Max and his girlfriend Julie, both 17, were at an Anglican Renewal Day at their local Cathedral. Midway through the afternoon, Max had a bad turn. Suddenly it felt as though the air had no oxygen. He gasped and gulped, struggled to breathe.
Julie and a steward helped Max outside. He sat on a chair by the front door in the sunshine. He had some water and gradually his breathing returned to normal. Julie explained that Max had been having attacks like this for a few months. Randomly, maybe while watching TV or playing football, he would struggle to breathe for a short while. His GP didn’t know what to diagnose.
I was on duty outside the Cathedral that day, directing the tourists to a side door. I asked Max if he would like me to pray with him. Max agreed readily. I asked him how he needed God to come to him, suggesting that he think of a picture of how God would help him, (I was using ‘Person Centre Prayer Ministry’ as explained in an article in Christianity magazine, April 2005). “I need God to get rid of whatever’s causing this problem. Maybe like Jesus’ hand reaching down inside me to grab hold of it and throw it out.”
Max’s chosen picture seemed to be a picture of deliverance and it alerted me that this might be what was needed. I didn’t talk to him of deliverance, but simply warned him that as we prayed, he might need to be a little undignified.
We asked the Holy Spirit to come and both asked for Jesus’ hand to reach inside Max to get rid of whatever was causing the problem. Max sat quietly, while I went to talk briefly to a couple of tourists. When I returned I asked him how he was feeling.
“Yeah, there’s this nice warm feeling in my stomach but a sick sort of feeling further up my chest,” reported Max. I told him not to worry about the sick feeling and to welcome the warm feeling. I prayed, “Thank you Jesus for your Spirit flowing in Max. Keep coming Holy Spirit. More please!”
After a further short silence, Max reported that the sick feeling had moved up to his throat. I praised God and told Max to cough. He coughed, retched, spat a little, and said “It’s gone”. We continued welcoming the Holy Spirit. Max sat quietly and I talked to a couple more tourists who had turned up.
When I returned Max was still praying quietly. He said that he felt it hadn’t quite gone, the sick feeling was there again. Again we welcomed the Holy Spirit, and again Max coughed and spat, a bit more gently than before. This time, as Max sat quietly he felt comfortable and peaceful. We thanked Jesus for all the good that he had done to Max.
“Max,” I said, “you’ve just had an unclean spirit leave you – that’s what it was. That’s great, but it’s worth thinking about where it might have come from. Have you any idea where you might have picked up the infection of an unclean spirit?” It felt like quite a challenging thing to be saying, but necessary.
Max replied almost straight away. “Well my Mum does Tarot cards. She goes to church as well, she’s interested in spiritual things. I’ve told her that it’s not right, Christians shouldn’t do that. But she just carries on anyway.” We talked a bit more about his mother and prayed finally that the cross of Jesus would stand between Max and her to filter out the negative influences coming from her. Max went back into the Cathedral and had a great day praising Jesus for all the Holy Spirit was doing.
This story illustrates key features of deliverance prayer.
We can become infected by unclean spirits. In the Gospels there are three terms for these spirits: ‘unclean spirits’, ‘demons,’ and ‘evil spirits.’ ‘Evil spirits’ is only used six times, all in Luke and Acts. ‘Demon’ is the word usually used by the Gospel writers and people of the time. ‘Unclean spirit’ is usually used when the writers are quoting Jesus himself. In Luke 11 there is a dispute between Jesus and others about whose authority he was using in his deliverance. Everyone here he uses the word ‘demon.’ Then Jesus goes on to give his own teaching about when a spirit has gone. Here he uses the word ‘unclean spirit.’
In Luke 11 Jesus also challenges the assertion that he has been acting under the authority of ‘Beelzebul,’ which means ‘Lord of Flies.’ Unclean spirits are dirty flies sent by the Lord of Flies. They can trouble us and infect us. If we harbour dirt in our lives, they can come in and feed on that dirt. If we have a sore wound, they can come in and stop it healing. They are like flies – not powerful and frightening spiritual beings, and not myths either. C.S. Lewis wrote that people commonly make one or two mistakes about the devil. Either they think that he doesn’t exist, or they make him out to be more powerful than he is. It is the same with unclean spirits.
Unclean spirits seem to be just part of the world as we know it. Some people equate them with the ‘principalities and powers’ of Ephesians 6, but I consider there are no grounds for this linking. The Bible uses different words and we can assume that this means different entities. Derek Prince, widely regarded as the ‘father’ of modern evangelical deliverance ministry wrote: “I find it hard to believe that demons are fallen angels…There is no suggestion (in the New Testament) of their ever descending from, or ascending to the heavenly regions.” (‘They Shall Expel Demons’ by Derek Prince 1998 DPM-UK)
Unclean spirits affect or infect us through something that we, or those very close to us, have done. They do not ’possess’ us. That is a mistranslation of the Greek word ‘daimonizo’ which is literally ‘demonized’ and conveys no suggestion of ownership. Unclean spirits can infect us before we become Christians and, if not dealt with, remain, maybe hidden.
From the early days, baptism was accompanied by deliverance of unclean spirits and even today the Church of England baptism liturgy includes a prayer for the person to be ‘delivered from the power of darkness’. Most people nowadays do not have a thorough deliverance at their baptism so it is possible that unclean spirits remain with them. After Baptism Christians are protected by the blood of the Cross and the Holy Spirit, as long as they continue to ‘walk in the light.’ If we Christians still hang onto sinful patterns of behaviour, or dabble in things that the Bible says are unclean, we can then also become infected with an unclean spirit. Greg Haslam, pastor of Westminster Chapel, says “Christians can have demons just as they can catch fleas, ticks or lice – if we give them a landing strip.”
Max’s story also shows that unclean spirits can be removed by the loving power of the Holy Spirit and the authority of Jesus working through His people. This is often straightforward and undramatic. The tourists passing by the Cathedral had no idea deliverance ministry was taking place before their eyes. In February this year Channel 4 broadcast an actual ‘exorcism’ on screen. The most notable feature of the programme in the end was how mild, and even boring, it seemed.
This ministry, like all ministry, must be exercised in love. The Biblical 'tools' are prayer and fasting, not shouting, hitting, or any other pagan 'tools.' The person must always feel loved by what we do. There has been negative publicity recently about ‘child exorcism’ that involves using physical force or deprivation to drive the ‘evil spirit’ out of a child. This however is not a biblical method. Katei Kirby, CEO of the African and Caribbean Evangelical Alliance says, “Physical beating has been found to be part of the ritual in some spiritualist organisations, but not in evangelical churches. Jesus didn’t beat anyone to deliver them. He spoke strong words which were powerful enough to do the job.”
Kirby goes on to stress that the main power in deliverance is not our words or actions, but the Holy Spirit flowing through us. “We need a total reliance on the Holy Spirit to do the work of deliverance. We are simply His agents. Deliverance doesn’t have to happen in certain times and places with certain gadgets and gizmos. These are extras. What we need is simply the Holy Spirit and the authority of Jesus.”
As the Holy Spirit is love, he often prefers to work quietly and gently. As the authority of Jesus has already been proclaimed in the heavens, we don’t have to stamp it on earth, but simply declare it with calm confidence. We also need to be properly under the delegated authority of our Church leaders, which is why most churches wisely stipulate that this ministry should be exercised by people who have specific training and authorisation.
The need for repentance
Repentance is also crucial. As unclean spirits infect us through the ‘landing strip’ that we put out, we need to repent of and remove whatever sinful behaviour we have practised. Keith King, Associate Pastor at Gold Hill Baptist Church in Buckinghamshire, says, “In deliverance repentance is key. The demon has latched onto what someone has done. Satan is a legalist. When someone opens a door he’s not slow to capitalise and say ‘gotcha!’ When we repent and receive the forgiveness of Jesus, he has to let go.”
For King, as for many people experienced in this ministry, deliverance is more about a process of repentance and discipleship than a crisis of need. He has seen dramatic deliverances but these are not the norm. “When people come to Christ they have a reservoir of stuff in their lives which they need gradually to bring to the cross as part of their discipleship. We lead them in manageable steps; we are discipleship focused not deliverance focused.”
Greg Haslam also stresses that the aim is to bring people more fully under the Lordship of Christ – which may, or may not, involve deliverance. Gold Hill Baptist use the ‘Freedom in Christ’ programme of Neil T. Anderson. Other churches use ‘Restoring the Foundations’ by Chester and Betsy Kylstra, or ‘Prayers that Heal the Heart’ by Mark and Patti Virkler. All of these include deliverance prayer as part of a wider process.
Becky is a successful business woman who became a Christian after being attracted by some people she met at work. Becky also had a compulsion. She could never leave her house without scouring every room meticulously to make sure it was secure, as many as five times. She would climb into the car with her husband, and then go back and check every room, shaking the front door until the house rattled. Whatever she did, Becky was trapped in this compulsion.
As part of her discipleship as a new Christian, Becky learnt Biblical approaches to marriage. She realised that, partly due to strong feminist teaching, she had mistrusted her husband and refused to put confidence in him. Becky had insisted that she be responsible, be in charge. She had become domineering at home, and at work. She realised that she was acting more like Jezebel than Mary. She had become strident and insecure.
Becky repented of her attitude to her husband and determined to trust him for protection and safety. Those ministering to her told the spirit of fear to leave her and asked the Holy Spirit to fill her. Becky felt nothing, just different inside. That week she simply stopped checking her house, even happily leaving her husband to lock up. For the last four years Becky has been free of the compulsion.
Some people would say that the compulsion was part of Becky, an aspect of her personality that she could learn to manage but never really change. Christians who believe in deliverance have a more positive view – that the compulsion was not part of Becky but something that had become attached to her and from which Jesus could set her free. Believing in deliverance means believing that people are deliverable.
Some people say that there is no such thing as evil, only human choice and actions. Christians are criticised for having a medieval attitude, believing in hobgoblins and ‘demonising’ people. Others will say that there are some ‘evil people’, as the Daily Mail described the London July 7th bombers. The attitude of Jesus is that people are good but prone, through their own mistakes, to becoming infected with evil. This is the most realistic, humane and positive attitude. For with Jesus there is deliverance for all.
Roger Harper is a freelance writer who has worked for 18 years in Church of England parish ministry and is now part-time chaplain of a hospice in Stoke.