If you were to ask me which character in the Bible I most identify with, I would – like many people – choose Mr. Foot-in-Mouth himself, the sometimes brilliant and sometimes idiotic, sometimes extremely loyal and sometimes terribly fickle, Simon Peter.
But a little over a year ago, I found myself identifying closely with another man from the New Testament, and I don’t even know his name. He’s known simply as ‘a man’, but to me he’s ‘the father’ in Mark 9:14-29.
You see, in January 2014, my wife and I watched helplessly as our son Ian had a couple of epileptic seizures. And when I read Mark 9, the symptoms sound eerily familiar:
‘17 A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. 18 Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid.” – Mark 9:17-18a
Later, the father, clearly tortured by the experience of watching his son suffer so often, talks of the spirit throwing the boy into the water or the fire to kill him, and that this has gone on ‘since childhood’.
Thankfully, Ian’s epilepsy is pretty mild, and is so far being managed by medication. I can only imagine what it would be like to have to watch him seize over and over again as the man in Mark 9 did with his son – but starting last January, imagining that experience got horrifyingly easier.
Now, one major difference between my story and the Mark 9 father’s is that his son’s ailment was spiritual in nature: the boy was possessed by an impure spirit, and Ian’s seizures are medical disorder caused by a glitch in his nervous system.
I’ve often wondered how often ‘demonic possessions’ in biblical times were actually illnesses that the very limited science of that era were woefully inadequate to diagnose and treat. I look at the ‘doctors’ of bygone centuries a little like Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber, on Saturday Night Live in the late 1970s:
‘You know, medicine is not an exact science, but we are learning all the time. Why, just fifty years ago, they thought a disease like your daughter’s was caused by demonic possession or witchcraft. But nowadays we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach.’
Maybe the child in Mark 9 simply suffered from epilepsy, too, but without the medical expertise to diagnose the illness, the folks of that era declared it a demonic possession – sort of by default.
Remember that in Luke 4:39, Jesus healed Simon Peter’s mother’s fever by rebuking her illness. The lines between spiritual health and medical health seem to have been pretty fuzzy in Jesus’ day, don’t they?
But wait a minute.
Is it possible I’ve got it backwards? Could some of the wars we fight with science today actually be better waged spiritually?
Ian’s pills manage his illness and keep it under control. But they have side effects, and for as long as he bears the ‘epileptic’ label, he won’t be able to swim with his friends (unless an adult is with him), or drive a car, for examples. The boy in Mark 9, on the other hand, was fully and completely cured, because Jesus dealt with the source of the problem, not the symptoms.
The ‘power’ of science seems pretty paltry in comparison.
Not that I’m not about to toss out Ian’s medication in the toilet and head to Faith Healers ‘R’ Us, or anything. But I do wonder if spiritual forces are at work in our world today to a greater extent than we realize.
Let’s take a look at this topic in Mark’s Gospel, and see what we can see:
- In Mark 1:21-28, we read about the time Jesus met and healed a possessed man in a synagogue in Capernaum. (I’ve always wondered what an evil spirit was doing in church? Does that still happen?)
- In Mark 1:34, it says Jesus drove out ‘many demons’.
- In Mark 3:11-12 , as Jesus continued to teach and heal, ‘Whenever the impure spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” 12 But he gave them strict orders not to tell others about him.’ (Sounds like that happened a lot, doesn’t it?)
Later in Mark 3:22-30, teachers of the law speculated that Jesus Himself had an impure spirit, prompting the ‘kingdom divided against itself cannot stand’ speech – one of my favorites in the Gospels.
- Mark 5:1-20 contains Jesus’ iconic encounter in the Gerasenes with a man possessed by a Legion of demons, which Jesus then sends into a herd of pigs that are driven into a lake and drowned.
- In Mark 6:7-12, Jesus gives the Twelve authority over evil spirits, and sent them out to preach and heal, and ‘they drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.’
- In Mark 7:24-30, the famous story where Jesus gets one-upped in an argument with a Syrophoenecian woman concludes with Him casting out a daughter from her daughter without even needing to be in the same house.
- In Mark 9:38, the disciples stop someone (no indication of who this was) driving out demons in Jesus’ name, but stopped this freelance exorcist because he wasn’t one of them.
- Mark 16:9 mentions, almost casually, that Jesus had driven seven demons out of Mary Magdalene.
(Writer’s note: I’ve focused on Mark’s Gospel in the above list, because Mark seems to emphasize these sorts of healings more than the other Gospels do. Many of these incidents are recorded [sometimes with different details] in Matthew and Luke as well, but curiously, I was unable to find any examples of exorcism in John’s Gospel. Hmm… Perhaps that’s worth looking into another day.)
That’s a lot of exorcisms.
It seems like a big chunk of Jesus’ work involved driving impure spirits out of people. Does it strike you as odd that this activity took up so much of Jesus’ time during His ministry, but the notion of casting out demons is more or less laughable today in Western society?
As I’ve speculated above, it’s likely that some of the ‘demonic possessions’ of bygone centuries were misunderstood medical conditions. And perhaps there are less of these spiritual possessions nowadays because Jesus’ victory on the Cross took most of the ruach out of the impure spirits’ sails. Or maybe the fact we tend not to believe in evil spirits (and therefore have no fear of them) is the reason they have no power, since fear is what evil feeds on. Maybe one, or a combination of both, of these factors has all but vanquished evil spirits in Western society.
… Or maybe that’s just what they want us to think…
… Or maybe that’s just what they want us to think…How are we to know when to call Father Merrin (Max von Sydow in The Exorcist), and when to call Dr. Ingham (Max von Sydow in Awakenings)?
I suppose it doesn’t have to be either-or, does it? Science and spirituality can occupy the same space, can’t they?
When it comes to my son Ian’s ailment, or a friend or family member going in for surgery, I look to medical professionals to fight medical battles, while praying to the Healer Himself to tackle spiritual ones.
And I don’t think one cancels out the effectiveness of the other. To me, this practice feels like I’m giving to God that which is God’s and giving Caesar that which is seizures – I mean Caesar’s. 😉
Peace be with you.