Has it ever happened to you? You made a commitment to yourself to break a bad habit. You said to yourself. When that happens again, I won’t react so badly. I’ll behave better. I won’t worry or get stressed like in the past. Or maybe, you simply promised that the next time you went to that buffet, you wouldn’t go back for that third plate. And as you said it, you so much wanted to believe it would happen. You may have even believed it would.
And maybe it did happen. But if so, that is awesome! But too often, that habit doesn’t stay broken. That bad reaction rises up again. No matter your promises, when that third helping at the buffet calls, you still answer.
How many times have we made such commitments to ourselves only to break them? How many times have we resolved to rise above a certain behavior, only to find ourselves falling right back there again? The Apostle Paul when he wrote to the believers in Rome put it this way.
“I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.”
Can you relate at all? Do those words not describe what each of us face to some extent in our lives every day? What is going on that holds us back so? More importantly, how do we become free to live the life we want to life, freed from our bondage to bad habits, to wrong thinking, to uncontrolled appetites. In this story of healing and liberation, Jesus shows us the way. Let’s listen and hear what Jesus has to say.
Why do we, so often in our lives, find ourselves bound to bad habits, caught in worries and fears that limit us, trapped by appetites that we find hard to control? More crucially, how do we become free from these very things we yearn to be free from? In this story, Jesus shows us. Jesus shows us that strangely enough it is our very loves that limit us. But Jesus also shows us that only through love can we truly become free.
How can that be? Well first, we need to see how love limits us. And strangely enough one word in this story points to our problem. As Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, he encounters this person afflicted by what Mark, the writer, describes as an unclean spirit. But what does it mean for something to be unclean? It seems a strange choice of words. But in that word unclean God is communicating a profound truth on the human problem.
A few years ago, my nephew, Colton, taught English in China. Those months turned out to be an incredible experience, but it didn’t start out that way. Colton had no idea how difficult it would be to get used to China.
I asked him. “What was the hardest thing to get used to?” He mentioned several things that made it tough. In the area where he taught, the combination of poor sanitation and rapid growth, made simply the smell of the place hard to handle. Then, he soon realized that their idea of what sanitation meant was different too. He saw again and again that in his part of China the whole world was their restroom if you get my drift. But those things, he got used to. One thing though he couldn’t. He never got used to seeing dog being served at the butcher’s shop or in a restaurant. He understood. There was nothing inherently wrong in the practice. After all, it is meat, and it’s certainly edible. But it felt so wrong, so not the way things should be. Still, it did motivate him to learn to read Chinese to make sure that he never ordered Fido, when he went to a restaurant.
What was going on with Colton’s revulsion? He was experiencing the same sort of thing devout Jews in Jesus’ day felt when they saw some Gentile munching on a piece of bacon. Sure, they knew that such food wasn’t inherently bad, but it felt revolting nonetheless. Why? They had a cleanliness code, and every culture has one.
Now what is a cleanliness code? Well, let me show you. In this cup, I have a little bit of tea left. But what if I spilt just a bit of this tea here on the table. What just happened? Well, I made the table dirty, right? But how come in the cup the tea seemed perfectly fine, clean if you will? But now that it is on the table, it is dirty, unclean? Well, tea belongs in cups, but it doesn’t belong on tables. And therefore tea on a table makes the table dirty. It’s out of its proper place.
Cleanliness codes help us define where things belong. In our culture, dogs belong in the back yard, and not on the dinner table. That’s part of our cleanliness code. And in the Old Testament, God gave his people a pretty detailed one. By the way, when you see that something is kosher, that’s what it means, that it is clean according to this Biblical code. But why did God do this?
Because in these codes, God was pointing us to the core of our problem, to what at the deepest level is destroying us. In our lives, and more profoundly in our hearts, things are out of order. They have lost their proper place. In too many areas of our lives, we are unclean.
This unclean spirit in the story is only the most extreme example of something we all have. This man may be possessed by something that is palpably, even supernaturally evil, but every one of us gets possessed by something or someone. What do I mean? In 2005 at Kenyon College, the writer David Foster Wallace gave what has become one of the most acclaimed commencement speeches ever. And in that speech, he made this devastatingly true observation.
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
If you worship money and things if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough…worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you…Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and unafraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is…. they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
Do you see what Wallace is saying? All of us get possessed by something, and with only the exception of God, whatever it is that possesses us will eat us alive. But why is that? It’s not because money is a bad thing or beauty or power or intellect or whatever it might be. In reality, all these are good things. What makes them bad or unclean is that they lose their proper place.
Think about it. If you put your career above everything else, your family, friends, even your health, that decision will wreck your life and others’ lives too. But on the other hand, if you put your children above anything else, that smothering love will wreck your life and theirs’ too. Our problem is not that we love these things. It’s that we love these things too much. We don’t love them in the right order. We look to family or relationships or work or things or even our own lives for ultimate meaning instead of to God. And thus our loves get out of order. They become unclean. And when that happens, we don’t possess our loves as much as they possess us.
Whenever we struggle with a habit that is hard to break or a behavior that we can’t break free from, at the heart of our struggle is a love out of order. Let’s say when someone criticizes us or expresses disappointment in us, it devastates us. So we try desperately to please everyone, even if it means others treat us badly. We know. This need to please is hurting us and others, but we can’t stop.
What is going on? We have come to love the approval of others too much. It is possessing us even. Our loves have gone seriously out of order. But how do they get back into order? How does that happen? Here Jesus shows us.
Have you ever noticed that whenever Jesus teaches, he always accompanies it with some act of power? Why is that? Does Jesus just throw in some special effects to wow the crowd? No. Jesus is making clear what he has come to do.
Jesus didn’t come to deliver advice. Jesus came to deliver us. That’s why he called his message news. Advice is about something we do. News is about something that has been done for us. And Jesus not only brings the news, he is making the news. He is creating the reality of which he speaks. He isn’t just talking about bringing in the reign of God, he is bringing that reign into actual reality like he does in this story. So when Jesus frees this man from the unclean spirit, it’s not just good news for him. It’s good news for us. Because we need that same deliverance, from the things that possess us.
Now in this man’s case, it happened instantaneously. But this deliverance God brings usually doesn’t occur so quickly. And because it doesn’t, we can think it’s not happening at all. But it is. It is happening in ways more powerful and profound than we realize. But how is it happening?
Once, the Jesuit priest James Martin writes, I was so frustrated about an unhealthy aspect of my personality that I knelt on the floor and begged God to change me as quickly as Jesus had changed the man (in the story). As in the case of the unclean spirit, what reason would God have for not exorcising that part of me? Why wouldn’t God do this immediately? After an hour, waiting, I rose from the floor, the same person as before.
A few months later, Martin writes, I was speaking to a spiritual director, lamenting this. Why wouldn’t God heal me as quickly as Jesus had healed the man in the synagogue…The spiritual director pointed to a tree outside his window. “See that tree?” he said. I nodded. “What color is it?”….”Green,” I said. “It’s a green tree.” “In the fall it will be red,” he said. And I knew this. I had seen that very tree in the middle of a New England autumn. It was a glorious scarlet. And then he said. “And no one sees it change.”
If you let Jesus deliver you, Jesus will. At times, it may be instantaneous. But more often, it will be a journey, a process. But the deliverance will come. How can you know? Because Jesus had his loves rightly ordered. And in that order, where did he place us? He placed us above even his own life. He freely laid down his life for love of us. And through that love, he freed us from any power that might possess us, even the power of death itself. If you let his love reign in you, this love that loves you more than you can ever grasp, then Jesus will place all your loves in their proper place. He will free you bit by bit, day by day, from the things that hold you too tightly, from what you have come to love too much. He will make you clean. And as he does, he will open you to a life richer, more beautiful; more mysteriously wondrous than any you could have ever imagined or dreamed.