1 Corinthians 10:23: “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive.”
Questions around the subject of burning sage, and incense for that matter, have come up occasionally through my walk with Jesus. In fact, the burning of such materials for various reasons has been practiced by people all around the world since Biblical times, and even further back.
The topic being addressed here today, though, is specifically about burning sage, known as "smudging" to some, and whether it is a Biblical practice safe for Christians, Witchcraft, or something in between, and to also answer any loose ends about possible scientific or medical benefits of burning sage.
Burning Sage - The Intent Matters
The practice of creating fragrant smoke from burning organic matter has intrigued people for centuries. Burning sage has been used for a variety of purposes in different cultures and belief systems. So, the big question, is burning sage safe for Christians?
Many Christians are against burning sage, citing the many biblical warnings from our Lord against sorcery and witchcraft.
Some feel like the practice is actually Biblical in nature, looking at the rituals of the burning incense in Catholic churches.
Others are OK with some aspects of smudging, but not all, ultimately saying it comes down to where your heart is and why you are burning the sage. Do you really believe it will "rid your house of demons", and that's why you burn it, or do you believe the Word in which it says only the Lord can rid you of demons?
Like many things in the world, burning sage is not completely good or bad. Let's face facts first - you're burning a dried plant of similar organic makeup to other plants that is just different enough to smell a certain way that is pleasing to some. However, the last point I made above is the one I feel hits home and where this is going - the intent behind the sage burning determines the acceptability of the practice.
If I am burning sage just because I like the smell, then so be it. That is perfectly fine, just like burning incense in your house for the sake of making it smell good. This is what the Biblical practices used it for, and also the Catholic religion (since I brought it up, and that was my past religion as well growing up). Throughout the Bible, burning incense (plants not specified other than 'sweet smelling' or 'sweet aroma') was always to give honor to the Lord as a sweet aroma. It was something the Lord loved and wanted His people to do in specific events, such as ceremonies and church.
But it is an entirely different matter if I am burning sage because I believe it will rid my house of demons, or bring me money blessings in the new year, or rid "evil energy" from my home or an object, or aid in fortune telling or some act of sorcery, rather than pray to God and trust in the Lord in these things, and take the necessary actions needed according to His Commands on life to make these things I want happen. These things were never mentioned as the reason behind incense burning, or sage burning for that matter, in the Bible, and for us to twist the practice this way because we think it does the above is a heretic act towards something God thought to be special during times of worship, prayer, and church.
Just as there are ways that Jesus and His teaching comes into our lives, such as through Bible study, prayer, and with other believers, there are also ways that Satan’s influence comes into our life, such as things like divination (the attempt to determine the future through astrology, horoscopes, Ouija boards, etc.), sorcery (attempts to use secret powers that do not come from God), and spiritism (attempts to contact those who are deceased). Burning sage can easily fall into this category if you are doing it for the wrong reason.
So...What Exactly is Sage? Is it in the Bible?
The plant, sage, is in the grouping of Salvia, which is part of the Lamiaceae family that also includes mint and other sweet smelling plants.
Sage can be found grown all around the world in many variations - there is common garden sage, Salvia apiana, bee sage, white sage, etc.
Sage has many uses aside from burning. To this day, it is used as an herb in common Mediterranean cuisine and cooking, used for medicinal purposes, and grown ornamentally to use on furniture and objects as a decoration. White sage is also extremely common in the South and has been used for food and ritual practices by many Native American tribes for many centuries.
However, sage is not specifically mentioned anywhere in the Bible. It was moreso grouped together with incense in general, as it is highly likely that it was one of the "sweet smelling incense" that were burned.
Revelation 8:3-4 (NIV): Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand.
If you want to see more, simply doing a quick search online of "incense in the Bible" will lead you to many references in the Word, and you will learn that there really wasn't a specific reason behind it other than it pleased the Lord during different actions, events and ceremonies - and that's it. If there was a deeper purpose behind it aside from ritual and ceremonial purposes, we certainly weren't told about it from the Lord.
Why Do People Burn Sage?
The burning of incense, plants, and herbs, as we mentioned before, has been practiced for centuries. The most common and modern term today for buring sage, known as "smudging", originated from northern Native American tribes. In their practice, smudging was a ceremony that consisted of burning plant herbs and resins in either a clay or shelled bowl while prayers were being done. This resulted in a smoke cloud formation that was believed to cleanse the air and those within it.
Today, smudging has become modernized and very popular in the mainstream as well. There are many reasons people smudge, as we have covered already, but today it usually comes down to 2 reasons: supposed spiritual purification and health benefits. I will examine each.
For spiritual purposes, smudging has a variety of purported uses. Popularized heavily from the influence of Northern Native American tribes where smudging was performed before or during important ceremonies, weddings, rituals, meditation, for the sick, prayer, or other significant events, it has worked it’s way into modern mainstream popularity - and is a big part of the “New Age”. The main reason usually centers around the belief that smudging can drive out demons or evil spirits, and “cleanse your aura”, your soul, and the area or room around you. I’ll get more into that in the next section.
For medicinal reasons, again there are many - and honestly, this is how I feel sage is best used. A 2016 study by Adrian L. Lopresti from the School of Psychology and Exercise Science, in Australia, found that sage has compounds that work with receptors in the brain to elevate mood levels, reduce stress, and even alleviate pain, insomnia and anxiety as well as boost cognitive function and help with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Sometimes the medicinal uses are mixed with spiritual intentions, but for some, such as holistic doctors, smudging is part of a natural healing method that they use for treating patients. The fragrance often “sets the mood” for other items they use on patients, coming from a whole-body healing approach.
Sage extract also has many household and day to day life uses. In fact, if you research it, you will find a plethora of products that use sage extract as the base ingredient such as toothpaste, mouth wash, sore cream, facial lotions and washes, hand soap, bath and body wash, shampoo, and even air freshener. There is even bug spray made with sage as the smell will drive away insects.
Is Burning Sage Witchcraft or Sorcery?
Again, this comes down to the first point I made - the intent behind the practice truly matters in this situation. When reading studies that examine smudging as a natural curative agent similar to using essential oils or taking supplements, it seems harmless. However, it’s the spiritual uses that make it problematic. Smudging did not originate from a medical or scientific background - it was from the prior mentioned Native American tribes, and like most of these practices until recent modern times, it was based on some guessing, trial and error, superstition, and sometimes just pure luck.
Today, we know sickness is brought by germs, not demons or negative energy, and modern medicine has advanced accordingly. Now, this is not to say that going down the road with satan won’t lead you to grimy, dirty, germ infested places! But I’m pretty confident that a demon or evil spirit is not sprinkling germs on me - it’s more the bad habits I’d take on following the wrong path that would lead me to sickness. And, sometimes it’s just genetic based on other influencing factors in life that we are not advanced yet enough to recognize.
For followers of the New Age, smudging is thought to purify their “auras” and clear out “bad vibes”. I touched on this a little earlier. They even believe it to be able to cleanse objects of evil spirits and rid demons from your home. A common practice is to burn sage on the night of the new year - I guess to rid your house of all the demons you let in the prior year? The smoke is supposed to attract good energy and drive out bad energy or evil spirits. They even believe it to objects and furniture of “its past life”, so to speak. But I’ll stop right here - vibes, auras, and energy aren’t Biblical ideas. Nor is the idea that smoke can drive out evil spirits. In fact, throughout the Bible where incense burning is mentioned, it was always done at a ceremony because it was pleasing to the Lord. It was never said to be anything more than that. Anything spiritual that doesn’t begin with a foundation of trusting in Jesus is dangerous. We can’t chase off Satan with some fragrant smoke.
The Bible makes it clear that God protects us from evil:
2 Thessalonians 3:3 (NIV): But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one.
The Bible teaches us that the world isn’t ruled by “feelings and vibes,” but rather by our Father God:
Psalm 89:11 (KJV): The heavens are thine, the earth also is thine: as for the world and the fulness thereof, thou hast founded them.
Burning sage does not cleanse our soul - that happens from the blood of Jesus alone:
Ephesians 1:7 (KJV): In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace; Sage will not save us - only Jesus can.
We don’t need pagan rituals to connect to God or experience spiritual growth. Witchcraft, pagan rituals, and sorcery are called an “abomination” by God:
Deuteronomy 10:9-13 (NIV): That is why the Levites have no share or inheritance among their fellow Israelites; the LORD is their inheritance, as the LORD your God told them. Now I had stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights, as I did the first time, and the LORD listened to me at this time also. It was not his will to destroy you. “Go,” the LORD said to me, “and lead the people on their way, so that they may enter and possess the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.” And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the LORD’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?
Again, on the point here, there is nothing actually bad about burning a nice-smelling plant. It is certainly OK for Christians to use a plant God created to enjoy its scent or for medicinal healing purposes - but it is an entirely different matter when it is used for spiritual purposes in place of what only Jesus can do for you.