Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"The Demonic Nature of Addiction"

Text: Mark 5:1-20

Titus 2:11-14

 

        Let me give fair warning that what we’re going to talk about this morning may cause some level of discomfort.

Some may be more affected than others by the subject matter depending on life experiences -ours, or those of people we know and love. 

Vale and I had a beautiful flowering tree in our front yard. I’m not sure what kind of tree it was [someone once told me it was called “flowering crab”]. From the time we moved into the home in 2001, it grew tall and broad, lending wonderful shade to the front of the house as well as providing what they call “curb appeal.” I was shocked when I returned home from work after a windy, stormy day and found that twenty-five foot giant uprooted and lying on its side. Even more surprising was how little a root bulb had pulled up out of the ground. A few days later, we had a tree “expert” come to remove it, and he explained what had happened. There was a ground cover called “creeping juniper” in the bed surrounding the tree. Little did we know that over time, that innocuous shrub had been sending its own roots underground. At first, they were tiny tendrils which had little effect on the health and well-being of the tree. By and by, however, they had twisted themselves tightly around one of the tree’s major roots literally strangling it. So under stress, the giant toppled. 

That’s the way it is with every addiction that starts out as what we so often dismiss as just a bad habit. Baseball celebrity Tommy LaSorda once described his battle with bad habits: “I took a pack of cigarettes from my pocket, stared at it and said, ‘Who’s stronger, you or me?’ The answer was me. I stopped smoking. Then I took a vodka martini and said to it, ‘Who’s stronger, you or me?’ Again the answer was me. I quit drinking. Then I went on a diet. I looked at a big plate of linguine with clam sauce and said, ‘Who’s stronger, you or me?’ And a little clam looked 2 up at me and answered, ‘I am.” I can’t beat linguine.” 

Those bad habits about which we sometimes joke are like tiny tendrils growing unaware. As seemingly innocent and harmless habits are fed, they can over time twist themselves around so many aspects of life: family and other relationships, work and career, physical, mental and spiritual health. Then in what seems like the blink of an eye, the very tendrils which may have been taken so lightly begin to strangle at the very root, threatening to topple even the strongest of trees. 

The episode we read from Mark is presented as a story of exorcism; the most detailed story of its kind recorded in the gospels. The principals in the story are Jesus and a nameless man who is described as living “among the tombs.” Whatever pathologies the man was suffering – whatever particular unclean spirits possessed him – are not described. But the symptoms of his illness are: “…no one could restrain him anymore, even with a chain…. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.” To say this man was deeply troubled would be an understatement.

This man meets Jesus as He’s stepping out of a boat after He and His disciples had just encountered and survived a “great windstorm.” In a gesture which would seem quite out of character for a person in his state, the man “bowed down before (Jesus); (but) he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” He was responding to Jesus’ stern command: “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” Then, as Jesus often did, He delved not into the man’s pathology, but into the man’s personhood, asking his name. The man didn’t give his true name, but rather described himself in terms of his affliction: “My name is Legion; for we are many.” 

Commentators have proposed that it was not the man speaking at all, but the multiple demonic personalities who were dwelling in him. That sounds kind of like Hollywood horror film stuff or a Bob Larson exorcism crusade to me. Nevertheless, it is significant that whoever is speaking, the man’s response is to beg Jesus “not to send them [the evil spirits] out of the country,” but rather to send them into a herd of pigs which was feeding nearby. Jesus gave them permission. They left the man, going into the herd which numbered “about two thousand.” That herd ultimately rushed down a steep bank into the sea where they were drowned. It’s no surprise that when the swineherds ran off and told presumably the herd’s owners of this, “…they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood.” The happy outcome of this entire episode, which no one but Jesus seemed to care about, is recorded in one verse: “They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid.” The story ends with Jesus sending the man to tell others all that God had mercifully done for him. 

That’s what we know of the guy’s story. We’re not told what led to his possession. We don’t know the conditions in which he grew up and lived prior to meeting him in the “country of the Gerasenes.” We don’t know anything about the nature of his mental issues or what was behind them. We don’t know how long it took for him to recover. But the markers of an addictive pathology as we understand them in this 21st century show up throughout the story. “No one could restrain him any more…. and no one had the strength to subdue him.” Don’t you know that when the tendrils of addiction – whether that addiction is one of substance, behavior, or attitude – wind themselves around someone’s life, others feel helpless to restrain or subdue. If and when we try confronting someone about their addiction, we’ll likely be met with denial, deflection, justification, blame, anger, even rage. We’ll find that we can reason, scold, beg, or pray until our knees are raw. But if the person is unwilling to own up to his or her addiction – whether that addiction is one of substance, behavior, or attitude – we are indeed helpless. Some of you know this to be true. “Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.” Addiction in all its forms is ultimately self-destructive. As those innocuous habits thicken their tendrils, slowly taking control, words and actions once unthinkable become the new normal. No one drinks that first shot, or lights that first cigarette, or swallows that first vicodin, or opens that first pornographic website, or buys that first lottery ticket with the intention of becoming enslaved. But that is precisely the ‘demonic’ nature of addiction. It sneaks up from behind. Nineteenth century politician and educator Horace Mann once stated that “Habit is a cable; we weave a thread of it every day, and at last we cannot break it.” Mann could have very well added: “In the end, it breaks us.” 

“When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him.” In moments of clarity, rare as they may be, an addicted person usually can imagine and sometimes even recognize life outside their addiction. The man in Mark’s story, evidently having that moment of clarity, saw Jesus as the way out of whatever had him in its grip. He acknowledges as much when he figuratively falls at His knees. But then again, the “demon” speaks: “What have you to do with me?.... do not torment me.” That’s how addictive pathology plays out: I want and need help, and I see it there……. But no, I’m fine, I can take care of this all by myself……. Please, help me…….No, leave me alone. And on goes that cycle of desperation and denial, cries for help and fierce resistance to it, day after day, month after month, year after year. 

“Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.” So often, persons who are addicted – whether that addiction is one of substance, behavior, or attitude – may have lost their very sense of core identity, and see themselves only in terms o what possesses and enslaves them. Moreover, addiction is usually far more than meets the eye. There are multiple layers to addiction which cover and eventually bury an individual’s essential personhood. They’re still in there – the parent, the spouse, the child, the friend we love – waiting to be redeemed. But unless and until that moment or season of recovery, the stratum continue to thicken to “Legion”-like proportions. 

“He begged him (Jesus) earnestly not to send them out of the country.” Even when one names the depth and the layers of her or his addiction, and comes to that moment of decision, there’s still a tendency to want to at least keep it close. It’s like the alcoholic on the wagon who has a bottle hidden away, just in case; or the morbidly obese diabetic on the diet who has a box of Ho Ho’s under the bed, just in case; or the sex addict who is trying to remain faithful to his wife, but still keeps a little black book with phone numbers in the glove compartment, just in case. 

“…..sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion.” There is no addiction which cannot be overcome; no enslavement of mind, body, or spirit from which a person cannot be freed; no layers so thick that they can’t be peeled back to expose and bring to light the beloved child of God long buried beneath. But here’s the key, which is at once the demonic illusion of addiction, and that which puts us Christians at odds with our prevailing therapeutic culture: Persons gripped by addiction need help outside themselves , for they are powerless against their addiction. There is no more difficult thing to concede, but the essential first step of any course of recovery. One can read all the self-help books, listen to all the self-help CD’s, watch all the self-help podcasts, talk to all the linguine with clam sauce one wants. But until the One whom AA calls “a higher power” is met and bowed down before -the addiction named in all its multiple layers and exposed to the light of God’s truth -it’s tendrils will continue to thicken and wrap around roots until the tree topples under stress. And often, that very toppling – sadly, but mercifully – marks the start of recovery, rediscovery, and redemption. 

 

Regarding the man in this morning’s story, we again don’t know what his specific mental illness issues were. They could have been rooted in addiction as we understand it, for there were such things as alcohol and mind-altering drugs in Jesus’ day. There may have been other repeated behaviors which led to an addiction-like pathology. There may have been attitudes shaped by some sort of pain and suffering in his life which, over time, had became controlling and consuming, as any addiction is. The origin of the “demons” possessing him will be forever open to speculation. Whatever his particular history, there is little debate that addiction in all its forms – of substance, of behavior, of attitude – has never been as widespread as it is today. Because there has never been greater access and opportunity. Until we acknowledge this and begin to deal with it as a spiritual problem as much as a social and medical problem, the tendrils will continue to wind and thicken around the heart of this nation and our citizens. And what shall happen when the giant is under stress? You know, we make much of our freedom as Americans. And that’s a good thing. Yet with regard to what is really holding us in bondage, we have been in denial, saying in effect to God: “What have you to do with me?…..do not torment me.” Maybe at least on this one critical issue – for the health and welfare of our nation and its citizens – we need to run and bow down before Him.