“God’s Providence controls the universe. It is present everywhere. Providence is the sovereign Logos of God…” (St. Anthony the Great)
At times our lives feel out of control. Things are happening to us and we don’t understand why. We may ask ourselves, “God, where are you?! Why won’t you help me?” How do we reconcile what we are taught in our Orthodox Christian faith, which is that God is always in control? Christ tell us not a sparrow falls to the ground apart from the will of the Father (Matthew 10:29), and during times of persecution not a hair on our heads will be lost (Luke 21:18). We see in the book of Job that God was in control the whole time Job was suffering. Yet, when we are going through trials, it is easy to reduce Christ’s teaching to words meant for others and Job’s account as mere story.
Mark 5:1-20 and What it Teaches Us
The other day I happened to read Mark 5:1-20, the story of the Gadarene Demoniac. This event is also captured in Mathew 8:28-34 and Luke 8:26-39, but I like Mark’s version the best. The saying goes that “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” and I had one of those moments through this scripture. My life was out of control, and when I was reading this scripture the other day I experienced it through this context.
Mark 5:6 reads, “When he [the demoniac] saw Jesus from afar, he ran and worshipped Him.”
Two words in this passage struck me hard. The first was afar. The demoniac saw Jesus from afar but ran towards Him not away from Him. We read in Mark 5:9-10 that he identifies himself as Legion and that many unclean spirits are tormenting this man. Legion begs Jesus not to send them out of the country and is clearly afraid of Jesus. Most people’s reaction to fear is to run away from the person/persons and situation causing the fear not towards it; yet these demons run to Jesus when they see Him from far away. Legion does not leverage the advantage of seeing Jesus from a distance by creating greater distance. He instead runs to Jesus and, as Mark 5:6 reads, and this is the second word that struck me, Legion worshipped Jesus.
Worshipped? Really? I looked up the original Greek word Mark used when he wrote his version of the Gospel, and it is “prosekynēsen,” which means “fell on his knees.” The English in the Gospel according to Luke states that the man “fell down before Him.” Luke uses the Greek word “prosepesen,” which connotes making obeisance and bowing down. Legion is clearly compelled to come to Christ and fall down before Him. What do we understand from this? The answer is that even evil is subject to God’s sovereignty.
The next passage in Mark that impacted me is Mark 5:8-9. In Mark 5:8 Jesus says, “Come out of this man, unclean spirit!” The exclamation point means He said it forcefully. But Mark 5:9, reads, “Then He asked him, ‘What is your name?'”
In other Gospel accounts, when Jesus commanded unclean spirits to come out of people, it was nearly immediate. Matthew 8:16 reads, “When evening came, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed; and He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were ill.” Mark 9:25 states Jesus gave the command to a man with unclean spirits that made the man deaf and dumb.
The unclean spirits made the man convulse but then came out of him immediately. There was no immediacy with Legion. This was clearly an especially bad case where the unclean spirits were many and strong, and the man was under extreme torment. To use a medical analogy, if some unclean spirits were the equivalent to a bad cold, this group was a deadly infection or a serious cancer.
We know what happens next in the second half of verse 9 up through version 13. The man responds that his name is Legion and all the demons begged to go into the herd of swine which Jesus permits. The swine immediately go crazy, run off a cliff into the lake, and drown themselves. Because reading this account in Mark 5 was like reading it for the first time (and I am sure many of you have had that reaction to scriptures you have read countless times, but due to the time and circumstance, they speak to you heart differently during each particular reading). I did some research and read the other two accounts in Matthew and Luke and researched several different Bibles and their explanatory notes.
The notes in the Orthodox Study Bible to the Matthew and Luke versions of this story tell us that the immediate destruction of the herd shows that God’s care had protected the man. Otherwise he would have perished under Legion’s influence. The authors of these notes are echoing St. John Chrysostom, who said something similar in his recorded Homily on this scripture. So this man who had Legion, even though this was such a great malignancy that killed a whole herd of swine immediately, was still protected and preserved by God. (The Orthodox Study Bible notes also reminded us that although animals are an important part of creation, mankind is of much greater value).
All three synoptic Gospels also recount the event where Jesus calmed the storm on the rough seas when the disciples thought they were going to die. It was a great teaching moment for them about faith, truth, and Christ’s power and true nature, and how they really had nothing to fear. The next event Matthew, Mark, and Luke describe is the encounter with Legion. The Gadarene demoniac episode immediately following the calming of the storm and rough seas teaches the disciples again that in the worst of circumstance, God is still in control.
God’s Control in the Midst of Chaos
The lesson for them is the same for us—God is in control, no matter how it may seem. Jesus instructed Pilate the same in John 19:11 when He told Pilate that he had no power at all against Him except what was given from above. The Dynamis publication of the St. George Orthodox Cathedral in Kansas beautifully describes this reality.
“We call the Lord Jesus “Pantocrator,” which means “almighty,” or “ruler of all.” In a traditional Orthodox church, the Pantocrator icon is placed in the central dome. What, then, is under our Lord’s feet? Everything—every achievement and empire of mankind, and even the evil demons who oppose God—is under the sway of the Ruler of all. The limited capacity of nature’s powers is exposed by Christ’s exaltation. Death, life, the farthest stars and galaxies, are all beneath His feet. None may resist His reign eternally. For the moment, however, He is restraining the full exercise of His sovereignty, giving us the chance to turn to Him, to pledge our fidelity and love to Him, amending our lives and living not for ourselves but unto Him as Savior and God…God is in charge during every upheaval in our lives.”
I know it is hard when we are facing what feel like hopeless circumstances to believe God is in control. I know it first-hand, and I know others who have and are facing worse situations than I am. And they are still faithful. The man tormented by Legion was in the worst of circumstances, but he was delivered. He wanted of course to follow Jesus, Mark 5:18, but Jesus tells Him to go home to his friends and tell them the great thing the Lord has done for him (Mark 5:19).
I wonder the effect that man had on others, what God had preserved him for. We hear so many stories of people living the worst lives who then convert and spread the Gospel with power. I know that during my trials and tribulations, my friends shared their stories with me of equal or greater problems. They also shared with me how they got through those challenges. Many of them are now what my one friend calls “powerhouses in His kingdom.”
During our trials we all must cling to the hope, knowing that no matter what we are facing, Christ is with us. We are being molded to do our parts to spread the good news.
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35, 38-39)
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