Every now and then I hear from older Catholics stories of their childhood experience of preaching, teaching and parish missions that were more motivated by fear than by love.
If you want to get people to avoid certain actions and to embrace other behaviours, fear is a pretty effective technique. No wonder the army sergeant major doesn’t worry about encouraging his soldiers to love each other. He simply wants his team to act on command and is not at all concerned with the motivations of the heart. Blind obedience to the letter of the law is enough for military order.
However healthy human life requires integration of the heart with the words and the actions, and this is only effectively achieved by love.
Those who remember the fire and brimstone technique in sermons often add that Satan featured more prominently than Jesus. This is not surprising because the technique of Satan is fear whereas the method of Jesus is love.
Perhaps we have swung from one extreme to the other? Whereas the devil might have been a bit of an unhealthy preoccupation in the past, Satan hardly gets a mention in contemporary writing or preaching. Does this mean that he no longer exists. or was simply a human invention to personify evil?
It is significant that the greatest teachers in our Christian tradition tell us that just as Jesus is real, so too is Satan real. On many occasions Jesus warns his hears of the reality of the devil and his army of demons (including in today’s gospel) Jesus heals people by driving the demons out of them. Jesus certainly believed that the devil was alive and active in the world and in the lives of people. Remember that Jesus ministry began with his own encounter with the temptations of Satan.
Just as we have all had moments of knowing the presence and action of Jesus in our own lives, perhaps we have all known the presence of the evil spirit in our lives; those moments when we feel hate and act or speak without love and the behaviour seems to come from outside ourselves.
If we deny the existence of the devil how do we account for our evil behaviour? There are times when we are aware of the power of God active in and through us. In the same way the evil spirit is actively working to turn us away from the God who offers us the path to life.
While I have never been too keen on the battle imagery that many spiritual writers use to explain these tensions within ourselves, the fact is that sometimes my life does feel like a bit of a war between good and evil with me caught in the middle torn between the life I deeply desire (the life of God) and the attachments and routine existence I slip into all too often.
Perhaps the devil is delighted when we deny his existence because he is then free to move in the world and in our lives without being noticed and named. This is why Jesus took every opportunity to remove the demons from places and people.
Take note today of the moments when you feel torn between good and evil. Know that while your desire is to live with Jesus, the evil spirit is actively working to draw you in other directions. Make a decision now to ignore the evil spirit and speak directly to Jesus about every aspect of the tension you experience between good and evil. Ask Jesus to make himself and his path more attractive and more convincing than the traps of the evil spirit.