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The Watering Hole - Conversations on 21st. Century religion.


Do you have them? Can you keep them as pets?


Are there really demons, or is such thinking just a misunderstanding of ancient times? The proliferation of hauntings and exorcisms in recent times make the question worth pursuing. Do Christians and other religious people have protection from demonic possession? Can demons cause you physical harm? The Bible would seem to say that demons are real, but they can't hurt those who trust in God. Psychologists and many religious leaders today would seem to say that demons are not real, yet the popular belief is that they can hurt you. Is it just the times, like the belief in vampires, that it is fun to be scared? Or is there really such a thing as demons? The short answer is, "Yes." Do you want one as a pet? The short answer is, "NO."

The puzzling world of religious experience

Every so often religious movements take an idea and run with it. The ideas are usually based on some religious experience in the Bible. Speaking in tongues after baptism is one, snake charming another, the "conversion experience" or weekly repentance another, faith healing, seeing miracles, transcendental meditation and other mystical encounters with the divine, faith healing, stigmatas (bleeding or crucifixion marks that appear in the flesh)...

Each of these religious experiences has profound support in literature and have a particular place in faith traditions. But taken to extremes, they result in people babbling in every church service, playing with snakes in church, repenting and "being saved" every week, or having exorcisms of demons every week. These experiences are often accompanied by emotional experiences that are themselves rewarding or meaningful to the individual and the congregation. But how meaningful are they in the long-term?

None of us go through the exact same religious experiences. Rather than pass judgment on these to declare them valid or invalid religious experiences, it can be more helpful to understand them in the context of religious and human experience. This way people can understand the experience and make their own decisions.

Is there such a thing as demons and demon possession? The short answer is, "Yes." The long answer is, it is a complex experience for which understanding helps place it in a useful place in spiritual growth for those who have the experience.

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The hidden spiritual world

We really don't know much about the spiritual world. Christianity and Judaism describe it terms that hint at it without revealing it. Perhaps it is beyond our understanding. There are many things that we don't see directly, but we understand the power of. You can't see electrons, but if you become part of a 110 VAC household electrical circuit, you have no doubt that you have just experienced it. You can't see air, but you can feel the wind, and see it move things. You can't see love, but the power of love is evidenced in the world every day in the trillions of the things we do, and love is probably the most powerful force in the universe. Money is much more an idea than a reality, an idea that causes the world's people to do things.

The Bible describes the spirit as the wind, or water. It exists, but you can't see it, and it is everywhere (ubiquitous). The power of it is described as fire. It is also the still small voice that talks to us in the form of ideas, as opposed to earthquakes and storms. People wondered if the "spirit of Elijah" was in John the Baptist, who acted as if the spirit of God was on him.

From the Bible point of view, we sense the spiritual world as communications, and it is generally the communications of ideas. The Bible tells us that "God is spirit." The Apostle John said in John 1: 1 - 14 (NIV), "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.... The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." The spirit of God will be poured on all flesh.

The things that are said about the spirit lead us to understand that at minimum the spirit is a land of ideas that are communicated to us through the Word of God, and in other ways, and that lead us to better lives. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, is the communicator, and refusing to consider these ideas can lead to our destruction. God can communicate with us through prayer, meditation, hearing the Word, fellowship with others (communion), through something that stirs our thoughts, or even through a talking donkey if God wants. Jesus stopped people from stoning a woman caught in adultry by asking each of them if they had ever sinned. You could say that God spoke through this situation.

We all know at least by this point, with book and magazine publication, movies, TV, and the Internet, that ideas are ubiquitous (everywhere present and obtainable), and not all of those ideas are good. And there is the problem.

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The four things we deal with

The Bible doesn't tell us to avoid contact with the spiritual world. It tells us to "Test the spirits" that are present in people and work through them. You can think of this simply as "the ideas or influences that are in people that they are communicating." People from "schools of thought," typically say similar things that support their perception of life. For example, in the scientific community, mysticism and such things are commonly taboo topics because they can't be put under a microscope and examined. 1 John 4:1 (NIV) "Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world." The Bible also talks about evil spirits and seductive spirits. We have to deal with being misled, but unlike scientists, we can't just ignore the spiritual world. We have to learn how to deal with it.

John continues to tell us in 1 John 1: 4-6 (NIV), "You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood."

The second thing we have to deal with is our stage of spiritual growth. When you are a child you think as a child. You respond to "Yes, yes, no, no." Do this, don't do that. As children, we primarily respond to our physical and ego-centric needs, such as the need for power, lust, greed, etc. As we grow spiritually (and this isn't restricted to just "religious" people) we learn to respond to higher ideals, controlling behavior, and over time modifying our wants.

Our stage of spiritual growth influences strongly what ideas we listen to. It is much more difficult struggling with opposing ideas of what is best for us and our behavior at earlier stages of spiritual growth... not that at any time we are beyond temptation. But ideas that tempt us with illusions that they will be great for us are much more easily recognized later in our spiritual growth, partly because of our own experience, and partly through watching others. We learn to see the outcome of bad ideas.

The third thing we deal with is how receptive we are to temptation and to God. We have periods in our lives when we are very weak and susceptible to temptation. We have other periods when we seek Godliness in our lives.

We also have to deal with our attitudes, the subject of the next topic. So as human beings, we have times that are perfect storms of growth stages represented by ego-centric behavior, being very weak and susceptible, the strong influence of our attitude, and being hit with misleading spiritual ideas.

The blockbuster of what we deal with: Attitude

We would like to think that we can hear good ideas, accept them, and let them guide our behavior. But this is almost an exception to how our behavior actually works. Attitude typically determines our behavior, and the components of attitude are 1) our rational mind and ideas (what we think and believe), 2) our emotions, which are formed by experiences, and 3) our actual behavior.

You can modify attitude through any of these components of attitude. What we think can override our emotions. We can think a local person is right candidate for a position so strongly that we vote for him, even though our emotions are telling us he is with the wrong political party and our father would turn over in his grave. Ideas are powerful things.

What we do, our behavior, can override what we think and how we feel. For example, the boy who got a bike a year ago and wrecked it, now believes for a year that if he rides he will wreck it again (intellectual and emotional components), so has great fear of getting on a bicycle. But his father puts him on it and holds him, and walks beside him, until he gains confidence that he can do it. So the boy's behavior (getting back on the bike) changes both his emotion (fear of riding), and his belief (if I get on the bike I will wreck it). People's "minds" are often changed simply by doing things. Doing can change our attitude.

How we feel about something or someone, the emotional component of attitude, is by far the strongest and most influential component of attitude. Emotion very effectively controls what we think and believe. For example, if someone comes from a divorced home, then has three failed relationships, even though someone may tell the person that someday they will find the right person, they may just refuse that idea because of the pain, and give up looking. They may actually refuse to get serious in a relationship when they in fact could, because of their fear of the pain of ending. Even though the person is horribly lonely and badly wants a relationship, and everyone tells her that it can happen, she may refuse or wreck even the best chances because of fear. The emotional component (fear) overrides both what we think and what we do.

What are we susceptible to in the spiritual sense then, during this perfect storm of attitude, the stage of our spiritual growth, our ego-centric needs, and being very weak and susceptible? Maybe a perfect storm that can be called a "demon."

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Tempting illusions and the demonic, and the road to a cure

Religion warns us that life is full of tempting illusions. For example, money is something that can be used for good or bad. The tempting illusion is that money represents power and influence and gives us complete control to change everything in life to our advantage. Given the power of the illusion, it's very tempting to make money the center of all of our thinking and endeavors. Everything becomes centered around getting money and using it to get what we want in life. We begin to believe, feel, and act as if money is the cure for all of our problems and will make us gloriously happy. Yet in real life, the wealthy admit that money itself does not bring happiness. And those who are not well off admit that money helps, but isn't the deciding factor in their happiness. Only the poor see the lack of money as a major factor in their unhappiness.

The illusion about money can be so tantalizing and overwhelming that the person under the influence of this can seem to be "possessed" by money. Every important thing then gets excluded from their lives and replaced by the instant gratification of material things and what they can do at the moment. We believe that money can buy friends, love, power, happiness, and satisfy us.

If this happens when we are at a weak point in our life, and are very susceptible to tempting illusions, and we don't have the life experience to know the illusion is false, we "buy" it. It becomes our attitude. This idea about money becomes a rock solid part of our lives and shapes our thinking (beliefs) and our emotions (quest for temporary satisfaction), and changes our behavior.

Our behavior can become so warped, when under the power of an illusion, that nothing else matters. We will destroy others in our quest for more money. We will eventually destroy ourselves. We get pictures of the miser who locks himself away with his money, never allowing anyone into his life, and never seeing the destruction that he causes in other's lives, until he eventually dies from his sick mind. Ideas are so powerful that they can possess us and destroy us... if we let them.

Life happens. Life is the great teacher. Through life experience we learn that misuse of drugs, prostitution, extra-marital affairs, preoccupation with wealth and power, etc. are not a panacea - they can bring us a life of pain, torment, and ruin. Eventually we become dissatisfied and disillusioned with their tempting illusion.

What do we do about it once we are disillusioned?

From a psychological point of view, once someone is ready to change, any vehicle will do to assist change. When people have reached the point in life experience where they are ready for a change, a magic wand, a self-help book, a potion, a pill, a "condition" label that they can push back on, a sports car, an affair, drugs, a new job, counseling, a religious experience... literally anything can be a vehicle to change. Again, the vehicle is just another tempting illusion.

The real question is, "Where will the vehicle take them?" Disillusionment is a point where people are very vulnerable to more false answers, illusions, deceptions.

From a religious point of view, it is at this point in a person's life when the Spirit of God speaks most loudly to people through ideas that resonate with their low condition and disillusionment, holding in front of them the life that they can have through the promises of religion. This is the time when a person is most ripe for conversion to a religion, and when the spirit comes knocking on their door. This is the time for people to extend a hand and a voice, showing the love of God, reassurance, and spiritual ideas and ideals.

Satan is called, "The great deceiver," and the tempter. He is the purveyor of tempting illusions. Is Satan a real being or simply a mystical personification of a tempter and deceiver? Is there really any such thing as a demon?

As we see in the vehicles, such as money, that we believe are our way to a better life, these physical things embody ideas and influences to us. After all, money is just money and can be used for good, and a sports car is just a sports car and there is nothing inherently wrong with it. But some people abandon their families, jobs, and chase after money or a sports car, projecting onto the car the sense of escape and freedom they badly want. The car embodies "their" drives, needs, emotions, and attitudes. Overwhelmed with life, they choose an inappropriate solution. They might even seem "possessed." They may even destroy those around them, their relationships, and even themselves.

Similarly with substance abuse, greed, prostitution... these are vehicles that embody the person's need for a solution, and appear to be the solution. These things may "possess" people to the point that they can't stop doing them.

Substance abuse (ironically sometimes called "spirits") is particularly difficult because of the physically addictive nature of these various substances. People sometimes can't quit these until either there is an intervention by others (exorcism by any other name), or they reach bottom. Bottom is that point where they have lost everything, including jobs, friends, family, property, and are at the point of losing their lives. It is at this point they must decide whether they want to die, or live and struggle with this (break away from the demon). There typically is no cure, but progress is gauged by how long they stay off the substances.

Interventions are difficult. While the person may know he is in pain and needs help or he will die, intervention won't work until he reaches the point that it is his decision. As in all psychological work, nothing works until the person decides he wants help and wants to change. Sometimes others (friends, a religious leader) can tip the scales and help make the person realize that now is the time for change. In exorcisms, the hold on the person is probably represented by the "demon" not wanting to leave. It may be that the demon still has a hold on the person, or it may be that the person still has a hold on the demon. It is probably both - the person and the idea (things the demon represents - the personification of the idea) are inseparable.

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Latching on to the right spirits, and avoiding others

Jesus Christ was the embodiment and personification of the Word, that is the grace and reconciliation of God that is given freely to all of us just for the asking. That idea (a chosen religion representing the same) is the only path to becoming one with God's eternal ideals. Satan, in whatever form the tempting illusion comes, is the embodiment and personification of bad ideas. Demons are the personification and embodiment of particular vehicles: lust, greed... the personal demons that any of us have, and some of those are "legion..." there are a lot of them. These are things that would destroy us if we don't get wise from life experience (disillusioned) and listen to the voices of wisdom: God and the experience of others.

We don't have to be captured and possessed by bad ideas. As John told us in 1 John 1: 4-6 (NIV), "You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood."

If we can identify an idea, a spirit, as being rooted in God, then we know it is something to follow.

Being possessed by a tempting illusion can be so real that it feels like an alien presence is actually inside of you. Whether it is or isn't, is irrelevant. For example, one tool of psychiatry is to simply put a name on a group of symptoms that a person has. That name can then become the focus that represents all of the symptoms, becomes rejected, and gets all the therapy. Whether or not the condition actually exists is irrelevant. The therapy works and the condition (most of the symptoms) go away.

When we see exorcisms, we see the "thing" removed that has become an integral, name-able, ir-removable part of a person's life, and we see the agony as the "soul is divided from the spirit" by the sword of the God's Word.

any tempting illusion can be so demonic, so entrenched in your life, that it destroys you.

Are there really demons? Exorcisms and hauntings depicted in movies are often accompanied by levitation, things being hurled, speaking in ancient tongues to which the person has no knowledge. These are sometimes attested to by priests. To discount them is inappropriate. To understand them: These typically occur when children and others are in very volatile and intense emotional states, and seem to be more prone to paranormal activity, during which Psychokinesis (movement of objects) and psychic abilities such as speaking in tongues sometimes occur. These emotional states and abilities usually have nothing to do with religion, and we can choose to dismiss these as magician's tricks, or understand that this may actually be happening. But demonic activity can more readily be explained by being possessed by a fully encompassing highly emotional attitude that is intractable and sometimes is accompanied by paranormal activity.

There are many purely demonic ideas - ideas that are so bad they quickly lead to the destruction of ourselves and others. They are just evil. To name a few that have possessed world leaders and religious fanatics over the centuries:

  • Abusing and dominating others to get our own way.
  • Demonizing and destroying ethnic, national, cultural, and religious populations and what the represent.
  • Hurting others in your pursuit of personal gain.
  • Ignoring the repression of others and threats to world peace, such as Hitler, Al Qaida, and the Taliban.
  • World conquest.
  • The idea that God rewards those who purposely kill innocent people.
  • Destroying yourself and others through substance abuse and illegal drug distribution.
  • Destroying others through destroying their sense of self-value through negative messages.

Whether or not Satan and demons exist as individual entities, is really irrellevant. Life will bring us plenty of difficulty and tempting illusions and we will project on the illusion that they are our answers.

If we can cling to the truth in God's Word, we can resist the temptations. But that isn't man's nature. In the proverbial Garden of Eden, people elected to take the road of temptation and all the suffering that accompanies it. It's called "life experience," and it is a primary means by which we grow spiritually. We prove to ourselves that God's Word is true by following a few bad paths for which we see the bad outcomes, and taking the good paths and seeing the good results.

We need to remember that the best way to deal with temptation is to trust in God's Word, and love each other. God is love, and where there is love, we are not hurting ourselves or others.

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Hebrews 4:12 (NIV) "For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

John 1: 1 - 14 (NIV), "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.... The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth."

Acts 10:45 (NIV) "The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles."

1 John 1: 4-6 (NIV), "You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood."

Luke 1:17 (NIV) About John the Baptist: "And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”"

1 Kings 19: 11 - 13: "11 The LORD said, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by." Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. ..."

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