Can we leave the orphan spirit behind us, please?

I’m going to tread carefully but unapologetically here among my evangelical and charismatic friends. Partly because many loved/popular preachers have given sermons on this topic, written books on the topic, and filled altars with troubled souls based on this topic. Ultimately though, I write to voice concern with the term ‘orphan spirit’. (If you’ve never encountered the term before, probably little reason to read on.)

To begin with, let’s set something straight. The term ‘orphan spirit’ can’t be found in scripture. It is a created term. No big deal, really. There are lots of those. However, the challenge is trying to find exactly how orphan and spirit ended up together in the same phrase. Orphan only appears twice in the New Testament, in John 14:18 and James 1:27. In John, Jesus promises followers not to leave them orphans. In James, readers are admonished to care for orphans. And that’s it. No mention of an orphan spirit. To get there you have to do some creative knitting and deduction around chapters like Romans 8 and then, to be honest, overlook vs 15-16 and Gal 4:6 which tell us we’ve been given a spirit of adoption.

So where did the ‘orphan spirit’ or ‘orphan heart’ phrase come from? That’s hard to track down. I couldn’t find it in any peer-reviewed journals. It’s not really in scripture. I couldn’t find it in the writings of the desert fathers. It’s not a clinical term. It seems to have kind of appeared in sermons, prophecies and some popular books written in the last few decades. And I’m hoping it goes away as quick as it has appeared. In fact, the more I hear and read about it, the more I detest the terminology and connotations.

Why do I hope it disappears?

Firstly, the terminology and context of most messages categorise it as a problem, something you ‘have’ that needs to be dealt with, loved out or cast out; and immediately, it carries with it a crapload of condemnation and shame. Neither of which can be found in Christ.

Secondly, it categorises real orphans as ‘less than’ and being associated with them as a negative/broken position to be in. It’s religious marginalisation. From what I read in scripture, God is a father to the fatherless (Ps 68:5-6) and we are called to care for the orphans. I wonder how Moses or Esther (both orphaned) would feel about the term?

Thirdly, it’s ethereal in the worst kind of way. By this I mean, it is classed as a ‘spirit’. It’s not a concrete or clinical diagnosis. It’s not clearly indicative of a state of being. Therefore, a senior man or woman of God may ‘perceive it’, and even if you can’t, tell you that you may have it and it must be dealt with. Oh man!

Finally, if you read some descriptions given around the orphan spirit, you find many definitions that match the characteristics of a traumatised, bereaved and perhaps lost or parentless child. In adulthood, it’s a relationally or emotionally stuck person behaving out of unhealed and unreconciled trauma. Could we simply call it immaturity, then? (1 Cor 13:11,12)

It may be safe to say, no one ‘has’ an orphan spirit. I’m of the opinion it doesn’t fall into the unclean spirit category. So what’s the problem to be solved, then?

Well, much of what I read and hear about ’the orphan spirit’ is centred around behaviour and thinking that is opposite to maturity in ‘Sonship’ –  which is grounded in the truth that indeed, in Christ we are all children of God. And this is no small thing, I agree. But isn’t the movement into the full stature of who we are in Christ a lifelong spiritual journey? Does it really necessitate ‘orphan spirit’ terminology? I think Thomas Keating said it well: “…the conviction (that God is absent), that we bring with us from early childhood and apply to everyday life, gets stronger as we grow up, unless we are touched by the Gospel and begin the spiritual journey. This (spiritual) journey is a process of dismantling the monumental illusion that God is distant or absent.” [Book: Fruits & Gifts of the Spirit].

Have we objectified something as a spirit, which is really an old belief structure built upon life’s early experiences – many of which are traumatic and unreconciled? Possibly, because who really wants to go back to that family of origin stuff, wade through past hurts and be born again? That proposition rings with a kind of ‘hell’ for many of us.

Have we coined a phrase and scapegoated an unwelcome spirit because it’s easier than owning the decisions, vows and agreements we made growing up? Possibly, because that means we don’t have to participate in the dismantling of these illusions as part of the spiritual (heart) journey across a lifetime. For many, the idea of repentance, forgiveness, confession and deep inner work as a constant theme across a lifetime is a terrifying proposition, to begin with anyway. Hence, it’s easier to blame a foreign spirit, right?

I’m advocating we leave the phrase and term behind us. I’m advocating that we simply accept the universal human desire for unconditional love, connection, peace and joy as real and ongoing. Perhaps we need more loving healers than condemning preachers. Perhaps, we simply need a reminder of how Grace’s voice of acceptance is encountered along the spiritual journey.

I leave you with these thoughts on Grace from Paul Tillich, because I’d argue that no one ‘has’ an orphan spirit – but we ‘are’ all invited to enter into the truth that, just as we are, we are all accepted in Christ – and that radical notion deserves a lifetime to have it’s full effect!

“Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted.” Paul Tillich. [Book: Shaking the Foundations.]

Shalom,
David Tensen

pic by: @missmia.art

P.S.  Disclaimer #2:  I’m aware that some respected and loved men and women have preached and ministered healing and freedom from this term. Equally, many have used and abused the term, bringing shame, condemnation and further trauma to others. My concern, judgement or issue is not with the people, but the term ‘orphan spirit’.  Defend the messengers if you like/must, I just won’t tolerate dishonour towards myself on social media or commentary.

21 Comments

  1. Robyn Rex February 26, 2019 at 8:27 am

    Thought provoking and interesting point. Thanks David

  2. Megan Dover February 26, 2019 at 10:27 am

    Such great insight! Im thinking this thought process could possibly be applied to other “spirits” we have coined as a means of demonizing people rather than accepting, loving and encouraging people into maturity. It’s a much harder road to tread when we are all called to love one another as he has loved us.

  3. David Tensen February 26, 2019 at 11:45 am

    So true Megan! The term may demonsize the person instead of pointing to some kind of demon! Oh my. Selah.

  4. Kaye Breyer February 28, 2019 at 2:26 am

    Really good! Thank you!

  5. Pat February 28, 2019 at 8:28 am

    Very good points made. It is necessary for articulate writers to blow a little wind to clear the mist we sheep mill around in.

  6. Roselyn Owen March 2, 2019 at 7:51 am

    Excellent David, so well said and written.

  7. Rod Schneider March 3, 2019 at 8:27 am

    I came across what I consider to be more helpful terminology yesterday. Benji Alexander from NZ calls it the “orphan illusion”.

  8. Rebekah August 31, 2019 at 2:22 am

    Like it 100% true! it’s a lack of maturity (biblically speaking). truly mature people build themselves up and do not wait for someone to build them up- they take full trust in Psalm 139/

  9. Dan September 2, 2019 at 7:04 pm

    Why do we say things like,” in the spirit of xmas” for example. ‘Spirit’ can mean its character or nature of a thing. So Orphan Spirit(nature/character) is not such a bad term to describe an abandoned soul. Where did Jezebel spirit come from? It’s not really biblical either…spirit of defiance, spirit of joy, spirit of anger….what’s the issue here? Rebekah says: mature people build themselves up….she’s missed the basis of what this is about. Orphans never had anyone to build them up and what? they should build themselves up when they are empty. Thank God He says He will pick them up because some christians clearly do not understand that everyone is to some degree born with an Orphan spirit detached and fallen away from grace,…but the need for Christian Brothers and Sisters to have Gods adoptive love beaming out of them is what can only really restore an extreme case of the Orphan spirit/heart/nature/character/stronghold….whatever you want to call it, it matters not to the sufferer! He/She just wants freedom from the emptiness that never got filled.
    “You will know them by their love for one another…thats how you know a true disciple”John13:35

  10. Paul mangan September 13, 2019 at 1:50 am

    All good but Grace striking….don’t think so…

  11. David Tensen September 13, 2019 at 10:08 am

    “Grace striking”? Please explain what you mean.

  12. Debi September 14, 2019 at 5:25 am

    I appreciate your term “belief structure” and it inspired a little processing…

    When we think of God as “out there” and we need to invite Jesus “in” to be accepted and united with God, as the evangelical formula/tradition goes, that would seem to perpetuate the “orphan” identity? Evangelism from that perspective requires convincing outsiders they are indeed orphans, (or maybe children of you know who), before reassuring them that if they believe certain things, and invite Jesus into their hearts, Jesus’s Father will come in too and will adopt them.

    I don’t believe that’s an accurate representation of Jesus or the Father, and propose that THAT “old belief structure” is perpetuating a a very real sense of separation (immature believers.) Sometimes adoptees are regularly reminded they don’t really deserve to be “in the family.”

  13. David Tensen September 15, 2019 at 2:31 pm

    Debi, Thanks for sharing your thoughts too.

  14. Robert W Smith February 17, 2020 at 5:04 am

    I agree with your article for the most point. However, if you have lived a life of not getting any if little positive affirmation as a child,even into your childhood years. How is that immaturity. How is it immaturity that because of the you feel that your never good enough and that God will never be able to use you as a Christian? How is it immature to feel or carry such a heavy burden that you constantly feel like a failure. I personally have been recently delivered from that mindset of having to preform to be to be accepted by God. That i wasn’t good enough to be any use to the kingdom and That God wouldn’t use me. So maybe it wasn’t an “orphan spirit” but what about a spirit of rejection. I do not believe that Christian’s can be possessed by evil spirits but i do believe that they can be oppressed. I have never held any ill will or bad feelings about my upbringing. I was raised in a Christian home but the fact remains it did happen and i was hurt. It also hindered me in how to communicate effectively.. being told i had a bad attitude for wanting to talk about how i felt. I think it is very mature to acknowledge that we have been hurt and that we are struggling and need the Lord’s help.
    Respectfully Robert W Smith

  15. Carla February 24, 2020 at 3:39 am

    Such a sane biblical explanation ..’ no such thing as an orphan Spirit …maybe just immature ‘ love it ! …thank you!
    The church we have just moved on after 12yrs due to the Pastor preaching from 1st imaginations chapter who knows ???? just preached on an Orphan Spirit this morning !!! Hope he gets to reads your excellent exposition!

  16. Lindsey March 8, 2020 at 5:43 am

    I feel the term “orphan spirit” describes a person’s mindset or perception. I recently found myself in a situation that caused me to react in fear, worry, panic. All things that are not of God. As I began praying about it this term “orphan spriti” came into my prayer and I understood it to mean behaviors that mirror than of an orphan. Not in a demeaning way such as is mentioned in the article, but rather the fear and panic that would come upon a person who has no source, no one to depend on, no father. But as a child of the living God who owns everything, I have the privilege of not worrying about my needs. I am not an orphan who has to live out of survival mode. I am a child who belongs to the most loving father. I am not an orphan. That is how I see the term “orphan spirit”.

  17. Jo May 14, 2020 at 11:56 am

    As an orphan, I cannot tell you what this means. I am on a zoom call sermon right now on the orphan ‘spirit’. It is completely demeaning as a orphan, and in no way is this in keeping with the Word to care for the orphans. Its disheartening that this has become widespread, and I actively avoid preachings with this when this is in the title. Ugh. It’s so degrading.

  18. SHIRLEY RHODES May 25, 2020 at 3:36 am

    Thankyou so much, this was refreshing and a delight to read. My christian friends have bought into the ‘orphan spirit’ teaching and used it as an excuse for their pastors bad behaviour.

  19. Richsrd February 6, 2021 at 7:30 pm

    Article and comments very helpful.

    Whilst the orphan ‘spirit’ is not something to be addressed or tacked our focus in on knowing and ministering the Spirit of adoption is our focus. The imputed Christ life… Christ in us, the hope of glory.
    Believers can definely move in an orphan type mentality.
    Life stems from our identity as adopted sons.
    Glorious grace. Hallelujah

  20. Jeanntte May 13, 2021 at 4:05 pm

    As described in this blog post: Have we objectified something as a spirit, which is really an old belief structure built upon life’s early experiences – many of which are traumatic and unreconciled? Possibly, because who really wants to go back to that family of origin stuff, wade through past hurts and be born again? That proposition rings with a kind of ‘hell’ for many of us.”

    I believe that we may be talking about “Strongholds” and good news is we can recognize them and pull them down and in other cases we just need to process traumas and feel and face those so we can heal.

    Yes I do agree people love to marginalize others by adding the word “spirit” to everything and expecting people to renounce things that just need to be gently addressed and heal. Another example is “self pity” people often say to just serve others and you will heal, it can happen but not every time. ‘Self pity” can be a sign of negligence in Self Care, People have the need and right to learn how to love themselves so the can love one another in a healthy way. “Lovers of themselves” is not the same as “Self Care”, when the bible mentions “lovers of themselves” I think is talking about cold hearted unmerciful people that don’t care about others, but caring about oneself isn’t a sin but a necessity.

    God bless you all!

  21. CJ October 15, 2021 at 7:35 am

    It seems to me that your problem lies less with the term “orphan spirit” and more so with the application (or lack there of) used by the believer to rid this spirit from its stronghold.

    The Orphan spirit is real, but, just like any spiritual oppression… we don’t fight our battles against flesh and blood. It should never be used to belittle or cast judgment on that person. If that is done, however, does that make the spirit less real? The stronghold less untrue? Not at all! Correction needs to be brought to that person AND the spirit still needs to be cast out.

    The strategy is to go after the lies of this mindset, not the person who is oppressed. We do that first and foremost by declaring the truth of our identity as children of Father God. His goodness, love, He is with us. Not a works based relationship. We come with verses, pictures, songs that bring that truth reflective of what we find in Scripture.

    A good friend of mine summarizes:

    “Five characteristics of an orphan mindset:

    First, spiritual orphans are often angry when others receive honor.
    Spiritual orphans are unable to rejoice in the breakthrough that others receive for reasons such as: jealousy, bitterness, or envy.

    Second, spiritual orphans find little joy in their ministry.
    There is no lasting joy in the hearts of spiritual orphans when they are in the ministry.

    Third, a spiritual orphan’s attachment to the Father is usually based on “what they do.”
    The only attachment a spiritual orphan has to the Father is based on what they “do” rather than who they are in Him.

    Fourth, spiritual orphans detach themselves from those they are angry with.
    Spiritual orphans not only detach and distance themselves from those they are angry with, but they often surmise the evil or sin that others are involved in.

    Spiritual orphans are good at assuming what others are doing and often they contrive untrue stories about those they are angry with.

    The fifth and final characteristic of a spiritual orphan is their inability to recognize their inheritance; a failure to truly see their blessings. Spiritual orphans live in blindness or with a veil over their eyes that keep them locked in a mindset of spiritual deficiency.”

    We fight this with truth; the Word of God. A team of intercessors and I are meeting on Saturday specifically to war against this principality. We will not speak a human name… In fact, the people involved won’t even be there. We are preparing our hearts (cleaning out our own closets if you will) in advance being extra careful to carry no offense of man into our time.

    I completely agree with you sir… There is growth to be had in the Church in HOW we fight and war against these principalities (from charismatic to reformed), but to lead people in saying they don’t exist in my opinion is quite dangerous.

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