Jesus Verse by Verse

an expanded commentary on the Gospel of Matthew

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Digression 14: Curing of Psychosomatic Illness

The description of the child here, and in more detail in Mark 9:17-22, describes the ‘demon possessed’ young man brought to Jesus by his distraught father in language which seems almost purposefully intended to be a kind of clinical description of epilepsy- indeed, the RSV and NRSV translations use the very word “epileptic”, the NIV uses “seizures”. Impeded speech, seizures, foaming at the mouth, grinding teeth, going rigid, convulsions on the ground, rolling around. Perhaps the intention of the process of Divine inspiration is in fact to define this case of demon possession as simply epilepsy, as if to point us to understanding the language of ‘demon possession’ as a way of describing illness. But “epilepsy” is a wide term; it is a seizure disorder related to “periodic disturbances of the brain’s electrical activity... temporary brain dysfunction” (1). The same medical authority concedes that the cause is often unknown, and the seizures are therefore called “idiopathic”. Seizure disorders typically happen when the person is under stress or provocation. It would be fair to suggest that the young man’s condition may well have had a psychosomatic element. Significantly, the things he is described as doing to himself nearly all use language which the Bible elsewhere uses to describe the fate of the condemned and rejected at the final judgment; inability to speak (Mt. 22:12), grinding of teeth (Mt. 22:13), falling to the ground and going rigid as if he was dead, throwing himself into water (Mk. 9:42) and fire (Mt. 13:42), crying out (Mt. 13:50). It would seem that he purposefully threw himself into fire and water, rather than accidentally fell into them; and the language of ‘throwing’ is associated in the above references with the condemnation of the last day. The young man may well have had issues of self-hatred and a paranoia about rejection by God- typical for some adolescents. Roy Porter points out that the Jews hadn’t always believed in demon possession, but picked up the idea in Babylon [as they did the idea of a personal Satan figure]: “The Babylonians held that certain disorders were caused by spirit invasion, demonic malice, the evil eye... possession was both judgment and punishment” (2). The young man, having heard these ideas, therefore acted as ‘demon possessed’ because he thought that this was the punishment for sin and the condemnation of the wicked. It was and is the good news of Christ alone which can free a person from such fear of sin and condemnation, and the associated self-loathing. Rather in Christ is the believer affirmed as a person. We can therefore reasonably suppose that the curing of the youth’s psychosomatic problems was associated with his realization that the Lord Jesus was personally interested in him, loved him, accepted him and wished to save him. The way the Lord ‘returned him’ to his father (Lk. 9:42) suggests the Lord took him away on his own in order to give him personal assurance of His love. Considering the excited crowd running around at the time, this personal attention was required for the healing in that such attention persuaded the man of the Lord’s special love for him.
I at times quote Freud with approval, but this shouldn’t be taken as meaning I agree with him on everything; in fact, very far from it. But his reflections on the language of demon possession bear careful consideration in our context. He wrote a paper reflecting on how cases of supposed demon possession in fact refer to psychological problems which can be cured. It is surely asking too much to believe that demons flee in the face of a psychotherapist who may well be an atheist or non-Christian. The problems previously blamed on ‘demon possession’ are illnesses of the mind, albeit having a manifestation in the body [‘psychosomatic’] which can be cured by engagement with the afflicted mind. He wrote about a recorded case of “demoniacal possession in the seventeenth century” as being “what we are prepared to recognize under other names... the neuroses of olden times masqueraded in a demonological shape... many authors have recognized states of [supposed] demoniacal possession to be manifestations of hysteria... if more attention had been paid to the history of such cases at the time, it would have been a simple matter to find in them the same content as that of the neuroses of today... what in those days were thought to be evil spirits to us are base and evil wishes... we do not subscribe to the explanation of these phenomena current in medieval times; we have abandoned the projection of them into the outer world, attributing their origin instead to the inner life of the patient” (3). And this happens to support the conclusion I have arrived at Biblically elsewhere- that the essential ‘evil spirit’ is the spirit of man, it is our internal temptation, dysfunction and sin which is in essence the great ‘Satan’, the adversary, of humanity. This is but a Biblical personification of what Freud calls our “base and evil wishes”.
There can be no doubt that illnesses once described as demon possession are now recognized as diseases which medicine can control and at least partially cure; the description of epilepsy here in Mt. 17 and Mark 9 as demon possession is a parade example.  Quite simply, the non-physical aspect of disease was blamed upon demons, but now we understand that the actual ‘demons’ were internal psychological attitudes and malaises which resulted in psychosomatic illness. Jesus cured these diseases by engaging with those psychological issues, driving out guilt, fear and other neuroses in the way which only He can- because He offers a real, felt forgiveness, reconciliation with God, and certain salvation. To have even begun to explain the psychosomatic basis of those illnesses would have been well beyond the understanding of the first century audience of the Gospel records. It was well beyond most people until the last few centuries. And so the language of demons being cast out was used, because in a sense there was no other way of describing the fact that such inexplicable illnesses no longer afflicted a person. But my point is that Jesus achieved those cures not by fighting with demons in the sense of real, cosmic beings or forces. He effected the healings by engaging with the psychology of the person, pouring in His grace, love and Hope of His Kingdom. Instead of gallantly bopping a few demons on the head to cure the blind man of Mark 8, He led him out of the town and talked with him, touching him to show His identity with him. He engaged constantly with the minds of those whom He sought to heal and save. For that is the arena of the real spiritual conflict; not out in the ether somewhere, in Heaven, out in the world, beneath the earth. And in that arena of conflict within the believer, there is Jesus, engaging with us within our deepest heart. In this sense, His healing work continues to this day.
(1)Mark H. Beers, The Merck Manual of Medical Information (New York: Pocket Books, 2003) p. 495.
(2)Roy Porter, Madness: A Brief History (Oxford: O.U.P., 2002) p. 12.
(3) Sigmund Freud, “A Neurosis of Demoniacal Possession in the Seventeenth Century”, in his On Creativity and the Unconscious: Papers on the Psychology of Art, Literature, Love, Religion (New York: Harper & Row, 1958 ed.) pp. 264,265.