Naming Demons

I made a curiously controversial remark at a church conference on severe mental illness several years ago. “What spiritual healing can the Church provide?” I had asked.

The medical professionals in this meeting wanted to keep spirituality out of this process as many people, even in developed countries, want to deny the physical aspect of mental illness, to deny the healing power of proper medication. Affirming a spiritual dimension would keep them away from conventional medicine.

Yet there really are demonic powers in the world. Scientists call this the “Nocebo effect.”

Its opposite, the placebo effect is widely known. The placebo effect happens when scientists give patients in a clinical trial sugar pills to test the efficacy of a new drug. While they expect those who receive pills with the drug to get better, even a few of those who merely receive sugar pills also get better. Merely believing or trusting that a pill or procedure will benefit yields benefits.

Those same medical trials often also prove the nocebo effect, that merely thinking something might go wrong, that the pill might have serious side effects, causes those side effects.

My question about the spiritual dimension of mental illness sought to discuss those effects and others that interfere with conventional medicine. These effects are most properly named as demonic effects.

Anointing VialWhen I visit people in the hospital I offer them anointing with oil. The ritual I use from our Book of Common Worship includes forgiveness of sins. I am convinced that holding on to one’s sins interferes with healing, and that a simple reminder that our sins are forgiven aids physical healing. Our own sins and the fear that they cannot be forgiven, at least by ourselves, is perhaps the most dangerous of demons; a demon that Jesus lived and died to cast out; a demon that God sends the Church into the world to name and to cast out.

And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Then some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” And he stood up and went to his home. When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.
— Matthew 9:2-8 (NRSV)

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