by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
Describing the wiles and the activities of the devil is not easy. The difficulty is that only those who have managed to escape from his influence are able clearly to discern how he works. By studying the teachings of the saints, however, we too can recognise the devil’s personality and the method that he uses to capture people and keep them under his control. We rely mainly on the teaching of the saints, who were victorious over the devil in the power of Christ. Thus we too can repeat the Apostle Paul’s words: “For we are not ignorant of his devices” (2 Cor. 2:11). The experience of the Church has exposed all the schemes of the devil and his mentality.
We should note that speaking about such subjects is not without spiritual dangers. Usually those who reveal the devil’s schemes are subjected to his aggressive rage. As St John Climacus says, “He who talks subtly and with knowledge about hesychia stirs up demons against himself.” He suffers attacks from the devil because he is the only one who can reveal his atrocities. There is also another difficulty because, again as St John Climacus says, an ascetic who wanted to tell others about hesychia was afraid in case he should dampen the enthusiasm of those already engaged in the struggle, or perhaps even arouse fear in those wanting to embark on it.
These risks arise when dealing with spiritual matters. There are some people who are discouraged when they hear such teachings and others who are afraid. So talking about demons is not easy.
I am only making this attempt because I have faith in God, a sense that He will help me, and a hope that some people may be helped by learning about the devil’s wiles.
1. The Existence of the Devil
The entire biblical and patristic tradition speaks about the existence of the devil. The devil is not a personification of evil or an imaginary figure signifying the existence of evil. He is a specific entity, a particular being. The devil was an angel called Lucifer, but by trying arrogantly to acquire the glory of God, he fell. Thus the event that Christ revealed came about: “I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven” (Luke 10:18). The devil generated evil. He did not simply accept it, as human beings did. “The devil sin-nethfrom the beginning” (1 John 3:8). The existence of the devil is obvious from the fact that Christ’s mission to the world was to destroy the works of the devil and free human beings from his oppression. “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).
If we read the Gospels, we realise that Christ, in the words of the Apostle Peter, “went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil” (Acts 10:38). I shall not go into detail here about how Christ healed people possessed by demons or His conflict with demons. This will appear in other sections. It is in any case well known that the eternal fire was made ready for the devil: “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41).
The holy Fathers teach that the demons were not created as demons from the beginning by God, because God did not create evil. St Antony teaches, “The demons were not created as what we mean by demons; for God made nothing evil, and even they were made good. They fell, however, from the heavenly wisdom” and they do everything they can to lead human beings astray. The demons were noetic beings before the Fall, but afterwards, “having fallen from their original state of immateriality and refinement, each of them has acquired a certain material grossness.” The devil lost life and acquired death (St Gregory of Sinai).
St Gregory Palamas teaches that the devil had an arrogant desire to rule, contrary to the will of his Creator, and so “He was justly abandoned by the true Source of life and light, and clothed himself in death and eternal darkness.” Of course the devil exists, he is not just the essence of deadness; but his essence “rejects true life” (St Gregory Palamas). He lost true life, God, and put on death. He is not just a dead spirit, deprived of true life, but he passes on deadness to all who approach him. “Satan is not merely a dead spirit, but also brings death upon those who draw near him.” The devil longs to cause the death of human beings. As we shall see in another section, he hates mankind and tries by all means to distance them from God, Who is true Life.
This work of the devil can be discerned from the names recorded in Holy Scripture. He is referred to as “the accuser of our brethren” (Rev. 12:10). Again, in the book of Revelation it is written, “And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world” (Rev. 12:9). Here he is called a dragon, a snake, the devil, Satan and deceiver. When the Apostle Peter speaks of the work of the devil he calls him the “adversary” and a “roaring lion” (1 Pet. 5:8). St John the Evangelist describes him as a “murderer” (John 8:44). From the beginning he sought to kill man, to distance him from God. The Apostle Paul calls him “ruler of this world” (Eph. 6:11-12). By using this title St Paul does not mean that the whole world is in his power, as the world is God’s creation and God directs it according to His providential energies. The devil is, however, the ruler of the world of injustice, lust and arrogant living. Interpreting this passage, St Gregory Palamas says that we must not suppose that the evil one controls heaven and earth, and everything in between, and is therefore called the ruler of this world, “which is a ridiculous idea.” Only God the Creator is the ruler of the world in that sense. “However, the misuse of created things, the impassioned way we organise our affairs, the world of injustice, lust and arrogance... this is the world over which Satan rules.” In the Bible we also see the devil’s rage, which actually increases as the end approaches: “The devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time” (Rev. 12:12). The demons are our enemies. As St Antony teaches, “We have terrible and crafty foes – the evil demons.” The demons are horrendous, devious and evil.
It is the devil who has the power of death, and Christ came to set us free from this death. “He also Himself likewise took part of the same; that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14).
All the Church’s experience makes it clear that through the work of God’s Economy the devil lost his power. Whereas previously he was all-powerful, he has now lost that power. Through our freedom and, most of all, through Christ’s power, we can defeat him, as did all God’s saints. God allows the devil to annoy us as a test of our freedom. St Gregory of Sinai teaches that the demons “are permitted by divine providence to demonstrate to us the state of our will.” Our free-will can withstand the attack of the demons and refuse to do what they want.
It also ought to be noted that not everything is the devil’s fault. Because we are accustomed to ascribing our own failure to other people, we blame God and the devil for everything. We think that God and the devil are responsible. There are, however, circumstances when we cause trouble for ourselves. Even when it is the devil who tempts us, we can resist by our own free choice. We cannot, therefore, ascribe all our falls to the devil.
St John Climacus says that when a monk “abandons his cell, he blames the demons. He is oblivious to the fact that he has become his own demon.” St Antony says that once someone knocked at the door of the monastery. He went outside and saw “one who seemed of great size and tall.” When St Antony asked who the visitor was, he replied, “/ am Satan.” To the next question about why he had come, he answered, “Why do the monks and all other Christians blame me undeservedly? Why do they curse me hourly?” When St Antony told him it was because he troubled them, the devil replied, ub is not I who trouble them, but they trouble themselves, for I have become weak.” This shows that we cannot blame the devil for everything. We too bear personal responsibility for our falls and temptations.