Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
What do you think about this idea of unclean spirits, this idea of demons or some sort of dark force inhabiting us? It can seem pretty weird, especially in our day and age when we know so much more about human psychology, the brain, and our bodies. It’s hard to believe in unclean spirits in this day and age. Belief in unclean spirits seems so naïve. Of course the people of Jesus’ day believed in unclean spirits. They were ignorant and superstitious. They didn’t know what we know today.
I used to think that believing in unclean spirits and demons was silly, too. How could I not? I was a psychology major in college. I have a master’s degree in counseling. I’ve had over 25 years of experience with all sorts of mental disorders. How can I, a rational man who understands mental illness, believe in demons and unclean spirits? But I do. Over the years I’ve had too many experiences that tell me that many people have something dark going on in them, something that isn’t just explained by mental illness. These are people who make choices in their lives that open them to darker influences.
I first noticed the power of these choices when I worked as a counselor with adolescents and children in a psychiatric hospital in the early 1980s. We had a particularly difficult group of teenage girls and boys who were listening to all sorts of heavy metal music by Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Judas Priest, and more. I saw how the songs and their lyrics influenced the kids in a negative way, and how it opened them to self-destructive thoughts. Everything about these kids was negative and dark, and few of them actually had what I would call a mental illness. Mostly they had behavioral disorders, and while I won’t blame heavy metal music for the disorders, It contributed to it by opening them to darker thoughts, perceptions, and forces.
It’s not only in the psychiatric hospital that I’ve seen the prevalence of darker forces. People all throughout life seem to open themselves constantly to darker forces. They do it through their self-destructive choices, attitudes, and approach to life.
Let me tell you about one guy I knew who seemed to me to have what I can best describe as an unclean spirit. He was a classmate of mine in junior and senior high school. He was a great athlete, student, was very popular, and one of the best-looking guys in our class growing up. He had everything. We all were jealous of him because everything seemed so easy for him. And, to top it all off, he was wealthy. When he was eighteen he inherited a huge inheritance. He managed to get into a very good college, but after one year he dropped out. He would periodically go back to school somewhere, but eventually he dropped out completely. With his inheritance, he bought a house and pretty much lived a life filled with alcohol and drugs. At some point in his drug-induced haze of life, he managed to convince himself that he was another John Lennon. He built a recording studio in his basement, and even dressed like Lennon and wore the same glasses. He was pretty much wasted most of his time. Even when he tried to get his life together it was a mess. I remember seeing him at a party while I was still in seminary. It was the last conversation I ever had with him. He was completely smashed, and he came up to me and started telling me about how he was getting his life in order and reading the Bible everyday. By age 28 had died of a drug overdose. I realize that part of his problem was that he suffered from addiction, but there was also something else there that led him down a darker path.
The reason I say that he still made his own choice to follow something unclean is that I have seen others from similar backgrounds eventually make better choices. For instance, let me tell you about another friend of mine, Nibbles. Nibbles was not a particularly great student in college. In fact, his main major in college was partying, which is how he got the nickname “Nibbles.” After partying with substances that gave him the munchies, he would wander around the dorm asking people if they had any food. He was always nibbling. He was the kind of person you didn’t really expect to do particularly great things in life. You just expected him to fade out in a haze of parties, perhaps like the other friend I mentioned above.
Back in 2003, when I was visiting my mother in Philadelphia, I had an interesting experience. We were visiting my mother, and on Sunday morning went to church with her. She belongs to a large Episcopalian church. The church itself had no air-conditioning, and it was a hot July morning. I was fidgety and hot, and so were Erin and Shea, who were only four years old at the time. Since Diane normally is the one who has to deal with squirming kids on Sunday mornings, I volunteered to take them outside. I took them to the front steps, where they joyfully hopped up and down on the steps. Another little girl out there with her father joined in. I looked up at him to ask him how old his daughter was, and I stopped.
We stared at each other for a bit, and then he said, “Graham?” I said, “Nibbles!” He was one of the last people I expected to see on the front steps of a church. It turns out, as best as I can remember from our conversation, that Nibbles graduated from college and wandered out west to Aspen, Colorado, or some other ski resort town, so that he could work a little, ski a little, and party a lot. He went from job to job throughout his twenties, and slowly realized that he was wasting his life. He began to put his life together. He met a woman who helped him get his life in order. He got a job in the software industry, got married, and began to take faith and God more seriously. This was a slow process, but it eventually led him to move to the Philadelphia suburbs and become a member of my mother’s church. He told me that he was now very involved in the church, and that his life was very different from college.
Nibbles made a choice to let go of the unclean spirits and to live a much better life. He made the choice to follow the Spirit, and it made all the difference. We all face choices in life about whether we will walk in the ways of the light or the dark. It may sound naïve to suggest that they open us to clean or unclean spirits, but I’m not sure how else you describe it. The reality is that most of us have some sort of demons in our lives. I don’t know whether they are true or figurative demons, but they are demons that have the power to drag our lives down.
I’ve thought a lot over the years about what opens us to these spirits. I’ve noticed that there seems to be a category of people in life who constantly open themselves to these darker forces. While they may struggle with mental problems and substance abuse, they never quite get to the point of having a full-blown mental illness or addiction. Still, they consistently make bad choices in life. If given the choice between a path that leads to success but requires hard work, and one that leads to difficulty by seems painless, they choose the latter step.
I’ve often dreamed of starting a group for these people that I would call MUA. That stands for “Messed Up Anonymous.” I just think that we need a group for people who are chronically messed up, for people who make consistently bad choices and open themselves up to unclean spirits, demons, or whatever. In fact, I’ve even gone far enough to create a three-step program to help them. What I’ve realized is that if these people are going to overcome their problems, they need to take three basic steps: let go of fear, step toward wisdom, walk with God.
The first step to living a better one is to let go of fear. Fear is the life killer. Most of these people have problems in their lives because fear dominates their decisions. They are afraid—afraid of being hurt, afraid of failing, afraid of changing their lives, afraid of the unknown, afraid of the future. So, what I’ve realized is that they don’t understand is a simple fact: When you live in fear, your decisions are weird. Decision-making is a constant problem for them, and the result is that they just make weird decisions. They do things that we scratch our heads over and say, “Why would you ever think to do that, especially knowing what the consequences will probably be?” They make weird decisions because they are afraid of the consequences of doing things normally, never thinking that by making the choice they are making that they will suffer worse consequences. As a result, they never really quite learn these lessons that we’ve all mostly learned:
- Avoiding problems creates problems—this is an issue for so many people. People who live messed up lives chronically avoid problems. They won’t talk with people about what’s bothering them, they deal in an unhealthy way with people who are hurting them, they won’t take responsibility for the problems they’ve created, they won’t take steps to deal with problems they face. They never really learn that to be healthy we have to face problems and deal with them head-on.
- Shortcuts get you lost—again, most people who live messed up lives chronically take shortcuts. In school, they wait until the last minute to study. At work they do sloppy work because they don’t feel like taking the time to do things well. They always come up with schemes to make money quick, and then wonder why they have no money.
- Defensiveness makes you offensive—they are constantly defensive because they are self-protective, and so in their defensiveness they tend to attack the people who love them and try to care for them. Then they wonder why people don’t want to help them.
- Being selfish makes you self-destructive—they tend to be very selfish, focusing only on their own problems, never taking the time to reach out to and care about others. The result is that their obsessive self-focus causes them to ignore every healthy voice around them, to join others in healthy activities, and reach out to others in need. If they did so, it would give them a wonderful sense of perspective about their own lives.
- When you protect yourself from hurt, you hurt those you love—because they are so self-protective, secretive, and self-destructive, they wear out those they love. They hurt them by lashing out. They hurt them by being parasites who drained loved ones of time and money. They hurt them by simply making it hard to be loved.
The second step of living a better life is to step toward wisdom. To overcome a messed up life, we have to learn a basic spiritual lesson: Living in God’s kingdom helps you find wisdom. There are also lessons to be learned on how to step towards this wisdom and into God’s kingdom:
- Honesty and integrity creates prosperity—there is no substitute for doing our best to be honest in all we do, whether it is in taking responsibility for our failures and mistakes, gently and charitably letting others know what our thoughts and feelings are, being honest with ourselves about our fears, and being honest in all our actions with others. The same is true for integrity. Having a sense of integrity in all we do makes a difference because it is the wise way and the kingdom way. It’s the kind of life Christ had and that God wants for us.
- Keeping commitments leads to contentment—I think that a failure to make and keep commitments is a huuuuuuuuge problem in modern life. People are afraid to commit to marriage, church, or anything else that may cause them to stay with something long-term. Again, we are afraid of something bad happening. A similar problem is that we constantly make commitments to things that don’t matter, while breaking commitments to things that do. For instance, I see as a huge problem the commitment to sports among our children and teens. Sports has become such a big deal that it overwhelms all other commitments. Think about this for a moment. Given a choice between your commitment to God to worship each Sunday, and a commitment to soccer, hockey, or baseball team to play or practice each Sunday morning, which commitment are you likely to keep. Most parents and kids choose the sport. Sports are fun, but they last for a season. Commitment to God and worship is for life. This isn’t a recent conflict. I faced this both as a teen, young adult, and as a pastor. I remember in my late twenties, when I was still playing lacrosse, we had games that started at 12:30 p.m. on Sundays. For many of those Sundays I could have either taken the Sunday off, or left church early. Instead, I knew where my commitment was. I used to come to church dressed with my lacrosse uniform underneath my jacket and tie. I would stay and greet people calmly and patiently, and then jump in my car to race off to the game. I would show up five minutes late, but I kept my commitments straight. I knew that lacrosse would end, but not my faith.
- Putting others before yourself is the pathway to health—this is a constant in God’s kingdom. We are called to live to help each other. Putting others first helps us overcome selfishness and self-destructiveness. I realize that putting others first can lead us to become unbalanced by neglecting ourselves, but the truth is that this is only a remote possibility for messed up people.
The third step is to walk with God. Unhealthy people need to learn that the way to a great life is to become open to the Spirit—be centered and you’ll hear it. There are things we need to do everyday that lead us to this kind of health. To really be healthy and overcome being messed up, we need to create a practice of life that helps us make better decisions by helping us understand the path God sets before us. What we need to do is to:
- Read Scripture and spiritual books each week and learn how to find what you seek—how often do you read the Bible? How often do you read books that are intended to help you live a better life? Even those of us who are religious or spiritual don’t do this enough. I believe that it’s not enough to pray. We need to learn different ways of seeing life and living life? That’s what transforms us. That’s what we get from reading.
- Pray everyday to discover God’s way—having said that it’s not enough to just read. We still need to pray every day. I would take this a step further. I think we need to talk with God and listen to God all throughout the day. Having problems? Talk with God. See something beautiful? Thank God. Gain an insight? Speak with God about how to spread it through your whole life.
- Worship once a week, which makes you strong—Why do we worship? What’s the point? The point is to immerse us in God’s way, to give us a weekly discipline that helps us learn how to overcome fear, step into wisdom, and walk with God.
- Strive to live in God’s way and God will bless you everyday—this speaks for itself. I believe God wants us to live really wonderful, happy, healthy lives. The question is whether we believe it and strive for it.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get a chance to start this group, but I know that if you follow this guide you’ll live a wonderful life. The question for you to reflect on this morning is this: what kind of life are you living