Did God send evil spirits to anyone in the New Testament the same way He did to King Saul?
Towards the end of his reign, Saul has become a rebellious and sinful man, living to please his flesh rather than serve the Lord in the ways he leads God's people. Because of this rebellion, the Lord removes His Spirit from Saul as seen in 1 Samuel:
1 Samuel 16:14 Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord terrorized him.
Before the New Covenant through Christ, it was not foreign for the Spirit of the Lord to depart from an individual. However, this doesn’t suggest the person has “lost” their salvation, nevertheless, it does mean the Lord has removed His empowerment from the person and they no longer work with God's supernatural wisdom and favor. Consequently, the removal of the Lord's Spirit from an individual doesn't mean the Lord still can't use this person for His purposes but they themselves will not have divine enablement.
Interestingly, the second half of verse 14 tells us the Lord sends an evil Spirit to Saul. First, the idea of God using the demonic world for His purposes never fails to fascinate anyone. We know the Lord uses Satan at various times throughout history including in the Garden, in Job’s life and in Judas’ actions towards Messiah.
In 1 Samuel 16 we see that demons can be sent specifically to torment a person which may lead one to ask: Why and how does this happen?
We know the demons do not desire to do God’s bidding, since they rebelled against God in the first place. So, what does rebellion mean if a demon can be “sent” to do God’s will and then seems to gladly complete the mission?
What we conclude from this is that demons must act in predictable ways as they desire to destroy God’s work and seek to undermine His people. When given a chance to torment a child of God, like Saul, a demon will relish the opportunity and seize upon it every time, therefore, the Lord can employ demons when their evil desires suit His divine purposes.
When love of self exceeds love for the Lord and when outward man takes precedence over the inner man we are open to the Enemy's tactics in the same ways Saul experienced. Saul’s fits of terror and deteriorating mental state later leads his servants to propose to call for a skilled musician to soothe Saul. We can assume this idea came to them by way of the Spirit of God so that they would ultimately call for David to enter the court, later becoming the reigning King.
Through the story of Saul and David we are reminded that believers can unknowingly support Satan's goals by living in our flesh and not by the Spirit. Furthermore, all people (whether believer or unbeliever) can be manipulated by Satan without necessarily requiring that a demon indwell a person. The enemy is very powerful, and his power includes tempting believers, delivering false teaching, and even influencing our thoughts and emotions in opposition to God. Some examples of this in the New Testament are many:
Acts 5:1But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property
Acts 5:2 and kept back some of the proceeds for himself, with his wife’s [b]full knowledge, and bringing a portion of it, he laid it at the apostles’ feet.
Acts 5:3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back some of the proceeds of the land?
Acts 5:4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men, but to God.
Acts 5:5 And as he heard these words, Ananias collapsed and died; and great fear came over all who heard about it.
Acts 5:6 The young men got up and covered him up, and after carrying him out, they buried him.
Most notably, Paul was plagued by a messenger of Satan in order to allow complete dependence on the Father:
2 Corinthians 12:7 Because of the extraordinary greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself!
2 Corinthians 12:8 Concerning this I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might leave me.
2 Corinthians 12:9 And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
2 Corinthians 12:10 Therefore I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in distresses, in persecutions, in difficulties, in behalf of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
In addition, we must note that none of these influences require the indwelling of the enemy. Scriptures say that every believer can be tempted by Satan or even taught by him.
1 Corinthians 7:5 Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
1 Corinthians 10:13 No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.
2 Corinthians 2:10 But one whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ,
2 Corinthians 2:11 so that no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes.
Finally, scripture teaches that once the Holy Spirit resides in our bodies (because of our faith in Jesus Christ), we are forever sealed by the Holy Spirit and no longer accessible to the enemy for indwelling:
Matthew 12:43 Now when the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and does not find it.
Matthew 12:44 Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came’; and when it comes, it finds it unoccupied, swept, and put in order.
Matthew 12:45 Then it goes and takes along with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. That is the way it will also be with this evil generation.
In Matthew Jesus explains that were God to free someone from demon possession yet not deliver saving faith, He would have done little to help them. As long as a person remains “unoccupied” by the absence of the Holy Spirit (which is the case for all unbelievers), then that person will be available to host the enemy’s agents. Only if a body becomes occupied (e.g., indwelled by the Holy Spirit) is that person safe from the enemy ever returning to set up a home in the body again. By logical deduction, we must also conclude that once we become a Christian, we are no longer susceptible to demon possession, though the enemy can still tempt, deceive and influence us in negative ways when we live in the flesh and not in the Spirit. You may find a more in-depth teaching on this matter in our Matthew Study.
We must keep in mind that Satan can never act independently of God’s sovereign and perfect will and purpose. So the question is are we taking those challenges and tests and turning them into the benefit God intended? Or are we finding ways to escape the trial or test so that we never learn the lesson God intended?
For an in-depth teaching on God's sovereignty, we suggest listening to our Sovereignty of God series.