by Rev. Dr. Daniel C. Wilburn
On Ash Wednesday I mentioned an ancient Christian fighting off a demon. Here’s the actual story from Abba Elias:
An old man was living in a temple and the demons came to say to him, “Leave this place which belongs to us,” and the old man said, “No place belongs to you.” Then they began to scatter his palm leaves about, one by one, and the old man went on gathering them together with perseverance. A little later the devil took his hand and pulled him to the door. When the old man reached the door, he seized the lintel with the other hand crying out, “Jesus save me.” Immediately the devil fled away. Then the old man began to weep. Then the Lord said to him, “Why are you weeping?” and the old man said, “Because the devils have dared to seize a man and treat him like this.” The Lord said to him, “You had been careless. As soon as you turned to me again, you see I was beside you” (Benedicta Ward, Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 1975, 71-72).
The story from the fourth century Egyptian desert tradition has a lesson: don’t try to defeat evil with your own willpower. Call out to Jesus. We believe perseverance is a virtue, and it is. But the old man trusted in his own perseverance, and failed to call to Jesus. This is one of those stories I carry with me all the time because I thought Jesus should have said to the old man ‘Oh you poor thing! You’ve been attacked by demons. It’s okay now, I am with you!” But no, instead Jesus says “Hey, you were careless. You knew better than to try and fight demons on your own. You should have turned to me sooner.”
The story assumes demons are real. Are demons real? Yes. Scripture has around 80 references to demons, beginning in the Old Testament and then in the ministry of Jesus in the New Testament, and several references in the epistles (letters), and finally in the Revelation of John. What are demons? In short, they are powers or entities perhaps manifested by Satan, who was Lucifer (Isaiah 14:12, KJV), who was once a beautiful and most powerful angel of God. Demons are not ghosts or former humans. They are not gods or demigods, although demons will gladly allow you to worship and sacrifice to them. Demons are deceivers, because their Father Satan is the Father of Lies. That’s what Jesus called him… “Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me” (John 8:44-45 NASB).
It appears that demons do not have much will of their own. They reflect back to a person what is inside a person. If you are greedy or feel lonely the demons simply exploits your own weakness, your own self-lie. They help you indulge your temptation simply by repeating it back to you – no new thought of their own. Remember Eve was deceived by her own doubt, not actually Satan (the serpent):
4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die [use little quote fingers here!]; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Genesis 3
Well, Satan was absolutely correct – and evil. Adam and Eve ate the fruit and yes, they now knew the difference between good and evil. They didn’t die physically, but they experienced spiritual death. They became like God, they became little gods, little self-idols – they discovered self-worship, They took charge of their own lives and stopped trusting God. This is the birth of sin.
No wonder we get confused these days: “are demons real or are they actually emotional or psychological illness?” What is the difference?!! Modern science (post-Enlightenment Rationalism) attempts to split the “enchanted world” from the “disenchanted world” (Charles Taylor, A Secular Age). The Bible never thought of reality as “scientific or mythical.” The Bible just deals with one world, God’s world. This may not be helpful since we do live in a “split world.”
Jesus called Satan the father of lies. Counselors work very hard to get folk to see the lies they tell themselves, and then rewrite those lies into healing thoughts into grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, and acceptance. But Satan leverages a person’s lies into chaos, competition, and confusion. If you are worried about a surgery then the demons jump around like crazed apes and attempt to get you to fret and freakout about the surgery. Demons take a real normal emotion and turn it into confusing worry. When you were a child and you felt abandoned for some reason, the demons tell you, “Yes, you are abandoned — forever!” Notice it is up to the person to say “Jesus loves me. I have nothing to fear. I am perfectly safe.” In other words, ‘cry out to Jesus,’ which is exactly what the old man failed to do. That’s the spiritual work of not “indulging our demons.”
So what are demons? We don’t really know what they are made of. Scripture doesn’t say. Demons just are. But allow me a bit of speculation. I am a big J.R.R. Tolkien fan. Everyone has at least seen his books made into film, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Ring. But I read his other stuff as well, The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and The Tolkien Reader. This is the background stuff for Tolkien’s books. In Tolkien’s mythical world he starts with God and God (Ea) creates these gods (Valar) that sing together and create the world out of nothingness. But one named Melkor begins to want to please God so much that he begins to sing his own song. When he is chastised he feels ashamed and repents. But a seed of bitterness takes shape. Melkor feels separated, alone, and guilty. He refuses the grace of God. So Melkor begins to sing his own song. And when the other gods sing the song that God placed in their hearts and it produces the world of Middle Earth, all Melkor can do is corrupt whatever the gods create. They create blue skies, plants, trees, beautiful animals – Melkor then corrupts them and produces smoke, gases, lava, poison water, darkness, and “fell beasts.” Melkor is now so focused on his own hatred and malice that he soon enough cannot think of anything else than hatred. This hatred calcifies. The other gods can change shape and reflect beauty. But not Melkor. No longer can he change shape. He just gets stuck as a Dark Lord, an evil master. His hatred is so complete that he doesn’t have the energy or capacity to be free enough to shape-shift. Self-deception traps Melkor – and us. Out of Melkor’s deep caverns hidden away in the depths of the earth, far from any of the other gods’ sight, he takes captured elves and tortures them into orcs, monsters. Melkor also finds the servants of God and the gods’ helpers (Maia) and deceives them into thinking “God is holding out on you.” Sound familiar? It does to Adam and Eve! These lessor gods become Melkor’s demons, his thralls, his servants.
Okay, so it’s not scripture, and it’s not real. But I find it instructive. It seems like Tolkien (a good Catholic) does a good job of describing what happens when someone believes a little lie: “I feel guilty or ashamed or like an outsider. I don’t like it. So I will be bitter, sad, and angry.” And next they begin to create “their own little world.” We call it the ego. Deep within our own caverns of our soul we indulge our pain and get trapped and we calcify into bitter people, fearful people, doubtful people. Then, just like Jesus put it, our nature becomes a constant lie, a self-deception: “I’m worthless… I’m a loser… I’m pitiful.”
If demons do anything, they certainly want to keep us stuck in our self-deceptions. When the Old Testament speaks of demons most of the references are to worshipping demons, or sacrificing to demons, or offering one’s children to demons. We call it “nursing a grudge.”
The cross of Jesus says to all this sin, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing!” (Luke 23:34). Uh, the Roman soldiers knew exactly what they were doing: executing a man and gambling to see who wins his fine clothing. But Jesus saw the big picture. And he sees the big picture for you: you are a child of God. You were made perfect. You are not junk. You are a saint.
So demons are real. They deceive us by our own volition. We willingly participate in the lies we believe. And that’s exactly what they want. The solution: Cry out to Jesus sooner! Forgive others. Wake up and see that you are lying to yourself about your bitterness and blaming of others. Release it, like Jesus did on the cross. Die to your own lie that says “I have to be right, approved, liked, and at the center of everyone’s lives.” If you don’t you are just entertaining demons. And they like it.