Have you ever seen or met someone possessed by demons?
Yeah. You have.
“Possessed by demons” or “having an unclean spirit” may be the biblical language, but whatever language you use, we’ve encountered them, even experienced them.
Historically, we personified or anthropomorphized anything dark, malevolent or evil as a demon – I just did by saying “them” – though the word didn’t specifically mean that. All evils were associated with The Devil and most likely sprang from Hell. That gave us an opportunity to say that the characteristics and behaviours associated with it weren’t us – it was a demon possessing us or acting through us.
Cynically, that might sound like an excuse, both for the behaviour and how we respond to it. But I can’t argue with it. I believe that we’re created in the image of God and that’s love. Anything that isn’t that, well, it could be a demon.
No, my issue isn’t with the language, it’s how we use it. I don’t believe in demonic possession in the whole “hell-spawn of satan” way we’ve historically used it. I think we defaulted to that thinking because of religious beliefs and systems trying to explain things we didn’t understand. We didn’t have enough knowledge to know any different. As we grow, we think, we learn and we become more aware.
The demons that challenge us and take over our lives could be serious mental illness or a disability. It could be post-traumatic stress related and the result of experience, even the result of something we learned or how we learned it. Sometimes, we may even label something we just don’t understand as a demon.
The reason I think we need to spend more time thinking about that is because it’s what’s going to determine our response.
In the Bible, there’s a story of Jesus casting demons out of a man and into a herd of pigs. Some version of the story appears in the gospels of Mathew, Mark and Luke, but it’s Luke’s version I like best.
We’ve always described it as a story of healing. Jesus meets a man, possessed by so many demons they call themselves “Legion.” His community locked him away, at first, but he escaped and they abandoned him to a place he would be alone. Knowing who Jesus is, Legion asks to be sent from the man into a nearby herd of pigs. The possessed pigs then run into the lake and drown themselves. Seeing the man free of his possession and hearing the story of how it happened, the people are afraid and ask Jesus to leave. The man asks to go with Jesus, but Jesus tells him to stay and share his story.
We tend to focus on the moment: Jesus heals the man. Or, let me say that a little differently: the power of Jesus relieves the man of his demons. Notice, by the way, that the demons aren’t simply gone, they go into the pigs causing their death. I wonder if this isn’t a reminder that healing isn’t always easy and clean. Sometimes it comes at a cost. I wonder.
But let’s look beyond that for a moment. Let’s look at the townspeople. At first, their response to the man’s “demons” was to lock him away. Then, when he broke free, they let him go somewhere he could be alone and not bother anyone. Out of sight, where they would’t have to encounter him. Along comes Jesus and he is healed. Do the townspeople celebrate, joyfully embrace the man and thank Jesus? No. They’re afraid and ask Jesus to leave.
That’s not the end of the story. For the townspeople, it might just be the beginning. They’re still broken and afraid, not just of the demons, but of the power that healed them. So Jesus tells the healed man to stay and share his story, the story of his own brokenness and healing, his encounter with Jesus and his experience of God. In sharing that story, others might come to understand both the presence of real “demons” in our lives and the power of Jesus to engage them. In hearing that story, they might know that the power of Jesus is love and learn connection, understanding and relationship. In being that story, they might find true community, the “common unity” of engaging the unique, diverse, frail, sometimes broken, sometimes fearful hearts that are in all of us.