Growing up, my family was not particularly superstitious about demons, ghosts, and spirits. There was a reason for this. We were influenced by the Reformed Tradition. My dad does not believe in a rapture, tribulation, or 1,000 year reign. He believes the 1000 year reign is symbolic of the current age, that Satan and his demons were bound up at the cross, and that they can roar and scare us, but they cannot possess us or hurt us. This does not mean I grew up with no fear of evil forces; indeed, we were taught that we had sin dwelling in our bodies, and that sin was always trying to pull us down. But we did not believe that there were demons hiding behind every bush either.
As a kid, I knew there was some problems with saying Satan had no power. I read about cases of people who had been possessed by demons. I knew that the eastern world had different perspectives than us. In my afternoons I checked out books and tapes at the library, and read and researched. I concluded that Satan could enter a person or tempt a person if a group of people worshipped him and invited him in. This would account for demon possession in animist tribes.
Let us fast forward until I was 23 years old. I had just arrived in Asia for the first time ever to live in an animist tribe who had a shaman. A missionary had picked me up at the airport, and we drove the rough mountain towards the semi-remote village: “The people in this village are often attacked by demons,” he said. Then he informed me that I might have trouble praying in their village because of the spirit worship and demons. The missionary said the demons might try to confuse me, and if this happened, I might need to take a respite to the city, to get away, pray, and recover from the spiritual darkness. Being my father’s child, I believed the missionary but maintained some skepticism that they would bother me.
But the demon stories never ended, either from missionaries or the locals. One story told of a lady who had bad bleeding, almost all month. The missionaries had led her to the Lord, but when she returned to her village, which was a village over from ours, her father-in-law forbid her to worship the Lord. In the tribal culture, the eldest man of the family, the patriarch, chooses the family religion. With nowhere to go, she denounced Jesus as Lord and immediately her bleeding started again. Terrified, the woman walked a day to our village and begged for help. She reaccepted Jesus into her heart and had to leave her family.
Another story concerned a shaman of a neighboring village. When she had been an infant, this young woman’s parents had dedicated her to be the shaman of the village. She interceded to the dead spirits and offered sacrifices to them. When the missionaries brought her the gospel, she was quick to believe. But her story was not over. After she was a believer, every night she heard demons circle her house; they were loud and called her back to the darkness. She walked to the village where I was staying, crying and upset, and told my friends she would have to return to life as a shaman. Life was easier that way. The bad spirits at least left her alone when she was doing their bidding. But my friend chipped up, “No, we will pray over your house.” And so my friends did, and the demons left her alone.
Later I did a prayer journey through some of the roughest, poorest, and darkest areas of SE Asia. These were areas where the police had kidnapped the leaders of church groups (I have been able to confirm that those accounts are true), and no one knows the location of these leaders today. The trip scared me. For one, we were followed for about five days, and so we had to be careful so that people did not know we were praying, and we had to call off visiting certain missionaries. This scared me, and yet I also felt conflicted: why were we scared about what the police thought about us if we believed God was all-powerful?
Simultaneous to this, my group leader had geared us up for spiritual warfare. I was told the last team member woke up to a demon pressing on his chest. We also just arrived in the town after a believer had lost control of his vehicle, tumbled down the mountain in his vehicle, that then landed without wrecking the vehicle or harming himself. The believer was on the way to the prayer conference: “The demons had tried to harm him because they do not like our work.” At this point, I had started to believe there was truth to the demon stories, demons that wanted to kill us. I could not even sleep at night.
Still in all this, some things did not add up, and I knew it. Thousands of tourists land in SE Asia every year, and they never meet demons. Secondly, my tribal friends opened their mouths so many times that the stories just got wilder and wilder. Back home in my village, I heard that the reason my polygamous neighbor’s 1st wife could not get pregnant is because another neighbor had cursed her, but other two wives could get pregnant because there was no curse on them. Then I heard about how every time someone plays a flute in the village, someone always dies that week because the flute calls the spirit of a person out of the body and guides the spirit to hell. Similarly, one day, someone spotted a tiger, and the people were convinced it was a dead relative, who had come back to haunt them.
You may wonder why those stories made me think twice. After all, we expect superstition from these tribes, right? Well, yes, BUT these stories came from the same woman who told me the initial story about the ex-shaman believer. Secondly, the missionaries were not the ones bragging to me about what Jesus had done to the bad spirits. It was the locals who told me that Jesus had taken away the bad spirits, that they could sleep at night, etc. The same people who thought a woman could turn into a tiger were the same people who were trying to convince me that Jesus’ blood had kicked the demons out of their homes. How could I reject the former and accept the latter?
The next year I moved to the city to start language school. At this point I had little previous contact with Buddhists, and had never been in a Buddhists temple, despite living in a Buddhist country. I was paying a visit to someone from France when I stumbled across monks chanting in the temple. I walked in the temple and came out and nearly fainted. My throat started hurting, and I felt like I had a high fever. As I sat on the ground in the humid heat, panicking, I was not sure what to do. So I prayed, and then rebuked the demons out of me, and I instantly felt better.
Shortly after, I began a job caring for a group of young teens. The kids were always seeing demons in the bathroom, the house, the classroom, the yard, and even the missionary kids who came over, confirmed that there was a demon living in the upstairs bathroom: “Miss Lana, I saw a demon in your bathroom,” the missionary kids would say when I would make them popcorn. The kids who lived with me would come into my room at night, crying, and terrified.
Then one day, after a kid begged, my missionary friend came and asked me to go around the house and anoint every room with oil.
“But didn’t you anoint the house before you moved the kids in?” I asked. At this point, I spoke the local language nearly fluently and was well acquainted with the house warming ceremonies the monks did to homes, and the rituals performed to invite the good spirits to protect the homes and kick out the bad ones.
“Oh, yes. A pastor came and prayed against what the monks did,” my friend explained.
“Then demons are not welcome here.”
“But one of the troubled kids invited the devil in.”
“I doubt he invited the devil in. He is just a hurting kid,” I persisted.
“Well, I tend to agree with you, but for the kids’ peace of mind, we need to anoint these rooms.”
I went around each room, and we asked Jesus to cover every room. again.
But then it was time to anoint my bedroom.
“No, thank you. Demons do not live in my room, so there is no need,” I replied.
I had come to realize that I had been living in the country for two years, and despite all the ghost stories from my language teacher, all the demon stories from missionaries, all the spirit houses in the Buddhists’ yard, and witch doctors in the tribal villages, I had never seen or confronted a demon. But it was my kids that were the biggest reason I stopped believing bad spirits were out to haunt us. I lived with the kids and knew this was psychological. I cannot speak for every village, and for me and my house, we were battling the ghosts within.
What do you think about demons?
2015 update: My parents think differently now. They now believe that Christians can be possessed by demons and that the devil, or evil spirits, is a work in all our lives. I am still somewhat agnostic about my beliefs in spirits.