Last week I hiked in the Smoky Mountain National Park with my long-time friend and former pastor, Gee Sprague. We started the hike at the Twentymile Ranger Station, then up the Wolf Ridge Trail to the top of Parson Bald, 6.2 miles of unrelenting “up,” an 1800 foot elevation gain, before flattening out for the last 0.8 miles to our campsite at Sheep Pen Gap. Halfway up the Wolf Ridge Trail, Gee began having cramps.

Unexplained cramps or muscle spasms are have plagued Gee for years. He has undergone an extensive battery of medical tests with no answers. He tries to hydrate well, replaces electrolytes, avoids heat, exercises carefully. The spasms can affect just his hands or just his feet, or any muscle in his body. It can occur during exercise, but he can just as easily be awoken from a sound sleep in a comfortable bed with painful and unremitting spasms. Once started, the tendency to spasm can only be controlled by complete inactivity until the episode runs its course, usually twelve to twenty-four hours.

We soldiered on, adding ibuprofen to the hydration routine, as there was no place to rest until the campsite. Once there, we set up camp, got water, and prepared to make dinner while the spasms periodically would shake Gee nearly off his feet. I thought he looked like he was possessed by a demon. Finally, he lay down on his sleeping pad, twitching and grimacing.

I had no idea what caused his symptoms or what to do to help. Hiking out for medical help seemed like the least humane option; he could barely stand as it was. I don’t carry narcotics or muscle relaxant medications. Keeping him warm seemed to go against his prior experience with the condition; leaving him cool as the evening came on seemed unconscionable.

“Pray for me, Dean,” he said, stretching his hand up.

I had two simultaneous conflicting thoughts. The first was: Of course. Why didn’t we think of that before? The second was: I’m not that kind of doctor.

The third thought was: But I am that kind of Christian.

So I knelt next to him, put my hand on his thigh, and prayed for healing. I always feel a little foolish when I’m doing this. Part of my mind tells me that this is what Christians do; part of my mind tells me this can’t possible work. But somehow there is comfort in the process, and with comfort comes peace. I said Amen, and went about preparing dinner.

Gee lay quietly on his pad. Within two minutes the spasms were gone, within five minutes he was walking about again. We hiked three more days, uphill, downhill, hot, cold, nine miles, then seven miles, then thirteen miles. We got tired, we got sore, we got hungry. But Gee never had another spasm.

Someday, maybe in heaven, I will understand the physiology behind what happen to Gee’s body that day. But for right now, if you ask me, I’ll tell you we cast out a demon.

Demon Possessed Men

When he arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men came from the tombs to meet him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way. “What do you want with us, Son of God?” they shouted. “Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?” Matt. 8: 28-29 (NIV)

Imagine coming off a crossing to someplace like the Bahamas marked by a life-threatening tropical storm, reaching dry land with a sense of relief and thanksgiving only to be met by two maniacs who come running from the cemetery screaming something about “Son of God, torture, and the appointed time.” They look big and strong and naked.

You look around for help and all you see are a couple of pig farmers who are busy trying to distance themselves and their pigs from you and the screaming maniacs. They’ve seen this before, and it hasn’t ended well.

You’re with your brother and a couple guys from the old neighborhood, and your new best friend, Jesus, who says amazing things about the Kingdom of Heaven being right here, at hand, and you want to believe him. But so far he has not shown proper fear of contagious disease, occupying military powers, nor even storms at sea. Those things turned out all right, but it’s hard to trust Him. Now, facing madness, what will He do?

The men are possessed by demons–that much is clear. And they are strong, otherwise someone would have locked them up or chained them where they wouldn’t bother people. Why do they call Jesus “Son of God?” Could it be true? Is He really the Messiah? We have wondered in silence. He certainly hasn’t claimed it, not yet.

If the demons are afraid of torture, why do they run toward him instead of away? Is there something left in the men they possess that brings their feet toward Jesus while their demons beg for mercy? What could possibly torture a demon anyway? Could it be that thing about Jesus, that lack of fear of earthly concerns, that trust in God, that pure righteousness? Could “the appointed time” be the death of the men they possess, a time when they float unattached in God’s creation seeking a place or person to infuse with chaos? Or is that when they are condemned to hell?

The Choice of the Demons

Some distance away from them a large herd of pigs was feeding. The demons begged Jesus, “If you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs.” Matt. 8: 29 (NIV)

Up until now, the demons have done all the talking, and they have an unusual request. If Jesus decides to throw them out of the men–this event is not apparently inevitable–then they want to go into the herd of pigs, dumb creatures who would not even be food for Jesus and His friends. Maybe He won’t throw them out? Maybe He’ll destroy them where they are? We get no clues about the alternatives these demons were considering. Why the pigs? The only connection with the men who are possessed and the pigs is that men living in a cemetery and pigs are both unclean by Jewish law and custom. They wanted to go into a non-thinking, unclean creature.

The End of the Demons

“He said to them, ‘Go!’ So they came out and went into the pigs, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and died in the water.” Matt. 8:30 (NIV)

In 1999 Crossroad Church sent its first overseas short term mission team to Bribri at the edge of an indigenous reservation in Costa Rica, not far from the Panamanian border. The main objective of the trip was to assist local missionaries and preachers with an evangelism crusade in the town. When I became involved, the missionaries planned an additional outreach, a medical mission, to a jungle village located a few hours travel by canoe and hiking from the end of the nearest road. I was a reluctant participant, but people and circumstances directed me in ways I could not refuse without denying my faith.

So a few weeks later, I found myself spending the day as probably the only doctor anyone in this village had ever seen, listening through my translator, John, and assisted by my experienced nurse, Penny. We saw about eighty patients the first day, mostly with conditions that rapidly became familiar: water-borne GI diseases, vitamin deficiencies, intestinal parasites. One boy had a heart murmur, one teen-age girl wanted to know when her baby would come. One boy couldn’t see things close up, and my glasses seemed to help him. Fortunately, I’d brought a spare pair so I gave him mine.

While we saw patients, some of our team members gave testimonies and gospel presentations in the waiting room. Much discussion ensued, but many people became excited at the Good News and were eager to embrace and explore this new worship.

Only one man seemed to have a puzzling request. He came early in the morning, before we were ready to see patients. He complained that he had a wound in his right arm, that he had been pierced by something sharp and it wouldn’t come out. I looked carefully at the arm and found absolutely nothing, so I reassured him the best I could and sent him on his way.

Night fell hard, the darkness deep under the jungle canopy and far from electric lights. We cocooned ourselves inside the unfinished schoolhouse by sheathing the interior with a giant mosquito net hung from the rafters, the space lit by candles and a gas lantern. There we cooked a simple meal and, exhausted, spread out sleeping mats and prepared to rest. Penny took a sleeping pill and was out cold before anyone else tried lying down.

Then we had visitors. One man who had heard the Gospel was so excited that he told his neighbor, a man who had moved from the outside a few years before and married a village woman. The woman had recently died of cancer, and her husband was now alone. The five who were still awake met with them, and as we were introduced I realized the neighbor was the same dark-skinned man who had the mysterious and invisible arm injury.

We listened to the man’s story. He was a native of Haiti, and had joined a cult that worshipped the devil. After progressing to the fifth out of seven levels of training to become a priest, he became frightened and fled the country. Taking the first ship out, to Limon, Costa Rica, he continued to flee until he was well beyond the nearest road.

At his friend’s urging, our team presented the gospel to him, and he seemed to be on the verge of accepting. But he told us he was afraid. Something inside from his prior training held him in fear. He agreed to let us pray for him.

We laid hands on him, and I was overcome to the point of obsession that I needed to cast out his demon. I wasn’t even sure I believed in demons, and certainly had never witnessed an exorcism. But that’s what I prayed–in English, so I’m sure he didn’t even understand me.

Then we opened our eyes. He quivered under our hands, his eyelids fluttered, and he opened his eyes and grinned. Full of joy, he told us he had been set free, asked for one of our Spanish translation testaments, and received Jesus. A half-hour later, we sent them off into the darkness with one of our flashlights.

One member of our team, Jim Young, said we should pray for protection because whenever a demon is driven out he looks for a new home. But before we could pray, John’s wife, Daisy, suddenly convulsed and lay on the ground shaking uncontrollably. I examined her, and clinically would call the condition a pseudo-seizure. The four of us still conscious laid hands on her and prayed for her deliverance and protection for all of us. (I hate to liken Daisy to a herd of pigs, because she is bright, beautiful, and devoted to Jesus. That day, however,of those present, she was probably the most physically and emotionally exhausted.)

Daisy sat up, a bit confused, but seemingly unaffected and at peace. Then we all went to our corners of the cocoon, turned off the lights and tried to sleep. I laid there in the darkness asking myself if that had really just happened.

The Response of the Town

Those tending the pigs ran off, went into the town and reported all this, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men. Then the whole town went out to meet Jesus. And when they saw him, they pleaded with him to leave their region.  Matt.8:31-34. NIV

The town hears about the pig stampede, comes out to see Jesus, and finds the maniacs clothed and in their right minds. You might think this would be a good thing, that the lost among them had been restored, that they could bury their dead in the cemetery again, and this might be a good tradeoff to a bunch of lost pigs.

But, no, they were afraid. Because who could drive out demons except the prince of demons? Maybe they figured the demons they knew were better than the demons they didn’t. The safe thing to do was to send the Jews back home, and start raising more pigs.

This is what I do when I hear about demons being driven out. Someone tells me about how they suffered from drug addiction, and another prayed for them, and they were delivered, and have been sober since. I tend to think of explanations like they were ready to quit, too sick to keep on, their social support structure had favorably changed, anything except Jesus casting out their demon. I like to think in modern terms.

But sometimes I wonder if there isn’t still a place for the concept of demons. More times than I would care to remember, I have been faced with the result of a murder-suicide. The usual story is the husband or boyfriend who loves his wife or girlfriend so much that he has to shoot her in the head then turn the gun on himself. Every time it happens I wonder how anyone could have gotten to the mental state that loading and pointing the gun seemed like a good idea. I want to say: What possessed him?

The only good answer is a demon.

The bad news is that we can’t get rid of our own demons. The strong men from the tombs of the Gadarenes, the drug addict, the homicidal husband–in their right minds and their best intentions, would not do the things they did, except that they couldn’t help themselves. They couldn’t cast out their own demons. To do that, someone else needed to channel the courage, righteousness, and power of Jesus.

The good news is that no one needs to live with their demon. The men from the tombs couldn’t cast out their own demons, nor could they even speak for themselves. But they could point their feet on a path toward Jesus.

St. Paul was afflicted early in his adult life by a demon that drove him to religious zeal and intolerance. He had men and women arrested, even executed, who disagreed with him. One day, he got delivered. Years later, he wrote this:

I am convinced that neither death nor life…nor demons…nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Rom. 8: 38-39. NIV

Bottom line: Get your feet set running toward Jesus, and your demon cannot separate you from God’s love.