On Breaking the Chains
[Deut.18:15-20; 1Cor.7:32-35; Mk.1:21-28]
Today in Mark’s gospel, Jesus begins his public life in Capernaum by preaching in the synagogue, and it’s clear that he’s engaged in a war against the cosmic forces of evil.
While Jesus is preaching, a man possessed by an ‘unclean spirit’, a demon, calls out, ‘What do you want with us Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come here to destroy us?’ Jesus commands the demon to leave that man’s body. The demon obeys, and the poor distressed man finally gets his life back.
Some people are fascinated by the demonic. C.S. Lewis once wrote that some people make two mistakes when it comes to demons: they either ignore them, thinking they don’t exist, or they give them too much attention. [i]
What Lewis means is that denying the existence of demons is unwise. It’s like pretending that terrorists don’t exist, and that means you won’t be alert when you need to be.
But he’s also saying that giving them too much attention is also unwise, because it can distract you from healthier and more important things in life.
Whatever the source, though, there are dark forces lurking about in our lives. There are forces of evil both inside and outside us that can control our life. They can make us sick and miserable and sometimes they make us behave badly. We see this in people trapped by things like crime, addictions, guilt, toxic relationships and fear.
Some people think they can fix such situations by themselves. They believe they have the capacity to think themselves into psychological and spiritual freedom. But very often that’s impossible.
Consider, for example, the story of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the Austrian psychoanalyst who researched the subconscious mind. He tried to develop a method to free people from the dark urges and desires that control their conscious lives.
Freud believed that we can all think ourselves into good health. But despite all his knowledge and research, he couldn’t stop himself from smoking cigars and he died of mouth cancer. He simply didn’t have the power to control himself.
That’s so often the case. Many people want to change their lives; they want to break free from something, and they even know what they need to do. But all too often they’re powerless to do so. That’s where we need the grace of God (Eph.6:10-18).
The Bible is full of people who found themselves in situations they couldn’t control. Moses, Paul, the Woman at the Well, Bartimaeus, Zacchaeus the tax collector and the Ten Lepers were all trapped by something awful and they needed God’s help to escape.
The Apostle Peter was in an impossible situation when Herod locked him up in Jerusalem. He was chained by the wrist to two guards, he had another two guards at his cell door, and he was destined for trial and execution. But one night as he slept, an angel silently arrived, removed his chains and quietly led him through unlocked gates out into the street (Acts 12:1-17). God had set Peter free to begin again.
In the 1700’s, the life of the slave trader John Newton was a complete mess. One day as he sailed through a violent storm, he was sure he was going to die. He cried out, ‘Lord have mercy on us!’ and at that point his life changed. The storm abated, he went on to become a priest and he encouraged William Wilberforce to campaign against slavery.
Newton wrote the hymn Amazing Grace. In the third stanza, he says:
Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; / ‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far, and Grace will lead me home. [ii]
That’s what we need to remember. We all face dangers, toils and snares in our lives, and too often we’re powerless to overcome them. It’s grace that has brought us safe this far, and it’s grace that will lead us home.
In one of her Letters, St. Catherine of Siena wrote: ‘It’s necessary that we see and know, in truth, with the light of faith, that God is supreme and eternal Love, and he wants nothing else but our well-being’.[iii]
That’s what Mark is saying in today’s Gospel. He’s telling us that Jesus’ mission is to free people like us from enslavement to sin and evil, in whatever form it might take. He wants us to live life to the full (Jn.10:10).
The truth is that none of us has the power to control our own lives. We all need God’s grace to lead us safely home (Heb.4:16).
So, if you want to break the chains that bind you, admit your weakness and ask Jesus for his help.
[i] Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters. Harper Collins, London. 1996:ix
[iii] St Catherine of Siena. The Letters, Vol. 3, Bologna 1999:206 Ep. 13