We all know what it is means not to feel like ourselves. We can become so out of sorts for all kinds of reasons that we do not think or act like we usually do. Sometimes we do not even recognize our thoughts, words, or deeds as our own, and wonder where certain impulses or behaviors come from. And we rightly fear what would happen if we accepted those inclinations and let them shape our souls.
St. Paul recognized that human beings do not become their true selves simply by trying to obey a code of conduct. The Old Testament law, about which he was an expert as a Pharisee, made clear to him how far he was from holiness, for he constantly fell short of it. But he found a new identity in dying and rising with Christ. He found his true self in God’s image and likeness, for “it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me.” Instead of being defined as one who inevitably fell short of the law and was captive to sin, he became through faith one who participates in the righteousness of Christ, one who has risen in Him from sin and death to the life of holiness for which God created us in the first place. By faith in Jesus Christ, St. Paul became his true self.
If that was a struggle for St. Paul, imagine what an ordeal it was for the Gadarene demoniac, the man in today’s gospel reading. He was so filled with demons and consumed by evil that he called himself “Legion,” which meant a division of the Roman army containing thousands of soldiers. His sense of personal identity had disintegrated into a mass of a great many demons. Like Adam and Eve who stripped themselves of the divine glory by their sin, he too was naked and without the dignity of a child of God. He lived among the tombs, held captive by corruption and cut off from everyone else. He was such a terror that he broke the chains that bound him and fled alone into the desert. This poor man is an icon of our alienation from ourselves, others, and life itself that evil so easily works in us. He was very far from his true self. And even the best code of behavior would not have helped him. He did not need just a bit of instruction; no, he needed the healing and cleansing of his soul—the restoration of his humanity. Like St. Paul, he needed to die to sin and rise to a new life in Christ.
That is what the Lord gave him by casting the demons into a herd of pigs, which then stampeded into the lake and drowned. The locals were so astonished by what had happened, and especially by seeing this fellow in his right mind, that they were terrified to the point of asking Christ to leave their region. Understandably, the man whom Christ delivered wanted to go with Him, but the Lord told him to stay there and proclaim all that He had done for him. He was to do the difficult job of bearing witness to the good news among people who knew him, and his horrible past, all too well.
Both St. Paul and the Gadarene demoniac remind us that we must accept a kind of death in order to become our true selves. It is a death, first, to our efforts at self-justification, to our attempts to make ourselves perfect simply by our own abilities. There is often no one more anxious and depressed than a perfectionist, for we never reach that high goal. If that is our approach, then we will be like St. Paul in gaining only slavery to a sense of imperfection and brokenness by obsessively trying to justify ourselves in doing everything right all the time. Though we may think that we are serving God in this way, we are actually serving only ourselves by doing all that we can to hide our sickness and corruption even from ourselves. At the root of our efforts at self-justification is pride, which blinds us from seeing the truth about ourselves, others, and God. We need to die and rise with Christ, not simply a list of rules against which to judge ourselves and others. Our justification is in Him, not in our own attempts to master a code of conduct.
Like the demon-possessed man, we must also die to accepting our distorted condition as normal, natural, or who we truly are. There is some pain in doing that, for we get used to living on our own terms, giving in to temptations that are all too familiar, and excusing any behavior by saying we are being true to ourselves. The problem is that the self so comfortable with sin is not our true self, but a form of “Legion”—of a distorted identity that we take on due to our acceptance of corruption in our hearts and lives. The Gadarene demoniac asked Christ not to torment him, and we may feel the same way when we realize that we must do the hard work of repenting and reorienting our lives according to God’s purposes for us. But like him, we must do so in order to become our true selves in the image and likeness of God. That is never a reward for legalistic perfection, but a way of dying and rising with Christ as we become more fully human in God’s image and likeness.
Our spiritual journeys will surely not be as flamboyant or famous as those of St. Paul and the Gadarene demoniac, but the challenges we face are very similar. Too many have turned Christianity into a self-righteous system of legalism in which it is all too easy for self-appointed judges to separate the sheep from the goats, as though they were the Lord as the Last Judgment. Instead of a vocation to shine with heavenly light and participate personally in God’s gracious Divine Energies, some water the faith down to a simple list of “do’s” and “don’ts” that usually fits with popular cultural notions about who is good and who is bad. Of course, there are paths that lead to holiness and paths that do not; the Church provides many clear and steadfast resources to guide us in the right direction. But the difference between true and false paths is not mere legalism. The key factor, instead, is whether a path leads to fuller participation in the life of Christ, which requires both faith and faithfulness and forbids the self-righteous condemnation of others. Saul, the great persecutor of Christians, became St. Paul by faith and repentance in response to the gracious calling of the Risen Lord. St. Paul called himself the chief of sinners and knew that he was made right with God by mercy, not his own accomplishment. “It is no longer I who live but Christ Who lives in me.” He gave up all attempts at self-justification. That is how he became his true self in God’s image and likeness.
On other hand, many others have turned Christianity into a kind of spiritual self-indulgence that requires very little of anyone. Some water the faith down to acceptance of virtually any belief, behavior, or inclination in what amounts to little more than religious sentimentality. Remember, however, that Christ did not simply help the demon-possessed man to feel better about himself and otherwise do as he pleased; no, he cast evil out of him, gave him his life back, and commanded him to stay in that region and bear witness to how God had delivered him. The Lord empowered him for a challenging life of holiness and changed him in a way that astonished everyone who knew him. That fellow could then say with St. Paul, “It is no longer I who live but Christ Who lives in me.” Like the Apostle, he surely knew that his salvation was not somehow his own accomplishment or just a nice feeling, but the gracious gift of a Lord “Who loved me and gave Himself for me” in ways that infinitely surpassed what even the best legal code could ever achieve.
Like St. Paul and the Gadarene demoniac, we will become our true selves in God’s image and likeness by participating in the grace and mercy of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. Like them, we must die both to self-righteous legalism and to the sinful corruptions that have become second nature to us. We must have faith in Christ even as we pursue a faithful life, turning away from all that distorts our beauty as the living icons of our Lord. The more closely we unite ourselves with Him, the more fully we become our true selves. For He made us to be neither Pharisees nor “Legion,” but His beloved sons and daughters who become ever more like Him in holiness. That is the calling of each and every one of us; and through repentance, faith, and love, we may answer it to the glory of God.