This is not about the red faced, pointy ear, dragon tailed fellow we see carrying a pitch fork. That’s a cartoon or a Halloween costume. No. This is about a power that functions in our world and in familiar everyday sorts of ways.
The bible refers to this creature by name; Devil, or Satan. These come from Greek and Hebrew words meaning “enemy” and “accuser”. Our understanding of the devil has developed over time. In the Book of Job he is God’s “tester of humans”. Later it becomes a “resisting element” toward God’s will; finally we perceive a personal, spiritual creature that stands wickedly opposed to God and God’s people.
A generation or two ago it was common to hear “the devil made me do it” or we gave our children the image of an angel on one shoulder, the devil on the other. “Listen to your good angel, not the bad one.”
Today it’s fashionable to laugh all this off as childish, something like a Bad Santa. Be careful here. There’s something about the power of evil that has to be under- stood and yes – – – respected.
First of all evil is a mystery. We do not know exactly its beginning. It lies on the ground in the form of a snake as it tempts Adam and Eve. The Book of Genesis tells us it was cause of a rebellion toward God’s will and has lived ever since as God’s enemy. The mystery? Evil is with us, but its size and origin, its dwelling place, its activity, is usually hidden.
We see it best by its effects. In many situations evil acts as a parasite. It feeds on what is good and substantial. In fact it has no life of its own. It can only exist by virtue of something else (think of rust on chrome).
St. Augustine refers to evil as a “lack of being”, a shadow, rather than a solid object. A lie can only exist when there’s something true that can be lied about. Evil hides rather than stands out. Why do criminals cover their heads when the cameras roll? Why do most crimes happen in the dark?
C. S. Lewis in his Screwtape Letters gives a brilliant and humorous description of the devil Screwtape as he instructs his minor devils how to defeat people’s good intentions. The devil’s point of view looks like a photo negative; black is white, good is bad.
The world is in reverse. “So confronted with the situation,” says Screwtape to Wormwood, “the poor man took the true and noble road, the one we so hoped he would . . . he lied.”
To my knowledge, I’ve never met the devil. That seems to be reserved for the great saints like St. Francis, or St. John Vianney, or of course, Christ himself. The devil needn’t waste time on me. Sending one of his lesser spirits has usually gotten the job done.
So I don’t trouble myself with medieval images of Satan. Rather I call him “my enemy”. I’ve heard others talk about their tempting spirit as the accuser, bad spirit, the liar, the tempter.
What I do take seriously is the fact that this enemy spirit knows me. It knows where I am weak. It knows where I’ve hidden my resentments, jealousies, and sinful desires. My enemy can play me like a piano, hitting just those notes that can start me down a road that ends in sin.
My enemy speaks in my head and it sounds like me (because I’m already leaning in that direction). “Don’t be a sucker,” it sneers, “Everybody does it.” “Who cares if you keep that promise . . . nobody’s watching.” Or, “Who do you think you are? Those prayers won’t help anyone.” Or, “Did you hear what so-and so just did?” Or most discouraging, “Just give up, it’ll never change. It’s hope- less.” All with my voice.
It’s hard to put into words. (I worry about your reaction here – – – “Oh great, Fr. Tim’s hearing voices now!”). I trust you’ve heard your Enemy speak to you as well. So too I presume you’ve heard/felt the Holy Spirit speaking.
So what are we to do when our enemy starts speaking to us?
- Be in peace. It’s what happens. It happened to Jesus.
- Know what’s happening. You’re being tempted to choose something against God’s law of love.
- A little prayer of course. “Lord here I am again.. Help me.”
- For every temptation God provides an escape (1 Cor. 10:13). E.G. To suddenly remember a little courtesy you could do instead of the harsh word or rash judgement.
- Know that, by Christ’s death and Resurrection, your enemy has been defeated. Really. The Devil is busted!!
Straight ahead now.