Serving Ancestral Spirits

Old Xhosa Beliefs

Long before the Gospel reached the Xhosa people, they were aware of God, whom they called Mdali (creator). He was creator of all, the Supreme Being. He was known as Qamata or Thixo, the last being the name commonly used for deity today. God to them was someone largely unknown, who was far off, and did not affect their lives very much. He was only called upon in extremities, as He was recognized to have greater power than the ancestral spirits. It was these spirits that affected their lives all the time. They were nearer to the people than God Himself. If misfortune or sickness struck the home it was because the ancestral spirits had been neglected or offended. If the spirits were served faithfully and well, things would go well with the household. There was constant fear of offending the spirits. If offended, the witch doctor was called to discover the cause, and prescribe the remedy, which often was the shedding of the blood of a white goat. In their heathen darkness the Xhosas were conscious that death did not end all. The departed ancestors lived on and continued to look after the well being of the household. The belief is that when a person dies his spirit goes to the underworld; a place of departed spirits, death does not end all. This place is said to be near the living. There the spirits hear what we say and know what we do. They are watching over the kraal (homestead). There they need food and drink, but especially meat. If they are not treated with respect and given what they need they will cause trouble, sickness or even death in the household. There is a constant fear that one may do something to make them angry. An old Pondo custom was that when the head of the kraal died he would be buried in a sitting up position in a pit dug at the entrance to the cattle kraal (enclosure). He would be facing the kraal, looking towards the great hut. This was so that he could continue to take interest in, and control the affairs of the home. All of this was their heathen belief before the Gospel reached them. The coming of the Gospel liberated the believer in Christ from many of these fears, beliefs and practices.

The initiation of a witch doctor.

Where did the belief in spirits originate? It is not of God, for God forbids such practices. It is from Satan who put such thoughts into men’s hearts to enslave them and keep them in darkness. Let us look at the initiation of a witch doctor. When someone is sick or shows signs of demon possession or has had bad and terrifying dreams they will go to the witch doctor for an explanation. Every dream will be told to the witch doctor who will be thrilled to hear them, however terrifying they may be. This goes on until the person is told they are ‘white’ meaning that they are a suitable candidate to be trained as a witch doctor. Once having submitted themselves to be trained as a witch doctor they will be expected to leave their home and for about a year live with their leader or instructor, who will treat them as slaves. They will be trained in the use of herbs and roots to be used as medicine. Also they will be shown tricks to deceive those who will come to them. When the training is over, a great feast will be held to celebrate the occasion. Many sheep or goats are slaughtered as well as an ox. This time not only white goats will be sacrificed but also black and stripped goats. Tribal dancing will take place accompanied by the beating of drums. Presents are given to the new initiate, who in turn will present gifts to her instructor. Tricks will be played on the new witch doctor to test if she is gifted and thoroughly trained. Such tricks as taking an ox to be slaughtered to a distant place were it is hidden. The initiate is asked to bring it back. By the power of demons possessing her she may be successful, but some do fail. Those who fail are then expected to train under another witch doctor. Only when there are signs that they are possessed by demons are they fully initiated. The final act of initiation is to sprinkle them with water. They are now free to operate on their own.

The training of a faith healer.

The traditional faith healer’s training is somewhat similar. Instead of using herbs and roots they use holy water (isiwasho) to which at times aspirins or Epsom salts have been added. This is water in which the faith healer places her hands and blesses it. People who come to the faith healer (abathandazeli, literally meaning “one who prays for”) for help are asked to bring candles, salt, and carbolic soap and Jeyes fluid to be blessed before they use them. They claim to do their healing by prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit. There may be cases of healing and miracles, and casting out of demons, but this is not by the power of God, but of Satan. Some people who claimed to have done healing and miracles, and who thought they should be received into heaven, found them shut outside. The Lord said to them: “Depart from me you workers of evil”. Speaking to the Lord they said, “Lord, did we not prophesy in your name! And in your name cast out demons and perform many miracles”. They were not true Christians but the Devil’s servants, sent to deceive people (Matthew 7:21-23). They rely on their dreams and magic arts. Many wear a uniform, which they claim was shown them in a vision. When a sacrifice is to be made they use a sheep instead of a goat. This is brought inside the hut where the service is to be conducted, and the animal is blessed before being slaughtered. Then those who gather will sing choruses and dance round the room clapping their hands, accompanied by the beating of drums. This will continue all through the night.

Serving the spirits.

If a person submits to ancestral spirit worship, they become the slaves of demons, and live in constant fear of the spirits. They will be required to slaughter a white fowl and after that a white goat or even an ox. If they dream about their ancestor being thirsty or hungry they will have to offer a sacrifice. Everything in life has to be reported to the spirits. If one is saved in an accident they must say thank you to them. They will be required to inform the spirits of every move or experience. If they get a new job, or move house, or go on a journey, or if one is ill, all this must be reported to the spirits. In cases of sickness they will be required to offer a sacrifice to appease the offended spirits. One who serves and worships the ancestral spirits is in continual bondage. Only the Lord Jesus can set a person free from such bondage. “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). Those who trust the Lord Jesus Christ no longer live in fear, knowing the Lord is with them to keep them from all danger and evil.

What is the Christian’s attitude to these customs?

Many of the believers have been brought up in the beliefs and superstitions of the heathen. Before conversion they were subject to fear, and in bondage to the powers of darkness. Even when saved through trusting in the Lord Jesus, some find it hard to break away completely from those beliefs and practices. We thank God for those whom He has set free and speak out against such beliefs, and will not allow them to be practiced in their homes. Sad to say, many so called Christians still cling to their old beliefs and practices, even though slightly changing the name to disguise them. For instance, the sacrificing of a white goat to placate the anger of the spirits is called “idini” (sacrifice). The same animal is sacrificed, but those called to the feast are told it is a “dina” from the English word “dinner”.

We often wonder if the ceremony to unveil a gravestone does not have the idea in the back of their minds to “ukubuyisa abaphantsi” (to bring back the departed spirit). A ceremony, which involves the slaughtering of an animal and shedding the blood in sacrifice, is to invite the spirit of the departed to return to look after the home.

When a white goat has been offered in sacrifice to the spirits, the bladder or a strip of skin of the animal is made into a bangle and worn on the wrist to show the sacrifice has been offered. Sometimes the bladder is dried and baked and then eaten by the one who has offered the sacrifice. I have often seen the blown-up bladder worn on the heads of the heathen. The more educated wear the strip of skin on the wrist or around the neck. Often so-called Christian women wear this strip of skin under the blouse to hide it from church leaders. They seem to forget that God sees and knows all, and that one-day they will answer to Him for every action.

Movement back to heathen customs.

I was surprised and grieved to hear on TV two prominent bishops of two well-known churches say that Christians should not reject the belief in ancestral spirit worship, but should seek ways to accommodate and incorporate these beliefs into Christian worship. This shows how far the departure from the Word of God has already taken place. For the true Christian there can be no compromise with the powers of darkness. What fellowship does Christ have with Satan? There is a strong movement today, even among many highly educated Africans to return to ancestral spirit worship, to return to the old heathen traditions and customs. Some try to support this by saying that even Jesus knew His ancestors, as recorded in Matthew 1. Jesus did know His ancestors, but certainly did not worship them. Jesus said, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only'” (Matthew 4:10). The reason that the genealogy of our Lord is recorded is to prove that He was a descendant of David by His incarnation. And that He had the right to the throne of David over Israel. He was born to be king of the Jews.

The Christian’s position today.

How should the Christian act as a child of God, in view of the strongly advocated getting back to ancestral spirits and heathen customs? In this article we will search the Scriptures to see what God says to us in this matter. This is to be our guide, and we are to stand firm on the truth set forth in the Word of God. There may be those who do not agree with us when we refuse to keep the customs, and it may cause conflict in our households. But it is better to please the Lord than to please man. The Lord warned us that following Him would cost us something, and may cause differences in families. Read Matthew 10:34-36 ~

34Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. 35For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. 36And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.

But knowing God’s will, we must do it, for it is a dangerous thing to challenge God or disobey His Word. Adam found this out to his cost, for he fell into sin, and brought sorrow and judgment on himself and a curse on the whole world.

The Lord God we serve.

When we accept Jesus as our Savoir, our sins are forgiven, and we are accepted into the family of God. We are united to the Supreme Lord of heaven and earth. After His resurrection Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). The highest place in heaven is given to Him. “God raised Christ from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in heavenly realms. Far above all rules and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the age to come” (Ephesians 1:20-21). When the Lord Jesus was here on earth, the demons recognized Him as the Son of God, and they trembled and feared before Him (Matthew 8:29). He exercised power over them, and cast them out of those possessed, destroying their power. “Jesus shared in humanity so that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power death – that is the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). All principalities and the powers of darkness are now subject to our Lord Jesus. We agree that they may attack us seeking to cause us to fall into sin. The Lord is with us and gives us the power to overcome. “Be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power. Put on the full armour of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is against the powers of this dark world, and against the spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:10-12). The Lord assures us that no believer will ever perish and none can ever pluck us out of His hand (John 10.28). We are saved, safe and secure for eternity. This is the Lord we serve and obey.

One God only.

There is only one God whom we serve. When we accept Jesus as Savoir, we are made a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). We are then “rescued from the dominion of darkness and brought into the kingdom of the Son He loves” (Colossians 1:13). We are told to have nothing to do with the works of darkness. “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them” (Ephesians 5:11). Jesus said, “No man can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). We have been delivered from the mastery of sin and Satan, to serve the Lord Christ. Jesus taught us, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only” (Matthew 4:10). There is but one God, and we are His. “I am the Lord and there is no other, apart from me there is no God” (Isaiah 45:5). “Fear the Lord your God and serve Him. Hold fast to Him” (Deuteronomy 10:20). He alone is our trust and hope, and we are to serve Him fervently, and love Him devotedly. When Israel entered the Promised Land the Lord told them strictly not to serve the idols of the land, or to follow their heathen customs. “When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there” (Deuteronomy 19:9). “Do not follow other Gods, the gods of the people around you, for the Lord your God is a jealous God, and His anger will burn against you” (Deuteronomy 6:14,15).

When they did turn to idols the Lord had to punish them. If a Christian follows heathen customs, they will lose their joy in the Lord, and bring chastisement on themselves. We can only serve one Lord and Master.

No contact between the living and the dead.

Scriptures shows that God does not allow the living to communicate with the dead, or the dead to communicate with the living. The Lord told us in Luke 16:19-31 of two men in eternity, this to teach us important lessons. There is a great gulf fixed between the saved and the lost in eternity, so that they cannot come together (Luke 16:26). There is also a great gulf fixed between the living and the dead. God forbids any attempt of the living to contact the dead. “Let no one be found among you who practices divination, or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord” (Deuteronomy 18:10-12). Also there is no way in which the dead can contact the living.

There are mediums and spiritists who say they speak to the dead, but in reality they are speaking to demons, who impersonate the one they think they are speaking to. God knows this danger, so forbids any contact with the dead. There can be no fellowship with demons. “I do not want you to be participants with demons” (1 Corinthians 10:20). Only once in history did God allow the dead to speak to the living as recorded in 1 Samuel 28:7-25. On this one occasion King Saul knew he was doing wrong, and that God had forsaken him because of his disobedience. Saul went to a medium that attempted to call up Samuel, who had been dead for some time. It is evident that the medium was not accustomed to seeing a form appear when consulting the dead, for when the form of Samuel appeared she was so surprised that she cried out in fear.

So we see that a lot of the practices of the medium were trickery and deceit, deceiving the people who came to her. Saul did not see the form of Samuel but only heard his voice. Samuel did not talk to the medium but only to Saul. Samuel only confirmed what he had told Saul during his lifetime, and added that he would die the next day because of his sin. The Bible says plainly that “Saul died because he was unfaithful to the Lord; he did not keep the word of the Lord and even consulted a medium for guidance, and did not enquire of the Lord. So the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David” (1 Chronicles 10:13-14). Such is the reward of those who disobey the Word of the Lord.

Can the ancestral spirits help us?

Those who call upon the ancestral spirits do so with the thought that they have the power to help them. There is also the thought that they are nearer to God and can get help from God for them. These two thoughts are completely false. The dead cannot help themselves much less the living. This raises the question as to where the dead are now. Those who die in their sins, not having accepted Jesus as their Savoir are in Hades, the place of departed wicked spirits. There they wait the judgment day, when they will be thrown in the Lake of Fire to be there eternally. “The cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars – their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulphur. This is the second death” (Revelation 21:8). The rich man of Luke 16 found himself tormented in flames (see verse 23). He was well aware that he could do nothing to leave that place. He asked that someone might be raised from the righteous dead to preach to his brothers. This was firmly denied him, as they could not come back to earth. He was told people have the Scriptures, which can lead them to salvation. If they will not hearken to the Scriptures neither would they believe even if one rose from the dead? The Bible says, “As a cloud vanishes and is gone, so he who goes down to the grave does not return. He will never come to his house again, his place will know him no more” (Job 7:9-10).

The righteous dead, those who die believing in Jesus are in heaven and would not want to return to this earth. Neither are they permitted to do so. When God wanted a message to be conveyed to certain people on earth He sent an angel to do it. So if the dead cannot return to the earth how can they possibly help the living? The prophet of old said, “When men tell you to consult mediums and spirits, who whisper and mutter, should not a people enquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and testimony: If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn. It is the Living God who is our helper’ “Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 121: 1-2). He is with us to be our helper. God has said, “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you”. So we may say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper. I will not be afraid. “What can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:5-6).

Can the ancestral spirits harm us?

Some may say, won’t the spirits be angry with us if we do not keep up with the customs? Just as they cannot help us, neither is it in their power to harm us. We have nothing to fear, for we serve the Lord Almighty, and we are safe in His keeping. The belief is that when a person dies his spirit goes to the underworld, a place of departed spirits. Death does not end all. This place is said to be near the living. There the spirits hear what we say and know what we do. There is a constant fear that one may do something that may offend them. This then is the belief of the unconverted.

What do the Scriptures teach? A certain king hired a soothsayer to cast a spell on the Israelites and curse them, but he could not. Balaam the soothsayer answered, “There is no sorcery against Jacob, no divination against Israel” (Numbers 23:23). So the Lord’s people are kept safe in His care. God has His angels to guard us against evil. “No harm will befall you; no disaster will come near your tent. For He will command His angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. They will lift you up in their hands, So that you will not strike your foot against a stone” (Psalm 91:10-12). “The angels of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him, and He delivers them. Taste and see that the Lord is good, blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him” (Psalm 34:7-9). Satan wanted to attack Job, but he could only go as far as God allowed him (see Job 1:12).

When sickness comes.

When misfortune of sickness comes should we not sacrifice to the spirits to be helped? The question is: whom do we trust? Do we trust the Living God or the dead? God may be testing us by allowing sickness in the family to see what is in our hearts, and whether we will turn to God or man. King Asa of Judah was a godly man who brought in many reform in Judah. But at the end of his life God tested him by allowing him to be sick. It is recorded of him that “Asa was afflicted with a disease in his feet. Though his disease was severe, even in his illness he did not seek help from the Lord, but only from the physicians” (2 Chronicles 16:12). He failed the test God put him through. When God tests us what is our reaction? The Word says, “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength, and whose heart turns away from the Lord” (Jeremiah 17:5). As God’s people let our trust always be in the Lord. How sad when some look to the ancestral spirits to do for them, what only God can do. “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in Him” (Jeremiah 17:7).

God is near His own.

I was surprised to hear on TV a prominent bishop say that God was far from us, but the ancestral spirits were nearer, and therefore it is not wrong to serve them. This saying is surely because of his ignorance of the Scriptures. To the believer in Jesus Christ, God is our Father. We have been called to enjoy fellowship with the Father and with the Son. “Our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. We write this to make your joy complete” (1 John 1:3,4). Being sons of God we call Him Father, Father. You have received the spirit of sonship. And by Him we cry “Abba, Father”. The spirit testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. We have been made priests unto God. “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God’ (1 Peter 2:9). As such we have direct access to God our Father. “For through Him we both have access to the Father by one spirit” (Ephesians 2:19). We are taught, “there is one God and one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ” (1 Timothy 2:5). So we do not need the intercession of Mary or the Saints. Nor do we need to rely on the ancestral spirits as mediators. The child of God is blessed indeed in the communion we have with God.

A call to repent. If you are one of those serving the ancestral spirits now, or have done so in times past, we ask you to repent and seek forgiveness from the Lord. Satan would like to keep you in bondage in his kingdom of darkness and under the fear of the spirits. But the Lord is ready to deliver and to set you free. “Seek the Lord while He may be found, call on Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and He will have mercy on him, and to our God for He will freely pardon: (Isaiah 55:6,7). “Repent then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out” (Acts 3:19). The blood of Jesus Christ has power to cleanse from all sin, and to set you free. So that you can serve the Living God with no fear of the ancestral spirits or soothsayers. Will you not believe on the Lord Jesus now?

Conclusion.

Here is our conclusion to our study of the Scriptures on this matter. God in His goodness has set His people free from all fear of the ancestral spirits, or the power of demons. “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1). How can a child of God turn back again, and put him under bondage of the fear of the spirits? We have been brought in to the kingdom of our Lord Jesus the kingdom of light, how could we ever go back to seek help from the powers of darkness? Let us trust implicitly in the Living God whom we have come to know, and in who is all our trust. In times of trial or sickness or even death He will be with us to carry us through. We have seen that mediums and those who try to call up the dead are an abomination to the Lord.

We should steadfastly avoid any contact with them if we want to abide in the blessing of the Lord. In Israel the death sentence was passed on all mediums. “A man or woman who is a medium or spiritist among you must be put to death. You are to stone them, their blood will be on their own heads” Leviticus 20:27). God says, “I will set my face against the person who turns to mediums and spiritists to prostitute himself by following them, and I will cut him off from his people” (Leviticus 20:6). How could a Christian have anything to do with them? Indeed blessed is the man who makes the Lord his trust, whose hope is in the Living God and His Son Jesus Christ. “Blessed is the man who makes the Lord His trust, who does not look to the proud, to those who turn aside to false gods” (Psalm 40:4).

(Author Unknown: Believed to be an African brother in Christ, taken from the website http://www.met.org.za/ . Some amendments pertaining to Scripture references)

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