When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. . . . Jesus commanded the evil spirit to come out of him. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places. (Luke 8: 27-29)
This man had a spirit that drove him to solitary places, to an existence surrounded by death, stripped of the normal shelter of home and family, and even of the dignity of clothing. This was solitary confinement – alone, friendless, without God and without hope.
While much less graphic in nature, we too can be driven to solitary places devoid of what gives us peace, hope and joy. The demons that drive us there are also legion; there are plenty of them, ready to attack and drag us away. Anger, jealousy, a critical spirit, self-pity, a sense of personal injury or injustice, a desire for vengeance, self-righteousness, pride, a need to control – the list goes on and on. The ignition switch varies, but the destination is the same if we allow it to fuel our thoughts, actions and responses.
The prophet Jonah is an example of someone pledged to follow God, who instead allowed his demons to drive him to solitary places. In spite of clear directions from a loving God to reach out to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, Jonah let his own hatred of Israel’s national enemy be the motivator of his actions. He didn’t just ignore God’s command; he went in the opposite direction. It’s a vivid picture of God’s mercy and patience that after Jonah was swallowed up in the sea of certain death, God arranged for him to be swallowed by a great fish. It was an unusual place of solitary confinement that appeared to have a salutary effect, since Jonah repented and belatedly took on the assignment.
A more revealing stint in solitary happened later. Despite his own miraculous deliverance from death after his rebellion against God, Jonah’s demons of unforgiveness and his desire for retribution quickly resurfaced when the 120,000 human beings in Nineveh repented and were spared. Jonah felt justified in berating God for not having the same negative emotions and reactions as he did.
Then Jonah sat sulking under a shelter he constructed for himself, away from those who had repented and now wanted to obey God. God grew a vine that at first provided Jonah with shade from the sweltering sun, but was then chewed by a worm and died. The east wind blew like a furnace, and again Jonah reacted by getting hot under the collar and everywhere else.
“Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?” God asked. “I do,” Jonah said between clenched teeth. “I am angry enough to die.”
Angry enough to die. It sounds ludicrous to be that upset about a dead vine, but it’s an accurate statement of what happens when we obsess about a negative. It’s self-destructive. The worm that killed the vine is an apt metaphor for the worm of anger and unforgiveness that attacked the vine of Jonah’s own character, causing him to wither spiritually. Once again, Jonah had imprisoned himself in solitary, reacting with anger, accusation and self-pity, and ultimately, inviting his own destruction.
“I have a right to be 1) angry, 2) upset, 3) pitied” – we can fill in our own blanks. These thoughts visit us all, but when they’re invited to take up permanent residence, they end up trashing the place where we live. Insisting on this “right” means I’ll be “left” in solitary confinement, sentenced by my own decision to be tortured by destructive thoughts, imprisoned by unforgiveness, and motivated by vengeance. Eventually, my only companions will be other prisoners serving a similar sentence, all maintaining their own innocence and the guilt of others.
Jonah was afflicted with the kind of tunnel vision that imprisons many of us. Jonah was focused on Jonah and what Jonah wanted, what Jonah deserved, and what “they” deserved. Because his vision was so narrow, he could only see what directly affected him, and not the far bigger picture of a great salvation for so many from a God of great compassion. When I find my vision, thoughts and actions narrowed in on one small area, it’s time to come into the wide and far-reaching light of Christ.
When Jesus delivered the demon-possessed man, he responded by sitting at Jesus’ feet. His demons had stripped him naked and left him without dignity, exposed and humiliated. After his deliverance, he responded by being appropriately clothed, in his right mind and eager to be with Jesus. No longer driven into solitary, he gladly followed Jesus’ instructions to witness to everyone he met, even though that hadn’t been his first choice. The people to whom he witnessed were the same people who had previously chained him hand and foot, but he had mercy on them just as Jesus had mercy on him. He brought a positive ministry out of a profoundly negative experience, in stark contrast to Jonah’s choices.
Feeling hard-done-by? Unfairly criticized? Betrayed? Left out? Unappreciated? It happens to us all, and more than once in a lifetime. So will I sulk and stew like Jonah, or serve and speak about new life and hope like the former maniac?
Who’s really the crazy one here anyway?