Association of priests meditation.
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Vol. XV, March 2009

St. Paul 8: “The activity of Satan” (2Thess 2:9)

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

In the last letter we reflected on the “big picture” of the fallen angels in St. Paul’s letters, the evil spirits in the air, spirits of darkness, spirits of disobedience and “host of wickedness”. We then gave references to Christ’s victory over all of them. Notwithstanding Christ’s definitive victory over the fallen spirits, the battle still goes on, for each individual soul has to make its own decision. Therefore we need to listen closely to St. Paul’s teaching about how they stalk and attack us.

1. The Tempter and destroyer on earth

The fallen spirits are not like remote, hidden islands, far away and separated from the rest of the world. In the Apocalypse St. John describes how St. Michael fought against the dragon and his angels, overcame them and cast them out of heaven down to earth:

“The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world - he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him … the dragon … went off to make war on the rest of (the woman’s) offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus” (Rev 12: 7-9,16-17).

Here on earth they tempt man and try to destroy him. In the words of St. Paul: “We told you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction.” He feared “that somehow the tempter had tempted” the Thessalonians and that his “labor would be in vain” (1 Thess 3:4-5). Also, with the fallen spirits in mind, he told the Corinthians: “We must not put the Lord to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents; nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer” (1 Cor 10:9-10).

2. The activities of the fallen spirits

The devil is envious of man, much more so since Christ has redeemed us. St. Paul knows various ways in which these wicked spirits behave in their despair and hellish agitation. He does not want anybody to fall into the hands of the devil: “I do not want you to be partners with demons” (1 Cor 10:21). But the danger is real, “for some have already strayed after Satan” (1 Tim 5:15), and others have “refused to love the truth and so be saved” (2 Thess 2:10). Therefore, St. Paul is anxious that the newly baptized Christians be able to recognize the works of the devil and so “give (him) no opportunity” (Eph 4:27), that they “keep Satan from gaining the advantage over [them]” (2 Cor 2:11). It should not be so difficult “for we are not ignorant of his designs” (ibid.). What does St. Paul know about the devil’s procedures and tactics?

a) Some tactics of the spirits
The most subtle form of approach comes under the mantle or appearance of the good, when “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor 11:14). How many anti-Christian movements present themselves with ostensibly humanitarian ideals or make a show with the apparent “kindness” of their members.

The fallen spirits also try to impress us with their power of over nature: “The coming of the lawless one by the activity of Satan will be with all power and with pretended signs and wonders” (2 Thess 2:9). St. Paul adduces here the sign for the necessary discernment: “Lawlessness”. The works they do may indeed be impressive, but we have to watch out, first of all, to verify whether the “fruits” are good or bad: Do they submit to the laws? Do they recognize the legitimate authority? Are they obedient, for “the prince of the power of the air… is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph 2:2)?

Less difficult to discern are cases of open opposition to God and Christ, because, says St. Paul, “no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus be cursed!’ ” (1 Cor 12:3), or will preach another Gospel: “Even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a Gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:8). St. Paul warns frequently against false teachings, calling them “doctrines of demons”: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, through the pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods” (1 Tim 4:1-3; cf. Acts 20:30).

Our Apostle states clearly: “The god of this world (blinds) the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God” (2 Cor 4:4). Therefore, the teaching of the Church and her Apostles is so important. This brings the light of the Truth.

b) Other approaches
St. Paul himself even went to Jerusalem to verify the genuineness of the Gospel he preached. After confirming his perfect fellowship with them, the Apostles and elders imposed a few prohibitions which would further foster harmony and peace in the Church.

“It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well” (Acts 15:28-29).

Notice how the Apostles have herewith closed two doors to the devil. St. Paul explains how this is to be understood. He knows very well that Christians are not subject to special dietetic rules as long as food is “received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim 4:3; cf. Rom 14:6). At the same time, it was clear to him “that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God” (1 Cor 10:20). And therefore, in order to avoid scandal, for the sake of those of weak consciences he advises that when mention is made of the food having been offered to demons, that it not be taken. “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (1 Cor 10:21).

The order to abstain from unchastity has general applications which St. Paul applies both to the married and unmarried, as all are susceptible to the temptations of the flesh or of “immorality”. St. Paul is “afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor 11:3), for “Satan tempts you through lack of self-control” (1 Cor 7:2, 5). On another occasion he recalls that “Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor”. He does not indicate in which way she was seduced, but concluded, since it was she who seduced Adam, that the woman ought “to keep silent” (1 Tim 2:11-14).

This and other experiences made Paul quite concerned about his people and moved him to alert them: “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evil-workers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh” (Phil 3:2). For prudential reasons he instructed Timothy not to ordain “recent converts” as bishops (1 Tim 3:6-7; cf. 2 Tim 2:25-26), lest they be too weak in the temptations, even though God, of course, “will not let you be tempted beyond your strength” (1 Cor 10:13).

3. Paul’s personal experiences

Just as nearly all of St. Paul’s teachings are based on his own personal experiences, whether mystical, doctrinal or moral, so too does he draw upon his own spiritual battles when instructing about diabolic tactics and actions.

a) Personal experiences

Right at the beginning of his mission a magician “withstood them, seeking to turn away the proconsul from the faith. But Saul, who is also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, ‘You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness…behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you shall be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.’ Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him…. Then the proconsul believed” (Acts 13:9-11). To the Thessalonians he writes once that he wanted to come to see them, “but Satan hindered us” (1 Thess 2:18). He does, however, not explain in which way.

On another occasion, St. Paul described extensively his personal experiences and referred to special graces like being “caught up into Paradise” (2 Cor 12:3). Then he added an interesting confession: “To keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated” (2 Cor 12:7). The Apostle naturally fought against the temptation as we are supposed to: “Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (ibid., vv. 8-9). We learn here that God may allow temptations by the devil, in order to put His faithful servants to the test, so that they with the help of His grace grow still stronger and more perfect in the virtues.

b) Temptations as school of virtues

St. Paul speaks of a certain “Alexander the coppersmith”. Paul handed him over to the Lord: “the Lord will requite him for his deeds” and warned Timothy: “Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message” (2 Tim 4:14-15). Leading people away from faith causes great damage (cf. 1 Tim 6:21; 2 Tim 2:18)! Therefore, Paul acted: “I have delivered [Hymenaeus and Alexander] to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Tim 1:20). Such an “excommunication”, as St. Thomas calls it, while commenting on this text, is an act of charity (“ex charitate ad profectum eorum”, cf. In I ad Timotheum, cap. I, lect. IV, Marietti n. 53-54), for such people will seek the good only when the miss it sincerely in suffering, as the experience of the prodigal son shows (cf. Lk 15:17-18).

In a second case St. Paul acted similarly: It was “actually reported” to him: “a man is living with his father’s wife”. St. Paul could not be present so he ordered “When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor 5:1,4-5). Satan was given only authority over the body; that would evidently lead to much physical suffering or temptations in the flesh. This was to be allowed so that he wake up! It was intended to bring about his conversion and ultimately the salvation of his soul.

4. Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

In the last letter, using Paul’s epistles we verified the existence of many demons and Christ’s triumph over them all. Here we have analyzed how they seduce and tempt man. We adduced Paul’s rules of discernment and also ascertained that with the help of God’s grace the attacks of the enemy can be turned so as to contribute to man’s growth in holiness, if only he fights the battle and perseveres. Once again we discover, how great the grace is we received through and in Jesus Christ! Remember too that we are responsible for the souls entrusted to our care. Let us not fail to instruct them about the spiritual battle so that they may ever walk in the light and never allow the spirits of darkness to overcome them.

Fr. Titus Kieninger, ORC