Just in case it wasn’t already clear: the devil exists and we humans are not exactly his favorite cup of tea. And since he can’t do direct harm to God, he decided to hurt Him using the creatures He loves the most: us. So, it shouldn’t surprise any of us, especially we Christians (his favorite prey), that the devil constantly attacks and tempts us. The thing is that he's very sly and we Christians are all too often not “with the program.” We can think that by going to Mass, praying the Rosary, and living a so-called coherent Christian life, we are exempt of all spiritual threats from our enemy. The sad reality is that this isn’t the case. In fact, the devil makes a double effort when he sees that we are living coherent, Christian lives and takes on new strategies. He can’t tempt us like he did before, because he knows that we’ll immediately reject him. Instead, he presents “spiritual” thoughts to us and uses our feelings to try to make us stray in our relationship with God. What kinds of spiritual thoughts and feelings does he use to tempt us? The following are what we could call 5 typical temptations for the Christian who has already started to make steps towards holiness.
Centered on ourselves
One of the biggest spiritual changes that God asks of us when we are determined to be true Christians is to not be so centered on ourselves and to think more about others. God does this so that we can see for ourselves that there is more joy in giving than in receiving. It’s precisely here in the spiritual battle that the devil likes to play all his cards. Why? Because it's really difficult to deceive or make a person fall that has his gaze and his heart fixed on God and others. The devil, in a way, needs us to center our gaze on ourselves so that he can effectively attack us. So let's take a look at some of the subtle ways that the devil uses to make us fall into the trap:
1. Faith is content, not a relationship
The Christian faith is a living relationship with Jesus Christ and it manifests itself in a number of ways: what we believe, what we want, what we think, and what we choose. It's a faith that informs and enriches our entire life because it's a living faith based on a real relationship with Jesus. When a Christian's life is nourished by a loving dialogue with Christ, the devil can do little to nothing. His strategy, therefore, consists in making that relationship fall apart. How? By trying to make our thoughts and religious sentiments, our desire for holiness, our devotion to the Eucharist, or our spiritual and social sensitivity become a personal goal - something we achieve on our own - instead of a gift that we've received. What the devil wants is for us to become religious people without God. He wants us to believe that we can become better Christians without any need for a personal relationship with Jesus. And this turns faith into mere ideology: you have a set of ideas that you believe in (doctrine) and you follow particular customs (tradition), which eventually become rules of conduct that are useful for leading a correct life (morality). It might not sound like that big of a deal, but in reality the devil has conquered. He's converted us into indoctrinated Christians who fulfill Catholic rituals and practices, and even could even be considered good moral examples, but who are dead on the inside. Without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, faith is empty. It's dead because it no longer has a heart, and without a heart we can't love.
In the spiritual life it’s crucial to pray and fulfill our religious obligations with love. And when we do these things it's not bad for us to feel satisfaction and interior peace. We're doing what the Church invites us to do and we're persevering! It's a good thing to feel happy doing spiritual things, but we also have to be cautious. It's easy to lose sight of drawing closer to God and strengthening our relationship with Him by falling into the trap of fulfilling our devotions or praying simply because it makes us feel good. There are times when God will give His consolation and that's great, but there are also moments in the spiritual life when we may not "feel" like He's close to us, or we might not "feel" like going to Mass, but we can't let ourselves be deceived. God wants us to love Him for Who He is, not what He gives us. We have to be faithful to our commitments to God through thick and thin, good times and bad, sickness and health. And a daily examination of conscience is what the Church recommends for us to help us in this area.
3. Attachments to ideas or plans
We love success; we're human. We want our plans to turn out well and that's why we even pray for them. And there's nothing wrong with that. God also wants our apostolic endeavors to succeed. But the devil is very aware of the fact that the human heart often gives itself over too much to personal plans, to such an extent that we can immerse ourselves in what we’re doing and forget about why, for what purpose, or who we’re doing it for. This can easily happen with evangelization projects or apostolate, for example. Just because the goal of what we're doing is to evangelize, doesn't make us immune to losing God as the center and instead placing ourselves in the center. The devil loves to make us think that we're doing the work of God, when the fact is that's we've turned God’s work into "our work." There are lots of good and holy things that we could do but that also doesn't necessarily mean that it forms part of what God wants from us. That's why it's so important to place ourselves in the hands of God and spend time before the Eucharist, giving all of our heart and plans over to Him.
How great! We’re living a pure life, we go to Mass, we think like Christians, and we help the elderly cross the street. Let's all hold hands and form a circle in which no one can join unless they live virtue like we do. Does that sound ok to you? Of course not. But the terrible reality is that judging and despising others for not living or thinking like we do is a common practice when we’re advancing in the spiritual life but it’s still not mature enough. It's another tactic that the devil likes to use to make us enjoy our new role as a self-righteous Pharisees of God. We think we can define who lives the faith and who doesn't. We might even spend long nights in prayer in reparation for the sins of others, crying because the world is falling apart, when in reality, we ourselves are blinded and are offending God with our self-love. If you've fallen into this trap, the important thing is to recognize it with humility. God wasn't joking when he said that prostitutes and publicans would enter the kingdom of Heaven before Pharisees so don’t be so quick to judge. There’s always plenty of room to grow in holiness, and the best way to stay on track is to ask God to keep you humble.
5. False perfection
This might sound surprising, but the devil is also able to tempt us with things that we can easily overcome in order to make us feel like we are good, holy, and quite virtuous. This is a dangerous trap because it can lead us to spiritual pride. It's not that we are able to overcome the prince of darkness, but God alone who gives us His grace. Spiritual pride leads us to believe that we're able to overcome any temptation if we set our minds to it. God and His grace go out the window and the way is paved for the tempter to show us his true colors. We might even pray as we fight against sin but it won't be at the heart of our spiritual battle because we are already convinced that we can conquer on our own. When we discover that we can’t overcome all temptations on our own, we lose peace. Why? Precisely because we thought that we were good and virtuous enough. The next step, naturally, is for us to abandon all hope and despair of God's mercy. But true Christian perfection consists in constantly dying and rising again. It's expressed in a humble love that never places itself above everyone else or is puffed up because of its achievements. It's a perfection that knows that it's in complete need of God's help because it sees its littleness before the greatness of such a calling. All victories are never attributed to oneself because the soul recognizes that the victory comes from God; it’s a pure gift.
So, as you continue on the path to holiness, keep these typical temptations in mind and be on guard, because “your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).