Catholic Spirituality, deliverance, prayer, spiritual warfare

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.
  • Holy water and blessed salt.
  • 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.

11 Comments

  • Reply Desiree March 8, 2017 at 6:04 am

    I recognize myself in this so terribly much. In my Protestant life, I believed the devil existed, but I didn’t think he operated in the world much, if any. It was a shock to me, a few months after my conversion, to suddenly recognize who that cruel voice really was – and as soon as I did, I had a whole new perspective and weapons to fight back.

    “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.” I know from my own experience that Protestants definitely have that problem too. I certainly have been prone to it. I’ve found Catholic piety to be an effective cure for it, for me.

  • Reply Sarah March 8, 2017 at 7:09 am

    Yes to all of this Jenny! Thank you for this series! I’m sure ol red legs’ is not happy about it- prayers for you!

  • Reply Ari March 8, 2017 at 8:46 am

    I definitely recommend Fr. Timothy Gallagher’s Discernment of Spirits book (about St. Ignatius’s principles). I was raised Calvinist, and in an abusive home. “God” was basically a mean monster, so it took me *years* to realize that the cruel, awful voice was not God. I also heard from Deacon James Keating a helpful rule of thumb – the devil tends to accuse in “you are…” statements. The Lord tends to speak in “I am…” statements. “You are so awful” versus “I am the God who can heal you.” So obvious, right? Yet, in the moment it can be hard to discern, especially if we are under the impression that difficult, anxiety-inducing, and hateful is “God’s will.” Thanks for writing about this. It will always be timely.

  • Reply Nancy Shuman March 8, 2017 at 9:18 am

    I really, really NEEDED this today. Thank you.

  • Reply MK March 8, 2017 at 11:59 am

    Wonderful, Jenny! We have a few family members who challenge us to remain charitable while also being truthful with our faith. One came by this weekend and to our surprise, basically denounced the Bible and Christ before our very eyes (and inches away from the Crucifix on our wall…). Worst of all, she did it in front of her own daughter – whom she is sending through CCD and who has already made her First Communion. What the what?! We remind ourselves that she must be hurting, and we have to pray for her rather than allow it to upset us. I think that can be the toughest thing of all, is to remember we need God’s grace, and that others who have drifted away are now much more willing pawns for the Devil’s taking – it’s very sad.

    It’s also funny you should mention gravity. We actually were discussing the “law of gravity” with the very same person because she apparently now is “if I can’t see it, I don’t believe it” and because we were explaining our end of things, we were “imposing.” (Somehow, Christians always seem to be “imposing” these days, even when we feel we’re the ones on the defensive!) My husband actually explained very wisely that while the concept we call gravity is scientifically repeatable (i.e., we can measure the force and repeat the experiment with 100% predictable outcomes every time), the reason behind it or what causes it are NOT explainable. It drove our visitor up a wall to hear that, because they want to believe science is all reason and provable fact, and faith is just made up; whereas, much of the materialistic world actually places plenty of what you would define as “faith” in science (especially theoretical science). Or that reason is above faith. Or that faith and reason can’t operate in concert! I want to yell, “Read St. Thomas Aquinas!” (I manage to restrain myself…most of the time.)

    One of the greatest untruths of the Devil, that after a while becomes easy to pick out, is when you reflect afterward on conversations with some of these people and you realize how they’re all over the map. There is a lot of hypocrisy and a total lack of logic. I don’t mean this to be uncharitable, nor to demean or dismiss these people, but just helps you know to pray for them because you see what error and sin results from denying Christ. It also is a good reminder of the importance of combining faith + reason. Credo ut intelligam!

    One thing your blog also reminded me of — I need to read “The Screwtape Letters”! Can’t believe I never have… Cheers 🙂

  • Reply Elizabeth March 8, 2017 at 2:00 pm

    Thanks for a thoughtful article! I will definitely be meditating on these points

  • Reply Laura March 8, 2017 at 2:06 pm

    Thank you so much for writing this. I have been blaringly aware of the evil one as he has been attacking the children we adopted through incredibly scary nightmares and dark thoughts in the daytime for some time now. It’s been a constant struggle. And although I am aware and believe of all what you wrote, I think I needed to hear someone else say it. Something very sad happened to my family this year and it’s been a constant struggle to block out the thoughts that God is punishing me or trying to teach me a lesson. Thank you for this intelligently written article that reminds me to keep up the discernment and to trust that God will only speak to me in a kind and loving manner. Thank you and God bless you!

  • Reply LisaM March 8, 2017 at 6:26 pm

    Haha, I was the exact same way about religious life! Full of fear and anxiety senior year of college, and days before I had my first date with Tim, his sister had a dream that a nun stopped in front of me (a bunch of us were in a line-up) and said “Yes”- fool-proof evidence that of course *that* was God’s plan for me. *sob*

    Also, maybe you linked to this at some point? I forget where I first saw it- Fr. Amorth has found JPII a powerful intercessor against the devil:
    http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/romes-exorcist-finding-bl.-john-paul-ii-effective-against-satan/

  • Reply jeanette March 8, 2017 at 8:44 pm

    The vocational discernment problem you described having is so true, but the opposite can be true as well. With all your heart you believe God is calling you, and with all your heart you try to discern. But wouldn’t you know it, the devil is going to throw every doubt into your mind that he can come up with. The most ridiculous things! That is why the only real way to discern a vocation to the priesthood or religious life is to seek help from a spiritual director. (and the devil will try to dissuade you from seeking spiritual direction as well…or put you at odds with your spiritual director if you do have one). Mothers, Fathers, and catechists, and other teachers of the faith should teach children and young adults that vocational discernment is a path that requires guidance. Maybe young people would have less fear of vocational discernment if this were so, and more openness to discerning marriage vocations too. We can just as easily be led astray by the devil in that area as in religious vocations.

    Another thing to watch out for is that when you pray or do good works of some sort and they really are effective, the devil will try to throw roadblocks in your way. Everything from giving you doubts, to encouraging sloth, to quitting, to making you late or run out of time, to making you quarrel with those you are joined with in your endeavor, or tempt you to have pride or some other sin. You name it, he will try it.

    You are dead right about not engaging the conversation of the devil. Never give a reply. Ignore him completely. Turn immediately to prayer, especially to our Blessed Mother, as you suggested.

  • Reply Olivia March 9, 2017 at 12:54 pm

    I don’t know where I heard this, maybe it was even here at your blog…but that every time you start to fear something, get angry, anxious, etc., especially if you feel it is from the devil, that instead of dwelling on it, just say Jesus’ name and whatever it is….so, “Jesus, no sleep last night” or “Jesus, argument with my husband,” or “Jesus, homeschooling.” It doesn’t mean you ignore it, but you are placing Jesus at the head of whatever it is you are about to dive into, back away from, or contemplate. Jesus first, then move forward. I find it VERY helpful. It is a prayer but also a tiny time out. And a reminder of who is in charge. It keeps Jesus name on my lips almost all day.

    Also this, from a prayer for moms, this is just the last paragraph:

    “One more thing, Jesus, be very near to this mom in the moment when the last child is in bed and she sits in the quiet alone. She will be so tired and that is the very moment the accuser will come to whisper his worst. He will remind her of everything she should have done that she didn’t. He will run the replay of each moment of irritability, and every time she reached the end of her rope. Silence him, sweet Christ. May your voice be the only voice she hears. May she find rest in you and assurance that when she has given all she has and finds that in her humanity it is simply not enough, You most certainly do not condemn her.

    You make up the difference.”

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