all of us) to be filled with God's Spirit of love and peace.

    Blessings to you and your family.

  2. Jeremy,

    Thanks so much for the encouragement - I hope you and your family are well.


  3. Hi Alan & Rachel! We love you guys and pray for continued strength, wisdom, and power in Christ as you minister and "fight" the spiritual battle in your part of the world. Thanks for sharing about this topic. Leoncio and I continue to be made more and more aware of the spiritual battle around us and are learning how to spot it and fight against it in the power of Jesus' name. We love and admire you, friends. May His Spirit empower and encourage you today.

    -Amy & Leoncio Dominguez