So I’ve got my oldest son (11 years old and super smart) reading the Message version of the Bible, starting with the New Testament. A year or more ago I had him start with Genesis. He gave up and forgot about it, and rightly so, and it took me a year to realize how stupid I was. As a nearly 41 year old with a seminary degree, I wouldn’t start with the “Old” Testament if I was beginning to read the Bible in the hopes of following Jesus. I’d start with the gospels and try to get a little understanding of Jesus, and go from there. So this time around I had him start with Mark and then go back to Matthew and read through the New Testament. I asked him to email me questions as he read and said I would email back my thoughts. This was 1) to give us both something to reference in writing as we thought about things and so that we could look back at them later and 2) a stalling mechanism to give me time to come up with my “answers.”
This was his first question:
“I don’t understand. It describes demons in people. Jesus has them come out of the person.”
And God help us both, everything that follows is my “answer.”
We believe, and most humans throughout history agree with us, that we are spiritual beings. As wonderful and amazing as the biological world is- the scientific processes that make our bodies go such as cell division and blood carrying oxygen and plants transforming sunlight into energy and people breathing out carbon dioxide which plants need to live and plants emitting oxygen which people need to live- as amazing as all that is, in fact, in part because it’s all so amazing, we think there’s more to us than all that. We have bodies, yes, and amazing minds (the moxt complex and awe-inspiring “machine” that ever there was), and spirits too.
What is it, after all, that makes us us? Is it just the circumstances of our birth (when, where, and to whom we were born) and the people around us who shaped our personalities plus the consequences of all the choices we’ve made throughout our lives, good and bad? We think there’s something underneath all of that, perhaps literally animating us, giving our brains and bodies a life that is more than the sum of our parts. It’s our spirit that makes us unique. So if we are spiritual beings, then of course there is a spiritual world. We read in the Bible that God is spirit, and that God created us to be like him, also spiritual beings. In John 4:24 we read:
23-24 “It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”
So our spirits are who we really are on the inside, and it’s out of that really-us-on-the-inside part that we’re called to worship God, who is a spirit too.
We also read that there are other kinds of spiritual beings, namely angels, and fallen angels, those that chose not to follow God anymore, those who chose not to be beings of light and love. Those dark spirits, led by the Evil One, the devil, Satan, are also known as demons.
As you just read, the stories told in the Bible tell us that demons can inhabit a person. Literally they can live inside of a person. You asked me if I think that’s just another way of saying that the person is sick, and you may very well be right, though I suspect that it’s a little more complicated than that. When we read in the Bible about someone who is demon possesed, we read about them acting basically like a crazy person, maybe talking to themselves, not cleaning themselves, behaving in ways that are not socially appropriate. Today we think we know a lot more than the writers and readers of the Bible did, and we’ve come up with the idea of mental illness and we give people who “act crazy” all kinds of different diagnoses under the banner of mental illness. We’ve even come up with medicine and other treatments that can improve some of their symptoms. I, for one, say that’s great.
But does that mean that somehow the Bible isn’t true, that the people who “acted crazy” in the pages of the Bible were really just mentally ill and could have benefited from some of our modern drugs? I don’t think so.
I don’t think this is an either/or question (as in either they’re demon possessed, or they’re mentally ill). Like so many things, I think the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle, that this is more of a both/and question (as in both demon possession and mental illness are valid categories; that is, both are possible). Take the passage you read that prompted your question. Didn’t the demon possessed person talk to Jesus and say he knew who Jesus was? I read that as saying that the demon or spirit in the man recognized Jesus as the Spirit, the Being, that created all other beings and even creation itself. I suppose a mentally ill person could say something like that or even have that kind of insight too, but the story makes more sense to me if I read it as one spirit- an evil one, one that is opposed to God’s kingdom- recognizing another spirit- Jesus.
So, bottom line, today we use the mental illness category or idea to describe a whole lot of people whose spirits are broken. They’re sick at the very core of their being in some way. I think that’s a fine description and useful. Nonetheless, I think there’s this other category, this other idea of the spiritual world and the possibility that a spirit that is opposed to God could find its way into a person and influence, even control to some degree, their behavior. If this possibility worries you, I hope I can set your mind at ease. I don’t believe that this could just happen to anyone. We were created as spiritual beings by a spirit, God, and we are invited to have a whole and holy relationship with God. We’re even invited to extend an invitation to God, to ask him to come and join us at the core of our being, where we can love and be loved by that Love (God) that made us. When we do that, we need not fear any lesser spirit moving in and muscling God out so that it can have its way with us. In the end, we belong to God, and he looks after his own.
I want to point out one other thing, something I did two paragraps above. I talked about how the story makes the most sense to me. I was “interpreting” it- reading the words in the book and using the knowledge I have of what I understand those words to mean based on everything I’ve learned and experienced to this point in my life. I used all of that to help me make sense of the story. Everybody does that- every single person on earth, no exception. Anybody who says they “just” read any words in any book and can understand them free of their own ideas and experience is either fooling themselves or trying to fool you. My point is that this is okay. It’s okay to read especially the Bible, an ancient compilation of stories written over thousands of years by probably hundreds of authors, in whatever way makes the most sense to you. As you consider what makes sense or not, I would encourage you to lean on the guidance, wisdom, and experience of the countless people over those same thousands of years who have attempted the same thing you are, attempted to “read” and understand the Bible- God’s word to humanity, the story of his efforts to love us and win us over. I do. This even happens within the Bible. You’ll see Jesus talk about an “Old” Testament passage and talk about it in a new way. Usually when he’s doing it he seems to be trying to get at some larger meaning, some big or bigger idea. This is a useful strategy too, and so here’s another really crucial point. A church Mom and I used to be a part of has this idea they try to live by, this proverb, which is that “Jesus is the lens through which we read the Bible.” Look, there’s a lot of it, especially in the “Old” Testament, that makes very little sense to me. I read about God acting in ways that I just can’t understand. When I struggle in that way, I try to remember that Jesus stands at the center of it all- at the center of the Bible, at the center of human history and even the universe itself, and hopefully at the center of my life and yours. I know Jesus to be the most loving, giving, and selfless being that ever was, and it is this essentially loving being/Spirit that made us and is rescuing us from our own rebellion against his loving order. We read in the Bible that if we want to understand God, we need to look at Jesus. In Hebrews 1 we read:
Going through a long line of prophets, God has been addressing our ancestors in different ways for centuries. Recently he spoke to us directly through his Son. By his Son, God created the world in the beginning, and it will all belong to the Son at the end. This Son perfectly mirrors God, and is stamped with God’s nature. He holds everything together by what he says—powerful words!
“The Son (Jesus) perfectly mirrors God, and is stamped with God’s nature. He holds everything together.” These are powerful words indeed. Jesus was willing to die rather than see us be separated from God through our choice to try to go it alone. That “choice to go it alone,” sin, comes through our choices to do what we want rather than what God says. That sin separates us from the good, right relationship God wants us to have with him, with one another, and with his good, beautiful world. Separated from God, from the one that holds everything together, we will eventually die, not just in our bodies, but in our spirit, in the really-us-on-the-inside part. Jesus was willing to burst through that place of separation by joining us in death so that we could be reunited with God. That’s good news, and that’s gospel truth (“gospel” means “good news”). Of course, the story gets better, becuase God’s love for us is so powerful that even death could not contain it. God made Jesus alive again, and we can hope some day for that same kind of resurrection. In the meantime, we get to live as God’s beloved, as people who have no fear because nothing can separate us from God and his love.
So again, when I struggle with something I read in the Bible, I remember that in Jesus I know everything I need to know about God, and it usually helps me, even if I don’t always get all the answers I want.
So back to the story you read and your question real quick. Jesus told the demon to come out of the person because that’s what Jesus does. He’s in the saving business. His family business is reconciliation (making things right between two parties), and he invites us to join him in it. He saved the person the demon had gone into by telling the demon to get out and gave that person a chance to be free in the really-them-on-the-inside part, so that they could know God’s love in that part of them.
Well, I guess that’s enough from me for now. I probably raised more questions for you? Ask away. Keep ’em coming. I’ll try to be shorter next time with my answer.