An Update on Demonic Possession

Who are the possessed in your life?

We don’t get many chances to talk about demonic possession these days. In the bible there are only seven references to it. Then in the 1950s, demonic possession went out of vogue. The Catholic church, for example, downplayed the idea. Some leaders believed they needed to modernize their teaching or they would lose young people. In 1962, their attitudes were characterized by novelist Flannery O’Connor who wrote “the supernatural is an embarrassment.” Possession seemed almost medieval.

That changed in 1973 when William Friedkin’s film The Exorcist was released. A priest who had a role in the film described the result: “I was teaching at a Jesuit high school and for a while the phone wouldn’t stop ringing. … They called looking for an instant fix – pleading with me to expel their own demons, their kids’ demons, even their cats’ demons.” Some Pentecostal churches began performing exorcisms. In 1990, the International Association of Exorcists was formed. Now, according to a YouGov poll, 51% of Americans believe in demonic possession.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a demon as “an evil spirit.” But the secondary meaning of the word is “a source or agent of evil, harm, distress, or ruin.” By this definition we all are possessed: by alcoholism, childhood trauma, drug addiction, gambling problems, greed, lust, pride, etc., etc. We know lots of people with demons. They are friends, neighbors, and colleagues. They are the loudest people at parties, the unreliable team member at work, the relative who disrupted the family matriarch’s funeral last week.

The last of the stories of demonic possession in the Bible is found in Acts. It’s a good story. The demon possessing a slave girl in Philippi recognizes the truth of Paul’s message and so acknowledges the one true God. Demons do that all the time. Coming from the spirit world, they know who’s the boss. They know things hidden from us regular folks.

The owners of the slave girl capitalized on her demonic possession by getting her demon to predict the future for their clients. But when the demon meets Paul and Silas he shouts, “These men are working for the Most High God. They are laying out the road of salvation for you” (Acts 16:17, The MESSAGE//REMIX). Which was true, of course, but then the girl and her demon start following them around and keep shouting. Paul finally gets annoyed and casts the demon out. That done, he pays her no attention. We don’t even learn her name.

After the demon leaves her, she can’t tell the future anymore, which makes her owners angry. They have Paul and Silas arrested and their imprisonment becomes the focus of the lesson. But what about the slave girl? Most readers don’t think any more about her. Maybe they assume it’s a happy ending because she is no longer possessed. But she is still a slave. And now she is less valuable to her owners, and so less likely to be treated well by them.

What would you have done if you had been there listening to Paul’s message when he cast out the demon? Would you have dismissed her, too, choosing instead to follow Paul and Silas? Or would you have checked on her welfare to make sure she was safe from the wrath of her owners?

It’s easy to identify the people in our lives who struggle with demons. They have the loudest voices. What are their names? How might their demons be dispelled? The recovering gambler, the suddenly sober, the friend who’s torn up their credit cards? With their demons gone, how might you reach out to comfort them?






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