On August 20, 1949, a bizarre headline appeared on the front page of the Washington Post: “Priest Frees Mt. Ranier Boy Reported Held in Devil’s Grip.” Though the exorcism took place in St. Louis, the story made top billing in the Post because the 13-year-old boy was a native of Mt. Ranier, Maryland, a small town in the shadow of Washington, D.C.
The subject of the story, “Robbie,” was the boy on whom the book and the movie, The Exorcist, was eventually based. Hollywood changed a few details–not least being the boy’s gender–and added a bit of sensationalism, but many of the bizarre, poltergeist events occurring in Robbie’s life were witnessed by numerous medical professionals, not to mention religious authorities.
The priest who oversaw Robbie’s final exorcism was Father William B. Bowdern. Bowdern would eventually be consulted on over two hundred cases of alleged demonic possession, but he found only one case, Robbie’s, to be valid–ample evidence that he was not quick to attribute bizarre behavior to the realm of the demonic.
Though Robbie lost all memory of the events, the same is not true of his former Maryland neighbors. As the years passed, their memory became more vivid rather than less. The house that Robbie’s family had lived in soon became known as “the Devil’s House,” and after Robbie and his family moved out to St. Louis, the city had an unsellable eyesore on its hands. Nobody wanted to touch the house, much less move in.
A local realtor from the Mt. Ranier area recounts the city’s eventual solution. Officials decided to turn the place into a park and build a children’s gazebo. Fully aware of the fear and superstition that follows such events, the city, according to the realtor, went down ten feet into the ground, completely demolishing the house and digging deeply around it, then brought in new dirt.
On the spot where Robbie was once haunted by demons and writhed in agony, children now run and play tag as families take walks and eat picnics. The property once forsaken and avoided by all, a locale previously dead to the life of the city, was brought back to life.
This is a vivid picture of what God wants to do for us. He wants to take lives that are run down, shunned by others, or that have simply fallen into irrelevance and perform an amazing act of transformation. He wants to dig out those abrasive aspects of our character and replace them with a refreshing vitality, ultimately creating a personality that points to another world.
How will God accomplish this? The route might surprise you. We’ll have to come to grips with two “dirty” words to get there.
A Long Silence
The Fall before my wife and I became engaged, she spent the summer in Mexico. Communication was extremely frustrating because I received letters weeks after she had written them. Though this was only in the mid-eighties, e-mail wasn’t widely used and phone calls were extremely expensive, so we had to put up with delayed communication.
Our dilemma, however, was nothing compared to the delayed communication experienced by the people of Israel. The “time between the testaments”–the time between when the last Old Testament book was written and the year Jesus was born–was an excruciatingly silent four hundred years. For almost twice as long as the United States has been a sovereign nation, Israel waited in vain for a new word from God. There were no prophets, nothing.
Four hundred years is a long time. To put this in perspective, if you go back four centuries from today, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater would just be opening and you could see the first run of his play, Much Ado About Nothing. Galileo was finishing his draftsman’s compass, and Jamestown, the first European colony on the North American continent, was still a decade away from being formed. When you haven’t spoken to someone in four hundred years, you choose your first words carefully. This is not the time to deal with peripheral matters. This is the time to get at root issues. After all, these words will re-establish history’s most important love-affair between a people and their God. God had sent His Son, and now that His Son was grown, what would He say?
Does it surprise you that the very first word God uses to re-establish His relationship with the nation of Israel is “Repent”? (Matthew 4:17)
It’s perfectly understandable if this causes some questions. The word “repent” has gotten some bad press, in part because it’s often spoken with hate-filled, angry tones: Repent or God will throw you in hell! Admittedly, the word has a history of being used as a verbal pistol to shoot down “sinners.”
But out of Jesus’ mouth, the word was graced with love. Jesus wasn’t born with a sandwich board around his neck, proclaiming, “the world is coming to an end.” Instead, He came as a naked baby, proclaiming, “hope has just been born.” In God’s vocabulary, the word “repentance” marks an immeasurable love just waiting to embrace those who will receive it.
That’s the way the early apostles understood it, anyway. In Acts 3:19, Peter urged his listeners to repent “so that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” In Acts 11:18, the disciples refer to repentance “unto life.” Nothing in these descriptions leads us to view repentance as a heavy obligation. Rather, it’s a soothing invitation to be “refreshed” and receive a new life.
Unfortunately, most people today consider “repent” a dirty, hate-filled word. Because they’ve seen the word abused, they flinch from the truth it represents as if it constituted a spiritual body slam. But scripturally, repentance is simply God’s invitation to give us our lives back. Just like the city rescued Robbie’s house–completely renovating it–so repentance is the door God asks us to go through so that He can take our broken lives and rebuild them.
Some years ago, I told a friend about looking forward to my ten-year college reunion. She reacted with horror. “I could never go back to my reunion,” she said. “I’d be too ashamed to face those people, especially considering the way I lived.”
How interesting, I thought. Back in college, we Christians were supposed to be “missing out” on all the fun, but I look back on my college years with treasured memories while the former “party-er” wishes she could erase those years from her life and pretend they never happened.
That’s when I realized that repentance had given me my life back. When God invited me to turn from my sin and selfish will, He began providing me with nourishing memories rather than angst-ridden regret and shame.
But wait a minute, some might say. I thought Jesus told us to lay down our lives. What’s all this talk about God giving us our lives back?
In C.S. Lewis’ classic, The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape, the mentor demon, explains to Wormwood (his protégé), “When [God] talks of their losing their selves, He only means abandoning the clamor of self-will; once they have done that, He really gives them back all their personality, and boasts (I am afraid, sincerely) that when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever.”
When I see someone embittered and reeling as a result of sin and poor choices, I want to say to her, “You have no idea how wonderful a person God created you to be. Your actions may have clouded that personality, but if you really want to know who God created you to be, there’s a pathway through repentance that will lead you to an entirely new life.”
Unfortunately, this “pathway” of repentance leads us to another “dirty word.”
God’s Original Design
Repentance initiates God’s new life for us, but if we want to see long-term change, we have to recapture another word that has also been frequently misused–virtue. Unfortunately, people are all too aware that the virtues have been wielded as clubs, foisted on us as seemingly impossible obligations, and unleashed as tremendous guilt-inducers. That’s why so many people react negatively to the mere thought of virtue. Sin–especially illicit sex–sounds fun. Virtue sounds boring (at best).
Forget about the virtue you think you know. Deal with the words on its own terms–virtue literally derives from “strength” and “potency,” as in “virile.” Virtue gives me the power to enter into relationships, situations and circumstances without fear of losing control or doing something stupid.
Since I live in a college town, it’s easy for me to bike just about anywhere I need to go. There was a time when my brakes were worn down to almost nothing and I didn’t have time to get new pads. Normally, I love going down hills–there’s nothing quite like speed on a bike–but when you know you can’t stop, some of the fun is lost to fear.
Virtues are like new brakes. They allow me to travel fast and into new situations, knowing that with them, I have the control, strength, and ability to maintain my integrity. That’s why I prefer to think of the virtues as God’s life preservers–His plan to give us our lives back over time. In repentance, our destiny is secured. In the practice of virtue, our God-ordained character is released.
When we act out of weakness–either giving in to an addiction, or misusing somebody for our pleasure, or letting our temper fly–we demean ourselves. That’s not who God created us to be. Deep down, we don’t like the thought of how we behaved–we never see ourselves as monsters–yet we wonder, “why did I act like that?”
Pause a moment and try to imagine yourself as a person who acts with the compassion of Christ; who has the patience of God Himself; who is discerning, gentle, confident, and completely surrendered to the will and purpose of God. You have the same gifts and individual personality that you’ve always had, but they’re not so tarnished by self-interest or a demanding or demeaning spirit. You’re still you, but without all the baggage that causes you to wince.
This is the life Jesus wants you to inherit, transforming you into a person who is motivated by the beautiful, not the lustful; the generous, not the selfish; the noble, not the conniving; and the creative, not the destructive.
For thousands of years, Christian teachers have spoken about the virtues as the way in which God empowers us to take off the things that tarnish His image in us at the same time that He strengthens us to express Christ’s positive character. These virtues described the character of Christ, and teachers often broke them down into human analogies, using traits such as humility, generosity, fortitude, detachment, and love. Through these virtues, God literally “gives us our lives back,” allowing glimpses of the true, untarnished individual He created us to be to develop.
Without the virtues to guide us, we are in great danger of experiencing what Lewis refers to in another passage from The Screwtape Letters: “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.” Instead of spending our days with regret, virtue will help us to live meaningful, focused, and selfless lives.
For those of us who are already Christians, the virtues provide the building blocks for further spiritual growth. So many of us want to overturn a lifetime of bad habits in one, sincere prayer of repentance. It doesn’t work that way. We need a long-term plan for spiritual growth. God doesn’t “zap” us into holiness, He asks us to discipline ourselves to practice the virtues.
This is refreshing, in that the virtues aren’t something I become; they’re something I practice. I’ll never be as humble as Christ, but I can practice humility. Looking at the virtues this way delivers me from the trap of legalistic perfectionism.
When a publisher approached me about writing an entire book on the virtues, I almost laughed. “I could write such a book, all right,” I protested, “but would anyone care to read it?”
At the time, I didn’t realize the power practicing the virtues has had in Christian history, nor how it would affect my own life. Diligently studying the virtues and meditating on them has been one of the most profound and life-changing experiences I’ve ever known.
If you feel like you’re losing your life–or perhaps like you’ve already lost it; if you sense that you aren’t living up to who you know you were meant to be; if your life is filled with more shame than treasured memories; or if you just want some practical help to learn how to grow in God, I encourage you to give the virtues a second look. You just might find, as I have, that they’re a pretty potent medicine through which God slowly gives us our lives back.