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The Devil and Divine Providence

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

As we begin our conference on the devil and divine providence, we should first describe the meaning of providence.

Providence is God’s all wise plan for the universe, and the carrying out of this plan by His loving rule or governance. The eternal world plan and its fulfillment in time are together called divine providence. As expressed by the First Vatican Council (1869-1870), “God, in His providence watches over and governs all the things that He made, reaching from end to end with might and disposing all things with gentleness.” Divine providence is universal in that all events, even the most personal decisions of intelligent beings, are part of God’s eternal plan. It is infallibly certain because the ultimate purpose that God has for the universe will not fail. And it is immutable because God Himself cannot change.

But there is a deep mystery in God’s providence. Certainly He governs everything, every creature that He made, including the angels and human beings. Does this mean that He governs the thinking and willing of angels and men? Yes, He governs everything. We are tempted to ask, is it God or me? Is it God or the angels? Is it God or the evil spirit? Talk about mystery! It is both God and we; God and the angels; God and the evil spirit.

Immediately we must distinguish two kinds of divine providence: the positive providence of God where He directly wills that something occur or take place; and His permissive providence where He allows things to happen, even permits sin, in order that mysteriously greater good may result from what humanly speaking may be a tragic evil.

We are now in a better position to talk about “The devil and divine providence.”

Let us be clear about two things. The existence and activity of the devil are part of divine revelation. It is an article of irreversible faith that the devil exists as a legion of evil spirits who fell from God’s friendship by their disobedience to His will. It is further part of our faith that God allows the devil to exercise His malevolent will. From God’s perspective, this is to enable us to be more generous in loving and serving the divine majesty.

From the opening verses of Genesis to the closing chapters of the Apocalypse, the Holy Spirit reveals the role of the evil spirit in the salvation history of the human race.

Our purpose will be to identify the most prominent lessons that we should learn from what the Bible teaches us about the devil. Each is a lesson in how the evil spirit belongs to the mysterious permissive providence of God.

Fall of Our First Parents

Lucifer had been one of the highest angels in the heavenly hierarchy. But his superb intelligence became the source of his downfall. He envied God’s almighty power. As a result he was cast into the hell which came into existence the moment Lucifer sinned.

Having fallen from God’s friendship through envy, the devil was allowed to tempt our first parents. He seduced Eve by telling her that she could become like God in knowing both good and evil. This was a lie. Eve persuaded Adam to follow her example. As a result, the whole human family lost its supernatural life. It also lost its built-in self control, and the gift of bodily immortality.

Whatever else we know about the devil, let us be sure we know he is a liar by his very nature. It was through the devil that the human race lost the friendship of God. It was through the devil that we lost the mastery of our human impulses. We are now naturally prone to pride and lust, to anger and greed, to envy, sloth and gluttony. It was because of the devil that we must die, and inherited our capacity for sickness and suffering and bodily decay.

By all the norms of human intelligence, the devil brought evil into the human family. But our faith tells us that the fall of our first parents, instigated by the evil spirit, is also what we sing in the Easter vigil, “Oh happy fall, that brought us the Redeemer.”

It is pure speculation whether God would have become man if man had not sinned under demonic instigation. But we are sure that there was an Incarnation because man had sinned. The tragedy of original sin, brought on by the devil, has become the sublimity of God’s love in becoming man and dying on the Cross for our salvation.

Divine Curse of the Evil Spirit

After the devil had seduced Adam and Eve, God cursed the evil spirit and prophesied, “I will put enmities between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed” (Gen 3:15).

This curse of the devil is also a prophecy. The prophecy has become the Protoevangelium, the very first Gospel. Since Gospel means the “Good News,” God was foretelling the coming of the Savior, which the angel of Bethlehem told the shepherds was meant for the whole world.

The woman foretold in Genesis is Mary. Her seed is Christ. Ever since Eden there has been a deadly conflict between the followers of Christ and the followers of Satan. Not to know this is not to understand the cosmic struggle going on in the world today, between Christian believers and the human agents of the devil.

The struggle is too obvious to be ignored. What our faith teaches us, however, is that Christ, the Son of Mary, has overcome the devil. Moreover, by His death on Calvary He has won for us the strength we need to overcome the evil spirit in our lives.

We have access to the grace, indeed, but we must have recourse to the Mother of divine grace to withstand the demonic pressure of Satan and his followers in our lives. I would highly recommend the following prayer, indulgenced by the Church in the early twentieth century.

Majestic Queen of Heaven and Mistress of the Angels, thou didst receive from God the power and commission to crush the head of Satan; wherefore we humbly beseech thee, send forth the legions of heaven, that, under thy command, they may seek out all evil spirits, engage them everywhere in battle, curb their insolence, and hurl them back into the pit of hell. “Who is like God?”
O good and tender Mother, thou shalt ever be our hope and the object of our love.
O Mother of God, send forth the holy Angels to defend me and drive far from me the cruel foe.
Holy Angels and Archangels, defend us and keep us. Amen

Christ's Temptation by the Devil

The Savior began His public ministry by being led by the Holy Spirit into the desert where He was tempted by the devil.

If nothing in the world ever happens by chance, it was surely not coincidental that Christ was tempted by the evil spirit when He began proclaiming the Gospel of salvation. Christ is our model whom we are to imitate. An essential part of this imitation is following His example of dealing with temptations by the devil.

The following of Christ cannot mean imitating the Savior in avoiding sin. The Incarnate Son of God could not sin. He could only serve His heavenly Father with total generosity. We better know what it means to follow the Savior in generosity of spirit. It means many things. But one thing it had better mean is a courageous, absolutely fearless and super-humanly intelligent resistance of the evil spirit.

Can anyone doubt that the devil is active in the modern world? Whole nations have created laws defending the murder of innocent children. Sodomy is now protected by civil legislation. Pornography is a multi-billion dollar business in America.

Our Lord did not engage the devil in conversation. He finally told the evil spirit, “Be gone, Satan!” In one imperative sentence, this is how we are to deal with the devil in our world. Never allow him to seduce us by his clever snares. Assume that he is a liar.

Christ's Exorcisms

We have already spoken in a previous conference about the exorcisms which Christ performed during His public ministry. As we said, one of the most remarkable features of the Gospels is the sheer number of exorcisms performed by the Savior. The Fathers of the Church explain the reason why. With the coming of Christ, the devils saw that their power over the world was being broken, and they reacted in dramatic self defense.

In our day, there is an extraordinary attention given to the devil. The reason, told me by the chief exorcist of Rome, is that people preoccupied with worldly pursuits are an easy prey to the prince of this world. Never before have worldly pleasures been more accessible, especially through the media. These are mainly pleasures of the flesh, either physical or emotional, with devastating consequences that are changing the course of world history.

Only God’s grace, available through prayer and the sacraments, can cope with this global infestation.

Judas Possessed by the Devil

As described by St. Luke, the chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way of putting Christ to death, but they feared the people. At this point the devil took over, “Satan entered into Judas, surnamed Iscariot, one of the Twelve. And he went away and discussed with the chief priests and the captains, how he might betray him to them. They were very glad, and agreed to give him money. He accordingly promised and sought out an opportunity to betray Him without disturbance” (Lk 22:3-6).

The lesson here is a sobering verdict of twenty centuries of Christianity. Not even the most sublime vocation is guaranteed protection from betraying Jesus Christ. In fact, the devil concentrates on those who have been called to follow Christ most closely, in the episcopate, the priesthood, the consecrated life. It is no coincidence that the one who precipitated the heresy which denied Mary’s divine motherhood was Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople. Nor is it coincidental that the most virulent opponent of the Vicar of Christ today, is the French Bishop Gaillot.

Judas Iscariot is the proto-type for Christian leaders who have been seduced by the father of lies.

Sinners Belong to the Devil

The apostle St. John was preserved from martyrdom and lived to the end of the apostolic age. By the time he wrote his Gospel, the book of Revelation, and his letters, Christianity had become firmly established in the Mediterranean world.

St. John is our most extensive and explicit inspired writer on the evil spirit in all of sacred Scripture. His Apocalypse is a twenty two chapter prophecy of the Church’s history until the end of time. It foretells, in chapter after chapter, how the evil spirit will battle against the followers of Christ. It sees the Church Militant on earth as mainly engaged in a relentless war with the kingdom of Satan.

What the apostle makes clear is who belongs to the Church Militant and who belongs to the kingdom of Satan.

My children, do not let anyone lead you astray: to live a holy life is to be holy just as He is holy; to lead a sinful life is to belong to the devil, since the devil was a sinner from the beginning. It was to undo all that the devil has done that the Son of God appeared. No one who has been begotten by God sins; because God’s seed remains inside him, he cannot sin when he has been begotten by God. (1 Jn 3:7-9).

What are we being told? The beloved disciple is telling us that those who are in God’s friendship belong to Christ; those who are estranged from God, living in unrepentant mortal sin, belong to the devil.

To belong to Christ means to be a channel of divine grace to everyone whose life is touched. The measure of the grace we possess and the degree of God’s love in our hearts is the norm by which God uses us to communicate His grace to everyone in our lives.

But our focus is on how sinners belong to the devil. Separated from God themselves, the devil is allowed to use them as the channels of his malice.

The demonic logic is part of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. He explains how the devil is accustomed to lead persons into sin. He uses people who are wealthy - in money, property, intelligence, skills, attractiveness, education, affability - in order to arouse in others the desire for similar possessions. Having acquired some measure of this earthly wealth, they obtain recognition, honor and praise from their contemporaries. From recognition and honor, they are led to pride. Once seduced by pride, the evil one leads them to all other vices.

Implicit in this demonic strategy is something deeper than appears on the surface. It is not only that the devil uses people’s gifts and talents to lure others to imitate their desire for possession that leads to pride and, through pride, to all other sins.

The devil knows the spontaneous desire we all have to conformity. We want to be like others. We want to be accepted by others. We want to be loved and cherished by others. Peer pressure is a powerful motive in the moral behavior of all human beings, from infancy to old age.

Another name for this natural tendency, call it spontaneous instinct, is human respect. We dread not being accepted by other people. We fear not only what they will do to us, or say about us. We are constantly concerned about what they think of us. Conformism is not an eccentric urge of some people. It is a built-in instinct of our human nature.

The title of our present reflections is that “Sinners belong to the devil.” He uses sinners to beguile others into sin by their natural desire for acceptance by their peers.

Sin in the Providence of God

All that we have said so far describes how the machinations of the devil are part of divine providence. But we still have one more important truth of our faith to consider. After all, the aim of the evil spirit is to lead human beings into sin. Dare we say that the sins to which the devil leads us to commit also belong to the mysterious providential plan of God’s wisdom for the world?

Yes, we may, indeed we must say that the sins instigated by Satan since the fall of our first parents belong to the divine plan for the human race. For the sake of convenience we can summarize these mysterious blessings of providence in four words: mercy, generosity, humility, and apostolic zeal.

Mercy is a quality of God’s love toward those who have been seduced by the devil into sin. We have already said that the fall of man at the dawn of human history was also the first exercise of mercy by a forgiving God. Shall we say that except for the devil, there would have been no redemption by Jesus Christ?

It took Satan to lead our first parents into sin. It took the Incarnate God, born of the sinless Virgin Mary, to lead the progeny of our first parents back to the friendship of God.

But there is one more revealing truth of our faith that should be stressed. The mercy of God toward us sinners is our deepest inspiration for practicing mercy toward others. When the executioners nailed Jesus to the Cross on Calvary, He prayed for His Father’s mercy towards those who, under demonic instigation, had murdered Him.

More than once in our lives we shall be called upon to practice mercy toward those who, we may say, have been diabolically cruel toward us.

Generosity is more than meeting people’s needs. It is nothing less than giving ourselves to God beyond what we have to under pain of sin. Generosity is the surrender of our self-will to the will of the Almighty. Generosity is the hallmark of a true follower of Christ.

It is almost a definition of the devil to say that his very nature is selfish. When Lucifer fell at the dawn of angelic history, it was because he refused to submit his will to the will of the Creator who brought the devil-to-be into existence.

In the providence of God, we victims of the demonic self-will are privileged to expiate our self-indulgence by the practice of selfless generosity. The more deeply we had sinned in the past, the more God now provides us with opportunities for generously surrendering ourselves to His loving providence.

Among the mysteries of faith, I know of none that is more practically important and more necessary in our day than seeing the providence of God in everything, and I mean everything, in our lives. He puts loving people into our lives, only to take them away. He puts us into positions of influence, and suddenly we find ourselves abandoned. We had good health and now we are crippled, or handicapped or in unbearable pain. We were highly respected by others, consulted by them and, as the expression goes, influential in society. And now? People could not care less about what we think or even whether we are still alive.

One of the most sobering statements in the Old Testament occurs in the Psalms, when the Psalmist speaks of his enemies who ask, “When will he die, so that his name will be forgotten!”

Generosity towards God is the heroic love of God in spite of what, humanly speaking, would be impossible except for repentant sinners who wish to repay God’s merciful love for them.

Humility is simply the truth. The scope of God’s providence is an ocean without shores. But within this providence there is one purpose that God always has. He wants us to not just be humble but to grow in humility.

That is why we may say he allows the fallen angels, who are demons of pride, to lead us into sin so that we might grow in humility.

The deepest humility is the realization in my heart that I am a sinner. Whatever people may think of me, I know better. I know that I have offended my Creator and Lord. I know that I have been seduced by the father of lies to think that my will is my will and does not have to be obedient to the will of God.

Certainly persons can be humble without being converted sinners. But in the genius of God’s providence, most people learn humility from the realization of their sins - especially the sins instigated by Lucifer, the personification of pride.

Apostolic zeal is the desire to follow Christ in the extension of His kingdom in the world. These words are not rhetoric. They are the reality of a world populated by sinners who need to be redeemed by their faith in a merciful God.

To be an apostle means to be a channel of grace to bring sinners back to God’s friendship through their faith in Jesus Christ. Over the centuries, the most zealous apostles have been converted sinners. To name just three: St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Ignatius. Paul had been the hater of Christians and had them murdered for claiming that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Augustine was a genius whose lechery took years to wake up to the fact that he, Augustine, had a free will with which to control his sexual passions. Ignatius was a selfish soldier who had an illegitimate child and was reeking of pride when the Lord wounded him in battle and forced him to spend months in a hospital bed.

Certainly the devil had not planned for Paul, Augustine and Ignatius to become giants of zeal for the conversion of sinners. But the devil is part of the providence of God. Those seduced by Satan to become leading sinners, once converted, become leading converters of those estranged from God’s love.

Pope Saint Gregory the Great tells us that, “No sacrifice is more acceptable to God than zeal for souls.” Converted sinners, once ensnared by the devil, will stop at nothing to give themselves, heart and soul, time and effort, even life and death, to share with others the joy of being reunited with their loving God.

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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