Monday, April 20, 2009

Power Transfer

Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he sent them out by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits.

Mark 6.6-7

Good Guys and Bad Guys

Claude Chabrol sits high on my list of favorite filmmakers. Long ago, US critics dubbed him “the French Hitchcock,” because his perverse view of virtue and villainy adds unexpected twists to his tales of pedestrian crime. You’re never sure who the good guys and bad guys are in his movies, which often end suddenly—almost rudely—without a dénouement to clean everything up. I recently caught The Flower of Evil, one of his lesser works in rotation on IFC. Chabrol gives us a family of aristocrats with two unsettling tendencies: for generations, they’ve married in-laws or stepsiblings, and tensions within these quasi-incestuous relations repeatedly trigger murder. As gamy as this is, with Chabrol at the helm, Flower is a deceptively sunny movie about charming people—and thus the title. Beneath its refined civility, the family is rotten. Also because it’s a Chabrol film, it finishes before you pin down which characters are good and which are evil.

Unfortunately, life closer to a Chabrol film than movies that identify the good guys and the bad guys early on. Real-world characters conceal their true natures to present palatable images of themselves. Heroes hide their virtue; villains obscure their malice. On top of that, neither real-world heroes nor villains always behave consistently. Heroes often lash out at opposition to their cause. Villains can be admirably charitable to those they love. So we misjudge people all the time. What we lose by misjudging good people is seldom regained; rarely do we override our initial misgivings. On the other hand, too often we continue with rotten people after cracks in their façade reveal they’re not as virtuous as they appear. It’s here our Christian commitment to love and accept them as is can slip into indulging their filth. This is a mistake.

Taking Authority

In Mark 6, Jesus divides the disciples into pairs to spread the Gospel in surrounding villages. Before they leave, though, He does something very interesting—and necessary. He transfers His power over unclean spirits to them. Next, He gives them three instructions: 1) Travel light. 2) Stay where you’re welcomed. 3) Don’t waste time on people who don’t welcome or listen to you. Emboldened by Christ’s power, the disciples have great success. Mark says they drive out many demons and cure many sick people.

Our live-and-let-live culture encourages us to submit to unclean spirits instead of taking authority over them, to nurse unhealthy minds rather than using power Christ gives us to heal them. We’re told “not judging” means looking away if we see people harming others or themselves. But Jesus never told us to ignore abusive behavior or let it persist. We were given authority over spirits that drive deceptive, defiling, and debasing practices. I believe Jesus effected this power transfer for two reasons: first, to confront evil wherever and whenever we meet it; and second, to protect others and ourselves from its foul effects. In challenging harmful behavior, however, we take issue with the spirit, not the individual. As Paul explains in Ephesians 6.12, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

Three Keys

Jesus’s instructions to the disciples provide three keys for dealing successfully with unclean spirits, though more than a casual reading is required to comprehend why they work. First, we wonder why He insists the disciples travel light: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts.” (Mark 6:8) Next, we ask why He says to settle with hospitable people: “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town.” (v10) Lastly, it’s curious He says not to linger where they’re not wanted: “If any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them.” (v11) One would expect the opposite from Him, telling the disciples to abide anyone who rejects them and persist in persuading them to follow Christ. But Jesus has solid and practical reasons for His directions.

Bringing too much too soon to relationships risks greater loss should we discover unclean spirits vex those we’re involved with. Traveling light increases courage to take authority over them; if they resist, we can quickly move on before getting hurt. That’s also why we’re told to find healthy company and stay put. Flitting between good guys and bad guys creates chaos for us and costs us credibility on both sides. We can’t speak to unclean spirits or unhealthy minds if those troubled by them don’t find us sincere. Finally, not compromising our faith to indulge others’ flaws sometimes results in overt rejection. We don’t have to be with people to love them, nor do we need to hang around for added abuse. “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God,” 1 John 4.1 tells us. When dealing with unclean spirits, we have two options: take authority over them, or if they refuse to yield, leave them alone. We never submit to them—ever. Verse 4 reminds us, “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” Jesus transfers power to us so we can help those who need it. It’s ours to use, and use it we must.

The One Who's in us is greater than any unclean spirit in the world.

(Tomorrow: Unexpected Allies)

Personal Postscript: Walt Update

My partner, Walt, returned this morning from his mother's beside with two encouraging developments. First, he has more peace about accepting her loss. Second, it may not be as soon as the physicians anticipated; by yesterday's end, her vital signs had rebounded within normal range. While we're elated by both bits of news, neither surprises us, knowing we're in your prayers and prayer changes things. Thank you again, and please continue to pray for us.

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