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The Obedience of Demons

James criticizes his audience for having only the faith of demons. “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19) No demon doubts God’s existence. They know of him more certainly than we do. What their knowledge lacks is the loving response of action, driving them to imitate and praise his goodness.

With that in mind, I was made curious by another passage about demons, this time in Mark’s Gospel.

And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. (Mark 1:23-26)

The demon, true to James’ assertion, is aware of God and more. He knows what Israel will only later learn, that Jesus of Nazareth is the Holy One of God. And yet, for all its truth, we would not confuse the demon’s snarl with a Christian confession of faith. He does not adore Christ, but rather fears him. This fear is not a reverent fear, a trembling of anticipation and delight. It is dread. It is cynical fear, aware of reality but unmoved by it. The demon’s gospel does not contain love.

Notice however that we learn about more than hellish faith from this demon. This demon is also obedient after a manner of speaking. Jesus calls for the demon to come out and so he does. He is not happy about it, the convulsions giving us the sense that the demon is fighting against the authority of Christ until the last, but in the end the demon does come out. Jesus says be silent, and in the sense of Jesus’ intent we may say that the demon is silent. The demon cries out, but this is not the silence Jesus is demanding. When Jesus says, “Be silent,” he refers specifically to speaking any further of his identity as the Holy One of God. This becomes evident in a few verses when he casts out still more demons. “And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him” (v. 34b). It is not their shrieking that bothers Jesus, but rather their unfolding of the messianic secret ahead of his scheduled time.

So what do we make of this? If the point of James is only to say that faith lacking action is demonic, then what about a demon who even acts? Is he still not pleasing to God? I think we can quickly say otherwise, and intuitively we know why. Just as the “faith” of a demon is hardly faith, being unmingled with love, the “obedience” of a demon is hardly obedience for the very same reason.

There once was a prophet of Israel who had a similar obedience. Jonah was sent to Nineveh, and at first he disobeyed in obvious fashion, fleeing to the farthest reaches of his world. God’s call to prophecy was not so easily eluded, and Jonah a little worse for wear found himself in a pool of fish vomit, once again being sent to Nineveh. This time, Jonah goes and Jonah prophesies, but did Jonah obey?

At the end of his story, we find that Jonah’s obedience was only the obedience of demons. Jonah’s pouting petulance outside of Nineveh (Jonah 4) corresponds to the convulsing shrieks of Mark’s demon. God himself addresses the issue, with words that even sound a bit familiar to the reader of James, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4)

Do you do well? If we read James and think only that God demands a formal obedience to complete our faith, then surely we have missed the point. We have progressed only from the faith of demons to the obedience of demons. Our faith and our obedience do not become delightful to God until they delight in God. As long as we obey under dread and compulsion, we have not shed our demon’s snarl.

God does not merely want our confession and our actions. He wants our hearts.