Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Avoiding the Seven Demons

I've always been perplexed by the passage in Luke 11, where the Pharisees accuse Jesus of using the power of Satan to drive out evil spirits.

It's not so much Jesus's refutation that confuses me. In the discussion, he coins the phrase that Abraham Lincoln borrowed - a kingdom divided itself cannot stand - to show that Satan's forces can't survive if they war against each other. He then uses a parable about robbing a strong man's house to explain to that although our enemy has a formidable powers, he is easily bound and overtaken by his maker.

I'm good up to this point, but it gets a little trickier in the teaching moment afterward, when Jesus turns away from the immediate treatment of good vs. evil and begins directing criticism toward the Jews' unbelief. He drops this bomb on us that I have never been quite able to comprehend (vv. 24-26):
"When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, 'I will return to the house I left.' When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first."
Commentators treat the passage in various ways. Matthew Henry discusses it in the context of salvation and the Word, similar to Jesus's treatment of the seed that fell on rocky soil. Some repent from their sins and clean themselves up outwardly, believing that a set of actions has made them acceptable before God. But if they have no root, if they don't submit to a deeper cleaning of the heart, they will just be making a mockery of the Gospel and their final state will be worse than the first.

More generally, I like to think of this passage as illustrating the idea that it's not enough just to avoid sin. Just following a set of rules does not lead to abundant life. It's not enough to shampoo the carpets, mop the floors and spray a little spiritual air freshener in our hearts. We don't need redecoration. We need a total renovation. In other words, I think Jesus is saying that we can't just focus on removing the old. We have to replace it with something new and different.

There's a TV show called "Moving Up" that tracks three families moving into each other's homes. In the opening interviews, the families talk about their beloved houses and how devastated they would be if the new owners change things. At the end, they return to see what's been done. Most are disappointed to see that what's remembered as a cozy nest has become completely foreign. Even if they appreciate the new owners' design sense, the new paint, accessories and furniture change the identity of the place. "This is not my house," they often say, their nostalgia tinged with disgust.

I think Jesus is saying that our hearts should be similarly inhospitable to the evil influences that once controlled our lives. In the context of demon possession, obviously this is more literal: evil spirits can't only be sanitized; they must be replaced by a new resident, the Holy Spirit. But I think this applies more generally to our personal lives as well. We often ask sinners to clean themselves up, but we don't treat the underlying cause of the mess: their hearts, which have their tables set for a demonic dinner party.

Of course, we must start with letting go of the desires that once ruled us, driving out the evil forces that once roosted in our hearts, but again, this not enough. Buddhists think that desire is the root of suffering, so we must detach from it completely. The problem is that in doing so, they are desiring a world without suffering, making their quest self-contradictory.  Instead, our desires must be totally reoriented. We are not just saved from sin. We are saved into Christ. The old is gone. If the new has not come, the old will return.

Avoiding the seven demons' return - and the Christian life in general - isn't just about abstinence from the desires of the flesh. It's about indulging ourselves in Godly pursuits, thereby crowding out old habits and former identities.

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