fbpx Skip to Navigation Skip to Main Content Skip to Footer

My Life Among the Tombs

Derek Caldwell

May is Mental Health Awareness month. So let me tell you a story. Years ago, someone I loved handed me “a box full of darkness.”[1] With hindsight and the help of counselors, I learned that I had experienced abuse. And about six months after I thought I had been freed from the worst of it, an odd thing happened: I was having a heart attack. The ER doctor assured me I was not. A few days later he assured me once more that I was not having a heart attack, nor did I have pneumonia. On my third visit about a week later, he asked me if I had been stressed. “Not really,” I said. I thought I was telling the truth.

As it turns out, sometimes when we live in a heightened state of panic for too long, our bodies adjust to it. The body says, ah, this is how we survive now. Got it! When the body no longer has an outlet for its heightened panic—i.e., there’s no threat demanding a response—panic sort of thrashes around inside us like a starving shark. Sometimes you may only see the dorsal fin. But sometimes it attacks and you panic, shocked and rambling like Brody in JAWS,exclaiming that you’re “gonna need a bigger boat.” In other words, a threat has breached the fortifications.

Soon enough I had new terms applied to me: post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder. Disorder, disorder, disorder. They didn’t have to tell me. I already knew that much.


Some feelings are difficult to put into words, almost like asking someone to describe the color red. But I’ll try. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night, frightened to my core. Of what? Of whom? No idea. Just frightened. Nerves became exposed wires, sparking. It was like the adrenaline rush that comes with being startled, but the rush lasts for hours or days.

The depression is better illustrated than defined. One January evening, I stopped at a little park, knowing that no one would be there in the middle of winter in Wisconsin. I stared across a frozen lake, surrounded by barren, snow-oppressed trees, breathing in air so cold it was as jagged and hard as a broken bone. I was looking into a mirror, seeing all of reality clearly for the first time. The world was me and I was it: cold, desolate, oppressed, hopeless, and—truer than anything else—utterly alone in every imaginable way. As I trekked back to my car, my legs grew numb, and fear that I would die in the park, frozen over in the snow, overwhelmed me.

In a nutshell: I felt like a demon-oppressed man living in a graveyard. Had my soul been poisoned? Philip Rieff coined the term deathworks to describe cultural symbols that have had their meanings stripped and subverted by later generations in an attempt to turn the sacred into the profane.[2] As far as I was concerned, the whole world had been stripped of its divine handiwork. The heavens declared only vast emptiness, metaphysically and existentially. The world taunted me with its hurled profanity. I lived and slept among the deathworks.


My struggles with mental health effectually isolated me from the world. People tried to help but I could not face them most of the time. I was dying, I thought, and did not want them to be witnesses. Because I lived two states away from my family, it was relatively easy to remain hidden from those who knew me best.

But I was not alone.

There is an old story, a true story, that shines some light on the behind-the-scenes goings-on of my perilous situation. We’ll step into the story in Mark 4, which takes place during Jesus’s Galilean ministry. He’s just been teaching in parables on topics like faith and growing the kingdom of God. Jesus had also been healing people of diseases and demonic oppression, so prolifically that certain Pharisees and Scribes think He must be a demon Himself. How else could someone have such mastery over the demonic realm?

God then appears to place someone on Jesus’s heart: a lonely, isolated, and oppressed man. This man was known locally for cutting himself on rocks and howling in agony all throughout the night. In line with the ancient world’s treatment of those with mental distress, the locals had tried to chain the man up to keep him from harming himself and others, but the chains did not hold him (Mark 5:3-5). So Jesus, rather than resting after his long day of teaching, decides to sail over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee to the land of the Gerasenes, a Gentile community of pig farmers where the man lived.[3] A pig farm made this land, to the Jewish mind, essentially impure and forbidden. This is the first objection the disciples would have had in traveling to this land, but it would not be the last.

On the way to the Gerasene land, a sudden squall violently stirs the waters of the Sea of Galilee. The sea was already a frightening place for ancient people. It is full of deep mysteries and violent beasts that cannot be escaped since they also relied on the sea for fish. When these storms arise—as they are still wont to do—the consequences can be swift and deadly. This is no ordinary squall, and the timing is not accidental. The disciples grow so concerned for their own lives—and so certain that Jesus will not lift a finger to help them as He sleeps in the rocking boat—that they rebuke Him, questioning His concern for them (Mark 4:38).  

Jesus, the Warrior

What takes place next is one of the most fascinating events in the Bible. Jesus stands up and rebukes the storm, telling it to “be muzzled,” as if it were a wild animal. The word rebuke, RT France explains, is based on the Hebrew word ga’ar, which is “God’s ‘subjugating word’ against his enemies, which is not a verbal protest, but effectively bringing them under his control.”[4] Jesus had already rebuked something that He told to be muzzled previously in Mark 1:25 (He also uses the word rebuke in Mark 3:12 and 9:25 for this same class of being: a demon). If we recall that Paul refers to the devil in Ephesians 2:2 as the “Prince of the power of the air,” then we recognize the same dark prince—or those of the same ilk—as the one(s) stirring up this tempest.[5]

When Jesus tells the disciples not to fear during the storm, He is not referring to a common fear, like when Peter attempted to walk on water and became afraid of drowning. The word Jesus uses is the Greek word deilos, which is used—both in the New Testament and other ancient Greek writings—to refer to the type of fear that leads to retreat.[6] Thus, the fear of the disciples here is akin to the fear of those who wish to flee from warfare; it was the dread of hopelessness in the face of a seemingly unassailable foe. For the disciples, at this moment, it is the dread of knowing there is no way out.

Then Jesus rebukes the storm, and the saber-rattling ceases in an instant.

“Who is this?” the disciples ask. “Even the waves obey Him.”

When Jesus and the disciples reach land, the disciples see what all the fuss was about. That lonely, isolated, and oppressed man, possessed by demons, lived among the tombs.[7] The winds are silent as Jesus approaches the man. The demon—who is actually multiple demons named “Legion,” referencing the name of highly-trained and heavily-armed Roman infantry units of thousands[8]—begs Jesus, “Don’t torture me!” As one scholar wrote, “The demon’s warped plea for exemption from torture when it is itself the source of torture is heavy with irony.”[9]

Jesus grants the demons their wish, though one must be careful what one wishes for. He did not torture them. He allowed them to enter a herd of pigs who were eating nearby. What happens next is hard to stomach: The pigs rush down a steep bank and drown themselves. This part of the story is notoriously confusing, but I like to think that somehow these pigs, God’s surprisingly gentle and intelligent little creatures, obediently sacrificed themselves to drag demons to the prison of the “abyss” in the sea (Luke 8:31).[10] To which the disciples must have thought, Who is this? Even the demons fear and obey him. As for the man, he was set free.

So, what have we seen thus far? Demons sought to isolate a man behind a violent sea, not knowing that Jesus came to heal creation’s groanings. They hid him behind a drove of pigs, not knowing that Jesus had come to make all things clean. Finally, they hid him in the tombs, not knowing that Jesus had come to redeem those as well, thus humiliating death. To the oppressed man, it must have felt like all the world was against him. Little did he know that there was One coming for him Who will not let any obstacle hold Him back. “Death, be not proud,” John Donne muses, for “thou shalt die.”[11]

The Warrior Breaks Through

This is not at all to suggest that mental health struggles are demon possession. Rather, it is simply to observe that those suffering from mental health struggles understand the spiritually oppressed man in a way that not many do. They know what it is like to feel completely cut off from the world. They know self-hatred. They know the dread of losing control over their psychological and emotional states. They know the sorrow of feeling unreachable and unlovable. But in time they may also know, in a profound way, what it means to experience Jesus’s sustaining hand, that otherworldly power to rise in the morning and try again. They will know that the struggle is ongoing, but, though unseen, God is with them.

With the fervor that the demons inside of the possessed man had begged Jesus to depart, the healed man begged Jesus to travel with Him and never be apart from Him again. It is interesting that after the demon-possessed man was set free he nearly jumped over others to get in the boat with Jesus, perhaps the only one other than Jesus who wanted to be in that boat. This man knew that the Man who had made the waves obey Him was the one “who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst from the womb” and commanded “this far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt” (Job 38:11). He knew that his rescuer was God.

But Jesus has other plans for the man. “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19).

And perhaps that’s why the demons didn’t want this man found. They knew that oftentimes the depth of our brokenness and lostness will only increase our gratefulness, the irrefutable miraculous-ness of new life, and the confidence of our witness to God’s love and mercy. For those of us who have lived among the tombs, when we rise—though it may feel like the feeblest of risings—we rise like David:

You, LORD, brought me up from the realm of the dead;

            you spared me from going down to the pit. (Psalm 30:3)

If you feel disordered, I grieve with you. I grieve the pain in our lives that will not leave. I grieve the thoughts that rise from the abyss and strike us with stealth speed and ripping force. I lament with you the fallen world that we have been viscerally awakened to.

But there is One who will stop at nothing to rescue us, even if we feel too unclean, too hopeless, too cowardly, too far gone, and too much needing redemption. Those are demonic lies, but God can put heavenly truths on our lips to save us and help us partake in His work of saving the world. Just as He knew what the man in the land of the Gerasenes could do, He knows what you can do. This does not mean that every day will be a delight, but through the power of the Holy Spirit, your pain will become your perseverance, and, like Christ, your wounds will become your healing words to a hurting world. Follow Him and find out yourself.

Instead of a having comments section, we invite you to contact us here.

[1] Mary Oliver, “The Uses of Sorrow,” in Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), 52.

[2] Rieff describes deathworks as “an all-out assault upon something vital to the established culture. Every deathwork represents an admiring final assault on the objects of its admiration: the sacred orders of which their arts are some expression in the repressive mode.” Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority (University of Virginia Press, 2006), 7. Carl Trueman adds that a deathwork “represents an attack on established cultural art forms in a manner designed to undo the deeper moral structure of society.” Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 96. The most striking example is a work by Andres Serrano in which a crucifix is submerged in the artist’s own waste. As Trueman describes it, “The sacramental is made into the excremental.” Trueman, 97. For what it is worth, though critical of certain aspects of Roman Catholicism, says, “I was born and raised a Catholic and I’ve been a Christian all my life.” Jonathan Jones, “Andres Serrano on Donald Trump: ‘I never speak ill of people who’ve posed for me,’” The Guardian, April 3, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/apr/03/andres-serrano-interview-donald-trump-piss-christ. Rather than being understood as blasphemous, he and others view his artwork as exploring “how spiritual belief has been exploited and spiritual values debased.” Grant H. Kester, “Rhetorical Questions: The Alternative Arts Sector and the Imaginary Public,” in Kester (ed.), Art, Activism, & Oppositionality (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998), 126. Another example would be the satirical version of the ancient Christian icthus symbol, or Jesus fish, walking with stick legs, the name Jesus replaced with Darwin. The goal is cultural subversion, replacing a new religion-less value for the old, almost like secular accommodationist missionaries. This is not just a claim about science or a claim about religion, but a claim about all of reality. It is a symbol of science making a philosophical claim about metaphysics: We are alone in the universe, life does not continue past death, religion is a stumbling block to progress, etc. We can’t overlook, however, that some cultural symbols are cheapened socially because of their misuse socially. One could not be blamed, for instance, for thinking less of the cross if your main interaction with it was through alleged “Christians” in the Ku Klux Klan burning them as symbols of racial hatred.

[3] Some have posited that perhaps this was a Jewish community that simply did not live in accordance with Jewish law but, invoking Occam’s Razor, it was most likely a Gentile community.

[4] RT France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 104-05.

[5] Satan was able to control aspects of the weather in Job 1:16, 18-19, though God is ultimately in charge, only tolerating the demonic for their ability to, counterintuitively, return the wayward to God (1 Corinthians 5:5). Demons can cause other ailments as well (Matthew 9:33, 12:22; Luke 13:11, 16). That said, the Bible nowhere claims and often refutes the notion that every ailment is the work of demons.

[6] For instance, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, this word is used to describe a type of cowardice that spreads to others during warfare in Deuteronomy 20:8. It is also used of the 22,000 soldiers who flee from helping Gideon against the Midianites in Judges 7:3. Josephus used the word concerning someone who doesn’t die when he should or who does die when he shouldn’t (Wars of the Jews, 3.365). Philo uses it in regards to one whose cowardice creates cowardice in others and hinders success (On the Virtues, 25). Both Josephus and Philo again use this word in the context of warfare, as does the Second Temple Period writing, Book of Maccabees. And finally, in the early Christian writing Shepherd of Hermas (8.28.4), the word is used in the context of both physical and spiritual warfare, when one is tempted to deny the Lord in the face of persecution.

[7] Herman Waetjen calls the man “an incarnation of uncleanness … he is the embodiment of living death.” Herman C. Waetjen, A Reordering Power: A Socio-Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1989), 114. Isaiah actually lumps together those who eat the flesh of pigs, those who dwell at tombs, and demon-worshippers (Isaiah 65:3-4). David E. Garland, “Mark,” in Clinton E. Arnold (ed.), Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Vol. 1: Matthew, Mark, Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 489.

[8] There were usually about 6,000 soldiers in one Roman legion.

[9] Royce Gordon Gruenler, “Mark,” in Walter Elwell (ed.), Evangelical Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995), 774.

[10] Some ancient accounts posit that demons could be destroyed if plunged into water. See, for instance, Testament of Solomon 5:11 where a soon-to-be exorcised demons wails: “Do not condemn me to water!” Garland, 488.

[11] John Donne, “Death, Be Not Proud,” in Leland Ryken (ed.), The Soul in Paraphrase (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 72.