If it is not already clear to everyone: the devil exists, and he is not fond of human beings. Furthermore, he is a great coward. Since he is not able to hurt God directly, he decided to hurt God through the creatures whom He loves most: us. No one should be shocked, especially Christians (his favorite prey), if I tell them that the devil is constantly attacking us and tempts us to offend our Creator.
The problem is that the devil is very astute, and we Christians are often foolish. We believe that going to Mass, praying the Rosary, and trying to life a coherent Christian life, automatically exempts us from any preoccupation for this undesirable subject. Sad to say, this is not reality. The devil redoubles his efforts when he sees consistent Christianity in our lives, he assumes new appearances, and updates his strategies. A metaphor may help: a thief wants to rob a house. While scoping out the house and formulating a plan, he discovers that a young woman lives there. Every night at the same time, her boyfriend throws pebbles at her window so that she might come out and let him in. What should the thief do to trick the young woman? If he were simply to throw rocks at the correct time he would certainly be shot by the woman’s father. He obviously needs to disguise himself as the boyfriend, copy his way of walking, and imitate his voice. I believe this is a good example for understanding how the devil and his temptations infiltrate the life of a Christian. The devil does not present us temptations in a rough way because he knows well that they would be immediately rejected. He changes plans and attempts to present them with thoughts and states of mind which appear spiritual so that little by little we deviate from our relationship with God.
What are these thoughts and states of mind that appear positive and spiritual but are actually temptations? I will avail myself of the book Discernment: Acquiring the Heart of God by Father Marko Ivan Rupnik, S. J. (which I highly recommend) in order to respond to this question. This book is grounded in the Fathers of the Church so the ideas which come from it are enriched by the tradition and wisdom of the Church.
Focusing only on oneself
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I don’t know if others have experienced this as I have, but when I decided to truly be a Christian, one of the great spiritual changes which God helped me make was focusing less on myself and more on others. I found that there was more joy in giving than receiving and that the joy of authentic communion did not compare to the obscure glimmers of satisfaction offered by selfishness. In spiritual combat, it is here where the devil plays all his cards. It is very difficult to deceive, or lead into error, a person who has their vision and their heart directed towards God and others. It can be said that love is the “kryptonite” of evil.
More than being just the first point, we could say that this is the fundamental strategy which inspires other temptations. The devil needs us to lower our gaze and once more look only at ourselves in order to attack us effectively. This growth of a disordered self-love is a spiritual infirmity which the Fathers of the Church have called: philautia. We shall see some of the subtle ways by which the devil tries to infect our Christian lives with it.
1. Believing that the Faith is More about Content than Relationship.
The Christian faith is a life of relationship with Christ. A relationship which manifests itself in many ways: in what we believe, in what we desire, in what we think and in what we choose. It is a faith which informs and enriches every aspect of our lives because it is a living faith, founded in an authentic relationship with the Lord Jesus.
When the life of a Christian is nourished by a loving dialogue with Christ, the devil can do little or nothing. His strategy, therefore, consists in undermining this relationship. How does he do it? By trying to make our religious sentiment, our aspiration to sanctity, our Eucharistic piety, and our spiritual and social sensibilities to seem like a personal conquest rather than a gift to be received. The objective of the devil is to make us religious persons without God. He wants to make us believe that we are able to become better Christians, while gradually parting from the particular requirements of a friendship with Jesus.
What the devil doesn’t tell us is that nobody is able to take away faith without first stifling it and discrediting it. When a Christian begins to perceive himself as the principle author of his Christian life his faith loses all its energy and the relevance provided by the relational dynamic. It grows cold to the point that it becomes an ideology like any other. That is to say, a collection of ideas in which one believes (doctrine), which has been formed by the customs of a family or people (tradition), and which is handed down as a series of useful norms of conduct for living correctly (morality). Have you ever met a Christian who defines Christianity this way?
The consequences are obvious. When the faith becomes an ideology, it becomes boring. It opens an enormous rift between one’s life and one’s beliefs. The Incarnation, the Death, and Resurrection of Christ quickly acquire the same relevance in our lives as Neptune, Uranus, and Saturn. The devil has won. He has converted us into well indoctrinated Christians, assiduous in Catholic practices and rituals, with exemplary morals… and dead within.
It is fundamental that we pray and carry out our religious activities with love. It is not atypical, and it is not wrong that we experience satisfaction and interior peace while doing these things. We are doing what the Church invites us to do, and we are persevering! It is one thing to feel happy, let no one tell you otherwise. But, there is a danger of which I would like to warn you. It is something very subtle: it is very easy to lose direction and begin to practice our devotions without the objective of drawing closer to God and strengthening our love for Him, but rather for the spiritual pleasure which these practices give us; for what they make us feel or the personal image which we begin to construct through them.
How are we able to know if this is happening to us? Fr. Rupnik gives us an excellent piece of advice: “It is important to be attentive to the thoughts and sentiments in prayer and in those spiritual moments of great warmth and intensity(…) the enemy takes advantage of an imagination which is centered on the things of God, holy things, holy people, or in ourselves, our spiritual future, with the goal of arousing within in us convictions and thoughts which make us “sensual” participants in the spiritual life— desirous above all else for this satisfaction— or make us feel content to be on this path because it is satisfactory.” Through personal experience, I believe that that it is not difficult to realize the nature of our thoughts and sentiments once we have been made conscious of the necessity to scrutinize them. The latter is the most difficult. For this reason the Church recommends the regular examination of conscience.
3. Attachment to our own Ideas and Plans.
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Success enchants us. We are human. We want our projects to go well; we even pray for this. There is nothing wrong with that. Furthermore, God also wants our evangelical undertakings to make progress. Without exception, the devil knows very well that the human heart occasionally becomes too invested in its own projects. The fact that we strive to evangelize does not make us immune to the development of worldly attachment to our projects, attachment which makes us forget the centrality of God and his grace and makes us the protagonists, the indispensable heroes, of a particular apostolate. The devil rejoices when he succeeds at disguising philautia as apostolic zeal. For this reason it is always necessary to place our heart, and all our projects, in the hands of God, especially in the Tabernacle; speaking with confidence about each of them and allowing God to challenge us and help us to always put him in the center, even if this means— thanks be to God— suppressing our hunger to be in charge.
4. Making us Feel that we are God’s Vigilantes.
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How beautiful! We live chastely, we go to Mass, we think like Christians, and we help little, old ladies cross the street. Let’s hold hands and make a circle, and we won’t let anyone enter our circle of diaphanous virtue… Is this a Christian attitude? Of course not! But the hard truth is that judging and belittling others for not living or thinking like us is a common practice when one is not sufficiently mature in their own spiritual life. This is another great temptation which helps the devil to introduce philautia to our souls: he makes experience the pharisaic pleasure of being God’s vigilantes; those with the power to declare who is living the faith and who is not. We could even do long vigils of reparation for the sins of others; praying and crying for a world which is falling apart, when in reality it is breaking God’s heart to see us submerged in a blind and foolish love of self.
The truth is that the vigilantes of God, with their condemnations and posturing, are a far cry from the mercy and love which God asks of us. It is important that the Christian who has fallen into this temptation identify those condemning judgments, or feelings of superiority, which have dulled his heart and place them humbly at the feet of God who was not joking when he said that prostitutes and tax collectors would enter Christ’s Kingdom before Pharisees.
Just to mention it, this temptation also sneaks into the world of ideas. It happens when our own interpretation of the faith becomes the universal norm for judging the opinions and ideas which others have about Catholic doctrine. Fr. Rupnik says, “In this way ideas are converted into idols, following this path it is possible to confuse the faith with a precise system of thought, with a specific school, even an exact method, thereby losing any real connection with Christ the Savior.” Ultimately, this produces an ideology of the faith which can go so far as to reject any opinion which is opposed to one’s own, including the voice of one’s Bishop, the voice of the Pope, or the voice of the Magisterium of the Church.
5. Thoughts Conforming to the Psyche.
As I already mentioned, when Christians grow in their spiritual life, evil must become more refined in order to introduce its thorn into our lives. A clever way to do it, perceived, studied, and combatted by the desert fathers, is to inspire thoughts which conform to the characteristics of a person; that is to say, for those who are brave it will inspire thoughts of sacrifice and courage, for those who are devout thoughts of piety and mortification, for those who are generous thoughts of charity and the defense of the poor, etc. Fr. Rupnik says, “The enemy goes so far as to pray with those who pray, fast with those who fast, give alms with those who give alms, in order to draw attention to themselves, so as to enter a person easily and later to make them go where ever he wishes to take them.”
The devil knows us. He has our “file” and takes it into account. It is paramount that we also know it and know how to make a refined examination of conscience (Through prayer!) in order to recognize where the wheat is growing and where the weeds were planted. The ultimate criterion for discernment ought to be the plan of God in our lives. There are many good and holy things which we are able to do which are not part of what God wants for us. Prudence, rooted in the divine plan, ought always to regulate charity.
6. False Perfection.
This probably surprises you. Evil is also capable of tempting us with things which we are able to easily overcome with the objective of making us feel like good, strong persons, with a decent amount of virtue in our lives. Fr Rupnik warns, “In this way you fall into the most dangerous trap: spiritual pride. It is not men who conquer the prince of darkness, but only God who triumphs. It is the Holy Spirit who gives us the strength of the Lord of Light to cast aside the darkness and overcome the lies of the tempter.” This spiritual pride goes hand in hand with the false belief that we are capable of defeating any temptation which confronts us. God and his grace are unconsciously dismissed from the panorama of spiritual combat, and the battlefield is set for the tempter to show his true face. What is terrible about this form of philautia is that the defeated Christian will try to save himself by returning to the same path which permitted him to achieve his previous level of virtue; that is to say, the path of voluntarism. Prayer might accompany his efforts but will not be at the heart of the battle because the devil has assuredly made him believe the he can do it by himself. How great a lie!
A Christian must be attentive because the next move of the devil will be to make him abandon hope in the assistance of God so that he finally despairs of God’s mercy. It is ironic but certain. A Christian abandons hope of receiving help which he never asked for and despairs of Divine Mercy when his objective was not forgiveness, but rather to recover the peace which came from feeling good and virtuous. Ultimately, through philautia, the devil disorients Christians and places them unarmed in battles with a fixed outcome: defeat.
It is essential to know that true Christian perfection is lived in the paradox of dying and rising constantly. It is expressed in a humble love which never puts itself above others nor becomes vain with achievements and abilities. There is no peace in self contemplation, but rather in the happiness of those who are at your side. It is a perfection which knows that it is profoundly and constantly in need of God’s help because it recognizes its smallness before the mystery of love to which it is called. Do not attribute your victories to yourself but rather be grateful for them because they are always gifts to be received. Faced with true Christian perfection, the devil is powerless.