The gospels of Matthew and Mark record the experience of a man who, from his childhood, was torn, afflicted, and enslaved by a spiritual entity (Matthew 17:14-21; Mark 9:14-29). Apparently not even priesthood administration could liberate this man from his evil captor. Under that maleficent spirit’s influence, the captive would throw a fit, foam at the mouth, gnash his teeth, lose control, pass out, and sometimes even fall into fire or water, seemingly intent on destroying himself.
Today we might diagnose his affliction as epilepsy. But Jesus revealed that, in this case, the man’s condition was a spiritual malady.
Seeking Jesus’ help, the man’s father asked: “[I]f thou canst do any thing, have compassion on us, and help us.”
Jesus immediately addressed the man’s misconception. He explained that it wasn’t the limit of Jesus’ power, or His willingness to help, that prevented this man from being healed; rather it was the limit of the man’s (and the father’s) faith. Jesus said: “If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth” (italics mine).
Speaking for all of us, the father immediately cried out, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”
Today I speak to those who believe, but who need help with their unbelief.
I speak to those who, perhaps, have almost given up hope of deliverance; who seemingly wallow in sin; who throw themselves, again and again, as it were, into the “fire” and “water”; who wrestle with self-destructive tendencies and addictions, perhaps even from their youth. I speak to those who practically can’t control themselves; who commit the same sins over and over again. I speak to the drug addict, the glutton, the gambler, and to those captivated – and held captive -- by pornography, sexuality, sensuality and pleasure; to the habitual thief, the liar, the foul-mouthed and to the sinfully self-centered, the perpetually lazy, the ceaseless gossip, and to those who are critical of others. In other words, I speak to all of us.
But before I do, I’d like to explain how we got in this “predicament”.
In his magnificent explication of what is termed “the fall of Adam” (found in 2 Nephi 2), Lehi addressed why it is that we must now have “sin” in this world. As he explained, “it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things” (verse 11); otherwise, there is no existence.
Lehi understood that our first parents, Adam and Eve, were introduced into this world in which they would encounter opposition, corruption, and death…for their own good. God’s children, by definition (being “children”) are incomplete. We’re imperfect. We came to this world to grow, improve, and perfect ourselves, in the process experiencing joy. (And sorrow.)
It was not in God’s wisdom that His children should (at first) be immortal. In this world, immortal beings necessarily would be unable to reproduce, in violation of the first commandment (to “multiply and replenish”). In accordance with God’s plan for mankind’s perfection and happiness, it was incumbent upon every soul entering this world (by birth) to depart it (by death).
Glen J. Kuban explains this in his concise and perspicacious treatise on the subject:
God commanded the creatures to be "Fruitful and Multiply." However, as thousands of species, including countless microbes, insects, worms, rodents, etc. obeyed this command and reproduced unchecked (without physical death), the entire earth would soon be awash in a horrific mass of exponentially exploding populations. Indeed, considering the reproduction rates of many invertebrates alone (some producing thousands of offspring in a single generation), within days to weeks at most the Garden of Eden would become a veritable hell on earth. Peace and tranquility would quickly be replaced with unimaginable overcrowding, pestilence and starvation. A bizarre paradox would also ensue. Soon animals would have no food to eat, nor space in which to live, and yet no ability to die. This is not only an absurdity and logical paradox, it is at direct odds with God's stated plan for a "good" creation.Adam and Eve were born into this world in which death is a fact of life. Had they been rendered immortal and reproduced similarly immortal offspring, “life” for all (bound to this world) would have inevitably become a hellish, impossible crush of overcrowding. They would literally have been buried beneath the debris of their own existence. Thus it was not incumbent upon God to render us immortal from the beginning, as immortality at this stage would logically preclude physical growth, an essential component of life in this sphere.
As Lehi perceived, existence demands opposition: light and dark, good and evil, righteousness and holiness in opposition to wickedness and sin, things to act and things to be acted upon, life and death. This is why Jesus was the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8). Jesus’ atonement was prepared from the beginning to counteract the effects of physical death – which have been in force from creation’s dawn – and spiritual death, which have ensued since the fall of Adam.
In the calculus of creation, reproductive “life” could not enter the world unless a mechanism for leaving it (“death”) was simultaneously introduced. God ordained that the violation of law would bring “death” – or the “discombobulating” of all things. We see “death” on every hand. A little sand gets into an engine – and the whole thing falls apart. It “dies”. A little germ gets into the bloodstream and disease and death ensue. Moth and dust doth inevitably corrupt all that attends to this world. By design, corruption is the mechanism by which we leave this world. It is our ticket out of here.
This mortal world is a “meat grinder” into which all humanity is cast. Being subject to the forces and effects of “opposition in all things”, we inevitably get “chewed up” and “spit out” in a process called “death”. None are spared. The innocent sinless and the guilty sinner likewise suffer the pains of death together. And, to some degree or another, we suffer the effects of sin.
We have all fallen into the meat grinder. There is no way out but through. We came here willfully, willingly, even joyfully, understanding that our plight and our pains would be remediated through the Son of God, who would wash away our stains, take away our pains, and absolve us of our sins, after our complete repentance – leaving us with what is left: our cumulative, purified experience, the sum total of our good works, our joyous memories, and the intelligence, power, and perfection we have attained.
We now dwell in mud, literally in tabernacles of clay. We likewise dwell amidst the mire and muck of a fallen world, a world now suffused with sin. We are commanded to come out of her, to “[f]lee out of the midst of [spiritual] Babylon and deliver every man his soul” (Jeremiah 51:6). King Benjamin warned of our nature and our predicament:
For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticing of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ…[M]en drink damnation to their own souls except they humble themselves and become as little children, and believe that salvation was, and is, and is to come, in and through the atoning blood of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent. (Mosiah 3: 19, 18)Only by believing in Jesus Christ, by applying His atonement, by trusting in His capacity to forgive all repented sin, and by relying upon His promise of a resurrection from death for all men – in other words, only by exercising faith in “the atoning blood of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent” – can one have the power and motivation to do what is necessary to fully repent of sin and to remain unspotted from the world. (After all, if we know we are going to stand in the flesh again, to be judge of Him, do we dare remain in sin? Do we dare not repent of evil? We do not.)
In this world of sin, we are subject to death and disease, both physical and spiritual. We have obtained physical bodies, to control and use as we please, but these same bodies are (more or less) subject to the influence of other spirits, namely, the Holy Spirit and evil spirits.
In describing the actions of our Savior, King Benjamin told his people that Jesus would “cast out devils, or the evil spirits which dwell in the hearts of the children of men” (Mosiah 3:6).
Thus we know that evil spirits can and do beset us. As the apparently epileptic, we see that these spirits can accost and captivate us for years, even decades. But how are we to be delivered from them, when the disciples of Jesus could not cast them out? As Jesus explained:
“Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21).To vanquish certain sins – to overcome certain tenacious, “evil spirits” – requires prayer and fasting. “Fasting” means to “refrain from partaking”. We “fast” when we refrain from doing anything we otherwise might do. We fast when we don’t eat. We fast when we don’t drink. We can fast from smoking. When we refuse to do anything – watch television, view pornography (which is, increasingly, the same thing), swear, cheat, lie, steal, gamble – we are “fasting”. These sins may be overcome by fasting and prayer. These evil spirits may be cast out by fasting and prayer.
The scriptures remind us of a man who cleaned his soul of evil spirits. He removed from his life all inducements to sin. He avoided all the seedy places and alluring entertainments and temptations that erstwhile captivated him. He cleansed his “house” of all evil. Quite frankly, he “starved” his demons, giving them nothing evil to do.
In those chambers of his mind and heart, where once he entertained demons, he prayed…and filled his life and hands with good works. In time, there was no more room for sin – or devils – for he had filled his “house” with good. The Holy Spirit could dwell there, instead of evil spirits. In time, the man found himself “liberated” of his unholy “guests” (who had become his “captors”). He had made, instead, the Savior and His Holy Spirit his constant companions.
Thus “fasting and prayer” are the means by which we commonly repent and cast out devils. We overcome temptation and addiction by eliminating all evil influences (within our power to do so) and by resorting to prayer (and good works) to fill the void. God will instill us with His Holy Spirit when we have made room for Him, when we have demonstrated our willingness to receive Him. This we do by exercising faith in Christ, faith in His atonement, and in the plan of salvation instituted from the beginning for our benefit, salvation and perfection.
By prayer and fasting from sin, all things are possible to them that (continue to) believe.
I might add here that it is only because of our faith in Jesus Christ -- and His power to deliver us from death and hell (by His atonement, His leadership, etc.) -- that we are willing to cast ourselves, again and again, into this dark pit of mortality (in the likes of which we now find ourselves).
We do this because we have faith in Him that we will emerge from "the other side" -- if not unscathed, then at least further empowered to become like Him -- to have everlasting joy. We are now "climbing this mountain" toward perfection, step by step, peak by peak, worlds without end, through faith in Christ...determined to do so until we reach the top. God be praised! For it is only in Him, by Him, and through Him that we can have everlasting life!
When we stop believing that -- when we stop exercising faith in Him and His power to deliver us from death and hell, when we stop throwing ourselves into the pit -- we stop progressing.