We Christians still have a problem faced by the first disciples of Christ. We have a hard time, a very hard time, casting out evil.
In the New Testament, this is recorded in Matthew 17:19-20. The disciples could not heal a boy, and they did not understand why.
Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, "Why could we not cast it [an evil spirit] out?"He said to them, "Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of amustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you" (NRSV).
Martin Luther King, Jr., preached a memorable sermon from this story in Scripture. He did not go into all the varied questions and implications of the verses, but he used it to make a broader point about our inability to get rid of the evil we encounter in the world. The sermon is "The Answer to a Perplexing Question," and it is available online and in a book of MLK's sermons, The Gift of Love: Sermons from Strength to Love and Other Preachings (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012)
The question: "How can evil be cast out?"
King said people usually pursue "two paths to eliminate evil and thereby save the world." Some people try to remove evil through their "own power and ingenuity." They think science, reason, and other human efforts alone can combat evil.
A second approach relies only on God to remove evil. People who adopt this perspective wait "submissively upon the Lord," believing "God alone will redeem the world."
King said the "Reformation wrongly affirmed that the image of God had been completely erased from man." Taken too far, and Christians may sit back and wait on God to fix the problem of evil in the world. "By ignoring the need for social reform, religion is divorced from the mainstream of human life."
The idea that man expects God to do everything leads inevitably to a callous misuse of prayer. For if God does everything, man then asks him for anything, and God becomes little more than a "cosmic bellhop" who is summoned for every trivial need. Or God is considered so omnipotent and man so powerless that prayer is a substitute for work and intelligence. . . .
God, who gave us minds for thinking and bodies for working, would defeat his own purpose if he permitted us to obtain through prayer what may come through work and intelligence. Prayer is a marvelous and necessary supplement of our feeble efforts, but it is a dangerous substitute. . . .
Man is no helpless invalid left in a valley of total depravity until God pulls him out. Man is rather an upstanding human being whose vision has been impaired by the cataracts of sin and whose soul has been weakened by the virus of pride, but there is sufficient vision left for him to lift his eyes unto the hills, and there remains enough of God's image for him to turn his weak and sin-battered life toward the Great Physician, the curer of the ravages of sin.
King said the proper approach to combatting evil in the world is a joining of the work of God and humankind. God and God's people, "made one in a marvelous unity of purpose through an overflowing love as the free gift of himself on the part of God and by perfect obedience and receptivity on the part of man, can transform the old into the new and drive out the deadly cancer of sin."
Faith "opens the door for God to work through man." King talked of two types of faith. The "mind's faith" involves the intellect. The "heart's faith" involves a "trusting act of self-surrender." "To know God, a man must possess this latter type of faith, for the mind's faith is directed toward a theory, but the heart's faith is centered in a Person."
All people, as sinners, have their own personal battles with evil, but there are social evils to be addressed. "Man filled with God and God operating through man bring unbelievable changes in our individual and social lives," King said.
King focused much of his attention on the social sin of racial injustice. Justice, he said, "will come neither by our frail and often misguided efforts nor by God imposing his will on wayward men, but when enough people open their lives to God and allow him to pour his triumphant, divine energy into their souls.
God has promised to cooperate with us when we seek to cast evil from our lives and become true children of his divine will. . . .
One of the great glories of the gospel is that Christ has transformed nameless prodigals. He turned a Simon of sand into a Peter of rock. He changed a persecuting Saul into an Apostle Paul. He converted a lust-feasted Augustine into a St. Augustine. . . .
Evil can be cast out, not by man alone nor by a dictatorial God who invades our lives, but when we open the door and invite God through Christ to enter. "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me." God is too courteous to break open the door, but when we open it in faith believing, a divine and human confrontation will transform our sin-ruined lives into radiant personalities.
We can honor King's memory by accepting the truth of these words and acting upon them. God desires to transform us individually and as a society. God desires our cooperation in that great purpose. God still knocks, awaiting an answer.