Reading the Gospel of Luke recently, I found myself captured by the exorcism miracles of Jesus. Although the Anabaptist tradition places a great deal of emphasis on Jesus’ ministry, there are certain kinds of stories we tend to skim on past. Many modern Westerners simply don’t have categories for Satan or demon possession.
But if we leave aside our questions about the metaphysics of evil and inquire about its effects, perhaps the biblical stories might seem less strange.
Luke 8:26-39 tells of a man who dwells in a graveyard. He’s alone. Homeless. Naked. He can’t remember his own name. He’s a prisoner — sometimes of his neighbors, sometimes of something in himself.
With a few strategic details, Luke has painted an intimate portrait of evil.
Evil isolates. This man has been driven away from others by the voices in himself — fear, resentment, envy, loneliness, shame, despair. He is entirely occupied by his own internal battle.
Evil reduces. This man is naked and violent, acting out his basest impulses, with no regard for himself or anyone else.
Evil renames. This man’s identity has been consumed by his sickness.
Evil chains. This man has become addicted to death, bound to a pattern of self-destruction. Unrestrained, he is never free.
We may not have seen demons, but perhaps we’ve seen signs like this — in others, even ourselves.
The healing stories of the Gospels tell us that God desires and is working for the wholeness of creation. The exorcism stories tell us that in this work, God has opposition. There are forces at work to divide and destroy, whose delight is in burning down God’s house.
Most of us would prefer to get by without a rigorous theology of evil. We’d rather not think about the opposition. But ignorance comes at a tremendous cost.
When Jesus’ followers ask how to pray, he says they should ask God to “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13, Revised Standard Version). The night before he dies, Jesus pleads with his disciples to stay awake and “pray that you may not come into the time of trial” (Luke 22:46).
Jesus knows evil is on the prowl. If they aren’t prepared, they will get played. This is what happens.
Jesus had informed both supporters and detractors that someone stronger than evil was here (Luke 11). Evil has held the castle hostage, but Jesus has come to take it back. This power he possesses over evil, Jesus shares with his followers (10:17-19). Evil is bound in response to Jesus’ name. Evil shrinks when its own name is called. It cannot survive exposure to light.
The trouble is, most people taken hostage by evil are taken unaware. Like the disciples, we get played because we are caught sleeping, because we haven’t taken seriously the opposition, the reality that there are forces on a mission to destroy the church’s witness. If we are not praying as Jesus taught us, grounding our feet strongly beneath us, the wave we don’t see coming will quickly sweep us under.
Awareness of evil can also change how we relate to other people. Asked his name, the demon-possessed man in Luke 8 answers “Legion.” But, while violent and terrifying, the man is not Legion. He is Legion’s hostage. When we go to battle against evil, it’s critical to identify the right opponent, distinguishing people from the thing afflicting them.
I talk to so many right now who are massively frustrated with relatives, friends, leaders and other Christians. It is hard to hold compassion while watching people fall prey to what seems obviously wrong. But while most of the world assumes the problem is “those people over there,” thanks to Jesus we know better. Those people, like us, live on a battlefield amid forces seeking their destruction.
Remembering what our family and neighbors are up against may help us hold compassion. Understanding the field might also help us take strategic action. We can argue all day without ever touching the true problem.
Followers of Jesus are equipped to push back against the chaos tearing the world apart. With the authority entrusted by Jesus, we can put our hands on the chest of darkness and push back. We declare, “This ground is claimed by Christ our Lord, and you have no place. Be gone.”
May we see what Jesus saw: Satan falling like lightning.