Back in 2009, a man from our old neighborhood, feeling despondent over the loss of his job and the tremendous debt he was carrying, chose to take the lives of his wife, his five children, and then killed himself. How terrible it is to lose hope. And when you look at all the mass shootings recently, this loss of hope seems to be a lot more common. Having had an anxiety attack once, I can understand how this feeling of fear and hopelessness could lead a person to desperate acts. What demons must have tortured this man.
We are all tortured by demons. I have mine. You have yours. We all have those horrible fears we keep deeply hidden. We all have those things in life that control us. One person is addicted to coffee. Another is addicted to chocolate. Some folks are addicted to video games. But when you look at folks like the guy who killed his family, our demons seem like fairly wimpy little dudes. Considering what that guy did, you can see why people in ancient times believed that people were possessed by actual demons and unclean spirits. I mean, just look at Dick Cheney!
How else do you explain people continuing to do something that they know is self-destructive? Addictions make no logical sense, do they? Why would anybody smoke cigarettes in this day and age when we know all the harmful effects of smoking, not only to the person smoking, but to everybody else around the smoker also? Cigarettes don’t make you feel particularly good. They don’t get you high or anything. The closest thing to a positive aspect to smoking is that you look kind of rebellious and cool with a cigarette in your hands. But people smoke. People do all kinds of really destructive things that, although they want to, they cannot stop doing. That seems pretty demonic to me.
Jesus, according to the gospel accounts, had several encounters with demons. He faced his own demons more than once and overcame them. He faced demons in the wilderness immediately after his baptism, demons that tried to persuade him to give up his mission. He faced demons in the garden the night of his arrest, demons of doubt, and a desire to avoid the fate he knew awaited him. Even his own pals brought demons along with them to tempt Jesus away from his mission. Jesus had a lot of experience in battling demons.
“Then they [Jesus and his buddies] came to Capernaum,
and on the Sabbath, Jesus entered the synagogue and taught.
The people were astonished at his teaching,
for he taught them as one having mastery of the law and not as the scribes.
“In their synagogue was a man with an impure spirit;
he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?
Have you come to destroy us?
I know who you are—the one, holy, belonging to God! (You are the holy one of God)’
“Jesus rebuked him and said, ‘Shut up! Come out of him!’ The impure spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him.
“All were amazed and asked one another,
‘What is this?
A new teaching with mastery.
He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.’
“And word spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.” (Mark, Chapter 1, 21-28, BDT)
“Yeah, well,” you say, “I don’t believe that really happened, and even if it did, I don’t believe in demons!” And I say that it doesn’t matter if it happened or not. Where Matthew spent most of his gospel trying to prove to a basically Jewish audience that Jesus was the long awaited messiah, Mark spends his gospel trying to prove to a bunch of gentiles (AKA pagans) that Jesus is a holy guy. To pagans, holy guy means a god, and by god, they mean someone who is fucking powerful. So Mark is full of miracle stories. That’s what the pagans wanted to hear.
The meaning behind the miracle is still valid. Follow the teachings of Jesus, and you can free yourself from the demons that plague you. Nowhere in the gospels does it suggest that following Jesus is the only way to be free of demons. Since there were prescribed thanksgiving offerings for such things, one would have to assume that people did, from time to time, find themselves freed from their particular demons. But certainly Jesus does appear, by all accounts, to have control over the demons he encounters.
I have encountered two specific ways to overcome demons. Becky and I were running the Los Angeles Marathon once, in the cold, and the rain. We had not adequately trained for the race at all. We had not planned to run it, but had been persuaded by a friend of ours. Halfway through the race, the city pulled up its support. No more water. No more cheering crowds. It was wet. It was cold. Cars driving by were splashing us. We were miserable. We wanted to quit. And all along the way, there were the shuttle buses waiting to take the quitters, the defeated, back to the starting line, to warmth and comfort. How they tempted us. We were cold, wet, tired, and every muscle in our bodies was screaming. But we didn’t want to be defeated.
And then, around mile twenty, we found these teenage girls running. They were having a miserable time, too. It was their first marathon. They had trained for months. They were part of the “Students Run LA” program, which trains high school kids to run the marathon in order to give them confidence and a sense of accomplishment. It’s a good program. Anyway, they were struggling. We started talking to them. We discovered that they went to the same high school that Becky attended as a girl. Well, she wasn’t about to let them fail. We started to encourage them, to talk them in. We kept on helping them along all the way up to the last mile by which time they knew they could finish and they surged ahead. And we finished soon after, having forgotten our own pain, doubts, and temptations to quit.
We overcame our own demons of doubt and pain by reaching out to help someone else on the way. That was a very educational experience. You can overcome your own demons by reaching out to others. Take care of other people and your own needs end up being met. That’s following the teachings of Jesus. That’s what he told us to do, to love one another. That is one way to overcome your demons.
Prayer is the other. I have weight issues. What can I say? I like food. It brings me comfort. It also makes me fat. Food is one of my demons. I have lost weight many times, and I have tried to lose weight many times. Sometimes the diets work, and sometimes they don’t. I have noticed that the times the diets have worked have always been times when regular prayer was a part of my life. I get fat when my life is out of control. My life is out of control, and so my eating gets out of control, and then my weight gets out of control. And the times my life has gotten out of control were times when I prayed whenever it hit me to do so, but with no regular, disciplined time set aside for prayer.
Recognizing that my life is out of control, I make the conscious decision to get a hold on myself, so I start setting some time aside out of every day for prayer, usually first thing in the morning, and the last thing in the evening. And when I do that, when I say my morning and evening prayers, I start to reclaim my life. Now maybe this is all psychological, but it doesn’t make it any less real. Perhaps it’s all in the symbolic gesture of doing some specific act. I control my prayer life, so I get control of the rest of my life. Maybe going out for a morning run would do the same thing. Maybe it would. But prayer does work. I can testify to that. Prayer helps you cast out your demons. The puzzle is why I ever stopped.
Jesus cast out demons in the bible stories. But Jesus also says that if we have faith, we can do the same things he did and greater. You and I have the authority to cast the demons out of our lives, whatever demons afflict us. It doesn’t matter if they are the demons of fear or addiction, or real fucking demons. I have no problem believing in evil spirits. They make about as much sense as ghosts and angels. If you can believe that psychics can talk to dead people, it shouldn’t be too hard to believe in demons. However, whether they be real demons or not makes no difference, they afflict us and the teachings of Jesus hold a key that will release us from those afflictions.
You have the power to overcome anything. You can achieve anything you set your mind to do. You just have to believe you can. You just need to have a little faith. Just do what Jesus did. Say a little prayer and reach out to take care of one another. You’ll be master of all your demons. After all, I know who you are. You are the one, holy, belonging to God.