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Article | February 4, 2024

Sermon – Science and Demons

Blog|The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young

Watch the Sermon on YouTube.

“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isa. 40).

For a moment imagine what it feels like to be Jesus. You go to visit your friends’ hometown and quietly heal their mother-in-law. Twenty minutes later, before you can finish eating dinner, the entire town has crowded around the door. You immediately get to work healing people. They look into your eyes with such gratitude as you bring peace to their tortured inner lives. They love you. You work late into the night. You can only get away to be by yourself at 3:00 a.m.

Over time because there are always more people to heal, you try to sleep less every night, maybe even spend less time eating or talking with friends. This gift of healing might begin to feel like a curse. Every moment could seem like it had been stolen from a sick person whose suffering is so much greater than the effort it takes you to make them whole. You think traffic is irritating now, imagine how it would be if you knew that by driving on the shoulder to the Civic Center exit you could save twenty people’s lives. It would be far easier to feel impatient with the people who you are supposed to love.[1]

I believe in demons. Even the greatest, holiest gift imaginable would raise up demons for me because I am not completely centered in God.

Although we believe in Jesus, the language of demon possession is even more foreign to most of us than the ancient Greek of the New Testament. No one in our ordinary life talks about demons. Usually we use the language of science for experiences that we used to call demonic. But sometimes we need this vocabulary.

For three years in college I worked as a Residence Advisor, an R.A. in the only all-male residence hall in the University of California system. We had two hundred young men who got into enough trouble for a year’s worth of sermon stories. I remember one freshman from Orange County named Todd. His parents gave him a red convertible sports car as a high school graduation gift. In October he drove it up to a Grateful Dead concert in Oregon.

Todd had never used drugs before, but that afternoon he tried LSD. The rational, reasonable, recognizable self that he had always been disappeared. This previously clean-cut, conservative-looking eighteen year old slipped into insanity. He abandoned his car and hitchhiked home, no doubt scaring everyone who stopped to help him.

When he returned to Bowles Hall, the demons completely controlled him. His roommates called me to help and I found him squatting on the top of a five-foot high chest of drawers next to an open sixth floor window. “I am the devil,” he yelled. “I must destroy the light!” He reached into a Costco-sized bucket of mayonnaise with his bare hand and ate it. He hissed, “I’m Jesus and I must destroy the darkness!” And proceeded to drink directly out of a half-liter coke bottle.

Somehow I managed to get him away from the open window and ultimately we had him committed to the psychiatric floor of a nearby hospital. I have two reasons for telling you about this. The first is that I am grateful we have trained scientific professionals who have experience with a broad range of psychological problems. They have helped me in countless ways.

I don’t think that Christians can dispense with the language of demon possession. There is something mysterious, unknown and unexplainable at the heart of our inner life. We shouldn’t dismiss demons as merely a primitive pre-scientific understanding of mental illness. Let’s talk about two pictures of reality, two worldviews.

1. The first is the modern scientific picture that comes naturally to all of us. Like the demonic picture, it teaches about unseen realities that influence our health. It refers to bacteria, brain chemistry, the glandular system and genetics to explain disease. Like Jesus it teaches that our suffering is not the result of sin. But a scientific view also does not have much room for grace, for unexpected help from God.

In the past the scientific worldview has not carefully studied the effect of our spiritual state on our physical well-being. If viruses or misfiring neurons cause bad health, it doesn’t make much sense to examine whether a person has given themselves over to hopelessness or despair. In the past the scientific picture often made a strong distinction between the physical world and the mental one. As a result it had a hard time understanding the health effect of our  inner life.

The modern picture also implies an idea of what it means to be normal. It presumes that illness only afflicts a small number of us at any time. The rest of us are normal. According to this understanding there is no such thing as sin which afflicts everyone. There is only the dividing line between the healthy majority and those whom the doctors are trying to fix. This picture also has a pretty hard time with evil. Modern people understand the way that out of self-interest people cause others harm. But real evil makes no sense in this system at all.

Remember when I preached about that beautiful John Lennon song “Imagine?” “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you can. No hell below us. Above us only sky. Imagine all the people living for the day…” Or have you ever been in an argument with someone who asserts that they can’t believe in religion because it causes so many wars? These sum up this picture of life that says the normal state is one of health and peace. This image sets us up to be surprised by politics, conflict and war. One thing I appreciate about the demonic picture is that it reminds us that we cannot even be at peace with ourselves.

2. As I said earlier, in medical emergencies, for eating disorders, addictions, and mental illness I depend heavily on experts who rely on scientific methods. At the same time however, I’ve already alluded to some problems with looking at the world exclusively in this way. Someone should write a book called “I’m Not Okay, You’re Not Okay” about the universality of sin.

This is one advantage of the demonic picture. In it there is no such thing as a normal person. Demons afflict all people but at varying levels of intensity at different times. This view also holds that often we cannot understand why we experience healing. It helps us to accept the feeling of freedom or relief coming from beyond us, from God.[2]

The first part of the sermon opened the possibility that you too might begin to believe in the demonic. Not so much in the extreme situations when you should be consulting a psychiatrist but in more ordinary moments as you make sense of the world.

This second part will help you to recognize demons. For me the demonic distorts or destroys the image of God in you or another person. These voices tell us to perceive ourselves or others as something less than God’s children.

In the fourth century Constantine (272-337) became the Roman emperor and after the Edict of Milan (313) Christianity was no longer illegal. Faith in Jesus went from being an outlaw religion to being useful for moving up the social ladder. Some Christians deplored this. They moved out into the Egyptian desert and started Christian monasticism as they tried to perfect themselves in holiness. People of the time called them ascetics or spiritual athletes and they dedicated themselves to fighting demons.

These desert fathers and mothers believed that demons act through our thoughts to arouse emotions that draw us away from God. Solitude helps us to identify these demons; prayer, self-observation and knowledge helps us to prevail against them.

Evagrius Ponticus (345-399) writes about this battle. “The demon of acedia (boredom, indifference) – also called the noonday demon – is one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eight hour, First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all and that the day is fifty hours long… (etc.). Then too he inspires in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself…”[3]

In the movie The Greatest Game Ever Played ghostly figures from the golfers’ troubled childhoods stand on the other side of the putting green. Our demons are like that. They say, “You can’t do this,” or “You deserve what is happening to you,” or “That teacher was right – you’ll never amount to much,” or “There’s no point in trying anything different,” or “She should be the one who apologizes to you!” To draw us away from God a demon could say something as simple as “I’m right.” We fight these demons in the way that Jesus does, by relying on prayer and by silencing these voices through acts of love.

This brings us to an answer for our opening problem. If Jesus has such power to heal why would he do anything else? When the disciples find him praying in a deserted place he tells them, I must move on to proclaim my message in neighboring towns. His work of healing and casting out demons seem secondary to teaching people that they are God’s children, that they can do this work themselves. The ministry of healing and casting out demons that one man inspired twenty centuries ago is what over 2.3 billion Christians do today.

The author Chaim Potok’s mother wanted him to be a surgeon. She reasoned with him that he could be well paid and save lives too. He replied, “I don’t want to keep people from dying. I want to show them how to live.” [4] In this time when demons of fear and uncertainty possess our country, and even sometimes our church, we as Christians must show people another way. This means talking about the God of love to people who see nothing more than a world with neither sin nor salvation.

Alan Jones used to refer to what he called “the believer’s secret.” He calls this the lifelong process of exchanging, “our living death for God’s dying life.” It is “per crucem ad lucem and per angusta ad augusta: through the cross to the light and through the narrows to the heights.” “To know that one is a sinner, and at the same time, to know one is standing in the grace and love of God,” this leads to joy, “the joy that is the mark of the believer.”[5]

At Alan Jones’ funeral a week and a half ago we had a family reunion of a tribe of people who believe in a more generous picture of what it means to follow Jesus. We are this family and the world needs us. We have a consciousness of sin and a kind of joy, an appreciation for beauty, a confidence in God’s love that means that we do not need to always set everybody else straight. Pray for each of us as we use these gifts to cast out demons and bring healing to our world.

[1] 5 Epiphany (2-8-09) B. P5.

[2] In Roald Dahl’s children’s book The Witches the hero’s kindly grandmother tells him, “you won’t last long in this world if you don’t know how to spot a witch when you see one.”

Roald Dahl, The Witches (NY: Penguin, 1983), 14.

[3] “The demon of acedia (boredom, indifference) – also called the noonday demon – is one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour, First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour, to look now this way and now that to see if perhaps one of the brothers appears from his cell. Then too he inspires in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labor. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone at this period that offends him in some way or other, this too the demon uses to further contribute to his hatred. This demon drives him along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life’s necessities, more readily find work, and make a real success of himself. He goes on to suggest that, after all, it is not the place that is the basis for pleasing the Lord. God is to be adored everywhere. He joins to these reflections the memory of his dear ones and of his former way of life. He depicts life stretching out for a long period of time, and brings before the mind’s eye the toil of the ascetic struggle, and… leaves no stone unturned to induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight.”

Evagrius Ponticus, Praktikos 12, from Margaret R. Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA:Blackwell Press, 2005), 87.

[4] Peter Haynes, “This is What I Came to Do”

[5] “St. Simeon, the New Theologian, sees the true baptism of the Spirit as the baptism of tears — the great photismos — the illumination by which a person becomes all light. Tears are part of the process by which the believer is made anew in Jesus Christ through the gift of the Spirit. Tears are an antidote to the passions (by which is meant that shifting, unfree, unintegrated part of ourselves). And in this tradition, sadness is considered to be one of the enslaving passions. To know that one is a sinner and, at the same time, to know that one is standing in the grace and love of God is what the gift of tears is all about.

True penthos, therefore, guards against despair and discouragement. St. John Chrysostom writes in one of his letters: “Even in the case of our own faults, for which we will be held account-able, it is not necessary or prudent—it is even very harmful-to afflict ourselves excessively … Let no sinner despair, let no man trust in his virtue…” (p. 163). It is not a matter of repressing our emotions and feelings so much as one of winning them back. We ache for their restoration, not their destruction.

This is at the heart of what we might call “the believer’s secret,” which is the exchange of our living death for God’s dying life. This is one of the many ways in which the apparent contradiction of the Christian life is expressed. There is per crucem ad lucem and per angusta ad augusta: through the cross to the light and through the narrows to the heights. The end of it all is joy.

It was precisely for this that we were created. St. Irenaeus said that God made us in “order that he might have someone in whom to place his great gifts.”? Joy, always joy, is the mark of the believer. As St. Francis de Sales said, “A sad saint is a sorry saint.””

Alan Jones, Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985) 104.

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