Dear Father John, I’ve heard that talking about the devil is just a way to talk about bad things that happen. On the other hand, there are some people that claim there really is a devil. Is the devil for real? If so, why does God let him hang around when our purpose is to get to heaven? It seems so contradictory.
THE DEVIL, OUR ancient enemy, really exists. Jesus talked about him a lot. The Catechism emphasizes the reality of this fallen angel, who is interested in interfering with the adventure of love we are called to live:
Evil is not an abstraction, but refers to a person, Satan, the Evil One, the angel who opposes God. The devil is the one who ‘throws himself across’ God’s plan and his work of salvation accomplished in Christ. (CCC, 2851)
And the devil knows the truth…that God is faithful, that divine grace will never fail us. The devil knows that he cannot obstruct the flow of God’s grace at its source. He can, however, clog up the channels by which we normally receive that grace. He can confuse and distract the minds and hearts to which God’s grace is directed, turning us into bad receivers, bad cooperators, irresponsible partners. This is his strategy.
Enemies of Our Spiritual Growth
And our ancient enemy has powerful allies: the fallen world (all the corrupting and wounding influences that come from the proliferation of sin in human society and culture) and our fallen human nature (our own internal divisions and insecurities that make us vulnerable to temptation). Because of these, we have built-in tendencies that continually nudge us away from God’s grace and disturb the spiritual docility needed for that grace to be fruitful in our lives. St. John refers to these negative influences when he warns the early Christians:
Do not love the world or the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, sensual lust, enticement for the eyes, and a pretentious life, is not from the Father but is from the world.” (1 John 2:15–16)
The fallen world in which we live—though good in its essence because it was created by God—can be a snare for us fallen human beings. This is why the Church has never ceased to remind us that the spiritual life is, at least in part, also a spiritual combat:
Therefore man is split within himself. As a result, all of human life, whether individual or collective, shows itself to be a dramatic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness… The whole of man’s history has been the story of dour combat with the powers of evil, stretching, so our Lord tells us, from the very dawn of history until the last day. Finding himself in the midst of the battle- field man has to struggle to do what is right, and it is at great cost to himself, aided by God’s grace, that he succeeds in achieving his own inner integrity.*
An Interior Battle
This spiritual combat doesn’t happen with guns and swords and tanks and missiles. It takes place much more subtly, often invisibly, in the intimate arena of human freedom. It has to do with our daily choices, whether large or small. It has to do with how we use the gift of free will that we have received.
God, as well as our better self, wants us to use that freedom to choose, step after step, the path of union and friendship with Christ, the path of abundant life, the path of obedience to his wise and loving plan for the human family: “I came sp that they might have life and have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd” (John 10:10–11).
Our enemy and our fallen nature, on the other hand, want us to use our free will in order to choose a different path, a path strewn with false promises (that we can somehow be fulfilled without God, for instance) and false ideas about God and ourselves (we are unloveable, God is untrustworthy, holiness is beyond our reach, it’s not worth trying anymore, etc.).
This path often appears to offer easier and quicker access to happiness, but in fact it leads to interior disintegration and emptiness, because the devil is “a murderer…a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44, RSV) and because sin always has evil consequences: “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23, RSV).
Spiritual combat is the ongoing battle between these contrary forces: Which will we choose to follow? St. Peter sums it up vividly in his first letter.
- First, he points out our need to be watchful:
Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for [someone] to devour. Resist him, steadfast in faith…
- And then he reminds us that our vigilance should never be harsh and desperate, but calm and joyful, even when it’s hard, because God is with us:
The God of all grace who called you to his eternal glory through Christ [Jesus] will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you after you have suffered a little. (1 Peter 5:8–10)
Sometimes our choices are stark and obvious, as when the Israelites abandoned God in the wilderness by worshipping the golden calf, or when David laid his life on the line by going out to face Goliath.
Yet, although some individual choices may be stark, the process by which we make those choices is complex. We arrive at big-decision moments with a predisposition for self-giving or self-centeredness, for docility or resistance to God’s action in our lives. The gradual formation of that pre-disposition is the real, day-to-day spiritual battleground. The predisposition is built up from many little, seemingly insignificant choices that gradually fill in our spiritual profile: choices about how we spend our time; whom we befriend; what we say and how we say it; and how we react to unforeseen opportunities, difficulties, or temptations.
Through the exercise of our free will in the little choices we make, we are either furthering Christ’s kingdom and growing in spiritual maturity, or we are inhibiting that kingdom and stunting our spiritual growth. As Jesus put it:
The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trust- worthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones. (Luke 16:10)
Small Battles Prepare Us for Bigger Battles
Jesus illustrated the relationship between the many small choices that pre- pare us for bigger decisions by using a construction image. He likened the spiritual life to the construction of a house. We build gradually, through choices in or out of harmony with his wisdom. Then comes a storm, a stark choice, a big decision, a decisive temptation. Our response to the storm is conditioned by all the small choices that went into building up our spiritual edifice:
Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. And everyone who lis- tens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined. (Matthew 7:24–27)
Before he became bishop and then pope, St. John Paul II was known for his wise advice in the confessional. But he was also known for the delicate respect he showed to those who came to confession. After helping them sort through their confusion and their trouble, and after identifying some possible next steps, he would always say, “But now it is up to you; you must choose.”
- either the kind of person who stays faithful to what is true, good, and beautiful,
- or the kind of person who prefers an easier path, namely, the wide gate and the broad road that lead to destruction (see Matthew 7:13).
* Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, 13, 27. 23
Editor’s Note: This is another excerpt from Father John Bartunek’s new book “Seeking First the Kingdom” filled with “practical examples and down-to-earth wisdom which will show you how to bring Christ into each facet of your life”.