on madness and sanity: Mark 3

read Mark 3.   The two opposing forces of madness and sanity run rampant through Mark 3.  The most sobering aspect of the chapter is that madness is revealed something to which every human heart is susceptible;  irrational behavior stems from either a hard heart or from demonic possession.

In the first scene of the chapter, Jesus notices and heals a man’s deformed hand on the Sabbath. The religious leaders “immediately” want to kill him.  Here is the question Jesus asks them:  “Is it lawful and right on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to take it?” (Amplified Bible).  To the reader, Jesus’ question is so obvious as to be rhetorical.  It must be right to do good.  It must be lawful to save life.  There can be no other answer.  And yet the religious leaders give no answer.  Why?

Perhaps because the religious leaders know their answer is wrong, but they feel powerless to say the right answer.  What they want to say is: we want to do evil, and we want to take life.  They can’t say it out loud, because they know it’s wrong, but that’s what they want.  Mark writes that Jesus is “deeply saddened by their hard hearts.”

What is a hard heart?  One characteristic is that it’s something that’s easy to see in others, but not so easy to see in yourself.  A second characteristic is that even if you do sense it in yourself, it’s hard, if not impossible, to change.  A third characteristic is that it makes you believe wrong things – such as that it’s right to do evil.  A fourth characteristic is that it makes you feel murderous toward someone who tells you the truth.  In other words, a hard heart makes you think illogically and violently.  And what is that if not madness?

Next, we see a great throng of people following Jesus.  They have come to him for healing.  They kept “falling upon Him and pressing upon Him in order that they might touch Him.” And yet Jesus tells the disciples to have a boat “in constant readiness” for Him because of the crowd “lest they press hard upon Him and crush Him.” (Amplified Bible).

The people are so desperate that they might kill the very person to whom they have come for healing.  This, too, is madness.  What is the source of this madness?  It is a lack of trust. They do not trust that Jesus will help them unless they make their way to the front of the crowd.  They do not believe that Jesus will see them unless they force themselves upon him.  They do not have the faith to wait in an orderly line.  They do not believe that Jesus could heal someone at the back of the crowd.  They feel a desperate need to try to control the situation.  They want to force God’s Son to help them – even though he is the kind of God, who as we know from the first scene “notices” someone with a deformed hand. They are willing to risk crushing the only one who can help them.  The need for control, then, can drive a human to behavior that seems insane.  An overwhelming need without trust in God causes irrational behavior.

This scene by the lake has the cinematic quality of an insane asylum.  Mark tells us that “whenever those possessed by evil spirits caught sight of him, the spirits would throw them to the ground in front of him shrieking, ‘You are the Son of God!'” v. 11.  It must have been a dramatic sight, to see all these people writhing on the ground and screaming at the sight of Jesus.

The insanity here, however, is not just the writhing and screaming.  It’s that the evil, or “unclean” spirits, as they are called, KNOW that Jesus Christ is the Son of God – and yet they do not obey Him.  James points out that just believing in God, without obeying him is foolish: “Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror.” James 2:19-20.  It is madness to know who Jesus is and not bow down to Him.  And yet we see in this chapter people so controlled by the prince of darkness that this is the very thing they do unless Jesus casts out their evil spirits.

From the lake, Jesus goes up on a mountain and calls his twelve disciples, “giving them authority to cast out demons.” v. 15.  But even here, in this moment where the Son of God chooses his special followers, lurks madness.  Among the twelve is “Judas Iscariot (who later betrays him).” v. 19.  Judas is given authority to cast out demons, and yet he listens to the demons.  Judas, of all people, should have been able to resist the devil.  And yet he didn’t.  This, too, is insane.  Why did Jesus choose someone he, as God’s Son, knew would betray him?  Why would he let Judas be close to him?

Jesus next enters a house and the crowds gather around so that Jesus and his disciples “couldn’t find time to eat.”  So Jesus’ family tries “to take him away. ‘He’s out of his mind,’ they say.”  v. 21.  Jesus’ family thinks that Jesus is mad.  There is something about following the will of God that mimics madness; there is something about obeying God that can look like insanity.

The religious leaders pile on.  They say that Jesus is not mad, but that he’s “possessed by Satan, the prince of demons.  That’s where he gets the power to cast out demons.'” v. 22.

Jesus responds that a kingdom divided against itself will fall.  He is implying, of course, that his own family is not acting as if they’re from his kingdom.  He says Satan couldn’t be casting out Satan.  He says that the only way to plunder the goods of a “strong man like Satan” is by someone who is stronger than Satan tying him up.  Jesus implies that Jesus is the only one strong enough to tie up Satan and take back from Satan people whom he has possessed.

Mark 3 therefore reveals insanity as something that can result from a hard heart; from a desire for healing devoid of a trust in God; from demonic possession; from betraying Christ; and from knowing who God is and yet not obeying Him.

These stories raise an interesting question.  Are all of our hard hearts and desire for control the result of demonic possession?  Can we all use as an excuse that old adage: “the devil made me do it”?  Can we be absolved of fault by claiming demonic possession?  Is that the reason the religious leaders accuse Jesus of demonic possession – because they themselves are demonically possessed?  Do we all have lurking inside of us little demons who, at any moment, could make us writhe on the floor and scream?

I don’t know.  I know one thing.  Twice in my life I have seen people who look demonically possessed.  I once watched through a window a little girl who was doing occupational therapy.  She had a mad look in her eyes.  She looked like she was out to cause as much trouble as she possibly could, and that listening to a grown-up who wanted to help her was an impossibility for her.  Another time on a subway platform, a white man with black hair stared at me with a look of pure hatred.  He looked ready to push me onto the tracks.  His eyes were chilling.  The demonic forces that seemed to inhabit both of these people were terrifying.  You could see in the eyes of that little girl and that grown man a force of pure evil, that looked resistant to reason.  What is interesting to me is that I’ve only seen this look twice.  I live in New York.  I see a lot of crazy people.  Insane people who don’t take their meds roam the street every day.  But only in these two did I see that insanity manifest itself so obviously.

So if that kind of demonic possession is rare, is there a more subtle kind of demonic possession, one to which all humans are subject?

This chapter suggests there is.  We all have hard hearts at times.  We all sometimes wish ill on other people.  We all know exactly what God would want us to do in certain situations, and yet do the opposite -whether we believe in Him or not. We all get so desperate to control situations that we do things that don’t make sense.  We all lack the faith at times to trust God’s way and try to take matters into our own (incompetent) hands.  We all do, as St. Paul puts it in Romans, the very thing we don’t want to do.

So what can heal a hard heart?  What can help a person who is so desperate for control she does the very thing that will prevent her from getting what she wants?

The Bible teaches that it is the Holy Spirit who can cast out the demonic tendency in each of us.  Jesus makes clear at the end of Mark 3 that he is healing through the power of the Holy Spirit.  v. 28-30.  The Holy Spirit is God; it’s part of what we call the Trinity.  When we get sick of being controlled by forces of darkness, and we invite Christ to be our Lord instead, the Holy Spirit comes and lives inside us.  Jesus is the “strong man” who tied up the devil – but, as is usual with the ways of God – Jesus “tied up” the devil by allowing himself to be tied to the cross.  He defeated Satan through seeming weakness.  What looks like insanity to the world – the Son of God dying on the cross – became the only means possible for every human to have sanity.

Because inviting the Holy Spirit to live inside you enables you to have the voice of reason, love and health whispering to you.  You may not listen to that voice, but at least you now “know” it.  We humans can’t trust ourselves.  We can rationalize anything.  The Bible tells us not to lean on our own understanding, but in all our ways to acknowledge God as Lord.  That means that the way to sanity lies not in doing what we want, but in “dying to self” – in saying, “every bone in my body wants me to exact revenge; to pay someone back for the evil they did to me; to yell; to scream; to hurt; to judge; to lust; to covet; to lie – or whatever it is you want to do in that moment – but God says to forgive; to be kind; to be patient; to trust God to exact revenge; not to judge; to love my neighbor; to be honest.”  This kind of dialogue goes on inside us moment by moment.  This becomes our daily war.

It is a war between life and death, between sanity and madness.  To choose to obey God, when our flesh wants to do the opposite of what God says, means choosing “death”; it means a painful sometimes agonizing process in which we say NO to the very thing we most want to do.  The process itself can mimic madness; the moment of dying to our desires can disturb us so greatly we can writhe on the ground and scream (at least inside our heads) – but we’re doing it to resist the demonic, not give in to it.

The reward is sanity.  The reward is health.  The reward is peace.  It’s calmness.  The reward is also family.  A family, as Jesus said, cannot be divided against itself.  But when we choose to become part of God’s family, we have a family united in doing God’s will.  As Jesus says at the end of the chapter: “Anyone who does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”  Mark 3:35.

Choosing God’s will for our lives opens us up to a confidence and serenity that enables us to listen to others without fear.  We don’t need to worry that anyone can control us.  We can listen without calling names, judging, or condemning.

That’s because the secret to obeying God lies not in our willpower, but in our submission. There’s a subtle but all-consuming difference.  Trying harder leads only to frustration.  The secret to sanity lies in saying – “God, my ways are sometimes so irrational that they can be insane.  I choose to let YOU be in charge.  Less of me, more of you.”

In that moment, we are inviting Jesus Christ into our very selves.  It’s an awesome, exhilarating and liberating experience.  The path to sanity, then, lies in waking up every morning and say: God, today I’d like You to be in charge.  Anything else is madness.

posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on November 30, 2011

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