I’ll never forget the night it first happened to me. I was thirteen, sharing a bedroom with my older brother. I woke up in the middle of the night and felt as if something was pinning me to the bed, choking me, and electrocuting me, all at the same time. The wind was blowing through my open window, causing the curtains to flap, and it seemed that with each gust of wind the electricity running through my body and the buzzing in my ears intensified. I tried to scream, but the more I tried, the more intense the electricity felt, the louder its buzzing in my ears, and the more choked I felt. It was utterly terrifying. I didn’t believe in God or the devil or anything at this point in my life, but I was certain something evil had pounced on me that night, to the point that I didn’t sleep in my room for the next three nights.
Can any of you relate? I’m sure many of you have had similar experiences. Here is an email I recently got from a young woman (whose name I have changed to protect her identity).
Hello Pastor Greg! My name is Carol. When I was in the 8th grade something weird happened to me in my sleep. I would get this loud buzzing in my ears, and my whole body would become paralyzed. During this state I often would hear voices, and see creatures. The doctor says I have “sleep paralysis” and there’s nothing I can do about it. I just have to live with it.
The worst part of all, I have been raped in my sleep! I can’t stop it. And believe me when I say, I CALL OUT IN THE NAME OF JESUS AND THE BLOOD EVERY TIME! But it never works. It just gets angry and attacks me even more. Mentally, this is tearing me down and I’m at my breaking point. So are my parents. In church you talk about how God’s love for us is so scandalous! But when I pray and cry out to him he does nothing. I feel as if he sits back and watches me be tormented by these demons. I have never been involved with a cult, or any supernatural game or activity, except for maybe the cheesy twilight movie but I have repented and rebuked anything that came from those movies.
So you can say I am very frustrated and confused as to why this is happening to me. I love God, but I feel like this ultimate love that he supposedly has for me is fake. He’s not helping me, and I am so utterly hurt and lost. Mentally, I’m going nuts. Please help me, in some way if you can. I can’t go on living my life like this.
I suspect there are others who have experienced something like what Carol is going through. So I thought it might be of some help to share my response to Carol with you.
Carol, I’m so sorry to hear about your terrible situation. I hope something I say in the next few moments can be used by God to set you free. I’ll tell you up front that what I’m going to share may not be what you expected, but I ask you to keep an open mind because I know from experience it really can completely set you free. I’ve suggested this to a dozen or so other people I’ve met over the years who have had experiences just like yours, and it has worked for them.
First, Carol, I want to encourage you in the strongest terms possible to resolve in the deepest corridor of your heart that you will keep your eyes fixed on the cross alone to reveal what God thinks about you. The only weapon the enemy really has on us is fear based on deception, and as he’s done since the garden, his main target is to deceive us about the character of God. If we allow anything other than the cross to be a source of information about God’s character — whether it’s some passage from the OT or some experience we are undergoing — we are vulnerable to being led astray.
Paul at one point said “I resolve to know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor.2:2), and I encourage you to adopt that attitude. The cross means God loves you to the point that he was willing to do everything possible to make you his own. It means he loves you with a love that could not possibly be improved upon. Everything hangs upon you trusting this, Carol. Whatever happens, Carol, lock this in!
Now, about your experience: I don’t deny that the enemy is using your sleep paralysis to torment you. He uses anything that can make us vulnerable to his deception. At the same time, I think it’s important to realize that sleep paralysis is a phenomenon that can be explained in natural terms. I’ve done a lot of research on this because I myself went through a period of time between the ages of 13 and 17 when I had experiences very similar to yours, and I’ve since spoken with dozens and dozens of people who have had similar experiences. You are absolutely right. They were utterly terrifying!
It turns out there is a perfectly natural explanation to what is happening when we experience “sleep paralysis.” You see, our brain shuts down when we fall asleep and turns itself on as we wake up much like a computer does. It doesn’t happen all at once though. Rather, the brain shuts down and wakes up one layer at a time. And normally, as it shuts down and wakes up, the part of our brain that controls our bodily movement wakes up before our conscious mind. But sometimes, for reasons that are still not completely understood, our conscious mind wakes up before the part that controls our bodily movement. When this happens, the person feels like they are trapped. They often feel like something is pinning them to the bed (as I did). They often feel like they’re being electrocuted, and they hear a buzzing in their ears, which sometimes (as in my case) intensifies the more they try to “escape.” And as this is going on, our rational mind, which is always trying to make sense of our experience, imposes on the experience a narrative to interpret it. Often, the person’s worst fears get projected onto the experience, so they feel like they’re being suffocated, or raped, or are about to be dismembered etc.
These experiences are as real as anything can be. Here’s an interesting example of what I’m talking about. In 1977 there were a hundred or so perfectly healthy Hmong men who had recently come to the United States from Vietnam who died of heart attacks in their sleep, without any known cause. The case has recently been explained by a medical folklorist named Shelley Adler who notes that the Hmong people had a theological interpretation of sleep paralysis that interpreted it to be a “night demon” who would attack people and literally squish the life out of them. Something about coming to the United States inclined Hmong men to worry about this happening, and so, when certain men experienced this phenomenon, they interpreted it in this fashion and were so terrified, it caused them to have heart attacks and die. You can read about it here.
Now Carol, I don’t deny that demons were possibly at work to intensify the terrifying experience these people had so that they’d have heart attacks and die. But it’s important to understand that the phenomenon itself wasn’t caused by a demon. It was caused just because this is how the brain sometimes works. What actually killed these people was their interpretation of what was happening to them. If anything supernatural was going on in the deaths of these people, Carol, it was in intensifying their interpretation of the event in order to terrorize them and bring about a cardiac arrest.
The same is true of you, Carol. You are no doubt caught up in spiritual warfare. The enemy is trying to torment you, and thus far it seems he’s been pretty successful. But the warfare isn’t taking place at the level of the experience itself, but at the level of your interpretation of the experience. The only thing the devil can possibly have on you, Carol, is fear that is based on deception.
In this light, Carol, here’s what I would recommend. The next time you wake up and find yourself paralyzed, hearing the buzzing noise, feeling like you’re being raped, seeing creatures and hearing voices, I want you to try to relax and just say to yourself, over and over: “I am surrounded by the perfect love of God, and this is just my brain playing tricks on me.” Don’t fight the experience. Rather, just observe it in a detached, relaxed, even curious manner. In doing this, you’re naming the deception — this is just my brain playing tricks on me — and this in turn causes the fear to go away.
It may be that the creatures you see and the voices you hear feel too real to attribute it to your rational mind trying to make sense of your experience. If so, that is no problem. Even if you believe they’re real, the over-all experience you’re having is not. So even if these creatures are in your room, they aren’t actually raping you. That is what they’d like you to think. That is the deception. So just remember that you’re surrounded by the love of the all-powerful God, stay relaxed, and say to yourself, “greater is he that is in me than he that is in the world,” as the Bible says.
Remember Carol, the only thing the enemy has on you is fear that is based on deception – and the deception is in how you interpret this experience. So relax in the love of God, call out the deception, let the fear go, and you are free.
And again, whatever you experience, whatever you see, always know that the cross alone is to be our source of information about what God is like, and what God thinks of us. Okay?