Help Me Understand Attacks of the Devil
Dear Father John, I seem to be constantly tempted to, or away from, one thing or another. I would like to arm myself as much as possible against this spiritual darkness. Would you help me understand attacks of the devil?
SECULAR ATHEISTS CAN develop strong willpower and natural prudence, and they can put them to work in the service of impressive and useful achievements. They can develop the natural virtues of responsibility and dependability through persevering effort. But when we aim at serving God’s kingdom instead of the kingdom of this world, an additional set of obstacles gets involved. The spiritual battle kicks in, a struggle, as St. Paul explains, that “is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Ephesians 6:12).
The Spiritual Struggle
Developing willpower always demands effort and sacrifice, but aligning our will with Christ’s and growing in Christian courage and perseverance—which always require obedience, not just sheer determination—will demand even more. Both our intellect and our will are wounded by original sin…and when we launch out on the path of healing and make loving obedience to God’s plan the desire of our hearts, our spiritual enemies become intensely interested in deterring us. St. John Paul II explained this is in his encyclical on the moral life:
This obedience is not always easy. As a result of that mysterious original sin, committed at the prompting of Satan, the one who is “a liar and the father of lies”(John 8:44), man is constantly tempted to turn his gaze away from the living and true God in order to direct it towards idols (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:9), exchanging“the truth about God for a lie” (Romans 1:25). Man’s capacity to know the truth is also darkened, and his will to submit to it is weakened. Thus, giving himself over to relativism and skepticism (cf. John 18:38), he goes off in search of an illusory freedom apart from truth itself.*
The Enemy’s First Strategy: Corrupt the Heart
Jesus had to fight this battle in his life, too. His nature wasn’t wounded by original sin or personal sins, but he had to do combat with our ancient enemy, the devil. And in that combat, he revealed the devil’s three basic strategies.
At the beginning of his public life, Jesus went into the desert wilderness for forty days for prayer and preparation. During that period, the Gospels explain, he was “tempted by Satan” (Mark 1:13). We are all familiar with the temptations that were used in this case (see Matthew 4). In these, the devil tried to divide Jesus’s heart, in order to remove or at least corrupt his core desire of loving and obeying his Father. The devil tried to replace it with a desire for pleasure and comfort when he tempted our Lord to turn stones into bread. When that didn’t work, the devil tried to replace it with a desire for earthly power and dominion, showing our Lord all the kingdoms of the world and promising to put them under his control for the simple price of worshipping the devil. That didn’t work either. And so the devil tempted Jesus to seek first popularity and adulation by performing a dramatic miracle of jumping off the top of the temple without being hurt. That temptation failed as well. The devil’s first strategy, to corrupt the heart, was laid bare.
* St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, paragraph 1.
The Enemy’s Second Strategy: Turn Aside the Will
St. Luke finishes his narration of the temptations in the wilderness by pointing out that “when the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him for a time” (Luke 4:13). That time came to an end on the eve of our Lord’s passion. After Jesus was betrayed, St. Luke tells us, the Lord explained that “the time for the power of darkness” had returned (Luke 22:53). During Jesus’s passion, we learn about our enemy’s other two strategies.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, the devil bombarded Jesus with temptations so deep that they inspired fear and confusion and caused him “sorrow and distress” (Matthew 26:37). So profound was the struggle that Jesus sweated blood (see Luke 22:44) and even exclaimed to his companions, “My soul is sorrowful even to death” (Matthew 26:38). For centuries, theologians have debated the exact nature of these temptations, but all agree that whatever their content (and this is where temptations try to corrupt the intellect, sowing false ideas or deceptive half-truths), their goal was clear: The devil was trying to get Jesus to disobey his Father’s will, to say no to what his Father was asking of him. And this is the second strategy, to turn aside our will from God’s will—to make God’s will seem so unreasonable or painful or difficult that our courage fails, and we choose a different path.
The devil can’t create reality; he is not God. And so he has to distort it in order to frighten us. To keep us from entering a path that God is inviting us to follow, he has to exaggerate the danger or the difficulty. We already know that it will be difficult, because Jesus revealed this to us:
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13–14)
But Jesus would never ask something of us that is absolutely impossible. This is what the devil wants to make us forget. He wants us to see God’s invitation only from a human, mundane perspective. That is when our courage will likely fail. But God always reminds us that such a perspective is incomplete: “Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible’” (Matthew 19:26).
The Enemy’s Third Strategy: Getting Us to Give Up
Jesus resisted the devil’s onslaught in the Garden of Gethsemane, mainly through fervent prayer (see Luke 22:44). And so the enemy switched to his third basic tactic. He couldn’t dislodge the Lord’s heart, and he couldn’t convince him not to set out on the path of the Father’s will, so he made following that path agonizingly difficult. The passion and death of our Lord involved suffering betrayal, injustice, physical and psychological torture, humiliation, calumny, rejection of all types, and even witnessing heartrending sorrow in those whom he loved most, such as his Mother. Every step along the path of his Father’s will increased his suffering. Every increase of suffering required a renewal of his loving obedience. The devil was simply trying to wear him out, trying to make him suffer so much that he would eventually rebel against his Father’s plan and turn aside from the path he had freely chosen to follow—the right path, the path of loving God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. Continuing down that path required perseverance; it required mature human willpower, infused with and elevated by divine grace.