In the Gospel this Sunday, Jesus calls Peter Satan who is an obstacle to his path. In this article, I reflect on four ways that the Evil One tries to deceive, distract, divide and discourage us from God and his will.
Imagine for a moment that you are a general in the military in a combat zone. One day, someone hands you a book that contains the strategies of the enemy together with commentary. Think of how valuable that book would be. This is what came to my mind recently as I re-read Fr Louis Cameli’s book The Devil You Don’t Know (Ave Maria Press, 2011) as a spiritual exercise for Lent. The book is divided into four sections that expose Satan’s tactics as he seeks to damage or destroy our friendship with God – by deception, division, diversion and discouragement. I re-read this book with the New Evangelization in mind and share a few thoughts on how each of these four strategies can weaken our commitment to be joyful and effective missionary disciples of Christ.
Satan is at it from the get go in the first few pages of Scripture, sowing doubt and confusion into the minds of Adam and Eve about what God did or did not say – ‘Did God really say you were not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?’ (Gen. 3:1). Here is a classic tactic of the evil one – to blur the lines of distinction between what is true and what is false. With the help of the Holy Spirit, Christians discern the truth from what is false. This can take time but eventually we have to come down on the side of some truth and live by it. In contrast, Satan deceives us into thinking either that the truth is not worth discerning or when it is discerned we can live a life inconsistent with it. In the former case, the truth is conformed to our world rather than our world conforming to the truth. In the latter case, we know deep down in our gut what is true and what is right but we convince ourselves it’s OK to live contrary to that truth, even once in a while.
The first evangelical message of the Church was a truth or rather THE truth– Jesus Christ is risen and is Lord! This was the truth that the early disciples lived and died to proclaim. This was the truth that changed everything. Jesus is risen and because he is, the truth of his teachings and ways have risen with him. Therefore, for Christians committed to evangelization, our concern is how the truth of Jesus’ resurrection and his Gospel impact on every aspect of our personal and social lives. It is about conforming our lives to his truth for he described himself as ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (Jn 14:6). It is about seeking the truth of all things and ‘rejoicing in the truth’ (1 Cor. 13:6) when we find it. In contrast, Jesus described Satan as ‘the father of lies’ (Jn. 8:44) who seeks to deceive us and direct us away from the truth of the Gospel. In his book, Fr. Cameli highlights a thoroughly modern deception – that of substituting truth for information. Here is a red flag even for us who are committed to evangelize using new media. While we are swamped with information in our digital age, what can get lost sight of is the truth of things – not simply how we can live but how we ought to live, the truth of who we are and who God is. At a time of information overload, the challenge is not to give people more information but help them find the truth of Jesus Christ. Human hearts hunger for truth, not for information.
The Devil drives a wedge between us and God. In the garden of Eden, Satan tempts Adam and Eve to cut loose from God, to be independent and come of age (Gen. 3:1ff). This means deciding for ourselves between good and evil, right and wrong. God then becomes our competitor and a threat to our freedom. This dividing work of the devil reaches everywhere, beginning with our inner selves. As St Paul testifies: ‘I do not act as I mean to but I do the things I hate’ (Rom. 7:15). Moving out from there, the evil one alienates people from each other, often along the lines of race, religion and social class. Tragically, this can and has lead to bloodshed and war.
We evangelize with the Gospel’s power to unify. The Gospel insists that we are made for unity and partnership with God in a way that results in our freedom, fulfilment and joy. It proposes that things are right and wrong in themselves and that God’s law is the guarantor of our freedom rather than its nemesis. Regarding the human person, we announce that the gift of the Holy Spirit is what unites all the parts of who we are and harmonises them under a singular and unified self before God. Therefore, the Holy Spirit brings a sense of unity to bear on our entire existence. As at Pentecost, the work of the Holy Spirit helps people understand each other and brings them together. This happened because ‘He (Christ) is our peace…in his flesh…he has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us’ (Eph. 2:13).
In this light, we understand our work of evangelization as bringing the victory of Christ’s unifying spirit to bear on all dimensions of life - from the inner conflicts of the human heart, to the peace in our families and neighbourhoods, to the peace between nations. Within the Church, temptations to guard against include any form of elitism or going solo as evangelists even with good intentions. Evangelization is a team ministry and takes place within the Church and in communion with the Church. Even if people reject the message we offer, are hostile or even persecute us, we never lose sight of the truth that all people are our brothers and sisters as we seek to be builders of bridges to others in friendship and peace.
We see this with Jesus’ temptation in the desert as the devil tries to divert him away from obedience to his Father with the lure of pleasure and power (Matt. 4:1ff; Lk. 4:1ff). In the Old Testament perhaps the best example is David who becomes complacent in his battle with the enemies of Israel, stays comfortably at home and commits sin with Bathsheba.
All Christians are prone to this temptation – to lose our sense of purpose and sense of mission. This happens when we lose focus on Christ and his Kingdom, getting overly preoccupied with ourselves. Diversion can also occur by absorption in our tasks – the success of my projects becomes the priority rather than a joyful witness to the love and mercy of Christ. Also by distain – becoming negative and cynical about the Church and the future. It can also seep into our thinking about missionary initiatives - ‘this won’t work so what’s the point of trying?’ Another classic diversion is to think that mission is for others but not for me, thinking that I am not worthy or up to it. We can be tempted to opt out of public witness to our faith and keep safe behind the veil of private practise. When this takes hold of us, we can end up like the man in the Gospel who buried his talent out of fear (Matt. 25:14ff; Lk. 19:12ff) and never make the contribution God intends with the gifts He has given us. We are part of a Church with its feet on the ground but we are also a Church on the front foot and on the march. With the Spirit in our sails, we courageously bring the power of the Gospel out into the world. It is the Gospel of the Kingdom that has already triumphed over the kingdom of Satan. The gates of hell will not prevail against it.
A common form of discouragement we experience is acedia which is described by a Church father as the ‘noonday devil’. The word comes from the Greek akedeo meaning ‘I do not care’. It signifies a weariness, indifference or a ‘whatever’ attitude to the mission of the Church and needs of the world. It can lead to a loss of focus on the Lord’s love for us and our love for him leaving us dry and sterile. It reduces the effectiveness of our witness to be ‘salt and light’ to the world as we succumb to things like relativism, ‘spiritual sloth’ and ‘spiritual worldliness’ (Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, 81, 93ff).
Another common form discouragement from the evil one is to think there is no point in being missionaries for Christ, especially for the controversial topics since the arguments have been lost anyway. Here the devil urges us to do like Jonah – to run away from our prophetic calling, to opt out for an easier life and conform to the opinion of the crowds. But at times like this, we always remember that we are never alone. The promise of Jesus remains – ‘Do not be afraid…I will be with you always, yes, to the end of time’ (Is. 35:4; Matt. 28:20). As we bear witness and evangelize in his name, Jesus is always with us and is the power behind everything we say and do. At times of discouragement, the Lord encourages us to hold fast, stand firm and never give up when trials come our way.
Deception, division, diversion and discouragement - four strategies of Satan as he tries to prise us away from God and weaken our commitment to the New Evangelization. Every time we raise the Lord’s prayer and say ‘lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil’, we do so with Jesus himself who knows our struggle with Satan’s efforts to deceive us, divide us, divert us and discourage us. As we share his struggle, we share his victory for ‘if we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we endure we will also reign with him’ (1 Tim. 2:11-12).