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Science of Spiritual Medicinehr5. The Devil’s Tactics

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos 

The devil does not just make war on human beings, but uses the most appropriate methods to defeat them. He uses many tactics. He is the most experienced general ever in the art of war. St Nicodemus the Hagiorite says on this subject,

“There are three reasons why the devil is very experienced and resourceful in the invisible war against human beings. Firstly, because he and the demons who serve him are by nature subtle spirits, so they are very ingenious in inventing strategies and devices beyond our comprehension. Secondly, because the devil and the demons are seven thousand three hundred years old, and over this long period they have become great experts in tactics. Thirdly, by fighting against all human beings from Adam until now, particularly against saints and hermits eminent in asceticism, and by being counterattacked by them, the devil and the demons have learnt new wiles and tricks from this experience and warfare. They are well-practised and have become highly skilled, as St Isaac the Syrian, St Symeon the New Theologian and St Makarios say.”

The devil is a very resourceful and adept fighter. He uses many tricks. That is why the Apostle Paul says, “Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph. 6:11). Although he is ingenious and experienced, the Church too is highly experienced. Our Church’s experience of warfare against the devil is far superior. The saints, as members of the Church, were not only familiar with all the machinations of the evil one, but were able to bring them to nothing by the grace of God and their own personal struggle, and to attain to deification by grace.

Based on the experience and teaching of the saints, some of the many wiles used by the devil will now be identified.

Holy Apostle PaulHe uses many snares to trap Christians and strives to find the appropriate method for each one. The Apostle Paul writes that a Bishop ought not to be a new convert, “lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:6-7). Elsewhere he speaks about escaping “out of the snare of the devil” (2 Tim. 2:26). The image of the snare comes from hunting wild animals. The devil, as a hunter of man’s soul, uses many snares to catch it. St John Climacus states that it is preferable to struggle with other people, who are sometimes fierce and at other times penitent, than with demons, “who are continually raging and up in arms against us.” We are usually upset when our fellow human beings trouble us, and regard it as a severe trial when they fight against us, whereas we pay little attention to the inner warfare waged by the demons, which is far more terrible. The experience of the Church has proved, however, that we ought to pay more heed to the demons’ warfare and take it more seriously.

The devil does not know which passion will defeat the soul and tests the person. He fights against him through various passions. “He sows without knowing what he will reap.” He sows impure thoughts, slanderous thoughts, and thoughts of all the other passions. He feeds it on whichever passion he sees it inclining towards (Abba Mathois). St Synklitiki teaches that, when the devil cannot move a soul with poverty, he sets riches before it as a bait. If he cannot achieve anything through abuse and insults, he tries praise and glory. When he is defeated by good health, he makes the body sick. When he is unable to deceive by means of sensual pleasures, he tries to do so through involuntary sufferings and sorrows. He devises many illnesses to compel a person to stop loving God. This shows that the devil fights us methodically. He attempts to find our weak point, so that he can focus all his aggressive rage there. In this way he takes control of a person, unless, of course, his victim knows appropriate ways to restrain him.

The wiles and tactics of the devil vary according to how someone lives and behaves. He does not fight everyone in the same way. For example, he has different ways of waging war on married and unmarried people, on hesychasts and members of monastic communities, on novices and those advanced in the spiritual life. There is an appropriate temptation for every way of life. In his biography of St Antony, St Athanasios writes that, when St Antony wanted to adopt the monastic life, the devil tried to put him off, “whispering to him the remembrance of his wealth, care for his sister, claims of kindred, love of money, love of glory, the various pleasures of the table and the other indulgences of life, and finally the difficulty of virtue and the labour it entails; he also suggested that his body was weak and it would take a long time.” In this case the devil presented obstacles, stirred up sympathy for a number of people and set out the difficulty or impossibility of pursuing virtue. It is significant that almost everyone finds it difficult to make progress in the spiritual life because of such thoughts, namely, that it is not feasible to acquire virtue or keep Christ’s commandments. The idea that such things are not for us, and are unachievable nowadays, is clearly from the devil.

St John Climacus says that monks living in communities are attacked particularly by gluttony and bad temper, and must struggle hardest against these passions. These are the means by which the devil attacks them. He instils in those living in obedience a desire to acquire great virtues that are proper to hesychasts. He gives inexperienced novices ideas of striving for things beyond their reach. If, says St John Climacus, you look into the minds of inexperienced novices, you will find many deluded ideas, such as “a desire for hesychia, for extreme fasting, for undistracted prayer, for absolute freedom from vanity, for unbroken remembrance of death, for continuous compunction, for perfect freedom from anger, for deep silence, for surpassing purity.” Of course such achievements are not out of the question, but when they are sought at the wrong time, particularly without the blessing of a discerning Elder, they are traps laid by the devil. Whereas the devil disturbs those living in obedience with the quest for hesychia, he troubles hesychasts with various thoughts and “extols the hospitality of those living in obedience, their service, brotherly love, community life and care for the sick.”

The devil wages war on those living under obedience in other ways as well. Sometimes he defiles them with bodily pollutions and makes them hard-hearted, and sometimes restless. Sometimes he makes them dry and barren, or greedy or lazy about prayer. At other times he makes them drowsy and confused. His aim is to give them the impression that they are gaining nothing by their obedience (St John Climacus). Our way of life determines how the devil attacks us.

How we are attacked also depends on the time of day. We face different sorts of warfare in the morning, the evening and during the day. There is a particular demon who is “the forerunner of spirits.” He attacks us as soon as we wake from sleep and “defiles our first thought”, the first thought that comes into our nous on waking (St John Climacus). The Fathers teach that we should give this first thought to God. If a person learns to pray as soon as he wakes up, to devote his first thought to God, he will remember God all day long. Because the devil knows this, he tries to defile our first thought.

There is also another demon, as St John Climacus tells us, who shoots evil and impure ideas at us when we lie down in bed, so that we fall asleep with these foul thoughts, have impure dreams, and are too lazy to get up to pray.

While we are asleep, demons come and attempt to defile a person with dreams and make him get up in a bad mood. There is another strange thing that also happens. While we are asleep the demons put the words of psalms into our mind, and we meditate on them in our sleep, “in order to lead us to pride” (St John Climacus). This can also come about through God’s grace or from continuous meditation on the psalms during the day. The devil, however, exploits this and devises a temptation of his own, so as to make us fall into pride. The holy Fathers teach that any achievement that does not cause pride and self-esteem comes from God, whereas anything that causes pride is from the devil.

The sort of warfare waged in the daytime is different from that waged at night. St Neilos mentions that at night the demons try to disturb the spiritual teacher by appearing to him. By day, however, they attack him through other people, through circumstances, slander and various dangers. It is clear that the devil makes war, either in person or through other people, on those who are spiritual, especially teachers and guides, because they disrupt his plans.

The devil’s tactics also depend on what stage of the spiritual life a person has reached, especially in prayer. The ultimate aim of the demons is “that the wretches should separate human beings from God.” They strive to stop those who pray with the nous in the heart from receiving simple impressions of things perceptible to the senses. That is to say, they struggle and fight to create fantasies and imaginary images of things perceived by the senses, to prevent the nous being pure during prayer. The devil fights those with spiritual knowledge “so that impassioned thoughts may linger on in them.” He continuously makes war on them in the hope that impassioned thoughts will stay with them. As for those who are still at the first stage of the spiritual life, praxis, he attacks them to make them commit sinful acts (St Maximos the Confessor).

The devil’s tactics also vary according to the state a person is in and whether he has already sinned or not. St Ephraim the Syrian says that, before the sin is committed, the devil makes it seem very small. In particular, he makes the sin of sensual pleasure seem so trivial before it is committed, “that it almost seems to the brother that it is no different from pouring out a glass of cold water on the ground.” After the sin has been committed, however, he makes it seem huge and stirs up waves of thoughts in order to push the sinner into despair.

It is not only sin that the demons present in a different light before and after a fall; they do the same with God. St John Climacus says that before committing sin the cruel enemy of our salvation makes God appear very merciful and so loving that He will forgive the lapse. After the sinful act, however, he presents God as “a just and inexorable judge.”

Agios ClimacusThe devil devises many ways of leading us astray. St John Climacus says that the devil usually digs three pits. First of all “[the demons] endeavour to prevent good being done.” They stop us doing good and fulfilling one of Christ’s commandments. If they fail to persuade us not to do good, they come and try to ensure “that it should not be done according to the will of God.” If they fail to achieve anything by this method, they draw near and “praise us for living a thoroughly godly life.” They attempt to bring us down through pride. In sometimes happens that the demons strive either to force us to sin or else, if this fails, to make us pass judgment on those who are sinning (St John Climacus).

The devil is very ingenious. He will stop at nothing in order to achieve his aim. His skill in warfare includes traps “from the right hand side”. He attempts to instil in us thoughts of excessive asceticism. The devil’s aim is to induce us to do things beyond our strength so that we lose heart “and give up doing even what is within our power” (St John Climacus). The holy Fathers are familiar with this tactic of the devil. Abba Poimen says, “All excesses are demonic.” St Neilos, experienced in this type of warfare, says that, when a person’s nous prays purely and dispassionately, the demons do not approach from the left hand side by attempting to suggest unclean thoughts. Instead, they attack from the right. “They suggest to [the nous] an illusion of God’s glory in a form pleasing to the senses, so as to make it think that it has realised the final aim of prayer.” They offer the nous false visions to make it proud, imagining that it has reached the stage of prayer in the heart and achieved the purpose of prayer. The experience of the Church has shown that we should never attach importance to such visions and fantasies, and that, when we pray purely, we should not entertain even the slightest thought that our nous will soon counted worthy of seeing the uncreated Light. Prayer must be linked with profoundest repentance.

If the devil manages to persuade someone to commit a sin, he then uses another tactic. He attempts to convince him that he should not confess it to his spiritual guide, that it is nothing and does not need to be confessed. He tells him that lots of people do worse things than he has done. The devil strives particularly to ensure that blasphemous thoughts are not revealed. Blasphemous thoughts “remain with many to the end of their lives.” We know, however, that nothing gives the demons and thoughts such power over us as “nourishing and hiding them in our heart unconfessed” (St John Climacus). What happens with blasphemous thoughts happens with every thought and passion. The devil does everything he can to ensure that thoughts remain unconfessed, and the longer they remain concealed, the stronger the passions and the domination of the devil become in us.

Often the demons withdraw and there is a pause in the invisible warfare. St Hesychios the Priest says that the envious demons “sometimes hide themselves and cease from spiritual battle.” Their aim is to make us careless and to seize our nous when the opportunity arises. Their cunning is amazing. As St John Cli-macus says, the demons hide themselves for a while and do not attack us, in order to make us careless, regarding major passions as trivial, so that “we become incurably sick.” It also sometimes happens that all the demons withdraw, the person is unaware of any warfare, and his body and soul are at peace. Then, however, they let loose the demon of pride “which takes the place of all the rest.” The demon of pride is capable on its own of replacing all the other demons.

St John Climacus also refers to something else that happens. The devil can produce physical anomalies. Often he comes and sits on someone’s stomach and does not allow him to sate his appetite, even if he eats the whole of Egypt and drinks the whole Nile. Then after eating, “this unclean spirit goes away, and sends against us the spirit of fornication, telling him of our condition, and saying: ‘Catch, catch, hound him; for when the stomach is full, he will not resist much.'” It is a fact that when someone’s stomach is full, the demon of fornication does not find it difficult to bring about his destruction.

This warfare “from the right hand side” which we have mentioned also includes good thoughts that the devil produces during prayer. Sometimes when we are praying, particularly when we are engaged in noetic prayer, the devil comes and brings us good thoughts, suggestions for charitable activities and good ideas. His aim is to distract our nous from pure prayer. This is very cunning and evil. St Neilos teaches that, when the demons see that someone is eager for true prayer, “they suggest thoughts of supposedly necessary things.” Once prayer is finished, however, they themselves remove from the person’s memory the thoughts he had earlier while praying, and “incite the nous to go in search of them; and when it fails to find them, it becomes very depressed and miserable.” At other times the demons bring good thoughts, then later argue against them. Their reason for doing this is to convince us that “they know even our innermost thoughts” (St John Climacus). The devil attempts to present himself as a prophet who knows many things, including what is going to happen in the future. This is one of his tricks, however. The demons do not know our future. As St John Climacus says, “The demons know nothing about the future from foreknowledge, because if they did, the sorcerers would also be able to foretell our death.” The saints are well aware of this tactic. Those who constantly obey the devil are under the impression that he is a prophet. “A demon is often a prophet to those who believe him” (St John Climacus).

Apart from everything mentioned above, we should look at the particular tactics which the devil uses in order to distance a person from God. Some of them may seem clever, but in reality they are senseless. Christians who strive are more intelligent than the devil and are able to annihilate him as did the saints, who by the grace of Christ destroyed all the stratagems and wiles of the devil.

We shall look first at the wiles of the devil as described by St John Climacus, who was highly experienced in warfare against the demons. The points referred to in the following paragraphs are taken from The Ladder of St John Climacus.

The demons work with the aim of misleading human beings and attempt to do this in a variety of ways. Some of them exalt us and others humble us. Some harden us and others comfort us. Some bring us darkness and others pretend to illuminate us. Some make us indifferent and others spiteful. Some make us miserable and others cheerful. We need to know which demon is at work in each case.

The demons often make people weep when they are in the middle of the city and surrounded by noise, “to give those who live near the world the idea that turmoil does them no harm.” They create the illusion that it is possible to experience contrition in the midst of uproar. This sort of contrition, however, is of satanic origin. This does not mean that it is impossible to live in the world and experience contrition. The devil is aiming here particularly at monks, who leave their quiet retreats on account of this delusion and move to noisy and worldly places.

The demons sometimes fight a ridiculous battle with us. When we are sated with food they move us to contrition and when we are fasting they harden our hearts. Their purpose is to give the impression that someone can eat and also be contrite. Tears of this sort, however, are false.

The demons are extremely deceitful. They suggest to us the idea that there is no need for us to separate ourselves from worldly people, particularly if we are thinking of becoming monks, “telling us that we shall receive a great reward if we can look upon women and still control ourselves.” The devil creates the thought that we shall have a greater reward if we reside in places which provide satisfaction for our senses, provided we retain our purity. Obviously the purpose of this is to make a person postpone his withdrawal from the world, and later to enslave him to those things towards which he thought he could be dispassionate.

A discerning Elder gave the following account. When he was at a gathering, two demons, the demon of self-esteem and the demon of pride, came and sat on either side of him. The first urged him to mention a vision or something he had accomplished in the desert. When he rejected this provocation, the other demon praised him for this achievement: “You have become great by conquering my shameless mother.” One demon accused the other in order to lead the ascetic into sin.

St John Climacus saw the demon of self-esteem suggesting thoughts to one brother, and revealing the thoughts of this first brother to another brother so that he would be praised as a thought-reader. The demon of self-esteem even touches the body and produces palpitations to create a sense of the advent of grace. One demon can chase away another. A certain monk was angry, but when visitors arrived he pretended he was meek in their presence. Thus one demon (the demon of self-esteem) drove away another (the demon of anger).

The demon of love of money often feigns humility, whereas the demon of self-esteem urges a person to give alms. The demon of self-indulgence works in the same way. For instance, it sometimes happens that the demon of love of money suggests to someone that he should not give alms so as not to fall into self-esteem, and thus he pretends to be humble. Similarly, the demons of self-esteem and self-indulgence urge us to give alms, as this increases their freedom of action. True almsgiving is possible when a person has been purged of the demons of avarice, self-esteem and self-indulgence.

Often the demons prevent us from doing easier and more beneficial things, and urge us to do what is most laborious. They act in this way because they know that when we are tired we are discouraged from continuing our spiritual journey.

Someone told St John Climacus about one of the devil’s evil tactics. The demon of the flesh often withdraws, goes into hiding and suggests to a monk the thought that he is devout. Sometimes the demon also gives him abundant tears, particularly when he is talking to women, and suggests to him that he should converse with them about the remembrance of death, judgment and chastity. The devil does all this is in order to persuade women to pay attention to the monk and to draw near to the wolf, mistaking him for a shepherd. Then, having acquired familiarity and boldness, “the unfortunate monk would suffer a fall.” The devil exploits even the most sacred things in order to make someone fall into carnal sin.

When we attempt to leave a group of people where someone is telling jokes, the demons fight us in two ways. Their first method is to suggest the thought, “Do not hurt the feelings of the person speaking”, or “Do not give the impression that you love God more than they do”, in order to make us stay. The other thought they suggest is that we should leave, but in such a way that we will fall into vainglory. In other words, the second thought says to us, “Be off! Do not delay! Otherwise at the time of prayer the jokes will recur to your mind.” It urges us not just to depart but to try to break up the evil gathering by mentioning the Judgment and the remembrance of death. In this case we should choose the second option, because it is preferable for us to be sprinkled with a few drops of self-esteem, in the hope that others may benefit. St John Climacus refers to all these points.

There are similar examples in the Gerontikon which reveal the devil’s particular tactics. St Makarios once went to sleep in a temple where there were skeletons of idolaters, one of which he used as a pillow. The demons envied the Saint’s boldness and wanted to frighten him. They called out as though to a woman, “Lady, come with us to bathe”, and another demon replied in a woman’s voice, as though from the dead body, “I have a stranger on top of me and cannot move.” They did this to alarm the Saint, “but the Elder did not take fright.”

St Neilos the Ascetic writes that sometimes the demons “split into two groups.” While some of them are troubling a person, the others, in the guise of angels, rush to his aid when he calls for help. Their aim is to deceive their victim into thinking they are really angels. At other times the demons hurl thoughts at us, while at the same time apparently urging us to pray against them or to contradict them. Then they go away. They do this in order to give us the impression that we have begun to defeat them and that they are now afraid of us.

St Nikitas Stithatos says, “Before getting involved with the soul and defeating it, the demons often disturb the soul’s perception and snatch sleep from our eyes.” In other words, they stop us sleeping in order to make us agitated. As we know, when people are unable to sleep they become bad-tempered, unless they know how to use this state for prayer. Often the demons “keep us awake with some commotion or other, thinking by such means to make our life more difficult and painful.” At other times, however, the devil makes us fall asleep when we are praying. Because he knows the harm prayer does him, he makes us drowsy.

Only a few of the teachings of the saints on the subject of the devil’s technique have been recorded. There are many more. Anyone fighting this battle will inevitably experience the vicious attacks of the devil. He will feel his presence. Often he will sense his power and his smell. The ascetics have described many such cases. These are not delusions or the personification of certain inner experiences, but reality, because the devil exists and is the worst enemy of our salvation. An ascetic on the Holy Mountain told me, “If someone stays on the Holy Mountain for ten years, he will understand by then what the devil is.” Those of us who live in the world are unable to grasp this, because he keeps us near him with very little force. He does not have to make a special effort. He has made us his servants by external incentives, while creating the illusion that he does not exist.

Anyone who struggles to be purified from the passions and practises noetic prayer will become aware of the devil’s evil power, but will also experience God’s love. At the exact moment that the devil attacks he realises how much God loves him. God’s love amazes him. He realises that, whatever the devil may do, he (the devil) is actually assisting in our salvation against his will. The more we hate him, the more fiercely we fight him. As St Gregory Palamas says, “The devil is always co-operating with God’s will, without wishing or intending to do so.” That is why another God-bearing saint said, “Evil collaborates with good, although its intentions are bad.” Without wanting to and without fully realising it, the devil becomes a collaborator with God’s will for our sanctification and salvation. Nevertheless, we need to know how to wage war on the devil and what spiritual means the Church possesses for destroying all his traps.

…to be continued

Met Hierotheos_antiqued