Overcoming Darkness: Dealing with Our Demons

Luke 8:26-39
June 20, 2010

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me’— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

Over the years I’ve noticed an interesting conundrum when it comes to church, and especially church attendance. This isn’t a conundrum that many of you are caught in, but it is one that a significant number are. Here’s the conundrum. The church is meant to be a place for people who are struggling in personal darkness, but often when people go through struggles, they don’t want to go to church. So the very place that is set up to help them is the place they avoid. They avoid it because they don’t want people to see them cry, or they don’t want people to know they are going through difficulty, or they don’t want to have to explain what is going on in their lives. The problem is that these people end up pushing away a possible beacon of light for them. The fact is that the church is made for hurting people, but when people are hurting they often don’t want to be seen in church.

I think that the root cause of this conundrum is an American affliction. All of us Americans have a basic problem, which is that we suffer from a denial of darkness. It afflicts all of us. Americans hate pain and suffering, and we run from it constantly. We take drugs, whether prescription or illegal, to push away our pain. We drink too much alcohol to help us repress the pain. We’ve created a glittering entertainment culture to mask darkness and suffering. And we worship and celebrate the wealthy because they seem to have overcome darkness with glitzy and glamorous homes, cars, possessions, and lives. We do a lot to gloss over the darkness of life.

I really wasn’t aware of how pervasive our denial of darkness was until I had a conversation with five fellow students over lunch one day while I was in graduate school. I was studying for my Ph.D. at Duquesne University, and I was lunching with two white Protestant pastors (one Methodist and the other Episcopalian), and three African men (one a priest from Kenya, one a priest from Uganda, and another an Augustinian friar from Ghana). The three of us Protestants were complaining that on Easter Sunday our churches are packed to the rafters, but we can’t convince people to come on Good Friday. The Africans looked at each other, and then at us with puzzled faces. When we asked why they looked like that, they said, “That’s really odd because in Africa our churches are overflowing on Good Friday, and we can’t get anyone to come on Easter.” We talked about this, and the Africans were the ones that pointed out that in Africa suffering is a constant reality and so they relate to the suffering Christ on the cross. But their experience in the U. S. was that we were a people who can’t deal with suffering, and so we hide from it with our possessions. They pointed out our American affliction, which is a denial of darkness.

This denial is sad because Christianity is mean to be a faith for people struggling with difficulty, darkness, and demons. If you look at the Bible, all of its stories are of people struggling through and overcoming darkness. Abraham was lead by God from the city into the desert, where he struggled. Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery, and then was thrown into prison. Moses, after killing an Egyptian soldier, had to leave his life of pleasure as part of the royal family to live in the desert for forty years, and then came back to lead the Israelites into the desert for forty years. David, despite being anointed as king of Israel, and being celebrated as the slayer of Goliath, had to live as an outlaw in the desert for forty years. The prophets spoke in times of darkness, whether under threat from an invading army or in Babylonian exile. And Jesus, despite teaching people how to find light in their lives, was criticized and attacked for his teachings, and eventually arrested, flogged, and killed for it. Darkness is all through the Bible.

It’s for this reason that I say that Christianity is a faith for people in darkness. In fact, it is the only faith with a religious symbol that’s a symbol of suffering. Think about the symbols of other religions, whether it is the yin-yang symbol of Taoism, the statue of Buddha, the crescent moon and morning star of Islam, or the star of David in Judaism, none are suffering symbols. Our symbol is one that transforms suffering. The cross is a symbol of suffering and execution. The modern-day equivalent would be if we used a hangman’s noose or an electric chair as our religious symbol. Christianity is a faith that embraces the reality of darkness, but also the reality of God’s light transforming that darkness into something else.

The reality of life is that there is a fair amount of darkness, which seems to be part of the way God created the world. But there’s also great beauty and pleasure, which is also how God created it. And I believe that the task of life is to make a choice between whether we’ll let darkness rule our lives, or light.

Hilbert Caesar has lived through tremendous darkness, and through it discovered light. Five years ago Caesar was a master sergeant overseeing a squad in Iraq. He was in charge of a 155 mm mobile howitzer, which is something like a long tank with a huge artillery gun attached. The squad had been mobilized, and while en route, was ambushed as an IED exploded under the howitzer, flipping it over. When Caesar came to, he looked down at his leg, and it was a mangled mess. He knew that his leg would have to be amputated. He spent months in rehab, which were months of darkness, a darkness made worse when he learned that of the ten people in his squad, eight had been killed. He felt responsible, even though he knew that there was nothing different he could have done. He wondered if his life was over. He wondered what woman would ever be interested in a man with only one leg.

Caesar was at a critical junction. It would take very little for his life to plunge into never ending darkness. The fact is that about ¼ of all vets coming back from combat suffer symptoms of PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, and he was moving in that direction. What is less known, though, is that despite these odds, another ¼ seem to come through trauma like Caesar did, and experience PTGS, which is post-traumatic growth syndrome. About ¼ of all people who undergo traumatic experiences actually sense their lives becoming better because of it. They find that their trauma helps them reprioritize their lives. They become better than they were. Often they grow spiritually, and experience God more intimately in their lives. This is what happened to Caesar.

Despite his darkness, he started talking with other vets who had gone through similar experiences. Together they looked for the positive, rather than dwelling on the negative. He began to pray. He says that he became wiser, richer, more compassionate, and more appreciative of life. He noticed other people more, and said, “I’m the same person, but I’m a different person now.” Caesar left the military, but now works for the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs at a job focusing on helping others like him. He went through darkness, and in the midst of it found the light (adapted from an article, “Moving On,” from The Washington Post, December 5, 2005).

It’s hard for many people to make the choice for light over dark. There are lots of reasons, but one I believe in is that there is actually a force for darkness in the world, a force that is incredibly subtle. I believe that there is a demonic darkness that stalks us. Now, I realize that as a good, rational Presbyterian, I’m not supposed to believe in the demonic. And the truth is that for many, many years I didn’t. And that disbelief was supported by my seminary training. The fact is that we never once talked about the demonic in all my years there. In checking with other Presbyterian pastors, it’s hard to find any who were taught anything about the demonic. We just don’t believe in it.

My belief in this power grew while working on my Ph.D., which is odd, since you would think that working on that degree would make me more sophisticated and less likely to believe in stuff such as the demonic. Adrian van Kaam, a professor and Catholic priest, in one of his classes, talked about the demonic. God bless the Catholics. There may be many things we believe that we do or believe better than them, but there are also many things that they believe and do better than us. I believe that the Catholic Church, in many ways, has a much better, and more balanced, understanding of the demonic than we do. Van Kaam taught that the demonic is a force of darkness with one goal in mind: to pull us away from God and divide us against each other and God. But he also taught that this darkness is essentially powerless, except for the power we give it. He said that those kinds of vomit-spewing, body-levitating possessions are extremely, extremely rare. Instead, what the demonic does is to take our negative feelings and fan them to grow them stronger. So, if we are angry about something small, the demonic fans that anger so that it grows and causes us to act on it in destructive ways. The demonic does the same thing with passion, lust, cynicism, skepticism, ambition, and other self-focused emotions. There is nothing wrong with feeling these things, but the demonic fans them so that they take over our lives. And you’ve experienced something like this in others.

Have you ever been with an extremely negative person who starts going off on how bad the government is, kids today are, teachers unions are, big business is, and the like? They start going off, and you feel trapped. Their anger or outrage grows hotter and hotter. Meanwhile, they suck the energy and life right out of you. And you can’t get away. That’s the kind of fanning of the flame the demonic does, and it does it with an eye toward dividing us against each other and God. There’s an energy to negativity, but instead of giving life it sucks life.

Here’s the thing, though, about both darkness and the demonic. Both only have the power we give them. If we let the demonic and darkness fan us, then we will be consumed by both. But we do have a choice in the matter. If we choose to refuse to let darkness grow, and if we choose to seek what’s good rather than what’s dark, we can overcome darkness. While Christianity is a faith that recognizes the reality of darkness, it also recognizes that darkness is a choice, and we can choose to seek God’s light.

The secret to overcoming any darkness is to decide what kind of power we are going to give it. Are we going to let it grow? I’ve learned over the years that what contributes to darkness is a problem that researchers are finding in many people who suffer from depression. They are noticing that many people with depression suffer from chronic rumination. What do I mean by that? Rumination is something that cows do. They have four stomachs, and so have to keep regurgitating what they’ve eaten to chew on it again, and then send it to the next stomach. They chew and swallow; regurgitate, chew and swallow; regurgitate, chew, and swallow; and regurgitate, chew and swallow. Many people in darkness do the mental equivalent of this. They start to go into darkness, and then they start thinking negative thoughts associated with it. They might think about mistakes they’ve made, or about actions they didn’t take. Where we might think those thoughts for several hours or a day, they think about them for weeks and months at a time. The thoughts never change. They may berate themselves for decisions in the past, or for their situation in the present. They chronically ruminate, and they can’t break the cycle long enough to see other possibilities.

It’s not just people suffering with depression who do this. Most of us, when in darkness, do this. Rumination, whether depression related or not, creates the opening for darkness to reign. Whatever our situation is, rumination on how bad it is can immerse us and keep us in darkness. But God does offer a light, if we’re willing to take it.

Personally, I’ve had to struggle through chronic rumination for much of my life simply because I’m a pastor. The fact is that pastors get criticized on occasion. We can be criticized for something we say or do, or for something we didn’t say or do. Most of the time people are caring enough to either keep their concerns about this to themselves, or if they do share them, they do so in gentle and caring ways. But occasionally people aren’t very nice about it, and their comments can be devastating. I was devastated by a number of these kinds of comments early in my ministry and it traumatized me so much that for a period of time I wouldn’t answer my phone at the church unless I knew who was calling and why. In my first year in ministry I had received one too many critical phone calls, and I became phone-shy.

There was one particular incident when a woman yelled at me publically in front of fifteen junior high kids on a retreat, and then she met with me in my office the following week and yelled at me again. And she was yelling at me for something I was powerless to prevent. It’s hard to distill this down to a short story, but basically I was overseeing the youth program on a retreat for junior and senior high schoolers, and I was supposed to go up a trail to a campfire to tell stories to the junior highers. The problem was that I was at another campfire with the older teens, and two of them wanted me to leave so they could sneak off into the woods and do things young men and women like to do. I was stuck because all the other adult volunteers had disappeared. I was worried about leaving, but I had no way of telling the junior high adult volunteers I was stuck. When the other adult volunteers finally showed up, I ran up the trail to join the junior highers, but the woman with them had already brought them down the trail, and proceeded to berate me in front of all of them.

I was devastated, and I became somewhat of a recluse for a time, worrying about doing something else I’d be yelled at for. But after a lot of prayer I finally realized that I couldn’t spend my career this way. So I developed a rule. The day that someone berates me or criticizes me, I’m allowed to obsess about it, as long as I’m also praying about it. The second day I’m allowed to pray about it a lot, but only think about it a little. By the third day I have to give it over to God and move on. In other words, I can spend a little time in darkness, but in due time I have to move toward the light.

We do have a choice over whether we will live in darkness or light. There is darkness in the world, and it can be very powerful, but we can make a choice for light. And if you are interested in learning further how, come back next week and I’ll talk about how to make that choice.