By His death on the cross Jesus triumphed over the forces of evil. He who subjugated the demonic spirits during His earthly ministry has broken their power and made certain their ultimate doom. Jesus’ victory gives us victory over the evil forces that still seek to control us, as we walk with Him in peace, joy, and assurance of His love. Now the Holy Spirit dwells within us and empowers us. Continually committed to Jesus as our Saviour and Lord, we are set free from the burden of our past deeds. No longer do we live in the darkness, fear of evil powers, ignorance, and meaninglessness of our former way of life. In this new freedom in Jesus, we are called to grow into the likeness of His character, communing with Him daily in prayer, feeding on His Word, meditating on it and on His providence, singing His praises, gathering together for worship, and participating in the mission of the Church. We are also called to follow Christ’s example by compassionately ministering to the physical, mental, social, emotional and spiritual needs of humanity. As we give ourselves in loving service to those around us and in witnessing to His salvation, His constant presence with us through the Spirit transforms every moment and every task into a spiritual experience. (1 Chron. 29:11; Ps. 1:1, 2; 23:4; 77:11, 12; Matt.20:25-28; 25:31-46; Luke 10:17-20; John 20:21; Rom. 8:38, 39; 2 Cor. 3:17, 18; Gal. 5:22-25; Eph. 5:19, 20; 6:12-18; Phil. 3:7-14; Col. 1:13, 14; 2:6, 14, 15; 1Thess. 5:16-18, 23; Heb. 10:25; James 1:27; 2 Peter 2:9; 3:18; 1 John 4:4.) (Ps 1:1, 2; 23:4; 77:11, 12; Col 1:13, 14; 2:6, 14, 15; Luke 10:17-20; Eph 5:19, 20; 6:12-18; 1 Thess 5:23; 2 Peter 2:9; 3:18; 2 Cor. 3:17, 18; Phil 3:7-14; 1 Thess 5:16-18; Matt 20:25-28; John 20:21; Gal 5:22-25; Rom 8:38, 39; 1 John 4:4; Heb 10:25.)
This is the newest of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs (they were 27 before 2005). It grew out of a series of observations made by the Mission Issues Committee of the General Conference around the turn of the millennium. One of these observations was that many Adventist believers in Africa and parts of Asia did not have any problem combining occult practices with Adventist faith. Another observation was the absence of a devotional life in many of the same places. A third had to do with the relative absence of Christian education in much of the world. The excuse given for non-practice in all of these areas was: They aren’t in the Fundamental Beliefs! If we need to have a devotional life, tell us plainly. If we need to avoid the occult, tell us plainly. If we need to put our children in Adventist schools tell us plainly. So this fundamental attempted to address the issues of the devotional life and avoidance of the occult (the issue of Christian education as an expectation for all Adventists did not make the cut in 2005). Fundamental 11 is, therefore, something of an awkward mixture of two different themes. The framers of these changes didn’t want to add two or three new fundamentals so they combined two into one here.
In addition to the changes in the text list at the end of the statement (as voted in San Antonio 2015), a sentence was added toward the end: “We are also called to follow Christ’s example by compassionately ministering to the physical, mental, social, emotional and spiritual needs of humanity.” There was strong pressure to add a new Fundamental on Christian Social Responsibility. Rather than proliferate fundamentals further, it was felt that adding a sentence here could cover that concern in the larger context of Christian spirituality. References to mental and emotional needs indicate the church’s increasing awareness of mental and emotional illness and of the therapies needed to deal with them. That is a very positive development.
The irony here is that this fundamental calls for the very kinds of practices that are involved in what many call “spiritual formation.” Spiritual formation was taught at the Seminary for more than twenty years of my term there. During that time, however, I never heard the kinds of things that people today associate with “spiritual formation.” So phrases like this can have different meanings in different contexts and different meanings at different times. In order to avoid confusion, the Seminary has decided to change the title of this discipline to “Christian Spirituality.” The content has not changed significantly, and in my mind didn’t need to change, but the mere use of the phrase has become controversial. That is, perhaps, another reason to combine the occult and the devotional life together in one fundamental. “Spiritual formation” is thought, in many parts of the church, to open the way to the occult and Satanic influence. Since those are never good things, the topic of spirituality requires vigilance.
At Loma Linda University we have a number of classes in “religion and culture.” When dealing with culture the lines between truth and error, light and darkness, are not always as clean as we would like, or as many would like to paint them. For example, after the tsunami in Indonesia, western healers went in and often made things worse, especially in terms of emotional healing. The locals seemed to respond better with native methods of healing. That was a surprise to the Christians involved. There are principles in yoga and acupuncture that seem to have scientific evidence behind them, the line between a health practice and a dark spirituality is not always as clear as we would like. In a mission book called Bruchko, a Western missionary recognized an illness and had a medical cure, but the people wouldn’t take the medicines from him! He found it much more effective to convince the witch doctor to dispense the medicine for him, and then the people were cured. Did he do the right thing in intervening in that way or should he have allowed them to die by their own choice?
Another challenging line we wrestle with is the one between demonic oppression and mental illness. In the New Testament, behaviors that we would describe as mental illness were almost always attributed to demonic oppression or possession. Does that mean there was a lot more demonic activity back then? Or were they simply more conscious of demonic activity? Were they confusing the demonic with what we would understand as severe mental illness?
I was asked to address these issues at a psychiatry conference at Loma Linda a couple of years ago. From my reading of Scripture and experience with both mental illness and demonic symptoms I drew the following distinctions between the two, in order to help practitioners distinguish them. 1) If the patient is hearing and seeing things no one else can see, it is likely to be mental illness, not demonic possession. If the healthy people in the room can also hear and see bizarre things, the phenomena are likely demonic. 2) If a person exhibits symptoms associated with mental illness but demonstrates knowledge or abilities that there is no reasonable expectation for them to possess (such as speaking foreign languages they have never been exposed to), demonic manifestation may be involved. 3) Where the presence of certain objects (talismans) seems to aggravate symptoms of mental illness, a demonic element may be involved. 4) If symptoms of mental illness are relieved by medication or medical interventions, the issue was probably mental illness. If symptoms are instead relieved by prayer or spiritual counseling the chance of demonic involvement is much greater. Today’s world is more complicated than the ancient world was.
In the Western world it is often thought that demonic possession and spiritualism are largely manifested in more “primitive” parts of the world. But vampire movies and movies about exorcism give evidence of a latent spiritualism in the West as well. There is much of the demonic in Western culture. For example, the Hollywood concept of a spider-man is widely accepted as a reality in primitive cultures. In addition, many people in the West consult psychics or horoscopes.
An important distinction that is worth mentioning is the distinction between healing and curing. People are cured by the right medicines at the right time, but true whole-person healing comes by other means. We may not in this life be completely sure of the line between physical and mental illness, on the one hand, and afflictions that have a more spiritual origin. Both maladies may often present themselves in the same person. Jesus was able to heal both, but relied on a process when dealing with mental illness (based on John 5:14 in the Greek). Since demonic involvement provokes both physical and mental symptoms, mental illness and the demonic may sometimes interweave with each other.
The entire world is becoming multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, so the cautions in this Fundamental are most appropriate, especially the middle sentence beginning with “No longer do we live. . .” Various cultures see things differently, and there are positive things in many cultures, but much that is taken for granted in every culture is worthy of criticism, avoidance, and/or careful reflection.
When dealing with matters such as this, it is helpful to remember that memories are very creative, so we must be cautious when we hear reports of demonic possession. If someone says things like God spoke to me, or I had an encounter with the demonic, we have to honestly say that we cannot be sure on the basis of such a report exactly what took place. But the spiritually wise thing to do is treat the reports as if they were true and then assess them with all the tools one has available.