I have previously written about topics such as angels and spiritual warfare, however, I have not yet specifically addressed the demonic world and its influence over us as we navigate our path to holiness and hopefully to heaven. To prepare for this article, I used a book entitled: The Devil’s Role in the Spiritual Life: St. John of the Cross’ Teaching on Satan’s Involvement at Every Stage of Spiritual Growth, by Cliff Ermatinger. Rather than summarize the book’s extensive analysis, I will instead extract a few key points about how Satan and his demons target us.
To begin, we must establish the premise that Satan exists, that he has a diabolical army, and that his goal is to help as many human souls go to hell as possible. Satan and his demons were originally created as good and beautiful angels by God. At some point, He put them to a test, which they failed, earning for themselves an existence completely devoid of any good, pleasure, love, and most importantly, the presence of God. They are eternally miserable, and because they lack any good will, they desire for us to suffer with them. They are able to do this primarily by tempting us to sin, which is the act of turning away from God and His will. How do they do this?
Remember, God is almighty and all-powerful and, therefore, nothing is out of His control, including Satan. This means that demons cannot do anything without His permission and they operate within the boundaries to which He confines them. We also know that God wills only what is good and desires for us to be in heaven with Him. So, the question that naturally follows is why God permits any demonic influence over us at all. The first reason is the Law of Harmony, which states there should be a certain equality between the way God works on us and the way He permits Satan to work on us. This way, whichever side wins over the soul, it has done so in a fair fight, so to speak, and the punishment or reward for that soul is truly deserved. The second reason is the possibility for spiritual growth. The more a soul is tested, the more opportunity it has to resist temptation and grow in holiness, resulting in a greater reward in heaven. We can’t grow if we aren’t put to the test. The third reason is divine justice, which means a person has brought trouble upon himself as the “just fruits of their choices.” In other words, if you invite the devil in, he will come in and God won’t keep you free from the consequences of your actions.
Now that we know the demons are working on us with permission, we can look more closely at the tactics they use on us. What they cannot do is read our minds or hearts, nor can they force our will. What they can do is attempt to influence our thoughts and feelings, helping us to act poorly by our own free will. St. John says they do this by using the world and the flesh against us. The world refers to things outside of us, like material goods, but also things within our society and culture. The flesh refers to our own personal senses and passions. That being said, each person is tested in his or her own unique way, so without reading thoughts and hearts, how is this accomplished?
Just as your guardian angel is assigned specifically to follow you around to protect you, there are some demonic beings that also follow you around to tempt you. Essentially, they have been studying you for your entire life and have learned how you respond to certain things and where your weaknesses lie, making it easier to predict and test the best tactics. Think of a relationship with a spouse or close friend. Perhaps you can finish each other’s sentences, or you know exactly how to talk to them about a sensitive topic. Over time, you gain an intimate understanding of the person through experience. This is how well the demons know you, so they know just the right thing to suggest to lure you into sin.
Suggestions come in many forms. The demons have access to our imaginations, but can only suggest things with which we are familiar and can conceive on our own. Having studied us, they know what we have experienced with our five senses and can implore us to think back to those experiences and imagine scenarios involving them. For this reason, every image we see, song lyric we hear, or bodily pleasure we experience are possible personalized weapons to be used against us at a later time.
Demons also have access to our memories and feelings, which they distort with their lies. Usually our memories have feelings attached to them and the demons can encourage us to magnify the feelings that lead us to sin, like wrath, or diminish the feelings that lead us to virtue, like compassion. Through these tactics, memories tend to be subjective, as we keep focused on our personal feelings about them. Whether it be pride, gluttony, lust or any of the other seven deadly sins, if we are not careful and let our imaginations and feelings take over, they can easily manipulate us into sinning. What’s more, is that Satan has a subtly deceitful way of making bad things appear good, leading us deeper into destruction. “For even Satan himself disguises himself as an angel of light,” (2Cor 11:14).
Now that we know what is actually happening around us, we can focus on how to engage in the battle for the well-being of our souls. St. John says the most important thing for us to do is to stay as close to God as possible, primarily in prayer, but also in our thoughts and will. As the demons suggest things to our imaginations and feelings, rather than fixating on them, we ought to draw our minds and hearts back to God. The more quickly we can do this, the better.
There is an ancient practice called “custody of the eyes” where, when faced with an image that could lead you to sin, you immediately look away from it without the slightest bit of curiosity. This tactic can be applied to every external and internal sense. For example, the second you hear something that sounds like gossip, you can tune it out and think of God instead, or the second you begin to recall something that made you angry, you can immediately turn your attention toward the joy of heaven. Similarly, you can train yourself to refrain from responding emotionally. Emotions are real and can be acknowledged, but we should not cling to them since they are fleeting and always changing. As the saying goes: feelings aren’t facts and facts aren’t feelings.
Finally, the saints say that humility is the greatest virtue in the battle for our souls. In understanding the depths of our nothingness, it allows God to fill us with His grace. St. John says that when God gives you gifts of grace, Satan can’t see it externally, but he can sense the peace that fills your soul and it rattles him greatly. Be humble, knowing you are nothing without God, and open yourself to receive every grace He offers you so that you can have the peace that terrifies the demons.
Think of the sins you struggle with most. St. John tells us these are the areas where you are still in spiritual infancy and those tendencies are very easy targets for demons. Apply your will in these areas and keep turning yourself back to God, no matter how many times it takes.
Practice! In the areas where you are more spiritually developed, remember that Satan won’t just give up. Instead, by studying you, he fine tunes his tactics and increases his subtlety. So, never rest in confidence, but rather, stay vigilant. God permits us to be tempted by what will make us more spiritually strong as we turn to Him to overcome it, so we have nothing to fear and everything to gain.
To receive articles and reflections like these directly to your inbox, please subscribe.