“When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first.'” Luke 11:24-26
Jesus healed many demon-possessed persons. Take Mary Magdalene, for instance, a woman whom Jesus healed “from seven demons” (Mk. 16:9, Lk. 8:2), often defined by tradition as the “seven deadly sins” of pride, lust, envy, anger, covetousness, gluttony, and sloth. Mary was the first to encounter Jesus after his resurrection and to fulfill his charge to go share what she had seen with the other disciples.
But, weirdly, Jesus’ remark here could be understood to call into question the permanence and authenticity of Mary’s and others’ exorcisms in Jesus’ time- and in turn to encourage a level of complacency or even despair about the demons we face. Why fight them if the battle in the end is hopeless? Why not let them take up shop in our souls rather than seek their banishment, if in the end they will only come back to haunt us even more? But is this what Jesus was really trying to say?
Demons are not a common staple of conversation these days. When we speak of demons, we tend to attach them to, for instance, the celebrities who end up on newspaper pages dead from overdoses or who unleash maniacal tirades on YouTube videos when they’re off their meds. Or, we associate them with movies like “The Exorcist”- as merely the stuff of horror flicks.
But Jesus speaks very matter-of-factly about demons, as if they are a reality to which all of us by virtue of our humanity are susceptible. Even Jesus had to confront his demons in the wilderness. Pride. Fame. Kingship apart from God. Worldly power and wealth.
It is tempting to fight our demons. To declare war on these dissolute, frightening parts of ourselves. Because demons force us to behold our own fragility, and in turn, to cause us to fear our weakness and our capacity to fall apart at the seams. They threaten our perceived sense of control and the orderly identity we create for ourselves.
Anxiety. Depression. Perfectionism. Regret. Addiction. A lust for power and significance. Fear of failure. A desire to impose my will on the world. When these things rear their ugly heads, my first inclination is to go to war. To take out my metaphorical AK-47 (or at least my four-year-old son’s imaginary “fart blaster”) and blow those nasty suckers out with every form of self-directed intervention I can think of. Self-help strategies. The therapist. Confession to a good friend. Or, in prayer, ordering my demons out “in Jesus’ name.”
But so often these efforts, if effective for a time, fail to rid me of my demons over the longer haul. My demons know me well. They know my Achilles’ heels, and so they’ll come back every so often and take up residence. And sometimes, when they return having been gone for a while, their clamor can sound like an uninvited heavy metal band playing loudly in my living room.
Suzanne Guthrie, a sister of the Community of the Holy Spirit in New York, shares the story of the Buddhist saint Milarepa. (You can find Guthrie’s article, “Teatime with my demons,” in the September 6, 2011 issue of The Christian Century.) When demons came to torment him, Milarepa said to them, “How kind of you to come. You must come again tomorrow. And from time to time we must converse.” And Milarepa invited the demons in for tea.
Guthrie’s story makes a point: our demons are our worst internal enemies, and Jesus tells us to “love your enemies” and “pray for those who persecute you.” There is a sense in which aggressive all-out-war on these unloveable parts of ourselves has the potential to give our demons more power than they really have. Or, to feed the cycle of violence in our hearts using prayer as our weapon.
Which is not to say that we should not pray about our demons. Only to suggest that when we pray, aggressive prayers for banishment in Jesus’ name may not always be the best way to go about it. Instead of praying against them, so that we only reinforce our enmity with these parts of ourselves, what if we were to pray for them and for all of the deep psychological wounds and unmet needs they represent? What if we were to converse with them, much like Jesus did in the wilderness, using Scripture to reply?
Or, if we don’t know Scripture as well as Jesus, what if we like Martin Luther were simply to laugh? “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn,” Luther said. (Luther also said that sex with a spouse works well, too.)
What, then, about those many places in Scripture where Jesus does in fact heal demon-possessed people? Are these healings for real? The evidence suggests they are. We don’t hear of Mary Magdalene running back to a life of prostitution, for instance, or, the demon-possessed man of Gadarenes (Mark 5:1-9) jumping off a cliff. (His demons end up drowned along with a herd of swine, and I always feel a bit sorry for the pigs in the story.)
These are probably miracles in every sense of the word. But as miracles, they are also exceptions. Because for every miraculous healing, there are dozens more people like me, whose demons may not seem as dramatic and over-the-top but are there just the same, and who keep on keeping on without the miracle. Despite our prayers for miraculous deliverance. This is the reality in our time, and it was the reality in Jesus’ time, too.
Which is why I take assurance from Jesus’ words here. Because maybe the point is not to be declaring all-out war in hopes of a miraculous victory in this life. Maybe it is to recognize that these demons, like everything in this sad, beautiful world, including ourselves, are passing away. That their hold on us will not be forever. That within the framework of a God who loves us and whose power to love defeats even death itself, our lives and their messiness are but a blip on the screen of a huge salvation story that does indeed end with a new heaven and a new earth.
In that place beyond time, Scripture tells us, “God himself will be with [us] and be our God,” and “He will wipe every tear from [our] eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” There, in that place, maybe we will one day not just argue with our demons but fellowship with them. Maybe one day we’ll not just laugh at them but laugh with them.