That’s the overwhelming response when I ask students to number the sermons they’ve heard on Satan or spiritual battle in the past year. If they are not getting this information from the pulpit, where will students hear about a topic so prevalent in the Scriptures? In the previous blog, we considered the biblical support for spiritual battle and the reasons why we are hesitant to press into this issue. In this post, we’ll consider common signs of demonic activity and how educators are uniquely situated to offer warfare prayers.
The most common question I get when speaking on this issue from colleagues is, How can I be certain spiritual battle is happening in my classroom? Short answer: you can’t. What separates the ancient from the modern church is the former assumed it was happening, while the later must have indisputable proof. The ancients would find it odd that today’s Christian educators—intent on molding young believers—would not be on the lookout for signs of spiritual oppression.
Signs of Spiritual Oppression
In researching this topic, I read dozens of books from Christian authors, theologians, and philosophers—past and present—which focus on spiritual warfare. Each addressed the issue of diagnosing the demonic. While authors disagree at times, there are certain signs that make everyone’s list. Before I present a few of the most common symptoms of demonic activity, it would be wise to address a thorny question: Can Satan plant thoughts in the mind of believers?
Theologian Keith Ferdinando, after studying the reality of spiritual warfare in both the Old and New Testaments concludes, “a critical theatre of the believer’s spiritual warfare is the battle for the mind.”1 Christian author, Kenneth Boa, concurs and states that spiritual attacks are predominantly “characterized by obsessive thoughts and behavior.”2
The Scriptures give several examples of Satan’s ability to put thoughts into our minds. In the Old Testament we learn that “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel” (1 Chr 21:1). While it may seem wise for a king to know the size and strength of his troops, we learn David had slowly shifted his confidence from the Lord to his military strength. Though warned by his advisers, David insisted the census be taken resulting in a stunning defeat for Israel. In the New Testament we see Satan is able to put the idea of betrayal into the heart of Judas (Jn 13:2) and greed into the mind of Ananias to lie about the amount of an offering to the church (Acts 5:3). Even Jesus experienced Satan’s ability to plant thoughts. During his wilderness tempting, Satan takes Jesus up to the top of a mountain and shows him the splendor of all earthly kingdoms. Theologians note that from that small mountain it would be impossible for Jesus to see the kingdoms of the world. Thus, Satan must have had the ability to project into Jesus’s mind a panoramic picture of these kingdoms.3
What are the signs or symptoms of the demonic that most theologians and authors particularly take note? While space doesn’t permit me to fully explore all the most common signs, here are some to consider.4
Inappropriate anger. In instructing us about anger, the apostle Paul makes an interesting observation. “In your anger do not sin” (Eph 4:26). He notes that anger in-and-of itself is not necessarily sin. In fact, there are times when anger is the appropriate response. However, Paul is quick to warn that anger can easily open the door for sin and give the devil a foothold (Eph 4:27). We should be careful our anger does not lead to evil (Ps 37:8) which is why only the foolish give “full vent to anger” (Prv 29:11). While students have always vented about assignments, the fairness of exams, and working with fellow students, I’ve seen an uptick in anger post-pandemic. Powerful emotions and uncharitable perceptions are expressed via social media where students feel the freedom to give full expression to their anger! Might it be possible that demons are stoking their frustration, discontent, and anger?
No longer believing the best about God. In his letter to believers in Rome, Paul asks a poignant question: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:32). His point is, based on all he had written previously in his letter, believers should be utterly convinced that nothing is able to “separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39). However, many Christians, and even biblical writers, report feelings of being abandoned by God. One psalmist accuses God of being asleep as the armies of Israel are soundly defeated. His conclusion: “Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure” (73:13). Imagine trying to focus on academics as we recover from a pandemic, banks going under, families pulled apart politically, Russia rattling its nuclear saber, and mass shootings dominating the news. With such turmoil as a backdrop, Satan gleefully whispers to our students, How exactly is God for you?
No longer believing the best about you. As biblical writers studied Satan, they assigned him certain names such as slanderer (Rv 12:10), liar (Jn 8:44), and accuser (Rv 12:10), to name a few. Satan seeks to influence our student’s self-talk by accusing them of abysmally falling short of academic and biblical standards. Your parents are paying all this money and you can’t even focus! You are going into debt and don’t even know if you can get a job after graduation—what a joke! You spend more time on checking your phone than you do reading the Bible. What kind of Christian are you? At this point, we must make a crucial distinction between guilt (I should be more intentional about my studies) and the shaming tactics of Satan (I’m a terrible person). Christian author and psychologist, Curt Thompson, helps distinguish between the two. “Guilt is something I feel because I have done something bad. Shame is something I feel because I am bad.”5 When our students start to feel they are worthless or a failure, it’s a sign demonic activity is occurring.
How Do We Intervene?
Trained as an anthropologist, Charles Kraft spent a lifetime observing diverse people groups. Over time he became convinced of two realities. First, the struggle against dark powers transcends borders and ethnicity. Second, followers of Christ have the power to ward off these powers, but seldom utilize their God-given authority to do so. After publishing more than 20 book on the subject and teaching at leading seminaries, Kraft is seen as an expert in the area of spiritual battle. His years of experience has led him to develop a view of spiritual authority that is essential to counteracting spiritual opposition through prayer.
According to Kraft, status authority is attached to us in our roles as marriage partners, parents, aunts and uncles, bosses, pastors, church leaders, and most importantly, as educators. “We grant such people, for better or worse, the authority to set standards and influence us in a multitude of ways.” How does this apply to demons? In his book, The Adversary, Mark Bubeck argues that the forces of darkness respond to a believer’s authority because they themselves are subject to authority. Appealing to Ephesians 6, Bubeck asserts that Satan is the commander-in-chief and supreme strategist. Immediately under him are “principalities” and princes such as the Prince of Persia mentioned in Daniel 10. The next level is comprised of “powers” which are less powerful than princes, but can still pose great harm to believers. The organizational chart continues with “rulers of darkness” who could be compared to sergeants in an army. Under their command are beings described as “spiritual wickedness.” These spiritual beings are foot soldiers who are most likely to be in direct contact with believers. Since demons are part of a spiritual hierarchy, they must respect and adhere to spiritual authority and status.
As professors and administrators, we have unique status to utilize Jesus’s authority and power as we intercede for students through prayer. If you determine that demonic influence is targeting your students or anyone under your authority, you can have full confidence that demonic opposition must recognize and respond to your prayers. Kraft concludes, “I believe that the head of a home and the head of a church [by implication educators overseeing students] are automatically given a kind of spiritual authority by God as an inherent part of their status.”6
What would an authority prayer sound like?
When I’ve prayed out loud for my students, it’s sounded something like this:
Demons, I am a child of the King—adopted into his family. I come in Jesus’s authority not my own. In that authority—one you must listen to—I tell you to leave my students alone! If you are placing doubts, anxiety, fear, or misgivings about God’s faithfulness, I tell you to be silent! If you are trying to get them to think they have failed as Christians—be quiet! You know you must obey this prayer. So be it (Amen).
There’s nothing magical about this prayer—it’s simply reminding demons that I am evoking my status authority on behalf of my students. This is not a negotiation, but rather, an exercise in spiritual authority—Jesus versus theirs. How have my students responded? No doubt, a little surprised and some understandably uncomfortable, but generally encouraged. One student wrote to me: “I just wanted to thank you for praying over the class tonight. I went back to my car and immediately broke down and started crying because I’ve been dealing with so much self-doubt and anxiety lately. All of it was released after you prayed over the class tonight.”
I know a short two-part series on spiritual battle will no doubt raise more questions than answers. If you’d like to continue to study this topic, I’ll list in the footnotes some key sources that shaped my thinking as I wrote my book on spiritual battle and marriage.7
Compelled to Act?
Having watched the horrors of Nazi domination in Europe during World War II, German theologian Helmet Thielicke felt compelled to preach about spiritual battle—a topic he’d long avoided.
“Year by year we have seen an increasingly poisonous atmosphere settling down upon our globe and we sense how real and almost tangible are the evil spirits in the air,” he began his famous series. “The overwhelming power of these experiences is so strong that it simply breaks through all the intellectual insulation which we are so prone to interpose in order to keep out these dark powers.”8
While it would be erroneous to compare the current state of our world to the aftereffects of the second great war, do you also have the feeling that an increasingly poisonous atmosphere is present today? As we watch the news, are we growing more and more concerned that our world, neighbors, family members, faculty, administrators, and our students are a type of target? Are these experiences strong enough to break through cultural and intellectual insulation? What would it look like to take the issue of spiritual battle in our pedagogy as seriously as Jesus and the Scriptures?
- Keith Ferdinando, The Message of Spiritual Warfare (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 194.
- Kenneth Boa, Conformed to His Image: Biblical and Practical Approaches to Spiritual Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 345.
- Clint Arnold, personal correspondence, Feb. 20, 2017.
- For a consideration of the full list, see Defending Your Marriage: The Reality of Spiritual Battle (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018). While the book’s focus is on Christian marriage, most principles apply to spiritual battle outside of marriage.
- Curt Thompson, The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe about Ourselves (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 63.
- Kraft, I Give You Authority, 87.
- Clinton Arnold, Powers of Darkness: Principalities and Powers in Paul’s Letters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992); Clinton Arnold, 3 Crucial Questions about Spiritual Warfare (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 1997); Keith Ferdinando, The Message of Spiritual Warfare (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016). Charles Kraft, I Give You Authority: Practicing the Authority Jesus Gave Us (Ada, MI: Baker Publishing, 2012).
- Helmut Thielicke, The Prayer that Spans the World: Sermons on the Lord’s Prayer (London: James Clarke, 1965), 160.