Question: As we grow in holiness, does the Evil One cause disturbances? Or does God allow these disturbances to strengthen us? Or both?
Answer: Thank-you for your question. It covers a vast area, but I will try to give the main points of discernment.
1- We Believe in One God
When we speak about Satan and his cohort of devils, it is very important to have a proper understanding of what our faith says about it. I say this because very often the devil is not only seen as “the enemy” (Satan) but also almost like an uncontrollable god, free to harm endlessly. We end up by, implicitly, considering that we are dealing with two gods, the good God and the god of evil. We can even go as far as to think that the whole of human history is in fact a big battle between Good and Evil in the form of the good God, that is, God, and the god of evil, Satan. This way of seeing the invisible reality, be it conscious or unconscious, is a heterodox one.
We say in the Creed that we believe in one God. Not two gods. Not only that, but we believe that Satan and his cohort are angels, that is, creatures, who chose to go astray! An Angel is a creature, and in no way, can he be compared to God, and his power and the power of all his cohort can in no way be compared with God’s power. A creature is a creature, and it is kept in being because of God. The act of creation does not stop at the moment of creation, for it is God who maintains each creature in existence and alive through his constant intervention and power. In this sense, God is maintaining Satan and his cohort in existence and alive by his constant intervention. If God wants, He can remove his hand – so to speak – from Satan and his cohort, and they will all vanish into nothingness. Yet He does not.
So, let us refrain from giving the devils a power or an intelligence they do not possess. Plus, let us not transform God’s Government of his Creature into a battle or conflict between Him and Satan only. What is at stake, after all, is the redemption of the human being. And in order to receive the Redemption of the Lord Jesus, the human being needs to use his free will, mind, will, and of course the Grace that God constantly offers him, and he needs to act upon it. Therefore, let us focus on God and the human being who needs to grow and be sanctified. And in doing so, we need to remember that we believe in one Almighty God. One only.
Therefore, anything that happens on earth does so in two ways: either by the permission of God or by his direct will and intervention.
The devils fear God and obey Him in a submissive way. God limits their interventions, case by case, means by means, etc. as the saint in her last illness vividly illustrates: “I believe the devil had received an external power over me but [29r°] was not allowed to approach my soul nor my mind except to inspire me with very great fears of certain things, for example, very simple remedies they tried in vain to make me accept.” (St. Therese of the Child Jesus, Ms A 28v°-29r°)
The devils are subjected to God and obey Him, trembling in terror: “You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror.” (James 2:19) The devils are subject to God’s power and government; they have very limited powers of intervention – all is decided by God’s Wisdom. They are subjected to, or in other words: they obey, but theirs is a forced obedience, not like we who are invited to obey willingly and freely, like true sons of God.
The conclusion, then, is quite clear: we shouldn’t fear the Devil. “a soul in the state of grace has nothing to fear from demons who are cowards, capable of fleeing before the gaze of a little child” (St. Therese of the Child Jesus, Ms A 10v°)
Victory was acquired by Jesus on the Cross. He won against Satan. This is final.
2- Three Enemies, Not One
People who think that we have only one enemy, that is, Satan, are totally wrong. In fact, we have two other enemies: the world and the flesh.
The “world,” on the one hand, means the thoughts aroused by the world that surrounds us: the ways the world envisages life, relationships, work, leisure, what people say, common opinions,…
In this sense Scripture says: “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone should love the world, the love of the Father is not in him, 16 because all that is in the world, the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes and the vaunting of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away, and its desire; but the one doing the will of God abides to the age.” (1 John 2:15-17)
The “flesh,” on the other hand, means the old man in us who has different desires and goals, the primary one being to satisfy the flesh, namely, the senses.
Thinking that we have only one Enemy, then, means that we are paying attention to a third of our enemies. “The world is the enemy least difficult to conquer; the devil is the hardest to discern; but the flesh is the most tenacious, and its attacks continue as long as the old self lasts” (St John of the Cross, Precautions, 2). For a clear and detailed examination of the three enemies, St. John of the Cross’s masterful spiritual teaching on this is to be recommended. (see link here).
3- Satan is a Murderer from the Beginning
This is what the Lord says about Satan: “He was a murderer from the beginning” (Jn 8:44) This means that he is a very real malicious enemy who constantly wants to harm us, drain us completely, lead us to despair (his strongest weapon), and therefore “kill us”. He never intends anything good for us. He hates us. He is the enemy of the human being, he draws this attitude from his own, from within himself. He is animated by a formidable jealousy towards the human being, created in the image and likeness of God.
One can never lay enough stress on the fact that one of his main weapons is instilling despair. He does all that he can to unroot trust and hope in God. He can even bring a pious person to think that he or she is not worth God’s forgiveness, drawing the person into despair, closing the person within herself, isolating her.
4- Satan is a Liar
We are never to choose to deal directly with him (see below how St. Therese dealt with him)! We will always lose because he is a spirit and tells lies, covers them with truths. He seduces, tricks, makes us fall into his traps and “devours” our energy.
“He was a murderer from the beginning and has not stood in the truth, because there is no truth in him. Whenever he might speak falsehood, he speaks from his own; for he is a liar, and the father of it.” (John 8:44)
At certain stages the devil cannot tempt us with obvious sins, so he chooses deceit: he disguises himself with the “appearance” of a good angel of light and tempts us. In fact, at a certain level of growth we can only be “tempted” or better said “attracted” by good things. So, the only choice the devil has to seduce us and lead us astray is to imitate, to mimic the good angel. “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Co 11:14) says St. Paul.
Let us delve deeper into understanding the extent of the lies of the Devil. The fundamental element of discernment regarding the devils is the following: “every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (1 Jn 4:3). However, in which sense do we need to confess Jesus? What we need to confess in fact is the Incarnation: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses Jesus Christ having come in the flesh is of God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not of God, and this is that of the antichrist, which you heard that is coming, and now is already in the world.” (1 Jn 4:1-3)
The devil is a spirit. We need to test the spirits that inspire us in order to know if they are from God or not. How can we discern if what is said to us comes from the Devil or from God? The crux of the discernment is to see if the spirit or the person, or the advice, or the inspiration acknowledges the fact that the Second Person of the Trinity took flesh and became man. If it goes along with the “logic of incarnation”, that is, if it recognises that God came in the flesh, this indicates that the spirit is from God.
A Deeper Discernment
But one needs to be careful because the Incarnation did not end with the Son of God ascending into heaven. It continues in the Church, which is his mystical body, his continuation on earth, and through whom He speaks, through the Holy Spirit, and offers His Salvation. Therefore, believing in the Church as a Sacrament of our Salvation is still part of our faith in the Incarnation. It is still part of the “logic of the Incarnation” and of discernment.
What does it mean to say that the “logic of the Incarnation” embraces not only the Incarnation of the head of the mystical body, but also the existence of the body itself? Believing in the Incarnation means believing that the Second Person of the Trinity took on human nature and became man. He embodies the way God wishes to communicate with us, reveal himself to us and unite himself to us. But believing in the Incarnation means also believing that Jesus and the Holy Spirit live in the Church and act through it, and that she is Jesus’ mystical Body, his continuation on earth.
This Faith in the total logic of the Incarnation, moreover, has very practical implications, some of which follow:
– Believing that God acts in the sacrament of Confession. Believing that God speaks and acts through his ministers is an integral part of believing in the Incarnation, as the incarnation perpetuates itself in the actual Church. God in verity speaks and acts through his ministers. This is also an act of faith in the Incarnation understood properly. The act of faith here says: I do believe God talks to me through the frailty of this human being who is also like me a sinner. It is true that this act of faith in the Church as sacrament of salvation is much more difficult than the act of faith that Christ is God.
– The same applies to Spiritual Direction.
– It also applies to obedience to the Bishop united with the Pope.
Therefore, the spirit that rejects such obedience cannot be from God. The devils do systematically reject obedience and incite us to do so. “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, refusing to confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.” (2 Jn 1:7)
This is why Saint John of the Cross says that God loves to see us having recourse to Spiritual Direction:
“9. And thus, men were not authorized or empowered at that time to give entire credence to what was said by God, unless it were approved by the mouths of priests and prophets. For God is so desirous that the government and direction of every man should be undertaken by another man like himself, and that every man should be ruled and governed by natural reason, that He earnestly desires us not to give entire credence to the things that He communicates to us supernaturally, nor to consider them as being securely and completely confirmed until they pass through this human aqueduct of the mouth of man. And thus, whenever He says or reveals something to a soul, He gives this same soul to whom He says it a kind of inclination to tell it to the person to whom it is fitting that it should be told. Until this has been done, it is not wont to give entire satisfaction, because the man has not taken it from another man like himself.” (Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book II, 22,9)
It is interesting to see the understanding of God himself that St. John of the Cross displays, an inner knowledge of God that allows him to say that God is “so desirous” of this way of doing!
5- The Mechanism of Temptation
It is important for us to understand the Mechanism of Temptation, and its real significance in our daily life: why it happens and how to extricate oneself from it. It is embodied in the demand we make in the Our Father – “lead us not into temptation” – which does not mean: “keep any temptation away from us”, but “when temptation comes (and it comes when we draw too much toward creatures, coming out of ourselves) give us graciously your grace, so we can make a 180° turn, run and throw ourselves into your arms”. This is how St. Therese acts as will be seen in full in the quotation below.
This series of acts (turning, running, throwing, staying) are in fact the best embodiment of the following advice: resist him [the devil], firm in your faith, or through an act of faith. “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the Devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith” (1 Peter 5:8-9). When temptation happens, do not panic, stay calm, have recourse to Faith, to what Faith says (there is only one almighty God, the devil cannot do a great deal, God controls the devil’s limits…) and resist. Do not change attitude, keep faith and stay firmly within it.
How can we define our attitude in spiritual life? Either we are spiritually active, that is, we are veering towards temptation, that is, we are striving toward creatures (humans, possessions, pleasure) or we are striving for God. In order to visualise this movement one can imagine a virtual axis that crosses our being vertically (spirit, soul, body) from the top (God who dwells in our centre) to the bottom (outside, the creatures, the devil): in fact we move along this axis, either toward the outer world (Creatures), or toward the Creator, God, who is at the centre of our being. Here is the diagram that illustrates the reality in us:
6- Understanding Temptation
We can compare our being to a forest shed. It has windows and a door. If we give too much importance to creatures, putting our heart into what we do, this makes us veer towards creatures, becoming attached to them. It is as if we extended a hand or a foot out of the window or the door of the forest shed. What would happen? A wild beast, for example, a lion would arrive and would bite us. “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith” (I Peter 5:8-9). This means that we would have strayed too far outside.
“lead us not into temptation,” then, means that we are humbly asking God for his grace to help us make a 180° turn, run and throw ourselves into the arms of Jesus.
7- The Meaning of “Resisting with Faith”
“Resist him, firm in your faith” (1 Peter 5:8-9) Notice the “resist him with Faith”; it doesn’t say: “deal with him”, but “make an act of Faith”, that is, go to God, and adopt His way of seeing things.
We do not have to deal with the devil for two simple reasons:
- we would lose, because he is a spirit; he sees and knows more things than we do, so he can trick us,
- we would waste time and energy. With the help of the Grace of God, we should just leave him where he is (outside), turn and run toward Jesus.
Here is how St. Therese explains how she reacts to temptation. Her action involves turning 180°, from creatures and the devil towards Jesus, running toward Him and throwing herself in his arms. She does not waste time dealing with the devil. She immediately understands what is at stake and without wasting any time or energy, with the grace of God she seeks out Jesus forthwith.
“At each new occasion of combat, when my enemies provoke me, I conduct myself bravely. Knowing it is cowardly to enter into a duel, I turn my back on my adversaries without deigning to look them in the face; but I run toward my Jesus.” (St. Therese of the Child Jesus, Ms C, 7r°) When she runs toward Jesus it is to throw herself into His arms: “It’s to you alone, Jesus, that I’m attached. / It’s into your arms that I run and hide. / I want to love you like a little child. / I want to fight like a brave warrior.” (St. Therese, Poem 36,3) Also: “In his Divine arms, I don’t fear the storm. / Total abandonment is my only law. / Sleeping on his Heart, right next to his Face, / That is Heaven for me!…” (St. Therese, Poem 32,4)
8- Mary’s Role
Also, it is important to acknowledge the greatest enemy of the Devil, Our Lady. The more we remain in Mary, the more we are drawn toward God, and the less we are exposed to temptation, because we are not in the hands of creatures.
Indeed, Mary is the fiercest enemy of the Devil: he can’t cope with her presence. Paradoxically this gives us a hint of the importance of Mary in our daily Spiritual Life. As St. Augustine puts it, all the elect are hidden in Mary. She is like a pregnant woman, bearing in her womb, in her heart, all of us. She is the New Jerusalem, God’s City. The need to dwell in Her is vital. The more our love, entrustment and docility to her increase, the better and the safer for our spiritual Grace. De Montfort echoes this and he adds something important: we receive plenty of graces from God, but we lose them. This is why he invites us to have constant recourse to Our Lady because she keeps the graces we have received safe and teaches us how to fructify them.
It is in her womb that our spiritual growth happens. “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (John 3:4) In addition, she is given to us by Jesus on the Cross as our mother: “Then He said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” So from that hour, this disciple took her into his home.” (John 19:27) This is the deepest and most effective teaching Jesus has given us. It is His Last Will and Testament that He gifts us as He lies dying on the Cross.
Taking Mary into our home, or better said: deciding to dwell in her is a fundamental decision we hopefully should take at some point: she is our real fortress…, our most powerful protective tower (“David Tower”, “Ivory Tower” say the Loreto Litanies) or simply the New Jerusalem, with her high protective walls (see Revelation 21:12). Many people wear the Scapular as a physical sign of a spiritual mutual commitment between Mary and themselves. True that Mary is given to us from Baptism, her Faith is given to us, but we only progressively become aware of her place in our lives. Therefore, when we reach a certain threshold of awareness of the importance of her place, we decide to live in her. Some also call this: “Consecration to Our Lady”. This does not mean that having recourse to her during a daily commitment to Mary, that we are using Mary as a magic talisman that has the power to save us. On the contrary, it signals the beginning of a new journey for us where we learn every day to be guided by her. It is only the Holy Spirit who dwells in her, moves her and acts through her, and all their work together is for the purpose of leading us in the most direct easy and secure way to Jesus.
One should also consider that it will certainly be of immense benefit to us to put into practice the treasure of the teaching of the Catholic Church on Mary. Finally, it is important to refer to all the Spiritual Teaching on Mary’s place in our spiritual life in order to learn how to allow Mary and the Holy Spirit to work in our life.
9- The Meaning of Fighting the Devil
“10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power. 11 Put on the full armour of God, so that you can make your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this world’s darkness, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
13 Therefore take up the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you will be able to stand your ground, and having done everything, to stand.
14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness arrayed, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness of the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 Pray in the Spirit at all times, with every kind of prayer and petition.” (Ephesians 6:10-18)
We have here an interesting text from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians where we are faced with a list of advice for spiritual warfare. Moreover, we can read this text as if it were mainly directed to help us fight against the devil.
With the exhortation, “be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power” St. Paul shows that God gives us his strength and grace to do battle, and that we never walk the spiritual path alone. The grace of God is constantly present for us to lean upon. Temptation often occurs when we start to rely only on ourselves or on other “gods”. Both are needed: God’s grace and our collaboration, using our free will and decisions. “Lead us not into temptation”, then, could also be understood as: lead us not into the temptation of forgetting your grace and its primary role in our life. Do not allow us to forget your grace. And if this happens, lead us back to the right path.
St. Paul points to the fact that there is no spiritual growth without spiritual warfare! This is so because it involves our will, our reaction and actions that will trigger growth. Let us remember that the Devil acts only with God’s permission and in a sense he does the right job. Being tempted offers us two choices and indicates the need to make a decision: to act with God’s Grace, or to act according to the temptation, that is, deviating from what is good.
Spiritual warfare shows us that in us we have the old man and the new man, like a woman pregnant with twins! One fights the other, each needs to live, but in doing so he deprives the other of life. One has to die at the hands of the other. Our acts feed either one of the two. Any given act, then, cannot feed both of them at the same time. Hence the spiritual warfare.
Before going into any detail on how to be victorious against the devil, however, St. Paul makes an important point: we do not have any human enemies! We can never consider any human being as an enemy, in the sense that our worst enemy is – if we pray for him or her until the moment of death – a potentially saved person. “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this world’s darkness, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”.
So yes, we are soldiers, but in a new meaning of the word. We need to fight, but not in the usual human way. The energy and aggressive impulses in us need to be directed properly by the grace of God toward this spiritual warfare. Traditionally, the Sacrament of Confirmation makes of us soldiers of Christ. Receiving the Holy Spirit makes us strong, arming us for the battles ahead. Not for the conflicts of life as it were, but for spiritual warfare.
In order to succeed in this warfare, St. Paul wants to describe our “weapons” so to speak. He will talk about the armour! And he wants us to have the complete armour and not parts of it, because the new man must have no holes or areas of weaknesses in him to allow the devil entry. Being completely hermetically sealed from the interventions of the devil is in St. Paul’s words “to stand firm” or “to stand one’s ground”. It means that in this case we are like a solid impregnable fortress.
“14 Stand firm then,
with the belt of truth buckled around your waist,
with the breastplate of righteousness arrayed
15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness of the gospel of peace.
16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.
17 And take the helmet of salvation
and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18 Pray in the Spirit at all times, with every kind of prayer and petition.”
The full armour according to St. Paul here is composed of: a belt, a breastplate, fitted feet, a shield, a helmet, a sword, and finally prayer.
Often this text is used on the day of the vestition ceremony of monks and nuns, when they receive their new habit and are “vested” in it.
It follows then that the belt of truth comprises allegiance to the Truth, both subjectively and objectively. It entails a pure conscience, a pure desire, a pure heart, wanting only God and courageously and with all our might putting Him in first place in our life, namely, to seek first the kingdom of God. But also, it entails objectively seeking Jesus and His Spirit of Truth. Seeking His will in the Gospel, because His Words are the Truth and they have the power to free us. This is our strength, just as a biblical belt is meant to give us strength. The truth makes us strong. The Devil never stands for Truth. He has been a liar from the beginning. Truth is really the highest point, the first point, the source of all goods. Lies, the Devil’s words, are the source of all evils.
One can realise that the Gospel’s Words, that is, Jesus’ Words are the true belt, but once the battle has been joined it is important to buckle it on and to do so around our waist. St James in his letter warns us of exposing ourselves to the word of God (see Lectio Divina) but not putting it into practice! He says that it is similar to watching ourselves in a mirror, where we see our image, but then we go, and forget about it, namely, we don’t put into practice. In sum, to buckle it “around our waist” means to allow the word of God to touch and transform our will, and not only to shine out in our mind.
“the breastplate of righteousness” as a consequence is being crafted as we now place the Lord’s Words of Truth into our Lives, as a consequence of putting Jesus, the Truth, at the centre of our Lives, for it is He who gives us real growth by his Grace. He communicates his Holy Spirit to us, and we experience the transformative power of the Holy Spirit that accompany His Word. The relationship between the Word and the Holy Spirit is very intimate as we will see below. To reiterate, experiencing Jesus’ Words of Truth goes hand in hand with the Holy Spirit. He transforms us by Jesus’ word. Let us remember that when Our Lady askes the Angel how the incarnation will happen, he answers her with the words: the Holy Spirit. This is his essential action in us also: to allow Jesus’ words to become incarnate in us, to purify and transform us into Him.
“your feet fitted with the readiness of the gospel of peace” comes next.There are other translations that interpret the meaning of “readiness” by saying: readiness to preach the Gospel of peace. Let us continue with this translation which comes as close as possible to the original in Greek. Why is the Gospel described here as the Gospel of peace? Why peace? Peace here is to be found as between us and God. Our old man is fighting against God. Our God wants him banished, that is, replaced by the new man. This means that all our being will be then purified and transformed, namely, nothing in us will be “fighting” against God. This should be our predominating aim! Not only do we not have real human enemies, but we understand the main purpose of the Gospel is to reconcile us totally with God, which does not only entail Baptism or accepting the Lord as our Saviour, but it should carry us much further, by causing all our being to be transformed, through the use of our free will, our mind and our will. All of course is accomplished by the grace of God. It is none other than a daily task.
The more the new man in us grows, the readier we get. The Gospel, that is, Jesus, starts to dwell, live and act in us and through us.
“In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” In this article, we constantly mention the necessity to resist with Faith. This does not mean we escape from temptation, but it means just having recourse to Faith. Faith is the eyes that allow us to see the Truth. But faith is also a shield, allowing us to harbour in our heart Jesus’ Word of Truth, it creates a protective living shield of Truth in us. It allows us in an easier way, then, to “extinguish all the flaming arrows” of the lies “of the evil one”.
We are then exhorted “17 And take the helmet of salvation”. “Salvation” is what the Lord achieved on the Cross for us. It is a mystical re-union between each one of us and Him. We were in the darkness, slaves to the Devil, living in his world (remember during Baptism the Priest does an exorcism, because we were under the power and dominion of the Devil), slaves to all sorts of spirits and vices. By contrast, He/Jesus is God in the flesh, He is our Temple, our Dwelling Place. He comes toward us, unites himself to us, carries us in Him, and brings us back to his Dwelling Place.
Therefore, what does it mean to “take the helmet of salvation”? Consider, then, that the helmet protects the head. The head controls the body and directs it. But if the head is not “covered”, is not in the light, it cannot guide the body. In this sense, it is necessary to “cover” our heads: we need to constantly acknowledge the truth of where we were and where we now are! The Word of Salvation is entirely motivated and moved by the immense love of God for each one of us. Salvation is the salvation of humanity, but salvation is also a personal act produced by God! He loves and saves each individual. Contemplating the Cross and saying with St. Paul: “he loved me and died for me” is the most powerful driving force for our head and subsequent actions, as well as its greatest protection.
How exactly does this protect us from the Devil? First, he attacks our head, our thoughts, and if they are not immersed in the contemplation of the work of Salvation, immersed in this mysterious and staggering love of God for each one of us, we become very weak, and all our actions also weaken, and we become very easily prey to the devil’s devouring hunger.
With the words, “and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,” St. Paul becomes more specific about the Word of God and its relationship with the Holy Spirit and how they are both the most “dangerous” and “deadly” of weapons: the sword. At the time of St. Paul infantry was the main army corps, and its main weapon was the sword. So, in reality the chief means of attack and conquest of the enemy was at the hands of the sword.
I would add a clarification, however, regarding the image used by St. Paul. If one takes a sword one will find it composed of different elements. The deadliest one is its pointed and sharp end, its tip. I am inclined to say that the Word of God is this pointed sharp tip of the sword of the Holy Spirit. It shows the deep union that exists between the action of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. He inspires it, it is He who helps the sacred authors to formulate certain words in their minds and desire and select these, and not others. Afterwards He uses the Word of God to penetrate to the very core of our being. Here is the best description we have of its action in us: “the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (He 4:12) As we can see, the sword is the Holy Spirit and the Word. This is why I am inclined to unite them, the sword being the Holy Spirit and its tip being the Word of God. The latter is used by the Holy Spirit to enter into our very depths.
18 Pray in the Spirit at all times, with every kind of prayer and petition,” reveals that an unexpected part of the armour is prayer, and prayer “at all times”. The starting point of prayer is the particular and unique love of God for each one of us, so that our movement in prayer is first of all the acknowledgement of who we are and who God is. The acknowledgement that everything we are, all that we have received is from God. Therefore it should be in the spirit of gratitude that we should always pray. This way we beat the Devil because one of his main weapons is to inflate our ego filling it with false truths. Contemplating all that the Lord has done and is doing to us is in fact a very powerful weapon!
The question now is, “can we, all the time, have such an awareness, of the action of God, of all that He is giving us?” We work in order to buy our food and we prepare it and eat it. But we pray before eating. Why? Because we want to rise to another level: we want to say that if we are alive it is because of Him; if we are able to work and earn money it is because of Him and the goal is to glorify Him in our hearts with our work. We pray to ask Him to bless our food, and to bless us and bless the process of eating, which in turn will help us serve Him and glorify Him. As we can see, praying helps us keep our consciousness of the presence and action of the Grace of God constantly on the alert.
Isn’t this an incredible way to shield us from the Devil’s actions?
Praying also puts us into direct contact with God and if it is done properly, it nourishes us. Therefore, we become stronger. If we practise Lectio Divina, if the Word of God stays alive in our hearts and minds, we become stronger and filled with God’s thoughts and ways of thinking. This, in fact, is what made St. Paul say: we have Christ’s thought.
Thus, when the Lord explained how to beat the Devil, and why his disciples were not able to exorcise, He said that what was required was fasting and praying. Why not just fasting? Because fasting empties us and makes us ready to receive God’s grace, God’s Word. And praying means filling, being illuminated, transformed, in other words, becoming armed for combat. Prayer indeed is a very powerful way to beat the Devil, and win in warfare.
Much more, in fact, could be said about prayer and how powerful it is against the Devil.
10- Revealing the Temptation Makes it Vanish
Revealing the temptation in Spiritual Direction makes it vanish. The act of humility and faith in the Lord’s presence and action during Spiritual Direction produces the powerful grace of getting rid of the temptation. This is an intrinsic part of the ancient practice of Spiritual Direction.
11- The Function of the Devil
The growth of Spiritual Life has stages and turning points. Each level or stage involves a specific challenge and purification. One can only grow by performing certain acts corresponding to the grace of God, and therefore freeing oneself from certain impurities. To make certain acts we need sometimes to be faced with challenges or choices. And this usually occurs when we are offered two or more choices. So, the role of the temptation here is to offer us a counter choice or a deviating route. In this sense the devil, ironically, serves the purpose of our sanctification. He tempts us, but at the same time he is bound by clear boundaries and limitations in his action. As we would say in French, he has “the dirty job”, and consequently believes in it only half-heartedly because he knows that he will lose and that his time is being counted down.
Very often the devil does not have a maturity greater than that of a seven-year-old child.
He barks like a frightening wolf, but he is attached by a strong chain that stops him at a certain distance from us! He never has permission to force or harm our soul without our permission or consent. Barking ferociously, then, only has the function of scaring us and instilling fear in us, but nothing more. It is up to us to resist him, with faith, through faith.
Now, it can be said that at each level of growth we are faced with different challenges and different types of temptations. Each type of temptation might have a corresponding type of bad spirit or devil who is in charge of tempting us with the specific object of our purification.
12- The Devil’s Word Against that of Jesus
When the person is totally immersed in the world and its temptations, often the Devil has a good place in which to dwell in this person. Once, however, the person starts to follow Christ and abide in His Words and Commandments, the Devil fears for his “food”, for, in fact, he feeds on us like a parasite. So obviously he will fight for his survival, or better said for the easy way of accessing his “food”. Let us remember first that he is a murderer! He absorbs our life as if it were his food! Each one of our acts that follows his advice and words feeds him! So, he has in us a good dwelling feeding place. Once we stop listening to him, once we start to listen to the Lord, we are in a way banishing him, by our own choices.
Many of the stories of exorcism in the Gospel describe the devil as a spirit dwelling in the person and not just tempting the person. In this sense he feeds on us. The following description gives us an interesting insight of what happens in the invisible realm:
“When an unclean spirit comes out of a man, it passes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ On its return, it finds the house vacant, swept clean, and put in order. 45 Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and dwell there; and the final plight of that man is worse than the first. So will it be with this wicked generation.”” (Mt 12:43-45)
Question: Is Lectio Divina sometimes (especially in the beginning) like a little exorcism where we are with the help of His Grace through His Word chasing away all the big and little devils and filling our heart at the same time, as also in Prayer of the Heart, with His Holy Spirit so that there is less room for when they come back?
Answer: Yes. The best “exorcism” is the one we make by ourselves, using our free will. This is God’s will. Sometimes God allows tough trials in our life, tough things happening with the devil, not to harm us but to give us an awake call. The reason for this is for us to grow in faith. Resist the devil in Faith. This is the key. We do not resist by exorcising him artificially, or magically, we resist better by Faith, by casting him out by a renewed commitment and what greater commitment than Lectio Divina, that is, listening to Jesus’ Word and putting it into practice. Jesus’ Word takes the place of the Devil’s words/lies and tricks. When Jesus’ Word takes place in us through listening to it, it transforms us in Jesus. The new man in us grows and the old man, that is, the dwelling place of the devil, diminishes.
A transformative fighting back is better than an artificial magical casting away of the Devil. This is why sometimes some exorcisms take months or years. In fact, sometimes the Lord wants us to fight back by committing ourselves to Him and not just getting rid of an annoyance, be it a horrible possession. God never gives the devil power over our soul! Never! It is we who give it. God himself never allows himself to treat us like puppets. He never overrides our will, our soul! All the more reason He would never allow the Devil to do so. In extreme cases, God only allows the devil to possess the body for a while. Fighting back with faith is vital.
It is important to know also that the stubbornness of some of the Pharisees during the Lord’s time, those who witnessed Him and resisted Him, not wanting to believe in Him, is infinitely worse than any case of possession. Some saints, in the middle of their journey of growth were possessed for a short time. See St. Mariam Bawardy of Jesus Crucified, a great saint.
So, again, Lectio Divina because of what it allows to happen in our daily life is to be considered the best possible exorcism. It allows us to use our free will, our mind, and our will to obey the Lord’s Word. Who can touch such a fortress? Our Lady herself is praised because of her Faithfulness to the word of God: “who is my mother”? “The one who listens to the word of God and puts it into practice” (See Luke 8:21).
In this sense, the devil who is cast away by our combined effort, is replaced by a real growth of Jesus in us, or the New Man. If he wants to come back, the house is not empty and tidy, but filled with Jesus’ new presence, the fruit of us listening to Him and putting His Word into practice.
13- The Lord’s Temptations
Why was the Lord tempted by the Devil? The answer is summed up clearly in the words that the Lord is our Way (see John 14:6). The meaning of this shows that in his human nature He came to experience our human condition in everything except sin. In this sense He is not only our example to be imitated, but much more, mystically, He also experienced my weakness, my own weakness, not just weakness in general! He is therefore not only “the way” but He is “my way”, namely, He has already, so to speak, lived my life, embraced my human condition and opened up a new way (see Heb. 10) that can lead me back to God. We all know the story of the man who saw his life in an image of two sets of footsteps, and suddenly, during times of difficulty, only one pair of footsteps appear. He complained to God saying: “you abandoned me during my trials.” Jesus replied to him, “on the contrary, I was carrying you.” Hence only one pair of footsteps. In a similar but even deeper way, Jesus lived our life and offered us His victory over Temptation and the Devil. Because of Him, and using his Spirit, we can be victorious over temptations. Alone we cannot! We are called to count on Him. We need to “insert” ourselves in Him, and start the journey back to God, in Him and with Him.
Even so the narrative of the temptation bears some important teaching for each one of us, which invites some exploration.
The human being has three tendencies: pride and controlling others, lust and pleasure, possessing goods. The three tendencies respectively are normally healed by Jesus’ example of obedience, chastity and poverty or detachment. Hence the creation of the evangelical counsels which became the vows for those consecrated. Although we can call them tendencies or drives, it behoves us to bear in mind that by healing them, the Lord does not “cut” them off or unroot them, but He orientates them. Thus, in the case of the apostles who were discussing who was most important among them, Jesus never blamed the desire itself. His aim, rather, was to show the way for this desire to be orientated properly and grow by the grace of God, namely, He asked them to take Him as an example of how to become the “first”, that is, to serve your brothers and by so doing become the one who is last.
The account of the Temptation in the Gospel of Matthew, now, shows us the three attacks of the Devil. They are directed toward the three tendencies or drives in us.
““Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, He was hungry.
Lust and Pleasure
3 The tempter came to Him and said, “If You are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” 4 But Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Power and Control
5 Then the devil took Him to the holy city and set Him on the pinnacle of the temple. 6 “If You are the Son of God,” he said, “throw Yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command His angels concerning You, and they will lift You up in their hands, so that You will not strike Your foot against a stone.’” 7 Jesus replied, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Possession and Richness
8 Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 “All this I will give You,” he said, “if You will fall down and worship me.” 10 “Away from Me, Satan!” Jesus declared. “For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.’”
11Then the devil left Him, and angels came and ministered to Him.” (Mt 4:1-11)
The account is so rich that we should not be too rigid in classification and interpretation. There are various avenues and the following is only one way amongst others to understand the text. With respect, let us leave some space for the Holy Spirit to illumine us in whichever ways He thinks fit. In this sense the third temptation in St. Matthew could be seen also as Pride and Power. It has also in it the terrible request from the devil, to sell our soul to him in return for this richness or power. As one can see, interaction with the Devil is risky. He wants to “suck” the life from us, he wants us to deal with him in a way where we give ourselves over to him.
First Temptation: lust and pleasure
Many points should be underlined in this temptation. First the temptation doesn’t happen when Jesus is in full physical strength but when he is physically weakened by this robust fasting. So, first things first, the body’s instinctive needs loom large. The survival instinct. The Devil starts by/opens fire first on the weak, accessible, immediate, physical and material point/need: food. But despite his physical weakness, the Lord will resist.
Let us also notice that the Devil uses three tactics: first he actually quotes the Scriptures! Quoting the Scriptures! Then he diverts the attention and cunningly adds to the plain temptation of just being hungry another temptation: lies. “If you are the Son of God”. Lastly, by this second tactic, he creates a diversion from the real goal of enticing Jesus to eat by playing on another register. Let us examine how these tactics can work on us:
1- The Devil creates pressure by quoting the Bible. It shakes our confidence, it diverts our attention, it makes us submit in the face of our weakness of thinking that we do not know all the Scriptures and that we do not know what it all means. But, it is not enough to quote the Bible. Knowing the Bible or thinking that we understand it is not enough. We need to make sure we understand it according to the Spirit who inspired it. We need to know God’s mind as St. Paul puts it (1 Co 2:16) or his way of thinking.
The Lord will answer him, also by quoting the Bible but in a very different way (“It is written…”), namely, the letter of the text He is quoting and its meaning are coherent and are one, which is not the case of the way the Devil quotes the biblical text. He arrogantly inserts himself between the literal meaning and the spiritual meaning, thereby shielding the reader from the latter and causing the literal meaning to deviate from its correct spiritually coherent meaning. This is one of the Devil’s tactics, and through it Jesus exemplifies how quoting the Bible is not enough. One has to correctly quote the Bible and not twist the text to suit oneself.
2- In order to achieve his goal of tempting the Lord because He is very hungry, he tries to weaken the Lord’s inner resistance of the Lord by adding two other temptations to the first one. The first temptation is in fact a triple temptation. First, the Lord needs to eat, so He will do anything just in order to eat. Secondly, he tempts the Lord to use his power wrongly, tempting God, using “magically” his divine power. Thirdly, He tries to convince Jesus that He needs to show his power, “if you are the Son of God”, in order to prove that He is the Son of God – it is very childish way to deal with the Lord – but there you are, this is the Devil for you.
3- As we said above, the Devil has combined this temptation with more ferocious spiritual temptations. He attacked three different points at the same time. The Enemy has used his full power to make Jesus numb and to beat Him.
As we can see, any temptation in a one of the three tendencies in us affects the other two.
This temptation is against chastity and temperance. What is interesting here is the spiritual content of the Lord’s answer: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ As St. Thomas Aquinas says, chastity is supported and strengthened by the Contemplation of the Scriptures. Meditating day and night the Word of God helps a lot to keep our heart (chastity is in our heart before being in our body) in the hands of God full of his Word, and moved by it.
Second Temptation: Power and Control
5 Then the devil took Him to the holy city and set Him on the pinnacle of the Temple. 6 “If You are the Son of God,” he said, “throw Yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command His angels concerning You, and they will lift You up in their hands, so that You will not strike Your foot against a stone.’” 7 Jesus replied, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the Devil is harping on and lashing out at the same point: “if you are the Son of God”. He concentrates now on power and control. Anyone who would have God’s angels at his command for a magical use or purpose, just to prove he is powerful and can use power, is a person tempted by “power and control”. This temptation is also meant to fill the spirit with pride. Being God or son of God does not imply that he uses his power in a magical and unreasonable way. He does not play with the laws of nature for the sake of power or control. Plus, nobody challenges God in this arrogant way, cornering Him by putting Him to the test, or “tempting Him”.
Here also the Lord Jesus replies with a quote from the Scriptures.
Jesus never performed miracles for the sake of exhibiting himself through a demonstration of power or as one having influence over God, or just by being “son of God”, or just playing with the laws of nature, or in order to have an effect on human beings. Each miracle has a meaning and is not a goal in itself.
God is not at our beck and call for material gains, Forcing God to act in a way that is not His will is not correct.
What is it to be “son of God”? It is to be and act like God himself. What comes from God is divine. Do we know how God thinks? Do we know what is Good and how to achieve it? Do we understand God’s wisdom in all that He does in the physical world? Can we allow ourselves to play the way we want with the laws of nature?
This is really the behaviour of a seven-year-old spirit wanting to play.
Third Temptation: Possession and Richness
“8 Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 “All this I will give You,” he said, “if You will fall down and worship me.” 10 “Away from Me, Satan!” Jesus declared. “For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.’”
The text starts by stating “again”: showing the relentless attempts of the Devil to tempt us. He never surrenders and we are never safe while in this life.
With the words, “Kingdoms of the world and their glory”, he goes about the temptation in a roundabout manner by not saying, “if you are Son of God,” because the answer would be: well, all this I possess already. Jesus then would have added: despite the fact that I am God, I do not possess the human being, I do not force the human being to love me, I just invite him.
The tactic here changes. The devil is convinced that by offering the entire world he is really offering something momentous. But St. Thomas Aquinas cuts the devil’s thinking down to size by saying, all creation is still less than one grace. But still we do forget the meaning and price of the one grace received. We are still allured by what we see, the world that surrounds us and we are still hungry to have more, possess more. But remember: the human being comes into the world naked and goes back naked! “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15)
“The ground of a certain rich man produced an abundance. 17 So he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, since I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 Then he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and will build bigger ones, and there I will store up all my grain and my goods. 19 Then I will say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take it easy. Eat, drink, and be merry!”’ 20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be required of you. Then who will own what you have accumulated?’ 21 This is how it will be for anyone who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:16-21)
Here the devil gives as a condition in return: to worship him. At this point the Devil shows his true nature: pride. He desires not only to be God’s equal, but to be superior to Him. His pride is so extreme and blind that it pushes him to this extreme: he wants to be worshipped.
To a certain extent he is the Prince of this World, but his kingdom has been destroyed by the Lord on the Cross, and his time is being counted down. What he now has left is just a few minutes of freedom in history to inflict damage. He refuses to recognise that God is the Creator of all that exists. He refuses to acknowledge that God is his creator and that it is God who maintains everything in existence. He cannot even envisage that God maintains in existence even his enemies, even the devil. The Devil, blinded by his foolish immense pride, asks the silliest request, thinking that he can blind the human being with the promise of the possession of all kingdoms of the world and their glory. In fact, he does tempt the human being this way and sometimes comes to an agreement with people, who have to pay the price of literally selling their soul to the devil. For two minutes of pride, we sell our soul and eternity. Instead of accepting God’s Covenant where He gives us His Being, His entire Being, where He gives us all that is created (everything is ours because Christ is ours (see St. John of the Cross’ Prayer of a Soul Taken with Love), we sell our soul to that false god, to money, possession, false glory. How we are to be pitied….
As we see, the Lord, with one quote, triumphantly and decisively shuts him up again: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.’ Amen.
May the Lord come to rescue us from our utter weakness and have mercy on us. He was victorious over the devil, He opened the way for us to be victorious, He fought the fight, He obtained the recompense, and He offers us to be victorious in Him. Our will needs to contemplate his human nature and his human will in order to learn about the devil’s tactics and learn at the Lord’s School how to react and what to do.
Let us remember that the core of our prayer, the Our Father, has a mention of the Devil twice. “Lead us not into temptation” and “deliver us from Evil”. I think, therefore, that it is a good way to end this article by quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church in its comment on “But Deliver Us From Evil.” Please note what the Catechism below says about “Evil” in the Our Father and to whom it refers. It is not the general evil that we can find in the world, but a specific being, Satan, THE Evil One. In fact, in some other languages “Evil” is translated by The Evil One.
This last request of the Our Father deserves a lot of meditation on our part.
Here is almost all the commentary on it in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
VII “But Deliver Us From Evil”
[…] 2851 In this petition, evil is not an abstraction, but refers to a person, Satan, the Evil One, the angel who opposes God. the devil (dia-bolos) is the one who “throws himself across” God’s plan and his work of salvation accomplished in Christ.
2852 “A murderer from the beginning, . . . a liar and the father of lies,” Satan is “the deceiver of the whole world.” (Jn 8:44; Rev 12:9.) Through him sin and death entered the world and by his definitive defeat all creation will be “freed from the corruption of sin and death.” (Eucharistic Prayer IV, 125.) Now “we know that anyone born of God does not sin, but He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him. We know that we are of God, and the whole world is in the power of the evil one.” (1 Jn 5:18-19)
The Lord who has taken away your sin and pardoned your faults also protects you and keeps you from the wiles of your adversary the devil, so that the enemy, who is accustomed to leading into sin, may not surprise you. One who entrusts himself to God does not dread the devil. “If God is for us, who is against us?” (St. Ambrose, De Sacr. 5, 4, 30: PL 16, 454; cf. Rom 8:31.)
2853 Victory over the “prince of this world” (Jn 14:30) was won once for all at the Hour when Jesus freely gave himself up to death to give us his life. This is the judgment of this world, and the prince of this world is “cast out.” (Jn 12:31; Rev 12:10) “He pursued the woman” (Rev 12:13-16) but had no hold on her: the new Eve, “full of grace” of the Holy Spirit, is preserved from sin and the corruption of death (the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Most Holy Mother of God, Mary, ever virgin). “Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring.” (Rev 12:17) Therefore the Spirit and the Church pray: “Come, Lord Jesus,” (Rev 22:17,20) since his coming will deliver us from the Evil One.
2854 When we ask to be delivered from the Evil One, we pray as well to be freed from all evils, present, past, and future, of which he is the author or instigator. In this final petition, the Church brings before the Father all the distress of the world. Along with deliverance from the evils that overwhelm humanity, she implores the precious gift of peace and the grace of perseverance in expectation of Christ’s return By praying in this way, she anticipates in humility of faith the gathering together of everyone and everything in him who has “the keys of Death and Hades,” who “is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev 1:8, 18; cf. Rev 1:4; Eph 1:10)
Deliver us, Lord, we beseech you, from every evil and grant us peace in our day, so that aided by your mercy we might be ever free from sin and protected from all anxiety, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. (Roman Missal, Embolism after the Lord’s Prayer)