I was teaching my Christian Community Development class in our rural Nigerien Bible School where we were studying the consequences of the Fall in the Garden of Eden in considering what was God's original intention for people and the earth. Prior the Fall, it was clear that God had given humankind power over all living things. Yet what about after the Fall? Did Satan also take our God-given authority?
The students pondered this question. I then asked them “Do Satan and the spirits need your cooperation to act in the world or are they able to make things happen independently?”
One student then recounted a story from his village where a man had agreed to let a spirit enter his billy goat (spirit embodiment of humans and animals is a common theme in West Africa) in exchange for the spirit promising him prosperity. After a period of time the villager decided he wasn't really that better off and wanted his goat back. He ordered the spirit to leave and while the spirit did that, he apparently now had the right to enter the man (for breach of contract?) who then became paralyzed on one-half of his body.
We then discussed that most interactions with the spirit world required some sort of exchange: you bring something the spirit wants and then he (it?) does something that you want (wealth, health, children, protection, etc). It became clear in our discussions that the spirits seemed to need man's assent and involvement to really function. In fact, dealing with spirits wasn't so different from any other market transaction.
I then posed this question at my Nigerien students, “Do the spirits love you?” They almost laughed at this thought. Their response, though, was unanimous: “No, the spirits don't love us—they want something from us.” “So,” I said, “who has the greater authority in the world today: humans or spirits?”
Although stunned for a moment, they admitted that people have more authority. “And according to Genesis”, I continued, “what is the source of our authority?” Some said “God” and some said “Jesus”.
My follow-up was simple, “Who is greater: God or the spirits?” “No doubt about it”, the students answered, “God is greater”. “And unlike the spirits,” I added, “God loves you and asks only that you accept His son and obey Him. Our authority over the world, which began at Creation is still in place, though, as you have evidenced, as sinners, we're only too willing to share it with those who don't love us, but who are God's enemies and who only want our destruction”.
Any teacher will tell you that there are days when you wonder if your students “get it” and there are days when a real breakthrough in understanding occurred. That day was of the latter type.
My assistant, Ayouba, who translates for me in this class (and who is responsible for any student comprehension of my words) remarked as we were leaving the classroom, that for the first time students realized they didn't need to fear the spirit world as Christians. In fact, they understood that the more they dealt with spirits, the more they empowered them, as the spirits really need people more than people need the spirits.
Indeed, for a poor people who often feel forced to sacrifice to appease or to ascertain the spirits' desires, knowing that you have the High King of Heaven's authority provides relief and hope for those living in spiritual bondage. Didn't Jesus say, “I have come to set the captives free”?