By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
We must go further and clarify what sort of people the devil attacks. Against whom does he particularly direct his rage? Also, in whom is he able to act most effectively?
It is beyond doubt that he wages war on everyone. He has an immense hatred of human beings to the extent that, as the holy Fathers say, if God did not sustain the world with His love, the devil would annihilate it. The devil strove in many ways to fight against Christ Himself. The three temptations by which the devil tempted Christ are well known. Holy Scripture says that after His Baptism, “Jesus was led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil” (Matt. 4:1). These were not, however, the only temptations that Christ faced. The devil fought furiously against Him until the last moment, putting thoughts against Him into people’s minds.
The same happens with human beings. The devil fights them with terrible rage. He hates them and envies them. He cannot bear the glory that will be given to those who struggle. As St John Climacus remarks, when someone is a private citizen, a sailor or a farmer, the King’s enemies do not take up arms against him to any great extent. When, however, he takes up the seal, shield, dagger, sword and bow, and put on a soldier’s uniform, “They gnash their teeth at him and do all they can to destroy him.” I think that St John is referring mostly to monks. The devil fights against monks with greater fury. He wants to wipe them out completely if he can. St Theognostos says that “the hater of mankind” feels such rage against those who struggle “and tries us with such malice that we despair even of life.“
The extent to which we are targeted by the evil demon’s arrows depends on how we live and what stage of the spiritual life we have reached. According to St Theognostos, when the devil perceives that a soul is going to reach great heights of virtue, “the enemy attacks with fierce and terrible temptations.”
As long as we are his servants the devil is not too worried. He feels that we belong to him, so he does not reveal his true face. In such a case he creates thoughts that he is loveable, that he does not exist, and so on. But when we want to be released from his power, we experience his rage. Abba Dorotheos says that it was when God sent Moses to lead the people out of Egypt that they encountered Pharaoh’s most intense hatred. The same happens with anyone who wishes to get away from the domination of the evil one. When the devil sees that God has sent His grace to forgive someone and to heal him of passions, either through His word, or through one of His servants, “then he [the devil] makes his passions more severe and fights more fiercely against him.” When we attempt to free ourselves, we are confronted with the violent aggression of the devil, who sends all the passions to attack us.
He is particularly enraged against people who pray, because prayer is the most powerful weapon against the devil. Someone who prays attracts the wrath of the demons. St Mark the Ascetic teaches, “When the devil sees that our nous has prayed from the heartf he attacks with great and cunning temptations; but he does not bother to destroy the lesser virtues by such powerful attacks. ” Great temptations are given to those who have great virtues, particularly those who have the gift of noetic prayer in the heart. Every time that we prepare to pray, the devil prepares to attack. According to St Neilos the Ascetic, all warfare between us and the unclean demons “is waged solely on account of spiritual prayer.”
If the devil wages war on those who are praying or preparing to pray, he launches even worse attacks on those who are advancing along the spiritual path. Those who are making progress in the theoria of God experience the rage of the devil. “The demons rage violently against those who are progressing in theoria.” They make noises and do all sorts of things to distress them. In fact, “If an angel of the Almighty Lord did not protect them, they could not escape the demons’ attack and the snares of death”, as St Nikitas Stithatos says. They are so enraged that they would like to murder such people. God, however, does not allow such a great injustice. Anyone who embraces hesychastic theology is subject to many temptations. Although he has many qualities on the human level, he is nevertheless despised by everyone. This attitude is connected with the demons’ warfare. St Nikitas says that the more divine light increases in prayer and the more a person is granted revelations and visions through the Spirit, the more the demons “gnash their teeth and craftily spread their tangled nets of iniquity through the air of the nous.” This battle is external rather than internal. Someone who comes into this category increases in love for God, and hates the evil one even more.
We should also emphasise that anyone who takes up a responsible ministry within the Church, who heals people and helps them to live according to God’s will, is also subject to fierce attack. This applies especially to anyone who analyses the method of Orthodox Christian piety, which is the path a person can follow to reach deification by grace. Such an exponent of hesychia uncovers all the deceits of the devil and knows how distinguish between what is created and what is uncreated. That is why the devil attacks him more ferociously. As St John Climacus says “He who talks subtly and with knowledge about hesychia stirs up demons against himself.“
The devil makes war on Christians who struggle, because of his extreme hatred for them. This gives rise to the question of why God allows the devil to hurl so many temptations at human beings.
The holy Fathers have provided adequate answers to this question. First of all it should be noted that the devil is an individual, a specific person with his own free will. God respects even the devil’s freedom. God lets him do evil, but ultimately He limits what the devil can do by means of man’s repentance. In addition, St Maximos the Confessor says that God allows the devil to make war on human beings for five reasons. The first is to teach us to distinguish between virtue and vice by being attacked and counterattacking. The second is so that we acquire virtue painfully and thus possess it surely and immutably. The third is so that we learn not to be proud of our progress in virtue but to be humble, realising that our victory has been achieved with God’s help. The fourth is so that we acquire an absolute hatred of evil. The fifth is to ensure that, when we arrive at dispassion, we do not forget our own weakness or the power of God Who assisted us. Essentially the devil’s warfare against mankind is a very effective help to us. It teaches us a great deal about the spiritual life and God’s love, but also about the devil’s hatred.
By attacking and fighting back we become experienced. Christ’s Disciples gained experience through the devil making war on them. Just before His Passion Christ told them, “Behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat” (Luke 22:31). Obviously the devil, as St Theognostos says, is unaware “that he confers many blessings on us, testing our endurance and weaving for us more splendid garlands.” Against his will and without his knowledge, the devil is destroying, condemning and punishing himself through this war.
The devil fights against each of us according to the stage we have reached in our spiritual life. In some people he works from within, whereas in others he is unable to work inwardly and so makes war on them from outside. The devil has power over those who hand over their will to him. St John Climacus teaches that the demons are not empowered by how dark and deserted a place is, but by how barren our soul is. When our soul bears no fruit it cannot withstand the devil’s wiles.
Some people assert that they committed a certain sin [saying] the devil forced them to do it. The demons, however, are not to blame for everything. It often happens that, because of how we live, we become “demons” and make trouble for ourselves. Without any great effort the demons own us. When someone asked Abba Poimen “Why do the demons make war on me?” the Abba replied, “They do not fight us as long as we do our own will. Our selfish desires have become demons and urge us to obey them.” The devil is evil, but he can do nothing to us if we are vigilant. St John Chrysostom says, “The devil is evil, I agree, but evil to himself not to us, provided we keep watch.”
When someone lives without the grace of Christ, he is completely unprotected from the devil’s attacks. When, however, he is full of Christ’s grace, it is impossible for the devil to act. St Diadochos of Photiki says that, if God’s grace does not dwell in a person, the demons lurk like snakes in the depths of his heart. But when God’s grace is in the nous, the demons move like dark clouds around the heart, taking the shape of different passions, with the sole purpose of distracting the nous from God. Someone who has the grace of God within him, even if the devil makes war on him, cannot suffer harm.
The teaching of St Symeon the New Theologian agrees with this. He says that, once the devil fell from the light, he became dark and rules in darkness. So every soul who does not see the light of life shining,
“…is punished by him day and night, is wounded, overcome, carried away, bound,
and pierced every day by the arrows of sensual pleasures.
“Every soul which beholds the divine light, from which he [the devil] fell, despises him and illumined by this unapproachable light tramples underfoot the ruler of darkness like leaves that have fallen to the ground from the tall tree.
He has power and authority in the darkness but in the light he becomes a corpse dead to everything.
In general, the devil makes war on human beings with God’s permission, but he acts mainly in those whose souls are barren, who are not vigilant and, above all, who are not armed with the weapons of grace. On the other hand, those who possess God’s grace are strong and trample the ruler of darkness under foot, as we trample on fallen leaves. In this case the devil has no power: it has faded away. Our freedom plays an important role in this matter. If our free will is given to God and strengthened by Him, even though the devil may attack externally, he cannot act inside us. If, however, our free will is given to the devil, we are dominated by him and become his servants.