Dealing with Devils
And he shall cast out devils, or the evil spirits which dwell in the hearts of the children of men.
Culturally, I don't think it's fashionable to believe in evil spirits dwelling in the hearts of humans these days. In an age when we have scientific explanations for psychosis and a host of other maladies involving the mind, we are inclined to wholly discount the supernatural explanations, except on rare occasions of palpable evil.
So, are the scriptural references to devils erroneous? Was Jesus really healing psychiatric and medical conditions (like disassociative disorders and epilepsy), but using the vernacular of the time when he called it casting out devils? And was the angel doing the same, when he foretold those details of Jesus's ministry to King Benjamin?
Perhaps that's possible in some cases, but most often, that explanation doesn't seem to be compatible with the record, as in Mathew 8:28-33 [also Mark 5:1-15]; Mark 1:23-34; 3:11, and 9:17-27 .
First of all, Jesus's methodology differs when casting out devils as opposed to healing disease or disability. In the cases of physical healing, he almost always touches the afflicted, speaks directly to them, and tells them to be healed. When casting out devils, he doesn't touch the individual but speaks directly to the unclean spirit and orders it to leave. Additionally, in numerous instances, the unclean spirits spoke, often in a way that acknowledged Jesus as the Son of God. The account of his casting out a legion of devils from a man into a herd of pigs, that then went wild and ran off a cliff, seems to offer significant evidence that the devils were real entities, not just psychological maladies. So do such details as the number of devils, 7, that the Lord cast out of Mary Magdalene.
But if the ancient explanation for psychological maladies is based on reality, if unclean spirits really do commonly dwell in the hearts of men, then why are interventions like counselling, meditation and medication effective? And why don't we go about casting out evil spirits when people are suffering from those maladies today?
I don't know, but it seems to me that the explanations of modern science are not necessarily incompatible with the scriptures. What if it isn't an either/or situation, but rather an and? What follows are a bunch of questions that occur to me.
What if devils dwelling in one's heart is not the same thing as demon possession. Could what we call "possession" be what happens when a devil manages to take control of a host? But most of the time, what if they're more like noisy passengers in a vehicle? What if they can make the the mortal journey miserable, but they don't get to steer unless we turn over the wheel? To me, that's consistent with Joseph Smith's teaching "the devil has no power over us only as we permit him."
What if devils dwelling in the heart is a much more normal condition than we tend to think? We have some clear evidence in the scriptures (see Mark 5:1-15) that unembodied spirits are highly motivated to find a host. In the account about a boy who was afflicted with a deaf and dumb spirit that caused seizures (Mark 9:17-27), we are told that his affliction began in the innocence of childhood. What if devils don't wait for an invitation, but seize opportunities that open up as fallen mortals stumblingly find their way forward? Also, what if certain forms of abuse open such opportunities for unclean spirits to get inside of innocent victims? If so, I believe that specific protective covenants can guard against admittance, but covenant keeping takes practice, so maybe we might still pick up passengers while we're learning.
What if most times a person lets the devil have power, it's not deliberate? What if it mostly happens when someone is in the throes of such strong emotion or paralyzing fear that they stop consciously exercising their agency? What if that's when a passenger tends to grab at the wheel?
What if the spirit has an effect on the chemical balance of the body? What if unwelcome passengers inhibit production of some chemicals or stimulate an overproduction of others? What if the resulting chemical imbalance in turn makes a body more vulnerable to unwanted passengers?
What if medication, meditation and counselling are all tools that can help keep those unwelcome passengers in the back of the vehicle? What if they help the host to grow and retain their capacity for conscious decision making, so that the passengers can't keep getting at the wheel.
What if casting out devils without strengthening the host's ability to retain and exercise their agency is actually counterproductive? In Matthew 12:43-45, Jesus taught that, when a devil is cast out, if he doesn't find a new habitation, he'll come back to the old. If he finds the space "empty, swept and garnished (welcoming?)," he'll reclaim it -- with company -- and "the last state of that man is worse than the first." I imagine that Jesus could exorcise without risk, because he filled the empty spaces -- his healing was complete. Is it possible that one reason we tend to exorcise only in cases of palpable evil, is because of that risk?
Finally, is it possible that, in modern medical interventions and the gospel ordinances of this dispensation, the Lord has given us other, safer mechanisms for ejecting devils? What if the first goal is to strengthen the individual to the point that they own their driver's seat, the unclean spirits are relegated to the back and the individual is able to tune out their noise? And that's the limit of what medical interventions can do. But Jesus didn't just mute devils; he cast them out. And he still does today. What if he then works with us to cleanse our temple? Perhaps the next step is to make our hearts a place where unclean spirits don't want to be. If they can't abide the presence of the Holy Spirit and if we are constantly inviting it by keeping a prayer in our hearts and filling our minds with light, and furthermore, if, by his grace, we continuously refuse to give them access to the wheel, perhaps they're going to want to find a more comfortable and rewarding habitation. What if every time we partake of cleansing ordinances like the Sacrament, it's an opportunity for light to literally enter our bodies and for darkness to escape? What if that's how Jesus usually casts out devils now?