Finally Free: Demon Possession, Christ, and the Simple Things

Solemn Landscape by Sorcha Niamh

Solemn Landscape by Sorcha Niamh

In his 1987 article, “A Case of Demonic Possession” (The Journal of Pastoral Care 41 no 2, June 1987, pp. 151-61), David W. Van Gelder, then Associate Professor of Pastoral Counseling at Erskine Theological Seminary, ponders the implications, personally and ministerially, of an encounter he had with a possessed boy. Despite some points readers of the ongoing counseling debates will quibble with, the article is worth reading in its entirety, and I find his theological reflections are both sober (his experience having been, in a literal sense, sobering) and responsible. I suggest that the chief value of the article may be its brutal reminder of the real world in which the Gospel is proclaimed and believed and ministered. At the end of the article, as I note below, he speaks of now being “finally free” in ministry. What he means by this merits solemn consideration by all.

Among his reflections, we read the following:

My own experience with belief in this situation was emotionally draining. I had always left intellectual room for the type of event which we experienced; although, I believed most present day cases to be fake. (I still do.) Leaving intellectual room, however, did not mean I had emotional room for this event. Although I am learning, I am very rationalistic and empirical by nature. I found, therefore, that I was physically and emotionally exhausted after this experience. It took me several days emotionally to believe what had happened as well as intellectually to believe it. For me to accept this emotionally did not mean that the event became an organizing principle for my life or my theology. It did not mean being distressed over the fact that there are realities which were outside of the normal boundaries of my scientifically oriented mind. In the end, it did mean recognizing the power of Jesus Christ over all powers and principalities in a more complete way.

The question that continues to confront me now is what the phrase ” a more complete way” means. Even though I recognize the much greater importance of the experiential, how do I integrate this into learning and life rather than just append it or hold it in a dichotomy with the rational? To maintain a conceptual dichotomy in this particular case is, essentially, a heresy. Christians believe that God is over all and, therefore, are not dualists. Or, in the words of C.S. Lewis, Satan is the counterpart of Michael, not of God.

There is something precious about great crises of any sort, including those more obviously otherworldly: they have a way of reminding us what are the simple, urgent things of life. They lay us bare so that, with the tangled web of our own priorities and concerns and anxieties and interests ruthlessly cut away and burned, we finally (again?) see the simplicity of who we are and what we are for. Pastoral labor might be captured well with such a sentiment: it’s the work of leading sheep to the center of the fold, where the voice of the Shepherd can be heard more clearly, the voice which alone tells us the truth of who we are and what we are for.

This way of thinking may lead us to reflect differently on public worship and pastoral labor than perhaps we are used to. Despite the ease with which ministers fall into the trap of minutiae, we need to remember that the stakes of pastoral, family, and soul care could not possibly be higher, and they are far more simple than our–ministers’ and church members’–temptation to complicate things will like to admit. This is something of which I always need to be reminded. The care and cure of souls, to use that old expression, is the urgent thing of life everywhere and for everyone. And since the enemy within and without is all too real, sometimes we forget how he typically comes not after the strong but after the weakest and most vulnerable among us. He is a wolf, snatching what sheep he can from the periphery of the Church’s communal life, those on the margins in relative weakness, outside the protection and sight of the fold’s center. He preys on those who do not pray, he seeks to devour those who do not devour Christ. The simple yet urgent warnings throughout Hebrews suddenly burst into life: don’t neglect the assembly, don’t neglect prayer, don’t neglect praise, don’t neglect the One Who speaks. It’s not easy, no, but it’s simple, life-and-death simple. The world of the Christian faith is true, after all, and this is a frightening yet ultimately hopeful thing to know. This explains the Church’s otherwise strange devotion to the ordinary means of grace, to prayer and fellowship, and to the rhythmic cadences and habits that flow from these.

His final thoughts in the article:

There still are effects in my life from this experience which I hope will remain. I am less concerned with my own death. I am more concerned about the increased interest in the occult in our society. I am more open to direct supernatural intervention and less concerned to try to work out all the details of my life. In essence, to be able to believe that the power of Jesus Christ prevailed in an apparent, legitimate case of demon possession has freed me from a bondage to the empirical methodological way of thinking that had been prevalent in my make-up. I am finally free; free to use a methodology but not be enslaved by it; free to proclaim a foolishness of the gospel without always feeling a need to legitimate it within a framework of modern presuppositions. Its legitimacy never depended on me (or us) anyway. Can we help people become free enough to believe the unbelievable truth? Probably only the Holy Spirit can do that, but certainly The Holy Spirit will let us help by using all the tools at our disposal, including the religious and psychological.

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