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.
2. Types of Demons
There are many demons, as the whole biblical and patristic tradition teaches. It is evident both in Holy Scripture and the works of the holy Fathers that Satan is not alone: there are many demons. There are many like him. Also, some demons are more evil than others, and every demon has his own teaching, as well as his own way of acting and working. We shall look at this interesting topic.
Many passages of Holy Scripture demonstrate that there are a large number of evil spirits in existence. The most well known are as follows. The possessed men in the country of the Gerges-enes had many demons. For that reason they spoke in the plural: “And, behold, they cried out, saying, What have we to do with Thee, Jesus, Thou Son of God? Art Thou come hither to torment us before the time?” (Matt. 8:29). When St Mark the Evangelist describes the healing of the demoniac in the country of the Ga-darenes, he records Christ’s conversation with the demons inside the man. When Christ asked, “What is thy name?”, they replied “My name is Legion: for we are many.” The account continues, “All the devils besought Him, saying, Send us into the swine.” As soon as Christ granted this wish, “The unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine” (Mark 5:9-13). The Apostle Paul knows that there is not one single “ruler of this world” or one single evil spirit, but many rulers and many evil spirits, so he writes, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph. 6:12). Explaining what Christ achieved on the Cross, the same Apostle says, “Having spoiled principalities and powers, He made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it” (Col. 2:15). All these demons teach different things. Each demon has his own way of thinking and acting, but the aim of all is to separate man from God and bring about his eternal death. St Paul knows that many will depart from the faith in the last times, “giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils” (1 Tim. 4:1).
Not only are there many demons, but Holy Scripture tells us that there are degrees of evil. All the demons are evil, but some are more evil and outdo the others in wickedness. Christ teaches, “When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there” (Matt. 12:43-45). This shows that some spirits are more wicked than others. There are gradations of wickedness among demons.
The saints teach that there are as many demons as there are passions. They actually identify many demons as linked to particular passions. St Mark the Evangelist records a typical case of a possessed man being healed. A certain father brought his son, who had a “dumb and deaf spirit.” The father related that “oft-times it hath cast him into the fire, and into the waters, to destroy him” (Mark 9:22). It is clear here that there was only one demon in the man, not many. But what was this dumb and deaf spirit? In his interpretation of this passage, St Gregory Palamas says that it was the demon of unchastity. He writes, “This terrible demon is the demon of unchastity. Sometimes it casts the victim into the fire (that is, strange loves devoid of affection) and sometimes it plunges him into the water, through gluttony, excessive drinking and too many parties.” This demon of unchastity is deaf and dumb because “anyone who obeys the suggestions of such a demon cannot bear to hear or speak of divine things.” In the same way as there is a demon of unchastity, there are demons of all the passions. St Cassian the Roman writes about the eight spirits of wickedness. These are the spirit of over-indulgence, the spirit of fornication and carnal desire, the spirit of avarice, the spirit of anger, the spirit of grief, the spirit of despondency, the spirit of self-esteem and the spirit of pride. All the passions have their own demon who works to achieve man’s eternal death. Just as the virtues are the fruit of the Holy Spirit and not simply achievements of human nature, so all the passions are the product of evil spirits in collaboration with human beings. St Nikitas Stithatos teaches that the fruit of the devil is “hatred, worldly despondency, restlessness of soul, a troubled heart, guile, inquisitiveness, negligence, anger, lack of faith, envy, gluttony, drunkenness, abusiveness, criticism, the lust of the eyes, vanity and arrogance of soul.”
St Diadochos of Photiki, who was experienced in the struggle against demons, divides demons into two main categories. Demons in the first category are more subtle, whereas those in the second category are more material in nature. The first kind attack the soul, while the second kind, the more material demons, make war on the body and attempt in this way to capture the nous. These two types of demons, although they share the same intention of harming people, fight among themselves. St Diadochos writes, “Spiritual knowledge teaches us that there are two kinds of evil spirits: some are more subtle, others more material in nature. The more subtle demons attack the soul, while the others hold the flesh captive through their lascivious enticements. Thus there is a complete contrast between the demons that attack the soul and those that attack the body, even though they have the same propensity to inflict harm on mankind.”
To sum up, the biblical and patristic tradition teaches that Satan exists and strives to kill human beings, because he is full of dreadful hatred towards them. It also teaches that there are many kinds of demons. Every passion has its corresponding demon, who has considerable experience in leading people to destruction. The war against the passions is essentially a war against the spirits of evil.
3. Whom Does the Devil Attack and In Whom Does He Act?
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, realizing 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.