Over-realised theology leads to over-realised fear

In areas like ours, there are quite a lot of Muslim people about. Whilst not all our evangelism and mission centres on Muslims, quite a lot of it does because that is the majority of the people in our area.

The history of our church is that is has come from Pentecostal beginnings. Whilst the church has been on something of a journey to end up in the Reformed baptistic position it now occupies, some of those old Pentecostal leanings still float around. And I’m not going to knock that, some of our godliest folks have been nurtured by the Pentecostals.

Increasingly, given our growth by conversion among those from Muslim backgrounds with no Christian heritage to speak of, those Pentecostal views are becoming less and less. Day to day, they very rarely impact anything at all, but occasionally some of those views come to the fore. Typically they come out when we rub up against the reality of reaching Muslims.

Two thoughts float around. First, the over-realised theology of place. To put it less pretentiously, they get a bit scared of going into buildings owned by Muslims. Second, there is the inordinate fear of devils and demons. From my Reformed perspective – that probably leans more heavily on enlightenment philosophy than any of us care to admit – I find it hard to comprehend. But for my Pentecostal pals, it’s a big deal.

In respect to the first, I’ve always found it odd that we might be concerned about going into a building owned by Muslims but we’re fine wandering into the godless buildings owned and used by Atheists. It becomes even harder to grasp when we reckon with the fact that before the Muslims turned it into an education centre-cum-mosque it used to be a local co-op. I’m not sure anybody was fussed about the building while it was happily committing the sin of daylight robbery driven by consumerist principles. it was only when it was used by those breaking the first commandment driven by Mohammadean principles that they got worried.

I can muster up a bit more sympathy for the second one. After all, like my Pentecostal mates, I believe Satan is a real being and I do believe in demons or, if you prefer, evil/unclean spirits. The difference is that I can’t say I am very troubled by them. I can’t see, with the Holy Spirit dwelling in me, what they are going to do to me and I can even less see how I could possibly live my life any differently as a result. Whilst I suppose it is possible that my failure to find a parking space or every illness I get is the work of the Devil, I can’t help but feel he has bigger fish to fry and – perhaps more importantly – should the Lord have wanted me to park my car there or not feel unwell, he is well able to make it happen. After all, Jesus commanded the unclean spirits and they obeyed him (cf. Mark 1:27) and Paul was pretty emphatic in Rom 8:38-39 and Eph 1:21. I just can’t get that worked up about it.

I don’t want to pretend that spiritual forces don’t exist. The Bible is clear enough that they do. But nor do I want to fall off the other side of the horse and ascribe far more power to them than they really have. As CS Lewis argued:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.

The question is, what can they feasibly do? Certainly nothing that the Lord doesn’t permit them to do in the first instance. Nor can they somehow take control of somebody who is already under the sealed ownership of the Holy Spirit. If we really believe that he that is in us is greater than he that is in the world, what do we have to fear? If we really believe in a sovereign God who, by his Spirit, has taken up residence in our hearts, what is going to happen?

I think we can sometimes be in danger of overstating the power of Satan and impeding ourselves in the process. We can limit ourselves in the mission we have been given to do based on a fear that doesn’t correspond to who we are in Christ. We don’t have to pretend these things aren’t real, but we don’t have to worry ourselves too much about them either.