Mental Illness is Real, But So is Demonic Activity (Luke 8:26-29)

It’s been more than twenty-years, but I remember it like it was yesterday.

Unannounced, she walked into my office after being awake for more than 72-hours and binging on an assortment of drugs. She was in her late twenties. She came to church sporadically. Members of her family attended regularly. She looked a mess. Now, coming down from her high, she wanted to chat. I invited her in and we sat around a table to talk.

At first her thoughts were scattered and I had a hard time keeping up. She told me about her difficult upbringing. An upbringing that included sexual abuse as a child and dabbling’s in the occult as a teenager. She started drinking in Junior High and started doing drugs in High School. Growing up she attended church occasionally, mainly with her grandparents. Her grandfather was a pastor and had baptized her as a child. As an adult she struggled with depression, anorexia, self-esteem, and addictions. She was ready for a change but did not know what to do.

As I was telling her about the love and grace and forgiveness of God, I reached for a Bible on the shelf and turned to 1 John 1:8-10. I thought it would be good for her to read aloud. So I turned the Bible around and pushed it toward her. That’s when it happened!

As the Bible was moving toward her, she involuntarily pushed back in her chair, recoiled, and turned her face away. I asked what was wrong. She said she could not read, nor touch, God’s Word. I asked why. She just shook her head sideways, said nothing, and continued to look away from the table.

Bible college had not prepared me for this.

I told her I would read the verses, and so I began, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10).

I asked her if she believed she was a sinner. Still not making eye contact, she wiped away a tear and shook her head yes.

I asked if she was ready to ask God to forgive her sins and commit her life to Christ. Still not looking at me, and still unable to speak, she hesitated for a moment and then again shook her head yes.

I told her I wanted her to pray, but before she could pray, I needed to pray first. I am sure I stumbled through my prayer, but doing the best I knew how, I prayed that the blood of Jesus would release her from any tormenting spirits. In Jesus name, I prayed for all evil influences in the room to leave so she could pray for and receive forgiveness. I prayed for the Holy Spirit to fill the room. When I finished praying, I opened my eyes to see her looking at me. I said, “Are you ready to pray.” She said, “Yes.” She could speak again. Together, we prayed a prayer of forgiveness and commitment to Christ.

There were no strange voices, no bodily shakings, no levitations, no foul odors, and no heads spinning round and round. Just a simple prayer. But I’m telling you, she was different after that prayer. She seemed at peace. She seemed happy. She seemed relieved. She seemed freed. And over and over again she kept repeating, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” We talked a little while longer, prayed again, and then she left, vowing I would see her at church Sunday. The plan was for her to come forward during the invitation and make her commitment public.

Well, that never happened.

The next day, her parents who were members of the church, called me and let me have it for telling their daughter she was demon possessed. I was careful, the whole time I was talking with her, to never say “demons” or to even mention “Satan” or “possession.” But apparently she went home and told her family she had been delivered from some type of Satanic oppression or possession. Those where her words, not mine. Instead of being happy for her, her family was angry with me and vowed to never come to church again. Twenty plus years later I have never seen, nor heard, from her or any members of her family.

What happened that day?

Was it a case of mental illness, a bad trip from the drugs, physical and emotional exhaustion because of a lack of sleep, or something more sinister?

Did I do something wrong? Did I overstate my authority? Did I cross some type of line? Did I make things worse instead of better? Could I have done something different? Could I have handled the situation better?

I have replayed that day hundreds of times over the years and I still don’t know for sure what happened. I think I do. But I don’t know if I will ever really know.

A question I have asked multiple times over the years, and one I have specifically sought to answer over the last few years is, How do you know the difference between a legitimate mental illness and real demonic activity? Simply asking that question tells you two things about me: First, I believe mental illness is real. Second, I believe demonic activity and influence is real as well. If you don’t share those beliefs, especially the second one, then none of what I will say over the next couple of weeks will make any sense.

From Diabolical Storm to Demonized Man

Several times over the years I have wanted to preach about demonic activity in the lives of individuals but haven’t because I don’t want to sensationalize something, and I don’t want to give Satan credit for anything. But I think now is the time to broach this subject, and I want to use Jesus’ encounter with the demonized man of Gerasene to do so. Over the next couple of weeks, I will share some experiences I have with the demonic. Very few people know of these experiences and I have never talked about them publicly. In the same way soldiers who have experienced real battles don’t like to talk about it, I don’t like to talk about. I don’t want to glorify darkness. My prayer is that I can tell the stories in such a way as to bring God glory. I pray, by telling you my experiences, you will recognize the realness and seriousness of the battle we are in. But I also pray you will understand that through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, the enemy has already been defeated and the victory as already been won. Thus, there is no need to fear. Here is a foundational promise from God’s Word that should guide us: “You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4, New American Standard Bible).

The story of the demonized man of Gerasene is recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20). In all three accounts the story follows Jesus rebuking the storm. Here is the opening paragraph of the story from Luke’s perspective: “They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee. 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. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” For Jesus had commanded the impure spirit to come out of the man. 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 8:26-29).

“Galilee” was not as much of a town as it was a province. The territory of Galilee was on the western shore of the lake (Sea of Galilee) and was under the control of Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great. (The ruler who tried to kill Jesus as an infant.) Galilee was the home of many Jewish people. On the far, northeast side of the lake was a territory controlled by Herod Antipas’ brother, Philip.[1] The city of Gadarenes (gad-uh-REENZ) was part of that province. The citizens of Gadarenes where known as “Gerasenes.” Most “Gerasenes,” including the demonized man, were Gentiles. Battered and bruised from the diabolical storm, the sailboat carrying Jesus and His disciples crashed on the shore of Gadarenes.

As soon as Jesus stepped on the beach a madman ran up to Him. Luke says the man was “demon-possessed.” A more literal translation would be that the man was “demonized.” Was this man really possessed by an evil spirit (demonized), or is Luke’s description of him nothing more than an ancient way of describing severe mental illness? (Remember, Luke was a medical doctor.)

I’ve seen mental illness. I have spoken with people who have been clinically diagnosed as bi-polar, or schizophrenic, or OCD, or PTSD.[2] I have also met people who hear voices and who talk about darkness as if it is a person who convinces them to do horrendous things, or torments them in their dreams. I have met and spoken with such people both inside and outside of prisons; inside and outside the church

Below is a poem I received from a friend of mine who is in solitary confinement at a maximum security prison. He is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Read it and decide if you think he is suffering from a mental illness or if he is demonized or if it is some sort of combination of the two.[3] The title of the poem is “Demon-N-I.”

What I’m about I can only try to explain

I feel cast out and filled up with pain

I live in doubt this will never change

But I’ve no doubt this all sounds strange

It’s like I’ve suffered this demon since I was born

Keeping my heart bleeding, keeping my mind torn

Always scheming, always exploring

Even dreaming it keeps the agony pouring

Walling off my heart and taking center stage

Tearing me apart and filling me with rage

I’ve tried so hard to keep it in a cage

But it’s as smart as the wisest sage

No call it won’t sound

No wall it won’t knock down

No mile it won’t traverse in a single bound

No smile it won’t trample into the ground

I’ve bought it with so many lies

I’ve thought it gone so many times

I’ve caught it in so many lines

Just to drop it right back inside

I’m preaching and I’m praying

I even believe in what I’m saying

But it’s reaching and its playing

It’s teaching that I’m the one paying

I can’t teach what I can’t comprehend

Just like I can’t reach what’s pretend

I can’t speak anymore amends

And I’m to weak to make it end

Too many times I have tried

But still the crimes will reside

Still the lies have been plied

Though now dry, the eyes have cried

So much hurt has been hid

So much dirt can’t be hid

In such work you have to fib

It all serves a lesson candid

So many schemes that I regret

So many things I wish to forget

So many dreams I still want yet

But reality means there’s nothing left

This is my fate as I see

I cannot make it leave

I truly hate to even be

Just take it all from me

Make it end, it’s too much to take

I can’t contend with this life I hate

I have no friends, I’m much too fake

I won’t pretend, it’s the choice I make

Mental Illness or Demonic Activity

 Again, the question I have been asking myself, and trying to answer is, How do you know the difference between a legitimate mental illness and real demonic activity? Before looking at the example in Luke, let me say a couple of things: First, there is a difference between mental illness and demonic activity. Demonization is a spiritual condition with a spiritual cure. Mental illness is a multifaceted problem involving spiritual, physical, emotional, social, and environmental causes and treatments. No one under a doctor’s or psychologist’s or counselor’s care should stop treatment because of anything I have said or will say over the next couple of weeks. Second, to say someone is mentally ill is not to say they are demonized and to say someone is demonized is not to say they are mentally ill. In some cases, mental illness and demonization may be related or may even overlap, but they are two different conditions.

In my search for answers to my question I came across an article written by Ron Phillips. Mr. Phillips wrote a book called Everyone’s Guide to Demons and Spiritual Warfare.[4] In this article, using the story of the demonized man of Gerasene from the Gospel of Mark, as well as other Scriptures as a guide, Mr. Phillips lists several symptoms of demonic operations. I want to list these symptoms with no commentary. But remember, these are only “symptoms,” not predictors:

  • Incapacity for normal living (Mark 5:1-5).
  • Extreme behavior (Mark 5:4).
  • Personality changes (Mark 5:9, 12).
  • Restlessness and insomnia (Mark 5:5).
  • A terrible inner anguish (Mark 5:5).
  • Self-inflicted injury and suicide (Mark 5:5).
  • Unexplained illness with no obvious medical cause (Luke 13:11-16).
  • Addictive behavior.
  • Abnormal sexual behavior (Ezekiel 16:20-51).
  • Defeat, failure, and depression in the Christian life.
  • Occult involvement and behavior.
  • Speech difficulties.
  • Doctrinal error.
  • Religious legalism (Galatians 3:1).

Another article I found helpful was written by a pastor named Steven Waterhouse for The title of the article was “How to differentiate Demonic Possession from Schizophrenia.” Pastor Waterhouse writes, “The Bible itself makes a distinction between disease and possession (Mark 6:13). Thus, Christian theology should recognize the difference…At least six factors differentiate schizophrenia from demonic possession as described in the Bible…These factors can be helpful when trying to determine if an individual is possessed or has an NBD.”[5] A list of the six factors is as follows:

  • Attraction to vs. Aversion to Religion. Demons want nothing to do with Christ. Conversely, people with NBD are often devoutly religious.
  • Irrational Speech vs. Rational Speech. In New Testament accounts involving demons, the demons spoke in a rational manner.
  • Ordinary Learning vs. Supernatural Knowledge.
  • Normal vs. Occultic Phenomena.
  • The claim to be possessed. Authors who have clinical experience both with demon possession and mental illness, believe those who claim to be possessed are very likely not possessed. Demons wish to be secretive and do not voluntarily claim to be present.
  • Effects of Therapy. If prayer solves the problem, then it was probably not schizophrenia. If medicine helps alleviate the problem, it was not demon possession.


 After my friend sent me his poem we talked at length about demonic activity and how to be delivered from demonic influences. We prayed together. I believe he is on the path to complete deliverance. I have also encouraged him to keep taking his medication. He has told me that since our times together he has slept better than he has in a long time.

I want to conclude on a positive note: There is hope. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice and the authority of the Holy Spirit, you don’t have to live in torment. You don’t have to be depressed. You don’t have to keep giving in to that addiction. Through faith in Jesus Christ you have already been delivered and you can learn to walk in power and freedom. Near the end of the story we read, “When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind (Luke 8:35). Jesus can save us and heal us spiritually, physically, and emotionally. There is incredible power in His glorious name.

Recently my friend from prison sent me another poem. He titled it, “Deliverance: A Prayer to Jesus Christ Our Lord and Savior.”

 Here’s the beast inside my rotten soul

I named it Demon-N-I; it’s apt, quite so

It always wants to be high, but leaves me dull

Always says goodbye when I wanna say hello

Always hoards the fire and leaves me cold

It isn’t shy when it doesn’t show

It hides so no one will know

Give it a fight, then it’s bold

But show it Your Light and it will bolt

So please fill my sight so it can’t cope

Turn black to white and make it choke

Too long its blight has spread like mold

Too long my mind has been under it’s control

Too long it’s held tight the ropes it binds me with to hold

Lend me Your Might so I can throw off these lies and make it go

Open wide the windows

And fill my life with hope

And at night keep the gates closed

So when it tries it finds no holes

Come reside in my fortress of coal

Make me right, turn these walls to gold


[1] Remember, Herod Antipas divorced his wife so he could marry Phillip’s wife, Herodias, who divorced Phillip. John the Baptist openly criticized this marriage and was arrested and beheaded because of it.

[2] OCD – Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

[3] I share this poem with my friend’s permission.

[4] I have purchased the book but have not yet read it. The title of the article is “Symptoms of Demonic Operation” and can be found at the website,

[5] NBD stands for “neurobiological disorder.” This is a new term for “mental illness.”

About Pastor Kevin

I am a husband, father, pastor, teacher, scuba diver, reader, bike rider, that order.
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