When the devil gets you down (and why Christians need to talk about him)
March 7, 2017
The most annoying thing about the Devil – aside from the “rebellion against God and all that is good and holy” part – is that, for the most part, he is invisible. His fingerprints are all over this broken and sin-wearied world, but it’s so cunning (“the most cunning of all the creatures,” it has been said) the way he arranges things so that he’s never the one you suspect, rarely the first one you’d point a finger at. He slips in and out of broken relationships and bloody conflicts all but invisible, even to followers of Christ. Maybe especially to followers of Christ, in this present moment in history, as talk of Satan and Hell has fallen off many an Christian denomination’s radars in our techno-centric age.
CS Lewis does a phenomenal job drawing some of his more sinister qualities out into the light in his masterpiece “The Screwtape Letters,” helping us poor, spiritually blind post-Enlightenment materialists see that one of the great illnesses of our age is our stubborn disbelief in anything that is immaterial. If it can’t be poked and prodded, we have a really hard time believing it’s actually there. (Except for gravity, which we’ve somehow resigned ourselves to.)
“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”~C.S. Lewis
This is a super effective technique for a being who is spirit and not flesh, because it makes his job so much easier when we don’t actually believe he’s there. At all. Alternatively, we can find ourselves locked into a preoccupying fixation on seeing him everywhere. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground where he’s concerned.
Most of us, at least in the North American circles I run in, find ourselves squarely in Camp Materialist. If we can’t photograph it, measure it, take it’s temperature or squint at it under a microscope, it may as well not exist. And this is a very effective technique under which the Enemy can operate. I’ve found it to be true in my own life on almost a daily basis. And just around the time the fleeting thought “have I prayed yet today? Is there perhaps something spiritual going on with this hideously difficult day we are living out?” no sooner will the immediate “nope. Not possible. Stupid. You’re just tired/lazy/incompetent/disappointing/awful.” soundtrack start looping in my tired brain.
Whose words do those sound like, anyway?
One sure tell for me that it’s the Enemy I’m engaging with and not my own inner monologue or the Lord’s voice, is the tone.
Taunting. Mean spirited. Discouraging. I used to think – and maybe this is not an uncommon Catholic problem – that if something was hard or objectively painful, it must be God’s will for me. Maybe that’s a peculiarity of my choleric/melancholic temperament, but I think it’s also a flawed understanding of God’s mercy. So, for example, during my last semester in grad school I spent some time discerning a religious vocation; not out of generosity of spirit or any real desire for this particular path in life, but out of the dreadful fear that God must be calling me to it, because it filled me with so much anxiety and fear. Also, I’d just gotten dumped. #again.
But did you catch that? I thought that religious life might have been God’s will for me because it filled me with fear.
And where there is fear – where there is a lack of that perfect love which casts out all fear – the Enemy can sink his hooks in deep.
And boy did he. A group of Nashville Dominicans (love love love them!) were visiting a parish I attended when I first moved to Denver, and I volunteered to help them with the youth program they’d designed for the week. They invited me out to Sonic afterwards and as we licked our vanilla soft serve, they started grilling me on my vocational plans. My heart sank as my sad ice cream cone melted into chemical soup, because this must be it. The jig was up. I was going to have to become a nun. (Which would have been amazing if that was God’s will for me, btw.)
Filled with terror and anxiety, I tossed and turned in my bed later that night. I’d met my (future) husband exactly 2 weeks earlier and had gone on 2 perfect dates with him, and then these nuns (sisters, I now recognize the difference) show up and of course, of course, that would be God’s plan for me. To taunt me with this amazingly perfect guy and then bam! Nun-bush.
Dave was (and remains) chill enough to field a frantic email from his freshly minted girlfriend the next morning that was probably written in all caps (actually, I just checked, because I still have the print out shoved in my Bible and there were many caps) that PROBABLY I WAS GOING TO HAVE TO DISCERN A MISERABLE RELIGIOUS VOCATION A LITTLE HARDER BECAUSE NUNS HAD BOUGHT ME ICE CREAM AND ASKED ME ABOUT MY FUTURE, AND GOD IS CRUEL LIKE THAT.
And he gently reminded me, using St. Ignatius’ advice for proper discernment, that when God acts on a soul He does so gently, and for that soul’s eventual good, while the Devil acts violently and uses fear and anxiety to turn that soul’s desire to do the good against him.
That stopped me in my tracks, because it revealed not only a terribly effective technique of the Enemy, but it also revealed a major plot hole in the romance that was God + Jenny: I didn’t actually trust Him.
I didn’t actually – not deep down, and not usually in the moments that mattered – believe that He had my best intentions at heart. I didn’t believe He wanted me to be happy. Holy, maybe, but not happy.
And isn’t that the oldest lie in the book. In “the” Book, even? “He is holding out on you.”
So now when I hear that taunting tone of voice, that subtle suggestion that “maybe this really is the way things will always be for you” or “perhaps there isn’t anything more to hope for” or “a holier person than you – like her, yeah, right over there – would accept this and not struggle with it at all” I know that God isn’t about to be whispering lies to me in my ear, sowing discouragement and asking me to doubt and despair.
And I know what to do when I figure out who it is.
I don’t entertain dialogue with the Enemy any more. Not once I figure out it’s him. Just like it would be ludicrous to let someone come onto your social media page or into your living room and scream insults and threats at you, so too it is stupid to go rounds with the devil in the inner sanctum of your mind, letting him suggest to you who you really are, and what you’re really worth.
And if it sounds crazy to suggest that yes, the devil is so real that he can speak to us, can whisper just as surely now as he did back in Eden that maybe that’s a good idea – yeah, that, right there, grab hold of it. That monstrous lie. That sinful judgement. That hideously dark though – then Houston, we have a problem.
When Christians stop believing that there is an Enemy to be engaged, then where does that leave us in the spiritual battle we are waging for our very lives?
Don’t fall for it. Because it makes his job way too easy. (Don’t fall for the opposite temptation of being overly interested in him, either, because like good old Clive reminded us earlier, he can work that angle, too.)
Some of my favorite tactics for deflecting old red legs are as follows:
The Rosary. She crushed his head. He hates her and fears her more than any other creature in all of eternity. When you get Mary involved, she obliterates. Every time.
The St. Michael Prayer. I’ve been having a hell of a time with the small ones in Mass lately. A well-placed St. Michael prayer, uttered silently and fervently right around communion time when I’m getting head-butted in the nose and snotted on has been terrifically effective in helping me to keep my peace sufficiently so that I can actually, you know, receive communion not in a state of mortal sin.
Invoking the name of Jesus. Or a quick “Jesus, I trust in you.” His is the name above all names, and the Enemy has to flee from it.
Daily prayer in your home – personal prayer and family prayer. Pray a morning offering together as a couple. Include your kids – or don’t – but get it done in the out the door shuffle. Pray a decade of the Rosary out loud when everyone gets home from school. Even if they scream about it. Maybe especially if they scream about it. Sanctify the holy ground of your domestic church through regular, intentional prayer in your home.
Passive aggressive prayer (I made that up) but seriously, sweetly gritting my teeth and saying “oooookay, guess if I’m going to lie here freaking out about such and such or writhing with insomnia, I’m going to pray unceasingly for this person or that intention” has been surprisingly effective in dispatching the tormentor.
P.s. For any of you who are Sirius XM subscribers, I’m going to be talking more about this on the Jennifer Fulwilwer show tomorrow, March 8th at 2:30 pm EST.