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by Ted Schroder
September 23, 2007

When you read the story of Jesus and the Gadarene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20) there is the temptation to interpret it only in terms of mental illness. Commentaries on the passage spend a great deal of time exploring what is meant by being demon-possessed. Those who use only modern scientific categories eliminate the concept of evil spirits as being archaic and superstitious.

Since we think we have progressed a great deal in the treating of emotional disturbances, through psychotropic drugs and counseling, there is a tendency in public health circles to discount the role of the spiritual both in the disease and in healing. From my experience as president of mental health agencies in two Florida counties I have lamented the mutual suspicion that Christian preachers can have for secular treatment, and that professional mental health practitioners can have for religious counselors. There need not be, and should not be, an either/or approach to mental health: either spiritual or secular. The avowed materialist, who does not allow for the spiritual, is limited in his diagnosis and treatment.

The teaching of the Bible, and the ministry of Jesus, clearly demonstrates that we are part of a spiritual world which must be taken into account if there is to be holistic healing, and salvation. Yes, religious extremists can give spiritual healing a bad name, if physical and relational components are ignored. Similarly, atheistic therapists can give psychiatry and psychology a bad name, if the spiritual is ignored.

The man who came from the tombs to meet Jesus was the victim of forces beyond his control. He was a danger to himself and others. Attempts that had been made to restrain him had failed. He exhibited extraordinary strength. He was out of control. He cried out in great distress, and he cut himself with stones.

Who are the demoniacs of today? They are those who are addicted, who live on skid row, the criminals, the terrorists, the despairing, those who embrace violence, those who are hungry for power.

Stephen Levenkron, a psychotherapist, in 1998 published, "Cutting: Understanding & Overcoming Self-Mutilation." He claims two million Americans seek relief from mental anguish in self-inflicted physical pain. Where is this mental anguish coming from that leads people to cut themselves? He explores sources of the disorder in genetics, family experience, childhood trauma and parental behavior. But behind all those descriptive diagnoses lies a matrix of evil that can afflict each human being in varying degrees.

When we ask where self-destructive behavior, and violent behavior, comes from, we tend to try to locate a social cause, or blame someone for it. A high number of violent crimes and murders is usually attributed to poor parenting, poverty, low self-esteem, ignorance, and despair. While all these may be mediating factors, they do not drive all who suffer from them into violence. There are many victims of such factors who overcome them and excel in life. Suicide bombers can come from privileged backgrounds. Children who have had all kinds of advantages can throw them away and lead aimless lives that can turn self-destructive. So where does such evil come from?

The Gospels believe that the spirit of evil can possess us, and that we must resist it. "Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings." (1 Peter 5:8,9) All of us can be tempted to react in anger, and to take out our pain on others or ourselves. We must be willing to suffer patiently and to seek Christ's strength to resist the temptations of the devil. "A belief in supernatural evil powers keeps us from whittling down the source of evil to our size and prevents us from deceiving ourselves that we can defeat it alone." (David E. Garland)

Dostoevsky wrote a novel in 1871 that is variously entitled, The Devils, The Possessed, or The Demons. It is a profound study of atheism depicting the disarray which follows the appearance of a band of modish radicals in a small Russian provincial town. Dostoevsky compares the radicals to the devils that drove the Gadarene swine over the precipice, in his vision of a society possessed by demonic creatures that produce devastating delusions of rationality. It is a novel about political evil that is destructive. The spirit of evil can possess those who seek to control events.

The Gadarene demoniac recognizes the power of Jesus as Son of the Most High God. He is tortured by the evil spirits that inhabit him. They begged to be allowed to enter the pigs, and Jesus gave them permission. This results in the destruction of the pigs. The dramatic drowning in the lake is an outward sign of what possession does to humans - it drowns our humanity, made in the image of God, and changes us into swine. In The Odyssey, Ulysses and his men land in Aeaea. Circe entertains them to a feast, where the men give way to gluttonous behavior. In their over-indulgence, Circe turns them into pigs. Ulysses resists her power by taking a herb given him by Hermes. He persuades Circe to lift the spell from his crew and she welcomes them into her home.

Possession by evil turns people into pigs, which eventually destroys them. It is only when a power greater than evil, a spiritual power greater than a legion (a Roman regiment consisting of 6,000 foot soldiers and 120 horsemen), is present, that the demon-possessed can be saved. Lest we think that this miracle only applies to street people we need to recall that C.S. Lewis, the Oxford don, an urbane professor of literature, who was a genial beer-drinker in the evenings at the local pub, described himself before he met Christ as "a zoo of lusts, a bedlam, of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds." (Surprised by Joy, 226)

The demoniac is transformed by his encounter with Jesus. What man cannot do, what human force cannot achieve, what isolation cannot cure, the power of the kingdom of God through Jesus heals and saves. The naked and out of control outcast is found by those who know him "sitting there, dressed and in his right mind." (KJV: "clothed and in his right mind." JBP "perfectly sane")

The locals couldn't handle it. They were uncomfortable with the new state of affairs. They asked Jesus to leave! The man who had been healed wanted to come with Jesus, but instead he was given a new purpose in life: "Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you and how he has had mercy on you." He began to tell how much Jesus had done for him.

The prodigal son left the pig sty to return home. This man left being a self-destructive pig to return home. He had a tale to tell, how much the Lord had done for him. How much have you to tell? How much has the Lord had mercy on you? How much has Jesus done for you?

John Newton, slave trader converted to Christ, and author of the hymn Amazing Grace, said in his old age: "I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I wish to be, I am not what I shall be, but, by the grace of God, I am not what I was. And by that grace, I am what I am." This is the miracle of saving grace.


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