Leap year day is approaching. The elusive day, which appears once every four years, brings with it some intense memories. Almost 20 years ago, on February 29, 1996, I was living and working in Peru when a friend and co-worker lost her life in an airplane accident. She had been in my city, working with me on a strategy study team, and was returning to her home in another part of the country. I waved, said “See you next month,” and she got on a plane and died.
Lynn’s death didn’t affect my daily life to the extent that other losses have, but on a purely emotional level, it packed an enormous punch. I’ve never, before or after, experienced denial the way I did when Lynn lost her life. When I was told that the plane was missing, my immediate thought was “That’s ridiculous.” I had a dream where Lynn appeared to tell me the news of her death was a mistake and I replied, “I knew it was.”
There were two main reasons that Lynn’s death affected me so deeply. One was that she left behind three children whose gender and ages were similar to mine and my siblings’ when our own mother died. The second reason is that her death came at a time when our missionary family had already experienced much heartbreak and loss. The month that ended with Lynn’s death began with an automobile crash that left four members of one family gravely injured, with one still in a coma and not expected to live.
Christians in the United States have widely differing views of Satan and his influence in the world. Most Christians I’ve known overseas, however, and most missionaries, have no doubt that we fight a powerful and relentless adversary. Those of us serving with my mission board in Peru believed we were engaged in spiritual warfare. Others believed that, too. Baptist Press wrote an article entitled "Missionaries in Peru Pursue Harvest Amid Satan's Attacks." The article listed some (but not all) of the challenges we had been experiencing and attributed them to demonic opposition to the move of God’s spirit in the country.
Many of the challenges listed in the article involved physical illnesses or injuries. This raises questions about whether or not Satan can make people sick and what else he may or may not be able to do. What does the Bible say?
In the Old Testament book of Job, the source of Job’s illness is made very clear. Job 2:7 says that “Satan left and caused painful sores to break out all over Job’s body—from head to toe.” (CEV) There are also many New Testament instances of illnesses or disabilities being associated with demonic interference. Luke 13:11 refers to a woman “who had been crippled by an evil spirit for eighteen years.” Matthew 9:32-33 relates the story of a man “who could not talk because a demon was in him.” How about injuries and other sorts of disasters? The book of Job tells us that Satan was behind an attack by a gang of thieves, a fire, and a windstorm that collapsed a house, killing Job’s children.
The Bible also speaks about illnesses, disabilities and injuries coming from angels or directly from God. In contrast to the mute man of Matthew 9, we have the mute man (Zechariah) of Luke 1. When Zechariah apparently doubted the word of the angel Gabriel, who brought him news that he would have a son, Zechariah was struck mute until the child’s birth. Job’s skin disease came from Satan, but the skin diseases that struck King Azariah in 2 Kings 15 and Miriam in Numbers 12 came from God. Genesis 32 tells us of Jacob wrestling with God and being left with a limp.
Of course, many illnesses, injuries and other disasters can be attributed to the simple fact that suffering exists in the world because it is fallen and imperfect. In John 16:33 Jesus says, “While you are in the world, you will have to suffer.” There are some who argue that sickness is somehow different from all other types of suffering, but I certainly don’t think the Bible teaches that. I’ll save that discussion for another time. I also don’t think there’s generally a one-on-one relationship between suffering and the personal sin of the sufferer, but I’ll save that discussion, too, except to mention the words of Jesus in Luke 13. He responded to questions about a tragedy by saying, “Do you think that these people were worse sinners than everyone else in Galilee just because of what happened to them? Not at all!”
So what can we attribute to Satan, what to God, and what to simply living in a fallen world? I don’t have an easy rule of thumb to share. I do think it’s probably not quite as easy as attributing the suffering of others to God’s judgment and our own suffering to spiritual warfare, a tendency I’ve noted.
There’s a mysterious interplay between God’s will and Satan’s power. Satan had to ask permission before he could torment Job. Matthew 4:1 tells us that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness so that the devil could test him. Satan’s reach is limited and temporal, but his desire and ability to cause harm is real.
In this season of memories, it’s helpful for me to remind myself that I don’t confront the challenges of this world as effectively as I could when I forget I have an enemy who “is like a roaring lion, sneaking around to find someone to attack” (1 Peter 5:8). When I get angry at people in power who put profits above human health, I need to remember Ephesians 6:12, which notes,“We are not fighting against humans. We are fighting against forces and authorities and against rulers of darkness and powers in the spiritual world.” I’ll try to remember these things when I pray for the world and when I pray for you, my friends, and I hope you’ll remember them as well when you pray for me.