While living in Singapore we observed The Hungry Ghost Festival celebrated among the Taoist and Buddhist Chinese in Asia. Affirming that the gates of Hell are opened during the month, they believe that hungry ghosts are wandering the earth looking for something to eat. To not feed the ghosts is to invite their wrath, resulting in some calamity or bad luck through the next year. Offerings to the dead are made including the preparation of elaborate meals and the burning of joss sticks (incense). It is very common to see these meals laid out in stores, in parking lots, outside homes and along the sidewalk. Throughout neighborhoods tents are erected where plays are performed to provide entertainment for these wandering ghosts.
Not leaving anything to chance, fake money called “hell money” is burned to provide for the needs of the dead in the afterlife. They also have paper cars, stereos, dresses, suits, and even houses that are burned in offering. Somehow the paper replicas become the real thing in the land of the dead and the departed relatives will bless the devotee with good fortune for their kindness. To fail to do this means that a home may be haunted, children could be possessed or offended spirits plotting attacks against the irreverent.
Although this may sound strange to anyone not familiar with the Chinese culture, people of the West are just as likely to pay tribute to hungry ghosts as any devoted Taoist.
When my wife was about ten years old she wore a new green dress to school. In one of her classes that day a teacher decided to use her as an example. “Some people should not wear certain colors,” she said, “Take Miss Sands here. Green looks terrible on her.” Esther was humiliated and quit wearing green. Whenever she saw something green that she liked, she heard the voice of her teacher, remembered again the humiliation and put the item back on the rack. For decades the ghost of that teacher stole a choice away from her.
We all bear scars from the friend who betrayed us, the parent whose angry words wounded us, or the teacher, coach or officer who pushed us aside. We believed what they said. And even though many miles or years or experiences have happened since, we still hear the words of those hungry ghosts, even though the one who hurt us may be long dead or gone from our life forever. We pay them tribute by listening to their lies as surely as the Taoist or Buddhist does when he prepares a meal for the dead. We forego an opportunity, refuse to step forward or settle for less than we would because the ghosts whisper that it is not for us, we are not good enough, we are not worthy.
Satan is the greatest among the hungry ghosts. He reminds us of our past sin and failure and says, “How could someone who claims to be a Christian have ever done what you did? Do you think God can forgive you for what you did back there?” His idea is to keep us from claiming our freedom in Christ, to deny ourselves the power of the Spirit in our lives and so limit our effectiveness.
Paul dealt with people who were tormented by their hungry ghosts. He wrote to the very confused believers in Corinth, “Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. AND THAT IS WHAT SOME OF YOU WERE. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
One of the hallmarks of those converted from Taoism or Buddhism is the assurance that they have that they need no longer fear any wandering hungry ghosts. They quit leaving out meals, they no longer burn hell money or joss sticks. The ghosts they had feared for so many years are now banished from their lives.
If those who convert from other faiths can learn to live in this kind of liberty, why are there so many Christians yet hounded by their hungry ghosts? It is time to claim the forgetfulness of God as we remember that the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin. What does He say? “I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions, for My own sake, and remembers your sins no more” (Isaiah 43:25).