Doug and PJ Higby, Wycliffe translation missionaries to the Fulani nomads in Mali, West Africa, are supported by the church I serve. Over the last year, they rejoiced in a wonderful gift of God named Aboubacar, an incredibly brilliant linguist. Aboubacar spoke six languages fluently, was a master of Biblical Hebrew, and was an incredible assistant to the Higbys in bringing the translation into the Fulfulde dialect of the Fulani people. The work of the translation of the Bible into this dialect was progressing very well, despite the usual hindrances such work entails.
But recently, Doug had written us of a series of incidents that he could only attribute to demonic attacks. A new believer's wife was experiencing serious panic attacks that could not be attributed to any medical cause. After instructing the man and his wife in Jesus' power over the evil spirits, they prayed with them, and the woman has had no further occurance. Some days later, a Norwegian missionary's wife suffered a serious accident when a pig ran into her moped, putting her in a hospital in Senegal. Then last weekend, Aboubacar, the indispensable “right hand” of the translation effort, was killed when a truck inexplicably veered off the road into a millet field, killing Aboubacar who was riding his bicycle.
Doug wrote us in his grief. As a man and woman of faith, Doug and PJ were not doubting God’s sovereign love. Nor were they bitter. However, in the flood of what appeared incontrovertible evidences of spiritual warfare against demons, they wanted us to pray diligently.
The urgency of the matter in Mali struck me. I thought my response to Doug and PJ might benefit the readers Dear Doug and PJ and boys, How we mourn your loss with you! I remember how excited you were to tell us of Aboubacar’s incredible linguistic skills, and how excited you were about the possibilities with him assisting you. I recall the church here praying so diligently for his salvation, then for his return when he left for a while. To think that after all this, with all that he meant to your work, the Lord would take him is hard to comprehend.
I haven’t responded for a couple days for several reasons. First, I wanted to think Scripturally, rather than just to react emotionally. Second, I wanted to consult with many men and women of God, including the men’s prayer breakfast and Bethel’s team of 16 prayer warriors who commit to pray for various causes throughout the week. Third, I wanted to discuss the matter with my wife, no stranger to struggles and suffering herself. Finally, I wanted to study Scripture and theology carefully, so much so that I decided to base this Sunday’s sermon (and next) on the issue of Spiritual Warfare, using Romans 8:28ff as my text this week, and your story as the contact point for a church that has pledged to be partners with you by way of prayer. I will have the tape ministry people send you the tapes.
I think the best way for me to address all your questions is to state a few propositions which I believe to be based on Scripture and on the best of biblical theology throughout the ages (and not on much of the superficial and superstitious pablum passed off as “wisdom on Spiritual Warfare” in today's bookstores). These propositions appear in no particular order.
1. The doctrine of the sovereignty of God is immutable, illimitable, and undeniable. Nothing happens by chance, outside His will. However, it is imperative to recognize that Scripture speaks several ways about the will of God. First, it speaks of His “decree will.” Ephesians 1:5,9–10, 11 are good examples. This description of the will of God refers to the overall purposes of God that are not known by man except to the extent that God reveals them. The future of individual men and nations are all encompassed within the will of God. So are the path and the timing of the truck that killed your friend. We do not possess insight into all of this, but Scripture is clear that all is encompassed within His will. James 4:15 speaks of this quite clearly.
Second, Scripture speaks of what theologians call God's “permissive will.” That is, God allows things to occur even though they are not His desire. He permitted the origin of sin in the garden of Eden in Genesis 3; He allowed Satan to kill Job’s children, plague his livestock and health (Job 1–2), but put limits on Satan in regard to Job's life. He allows sin to run its course in people’s lives so that there are murders, rapes, and all manner of violence in our world, even though we know these things are not God’s desired behavior for His creatures. We don’t understand why He permits all this, mind you, but it is clear from Scripture that He permits much evil, originated by Satan and the sinful purposes within the human heart. God is not to be blamed for sin and its outworking. But He does permit it.
Third, Scripture speaks of the “revealed will of God,” that is, the Word of God’s law-will, the teaching He would have us obey in the power of the Spirit. It is against God's expressed will for a person to sin. God desires us to practice what His Word and Spirit teach us. Likewise, it is in this vein that Scripture speaks of the desire of God’s heart that “God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked, but is pleased when they tum from their wicked ways and live” (Ezekiel 18:23). Some think this violates the doctrine of election and reprobation. Others believe this passage renders the doctrine of predestination invalid. But this passage, in speaking of the “desire of God's heart,” speaks differently about the will of God. In this aspect of the will of God, it can be said that we disobey His will, that we are “outside” of God’s will, that we “reject” His will. That cannot be said regarding His “decree (secret) will” which encompasses all people and events and cannot/will not be contradicted.
Aboubacar’s death was a tragedy. Whatever human factors might have played into the tragedy (drunk driver? bad roads?), it surely does not delight God that he was killed in the way he was killed, and that your translation efforts will be hindered as a result. Conversely, it surely does delight Satan.
2. At the same time, God permitted Aboubacar's death. He permitted Satan to interfere in the life of Aboubacar, and in your work. I have no doubt that Satan has the authority to kill. He certainly did exactly that in regard to Job's children. He certainly did so in regard to Jim Elliott at the hands of the Auca Indians. He certainly attacked the apostles of the Lord throughout their lives, and even saw them hung upside down on the cross in a twisted mockery of Jesus’ death. But that authority was given him by God, and is limited by God’s purposes.
3. For you see, in another sense, God’s sovereign decree-will encompassed Aboubacar’s death. God has a plan that will go forward. Its specifics are unknown to us, although the big picture is known: God will bring His gospel to every nation, including the Fulani. Somehow, He will tum Aboubacar’s death into blessing for His cause.
4. Satan has been working hard on your ministry among the Fulani. The other stories you told in recent days verify the truth of the analysis that you are on the front lines of spiritual warfare against the powers of evil. Throughout the gospels, you’ll notice something most interesting. Whenever Jesus (or the apostles, in Acts) first penetrated a region with the gospel (I call it the “front lines” of the gospel offensive), the confrontation with demons and evil spirits is carefully noted and reported. That was true in Capernaum, near Jesus’ hometown (Mark 1:21ff), as well as other towns of Galilee (Mark 1:39, 3:11). It was true whether Jewish religious leaders were present or not. Until the Kingdom of Light liberates a place or a people, the kingdom of darkness prevails. Once the gospel of Jesus the Messiah enters a region or a city, once Christ takes possession, the “prince of this world” (John 14:30, 16:11) is cast out.
When, on the “front lines,” the gospel first enters a region, a people, a family, and when a new and holy Spirit floods in with the liberating truth of God, demons are cast out. They don’t go quietly. That explains why on so many front line mission fields, the “spiritual warfare” is so graphic, and reports of evil spirits, demon possession, and exordsms are frequent and deeply believed.
5. However, in many places like the U.S. and Europe, the sophistication of modernity doesn’t believe in the spiritual battles with demons. The culture has been Christianized through many centuries, and even though living faith is increasingly rare, people assume that because this is not the “front line” regions of the gospel advance, we need not fear the Evil One. Such thinking plays into Satan’s hands, of course. The Devil still labors in the West, and his demons are real and effective. He seems to know that he’s much more effective gripping hearts and minds through seditious ideas and warped values than he is through “unacceptable” demon possession. He’s got the West convinced that while demons are scary, they really belong to Halloween and movies. They are the "dark side" of mythology. If they are real (and for most Americans, it’s a big IF—60% of Americans don’t believe in the existence of the devil, according to a recent poll), they are to be opposed by superstitious rituals and formulas like exorcism incantations, crosses held out before ghosts, and other means. (Even some recent evangelical books on spiritual warfare designate spedfic phrases that “must” be redted in a predse sequence when “doing battle” with Satan’s minions, implying that if the wrong incantation is used, or in the wrong order, the Holy Spirit won’t be strong enough to displace the evil spirit.)
6. All this is to say that I believe that what you are experiendng there in Mali is surely spiritual warfare against the forces of the Evil One. Further, you are on the front lines where the gospel is first breaking into a region and where the kingdom of darkness has reigned without challenge for a long time. Satan will not give up his turf easily. I believe Satan took your friend, knowing that his death would compromise the work of translating the gospel. I believe that Satan used a pig to harm a missionary’s wife, thus hindering church planting. I believe that Satan worked panic attacks in Issac’s wife to cause people to question faith’s power. And I don’t believe what I say here contradicts what I said in #1–3 above.
7. For, going back to where I started above, while evil like this is not God's desire, God is clearly sovereign. That is, even evil, even Satan’s attacks, are comprehended within His overall decree-will. That’s the thrust of Romans 8:28ff. “All things shall work together for the good of those who love Him.” And “good” in this passage is defined by the next verse—it makes us more Christ-like. Don’t forget that just a few verses later the apostle exults: “Nothing shall separate us from the love of God,” and that includes “angels nor demons.”
How may I console you, dear brother and sister? I cannot simply say Aboubacar’s death won’t matter. It will. It will complicate your work, frustrate your plans, make your ministry much more difficult. But it will not, I repeat, it will not, stop the plan of God to penetrate the Fulani with the gospel of His Son. Satan has been bound “so that he can deceive the nations no more until the thousand years are ended.” (Revelation 20:3—which “thousand years” refers to the time between the Ascension and the Second Coming, the time of the Church’s calling to preach the Gospel to all the world, the time during which God restrains Satan so that this work may go forth). While he has not been cast once and for all into the pit, while he still may plague individuals and regions, he may not stop the advance of the gospel. While God may allow him to kill Aboubacar, you, or me, he may not hinder God's overall work of preaching, translation, and conversion. While he may make our work harder with all his temptation, treachery, and deceit, he will not win.
“We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”
Your friend and cocombatant,
Dr. Sittema is pastor of Bethel Christian Reformed Church in Dallas, Texas, and a contributing editor of The Outlook.