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Monday
Dec232002

Demons, Panhandlers

[Today’s Christian, January-February 2003]

Q. I have a friend who believes that everything bad that happens to him is due to a demon. I worry about him both because he is not taking responsibility for some of the bad things that are happening to him, and because I believe that I do not really need to worry about demons when I am surrounded by the love and power of God. Am I right, or is he right, or are we both wrong? —Jodi J., Westville, IN

A. I think you’re both right—to an extent. Your friend is right to be convinced that "still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe." And you’re right to feel that it’s not something to worry about obsessively. The right balance is similar to the caution you would use when touring a city where there are pickpockets. You would be watchful and alert, and avoid dark alleys. But you wouldn’t let that caution prevent you from enjoying the trip.

Too often Christians think of the demonic as nothing but medieval foolishness; we picture a guy in a red suit with a pitchfork, and feel too sophisticated to believe in that. But this is analogous to the non-believer who pictures an old guy with a long white beard, and concludes that it’s nonsense to believe in God. What we picture of supernatural things may well be a childish approximation of reality, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a powerful reality out there, beyond what we can picture.

We can get an idea of how seriously we should take demons by looking at Jesus’ response. Far from reassuring people that they were mere figments, he took demonic reality seriously and spent a large part of his healing ministry combating them. The Cross itself was like a cannon aimed at the Devil’s headquarters. "The wages of sin is death," and because of our sins Death had a valid claim on every fallen human being. But when Jesus took on a human body and died, he broke into the stronghold of Death and set us free. The battle with the Evil One has eternal, cosmic importance, and Christians who ignore that are omitting sizeable chunk of their salvation story. Which is just how the Devil wants it.

While the Resurrection represented a massive defeat for the Evil One, skirmishes still go on. We hear St. Paul continuing to warn Christians to be alert to the danger: "For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness" (Ephesians 6:12). St. Peter agrees: "Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour" (I Peter 5:8).

Notice what St. Peter exhorts: "Be sober, be watchful." He does not say, "Be thrilled, terrified, obsessed, and fascinated." If one way to fall off the balance beam is to assume that demons don’t exist; the other is to relish thoughts of a demon who has been assigned as your personal adversary, and imagine him hiding the car keys or bumping coffee on your tie. Thoughts like these can become a hobby, making your life seem more exciting than your neighbor’s. It’s like playing with an imaginary friend.

The corrective is to remember that the Evil One is not interested in ruining your tie or your day; he’s interested in ruining your soul. His goal is to coax you into sin. He’ll want to do this with utmost subtlety, like a pickpocket, so that you don’t realize till too late what you’ve lost (your temper, perhaps, or your chastity, honesty, or serenity). Your friend may be leading a very colorful life as he imagines that all the "bad things" that happens to him are caused by a demon, but more likely evidence of demonic influence in his life is the "bad things" that he does. Show-offy supernatural phenomena is exceedingly rare, and fixating on it is itself a kind of temptation. Yet we face demonic activity every day, in the form of subtle, coaxing influences that hope to lead us into temptation.

Be sober, be watchful, but do not be afraid.

***


Q. One question I have is what we ought to do when a stranger begs us for money. On the one hand, scripture such as Deut. 15:11 commands us to be openhanded to the poor and needy in our land. On the other hand, a very large percentage of homeless people who beg have substance use disorders and many should find more responsible ways of earning income. —Ethan P., Honolulu, HI

A. Social service agencies in many cities have concluded that handouts to the homeless do more harm than good. This isn’t a new problem; early Christians found that when news of their communal generosity spread, they had to contend with leeches who would take advantage, and in effect steal from other poor. So everyone began giving their donations to a common church fund, rather than directly to the needy. (This collection happened during Sunday worship, and included gifts of animals, which must have made things lively. Picture that after the anthem, everyone files forward and hands the pastor a live chicken). Pastors and deacons would then use their best judgment about how to distribute the proceeds. "Let your alms sweat in your hands until you know to whom to give it" reads one early text.

Today there are many specialized agencies that can receive our donations and spend them wisely. When we pass homeless people, we can give them vouchers for free meals at a soup kitchen. Or have your kids put together lunch bags with imperishable foods, like peanut-butter crackers and a juice box, and keep them in the car to hand out at stoplights. You might include a tract with your church’s worship times, too. 

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