By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, March 25, 2001

Deuteronomy 32:15-18 Sacrificing to demons

Jeshurun grew fat and kicked; filled with food, he became heavy and sleek. He abandoned the God who made him and rejected the Rock his Savior.

They made him jealous with their foreign gods and angered him with their detestable idols. They sacrificed to demons, which are not God--gods they had not known, gods that recently appeared, gods your ancestors did not fear.

You deserted the Rock, who bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.

Mark 5:1-20 Jesus heals a demon-possessed man

They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.

When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, "What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won't torture me!" For Jesus had said to him, "Come out of this man, you evil spirit!"

Then Jesus asked him, "What is your name?"

"My name is Legion," he replied, "for we are many." And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area. A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, "Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them." He gave them permission, and the evil spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.

Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man--and told about the pigs as well. Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.

As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, "Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you." So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.

Apocalypse Revealed #458 The meaning of sacrificing to demons

"Demons" means evil cravings that come from materialistic loves. This is because in hell, anyone who has these cravings is called a demon. People who have these cravings also become demons after death. Further, there is a connection between demons and these kinds of people; for we are all connected with spirits as to our emotions--so much so that they make one. From this we can see that worshiping demons means indulging in these cravings because we love them.

When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him. (Mark 5:2)

These days we don't talk much about being possessed by demons. Yes, popular horror films like The Exorcist, with their graphic portrayals of demonic possession, have made the rounds in our culture. But most respected professional types think the idea of possession is a throwback to earlier, more superstitious times. Now we have a much more scientific view of things than they did in Biblical times; what they called demon possession, we call "mental illness."

This, of course, is based on a worldview that does not accept the reality of the spiritual world--or takes it as a given that if the spiritual world is real, it can have no noticeable effect on the material world in which we live. Today, the educated leaders of our society tend to think more in scientific terms than in spiritual terms. Even most Christians in our culture would generally call an insane person "mentally ill" rather than "possessed by a demon."

This is partly because there is less stigma attached to being mentally ill than to being demon-possessed. But it is also because in our scientific society, we are reluctant to accept the idea that there are spiritual forces--spiritual personalities--influencing us all the time. It is an ideal of science to be able to explain everything through physical and biological processes, without resorting to unseen entities from another realm. So just as we no longer think of physical illnesses as being caused by evil spirits molesting us, we are now trained to think of mental illnesses as originating, not in possession by devils, but in malfunctions of the brain.

While this does take away much of the social stigma and much of the fear associated with the idea of demon possession, from a spiritual perspective it also takes away the most powerful ways to approach what we now call mental illness. Yes, the medical and psychiatric world has some impressive tools at their command for controlling mental illness. But many of these tools come at the expense of dealing with the deeper causes. They tend to control, but not cure the mental and emotional instability that plagues those who struggle and suffer with conditions that could aptly be called a personal hell.

Medical treatments do have their place, especially for those who are not prepared to face the full depth of the dark forces pulling them down. However, I have come to believe that the only true and lasting "cure" of "mental illness" comes from a living relationship with the Lord--preferably within the fellowship of some kind of church or other spiritual group. Of course, there are some mental illnesses that are truly physical in origin--such as inherited handicaps that prevent people from fully maturing mentally. But for most adults with normal brain capacity, I believe the causes of "mental illness" are primarily spiritual.

This does not mean that anyone who struggles with mental or emotional instability is somehow an especially evil or sinful person. Yes, if we continuously make bad choices, it can eventually send us off the deep end. But we may also be struggling against a great many influences beyond our control that have gradually torn down the structures of stability in our mind and spirit. Just as we can be physically sick either because we have lived in an unhealthful way or because we are stuck in an unhealthful environment, we can be spiritually sick both through our own choices and through the physical, emotional, and spiritual injuries that have been dealt to us by the world and the people around us.

In other words, the point of saying that mental and emotional instability has spiritual causes is not to point fingers of blame and shame, but to provide a more powerful way to deal with that instability--no matter what its cause.

The story of Jesus healing the demon-possessed man illustrates many of the issues we grapple with in approaching mental illness. Using the Biblical perspective, here was a man who was possessed not by one, but by many devils--so many they called themselves "Legion." This man was not in control of himself, and no one else could control him either:

This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.

If we look at the spiritual symbolism in this description, we gain a deeper understanding of the psychological reality that is expressed blatantly in mental illness, and more subtly even in those of us who think of ourselves as being mentally stable. Because what we call "mental illness" is really just an acting out of forces that are at work in all of us--but which are better controlled and concealed in some than in others.

First, this man lived in the tombs. The tombs referred to in the story were caves in the cliffs along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, which were used as tombs for dead bodies, and were thus considered ritually unclean by the Jews. Spiritually, these tombs represent the mental and emotional death we experience when the life and love in us is destroyed by crippling encounters with the darker side of ourselves and of those around us. We "live in the tombs" spiritually when we cannot have a full, happy, and outgoing life because of the inner "demons" that continually tear at our thoughts and our feelings.

We may try to control these dark, destructive feelings in various ways, just as the people of this region tried to control the demon-possessed man by binding him with chains. To use an example that falls short of what is usually defined as mental illness: if we have a compulsion to overeat, we may try to "bind" ourselves with various strict diets. But they usually don't work. After trying to force the diet on ourselves for a while, we tend to "tear off the chains" and go back to the way we were living before. Yes, some people manage to make it work. But for most people, external strictures can't control their inner impulses any more than the chains that bound that demon-possessed man could control him.

"Night and day" he was "among the tombs and in the hills." Here is a description of the manic-depressive predicament before it was ever labeled that. "Night and day": sometimes things are dark as night, other times they are as bright as day. Sometimes we struggle with dark thoughts and feelings, other times we have joy and happiness. And then we are "among the tombs and in the hills." In our spiritual night time, we feel close to death inside of ourselves--and may even become suicidal. We are in the tombs. But then we may have times of great spiritual insight, when we metaphorically "climb the hills" to gain a higher view of life in general, and of our own predicament in particular. These times of insight and inspiration give us a sense of hope that helps keep us going in the darker times.

And yet, just as the times of darkness and spiritual death give way to the spiritual mountains and hills of spiritual insight and inspiration, so our spiritual heights give way once again to the depths of struggle, depression, and despair. Or, if the desires and compulsions we are struggling with are less dramatic, our high resolves to give up the destructive habit that has us in its grip gives way to falling right back into the same old habit.

When this happens, we "cut ourselves with stones." We know that the way we are living is wrong. We know we should do the right thing, and we know what the right thing is. This is the stone of truth: the knowledge of what is right and wrong--and that we are as often on the wrong side as on the right. We cannot be "blissfully ignorant." When we indulge once again, we chastise ourselves, call ourselves names, consider ourselves weak and stupid because we are not living up to our own ideals. We "cut ourselves with stones," punishing ourselves on top of the harm already being done by that habit or wrong behavior.

It is a sorry state of affairs that is described by this demon-possessed man. And I'm afraid it is one that many, if not most of us are all too familiar with. We do not have to be medically classified as "mentally ill" to suffer from the emotional and spiritual effects pictured by the demon-possessed man in the story.

And yet, whether or not a psychiatrist would call us mentally ill, the way to true and lasting inner healing is the same. Perhaps we will need to use medical means to stabilize our mental and emotional situation for a longer or shorter time. But it is only when we do what the demon-possessed man did that we begin the process of true, deep, spiritual healing that is necessary for us to be made completely whole and in our right minds.

What did the demon-possessed man do? To quote again the words of our text, "When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him." The verse goes by so quickly that we could easily miss its tremendous significance. So let's read it again: "When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him." Did you notice it? This man didn't just stay in the tombs. When he saw the Lord, he came out to meet him. When he became aware of the power of God approaching, he took the initiative and approached the Lord. And when he did, he actually ran and fell on his knees before Jesus.

This is the missing element in all medical, psychiatric approaches to mental illness. The practitioners of these methods may be skillful in dealing with any physical malfunctions, and even with some of our psychological and emotional imbalances. But because they deny the present reality of spiritual forces, and avoid any reference to God--let alone calling on divine power--they can never deal with the spiritual roots of what our society calls mental illness. They can never deal with the presence of inner evil, of our natural tendency toward self-absorption and toward focusing on material possessions and desires. Mere science, as powerful a tool as it can be on the things of this earth, has no power whatsoever to approach and deal with the spiritual level of a human being.

Swedenborg--who himself came from a highly scientific background--had no such trouble bringing spiritual realities to bear on physical and mental illnesses. In interpreting passages such as the one we read from Deuteronomy, he tells us that "demons mean evil cravings that come from materialistic loves," and that "worshiping demons means indulging in these cravings because we love them."

Here is the crux of the matter. Whether we have knowingly made choices that led to our present state of mind or whether we were thrust into it by overwhelming emotional forces and events in our lives, we come into a state in which we get used to our particular hurtful patterns, and may even gain a kind of pleasure from them. This is certainly true of various kinds of addiction. I would suggest that it is true of other self-limiting and self-destructive behaviors as well. We eventually attach ourselves to them; we think, "this is the way I really am," and we crave to indulge in the habits that are busily killing us.

Only a power greater than our own loves, emotions, and cravings can break through that evil spiritual "legion" and restore us to wholeness and genuine sanity. Only the greater power of the Lord working in our lives can accomplish it--because God's love is the only force in the universe more powerful than human loves and desires.

The Lord is landing on our shores now. The divine power is present to heal us now. And if, like the demon-possessed man in the story, we approach the Lord, not walking, but running to bow down in the divine presence, we will begin to feel that healing power in our lives. If we open up our hearts and minds to the powerful, healing presence of God's love and wisdom, we will find true healing for our inner struggles. Perhaps it will not happen all at once as it did in this story. We each go at our own pace. But healing will come.

Next week we will explore further just how that healing happens. For today, I would like to leave you with this thought: our mental, emotional, and spiritual healing all begins with approaching the Lord Jesus and placing our lives in the Lord's care and keeping. Amen.


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Music: Echoes in the Midst
199 by Bruce DeBoer