Breaking Free

Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Yet, when we look around us, it seems that there are few of us who live the abundant life. Most seem to lead lives of despair, unhappiness, loneliness, and grief. And because of a desire to escape the pain, even if it is for a little while, take to drinking, gambling, pornography, or some other vice, and only succeed in making a bad problem worse when they become addicted to whatever they are taking refuge in. So the thief appears to have a free hand in stealing, killing, and destroying. What can we do to stop him? And how can we lead the abundant life that Jesus promised?

This might be a very tangential approach, but a story about Jesus delivering a man from an impure spirit might help to answer the questions just asked, as well as several others that might crop up in the course of this story. Evil spirits—or demons, if you prefer—exist, as does Satan, and to deny their existence is to cast aspersions on the sanity and veracity of Jesus who spoke about them and battled them several times, as in this story. 

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee (Mark 1:21-28).

This is a story of a man whom an unclean spirit has taken control of. Can such spirits possess a Christian? The  short answer is, “No.” Possession implies ownership and the Christian belongs to Jesus, bought by him, and owned by him. Paul asks: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20a). So, how does one explain the manifestations that one sometimes sees in Christians? A proper term to describe what they go through is demonization. Can a Christian be demonized, then? And here the answer is, “Yes.” How does this happen?

Consider Washington DC, the capital of the United States. It is where the US president lives and houses most of its governing bodies. As a result, there is phenomenal security, which makes Washington DC one of the safest cities in the world that one can live in.  However, despite this protection, there are pockets of DC where there is disturbance, violence and crime. Why? Because these areas are not entirely in the control of the state. Similarly, even though we belong to God, there might be areas in our lives that have not been entirely surrendered into his control, which is where the powers of darkness hold rein. 

So how does this happen? This is largely because of the weakening of the will, and the most common causes are rejection, unforgiveness, and involvement with the occult, which is unfortunately a lot more common than we imagine. This lets the enemy set up camp in our lives, and once he has moved in, he gradually tries to expand his territory. You have surely heard the story of the camel in the desert who felt cold. He found a traveler lying in a tent and asked him if he could just stick his nose in. A while later he asked if he could stick his head in. Pretty soon the camel was fully in the tent. This is pretty much how the enemy works and once he is in, it gets a little hard to evict him. 

How do we get him out, then? The story we looked at has the answer. Jesus does it. He has total power over everything in the universe, even the forces of darkness, and he came to defeat them so that we can live in freedom. The prophet Isaiah had prophesied about this centuries ago. 

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor” (Isaiah 61:1-3).

About 2,000 years ago, Jesus went into the temple, picked up the scroll of Isaiah, and read this passage. Then he put the scroll down, looked up at his listeners and said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). To say something “is fulfilled” means it has already been done. The person they were all waiting for; the one who would proclaim good news, heal the brokenhearted, give freedom to prisoners and release them from darkness; the person who would comfort all who mourned and grieved; that person had come. Three years later, as he hung on the cross on Calvary, Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). The entire purpose for his mission was accomplished, which meant that all these things that he came to do were done! He has given us a crown of beauty instead of ashes; he has given us the oil of joy instead of mourning; he has given us a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. 

So, why do we experience so little of it if he has already accomplished all this? It is because we are not appropriating what is ours. Let me explain. Are there times in your life when you despair, are despondent, are dejected, or are depressed? Well, Jesus has already given us a garment of praise to be worn! Do you wear the garment? No, you don’t! And that’s where the problem lies. Imagine it is freezing cold, and somebody hands you over a long woolen jacket to wear but you don’t put it on because you think you will look stupid wearing it. But what does not wearing it when you are freezing make you? That is what actually makes you stupid. 

It’s the same case here; we have a garment—a garment of praise—but we don’t put it on. How do we put on a ‘garment of praise’? It’s really simple. Open your mouth and start praising the Lord! If you are not used to it, you might feel a little idiotic at first, but would you rather be depressed and dejected? And as you praise God you will soon find that this spirit of despair (notice Scripture calls it a spirit of despair) flees, leaving you joyful again. 

A Personal Story

I speak from experience. I don’t get in the dumps too often but there are the odd occasions when I find myself feeling really low, and usually it is for no particular reason. It is probably the ‘spirit of despair’ that has managed to sneak in during an unguarded moment. Well, when you’re down, you’re down, and all the stuff you know tends to count for nothing. Fortunately, I have a team of wonderful people I work with, and they know exactly what to do when this happens.

One day, I was invited to preach at a local church. That happened to be one of the days I was terribly low and going for the meeting was the last thing I wanted to do. One of my team members was with me and noticing how depressed I seemed, she told me I should do what I told everybody to do when they were down: praise God. But you don’t want to even open your mouth when you feel so low, so I kept my mouth shut. Fortunately, she is not intimidated by me. She insisted I praise God. Half-heartedly I said, “Praise you, Jesus.” She made me stop the car. “That’s not how you taught us to do it,” she said sternly. “Open your mouth and praise God.” I started praising  God, eventually turning up the volume and the tempo of the praises. Within a couple of minutes, whatever was getting me down—the spirit of despair?—had disappeared and I felt my normal self again. But this wouldn’t have happened unless I had put on the garment of praise and that required exercising my will. 

And this is the key to living the abundant life: exercising our will. We have been given the freedom to choose what we want to do, good or evil. We have inherently strong wills, but when we give in to the temptations that come our way we weaken our wills. When the will is weakened to the point where we are unable to resist temptation, we become addicts. Consider the alcoholic. Or the junkie. Or the person who constantly watches porn. Why do they succumb so easily? It is simply because the will has become weakened to the point where it has no power to resist the temptation that comes its way. I want to illustrate how we get to that state because in the understanding is the cure.

A Parable

There was a priest who lived in a little village with a small congregation. He was a holy man who loved God and led a life pleasing to him. 

One day, as he was returning home from church where he had just celebrated Mass, he saw something shining by the side of the road. Curious, he went to see what it was, and found a beautiful diamond ring. Something about it really attracted him, and he admired it for a long moment before slipping it into his pocket, telling himself he would make an announcement at the next service asking who the ring belonged to and return it to them.

He went home and placed the ring on the table next to his bed. The next morning he woke up and his eyes went straight to the ring which was lit up by the sunlight that was streaming into the room. It looked utterly gorgeous and the priest thought it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He wished it belonged to him. 

That evening when he went to celebrate mass he took the ring with him, intending to make an announcement at the end of the service, but he forgot. Or did he? That night he went to bed and dreamt that the ring had been stolen. He woke up in a panic and looked for it on the table but it wasn’t there. Frantically he searched for it, until he remembered it was still in the pocket of his overcoat.

One thing after another happened over the next few days and the priest never got to making his planned announcement. 

A week later, as he looked at the ring, he decided to try it on to see how it looked on his finger. It was a perfect fit. It was as though God had made it just for him. Could it be, he wondered? And suddenly he no longer wanted to be parted with it. But he couldn’t wear it openly in case somebody saw it and claimed it as theirs so he would keep it in his pocket when he went out, but when he returned home he would put it on his finger.

Another week passed and he was invited to celebrate a funeral service for one of his parishioners. A middle aged lady who had just lost her husband had died, and the double tragedy had left two orphans: a young 13 year old boy and his 14 year old sister. When the service was over he condoled with the children asking what had happened. “Our mother need not have died,” the girl said. “She was sick but the doctors said they could cure her if they operated on her. We didn’t have any money, but our Father had a diamond ring that we thought we could sell. However, we lost it on our way to the hospital.....”

What do you think the priest felt at that moment? What do you think he did? Reached into his pocket, took out the ring, gave it to the children saying, “I’m sorry, but I think I might have been the one responsible for your mother’s death?” Or maybe he reached into his pocket, took out the ring, saying, “Is this yours? I just found it as I was coming to church?” Or maybe he did nothing, saying to himself, “The woman is already dead, nothing more can be done and there is no point adding to anybody’s pain.” 

Do you want to know what he did? I don’t know. But perhaps you do, because you see, the priest in this story is us, and what happened to him can, and may have happened to many of us. 

And what was it that happened to a man of God who always lived to please him? A gradual weakening of the will when faced with temptation.

Strengthening the Will

What can be done? We can strengthen the will. The will is controlled by the rational mind that chooses to make decisions. The mind is where Satan wages war against us. This is the battlefield where Satan and his forces constantly wage war in order to gain control of our thoughts, our ideas, our imagination. The attacks are constant. Worry, anxiety, fear, dread, anger, hatred, greed, lust—these are all devices the enemy uses to manipulate us into doing what is evil. Just think about it. Did somebody hurt you lately? What do you feel? Anger? Hate? These thoughts are fueled by the enemy taking away our peace and joy and only filling us with pain and despair. 

This is war. But Paul tells us how we can win this war. “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3‑5 NIV). 

In this passage lies the solution: to take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ. I suggest a very practical way of making this work. Take two Post-It notes. These are sticky notes that you can get at any stationery store. On one, write: TAKE EVERY THOUGHT CAPTIVE. On the other, write MAKE IT OBEDIENT TO CHRIST. Stick them onto your computer screen (or whatever object you see a lot of during the day). And whenever you get a thought that you think might take you away from God, immediately take it captive—which means take it prisoner just as you would take somebody prisoner. And as you might haul such a prisoner before a judge, take your thought before Jesus. 

These thoughts need not be “sinful” as we understand sin. They can be a distraction that take away a lot of time that can be used more purposefully. Like Facebook, for instance, which can also be an addiction, and any addiction is harmful because it indicates a lack of control. And a lack of control is something that the enemy can exploit to weaken other areas. Besides, even something like Facebook is an addiction for many people. So, whenever you get the impulse to visit Facebook, you turn towards Jesus instead, and the very act of turning towards him usually serves to stop us from going at that particular moment

The idea is to strengthen the will with the help of Jesus. How does Jesus help? Merely being in his presence is enough to do the trick, but there is another weapon he provides us which is very powerful, especially if we know how to wield it well. This is, of course, his word. As we just saw, the weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds (2 Corinthians 10:4). And the mightiest weapon in our arsenal is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17b).

If we face sexual temptation, we turn to the ‘Word’ that is Jesus, who also gives us the ‘word” that is Scripture, which tells us to “flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies” (1 Corinthians 6:18-20). And you will notice that in no time at all, you are able to resist the temptations that come your way far more easily than you ever could.

And if you have the ‘garment of praise’ on, this becomes easier still because with Jesus, Scripture, and praises of our mighty God no force of darkness can do anything but turn tail. May we lead victorious lives in Christ. n