In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in demonic possession. Movies and books, along with human fears and fascinations, are largely the cause. Although actual demonic possession is somewhat rare, it does occur. Each diocese ought to have an appointed exorcist to assess possession. This exorcist, with the permission of the bishop, should use the Rite of Major Exorcism when true and morally certain possession has been determined.
But because actual possession is quite rare, most of us should be looking out for the more common ways that the devil attacks us. His usual tactics are more subtle and pervasive, and we ought not let the exotic distract us from the more commonplace.
One of the key elements in any contest is to understand the tactics of your opponent and to recognize the subtleties of his strategy. In the spiritual battle of life we need to develop some sophistication in recognizing, naming, and understanding the subtleties of the Devil’s common tactics.
A 2011 book by Fr. Louis Cameli, The Devil You Don’t Know, is of great assistance in this matter. Having read it a couple of years ago, I think it would be of value to reflect on four broad categories of the Devil’s tactics, which Fr. Cameli analyzes in his book.
While the four categories are Fr. Cameli’s, the reflections here are largely my own, though surely rooted in Fr. Cameli’s excellent work. I highly recommend reading the work, in which the categories are more fully described.
Here are four common tactics of the devil.
I. Deception – Jesus says, The devil was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies he speaks according to his own nature, he is a liar and the father of lies. (John 8:44).
The devil deceives us with many false and empty promises. Most of these relate to the lie that we will be happier and more fulfilled if we sin or deny aspects of the truth. Whatever passing pleasures come with sin, they are just that—passing. Great and accumulated suffering eventually comes from almost all sinful activity. Yet despite this experience, we humans remain very gullible; we seem to love empty promises and put all sorts of false hopes in them.
The devil also deceives us by suggesting all sorts of complexities, especially in our thinking. He seeks to confuse us and conceal the fundamental truth about our actions. Our minds are very wily and love to indulge complexity as a way of avoiding the truth and making excuses. So we, conniving with the devil, entertain endless complications by asking, “But what if this? And what about that?” Along with the devil, we project all sorts of possible difficulties, exceptions, or potential sob stories in order to avoid insisting that we or others behave well and live according to the truth.
The devil also seeks to deceive us with “wordsmithing.” And thus the dismemberment and murder of a child through abortion becomes “reproductive freedom” or “choice.” Sodomy is called “gay” (a word that used to mean “happy”). Our luminous Faith and ancient wisdom are called “darkness” and “ignorance.” Fornication is called “cohabitation.” The redefinition of marriage as it is been known for millennia is labeled “marriage freedom” or “marriage equality.” And thus through exaggerations and outright false labeling, the devil deceives us. We too easily cooperate by calling “good,” or “no big deal,” what God calls sinful.
The devil also deceives us through sheer volume of information. Information is not the same as truth. Data can be assembled very craftily to make deceptive points. Further, certain facts and figures can be emphasized to the exclusion of other balancing truths. And thus even information that is true in itself can become a form of deception. The news media sometimes exercise their greatest power in what they do not report. And this, too, is a way that the devil brings deceptions upon us.
We do well to carefully assess the many ways Satan seeks to deceive us. Do not believe everything you think or hear. And while we ought not be cynical, we ought to be sober. We should seek to verify what we see and hear and square it with God’s revealed truth.
II. Division – One of Jesus’ final prayers for us was that we would be one (cf John 17:22). He prayed this at the Last Supper just before He went out to suffer and die for us. As such, He highlights that a chief aspect of his work on the cross is to overcome the divisions intensified by Satan. Some point out that the Greek root of the word “diabolical” (diabolein) means to cut, tear, or divide. Jesus prays and works to reunify what the devil divides.
The devil’s work of division starts within each one of us as we experience many contrary drives: some noble, creative, and edifying; others base, sinful, and destructive. So often we struggle internally and feel torn apart, much as Paul describes in Romans chapter 7: The good that I want to do, I do not do … and when I try to do good, evil is at hand. This is the work of the devil: to divide us within. And as St. Paul lays out in Romans 8, the chief work of the Lord is to establish within us the unity of soul and body, in accordance with the unity of His truth.
And of course the devil’s attack against our inner unity spills out into many divisions among us externally. So many things help drive this division and the devil surely taps into them all: anger, past hurts, resentments, fears, misunderstandings, greed, pride, and arrogance. There is also the impatience that we so easily develop regarding those we love, and the flawed notion that we should seek other more perfect and desirable people. And thus many abandon their marriages, families, churches, and communities, always in search of the elusive goal of finding better and more perfect people and situations.
Yes, the devil has a real field day tapping into a plethora of sinful drives within us. His goal is always to divide us, both internally, and from one another. We do well to recognize that regardless of our struggles with others, we all share a common enemy. As St Paul writes, For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph 6:12). Feuding brothers will reconcile when there is a maniac at the door. But the first step is noticing the maniac, and then setting aside lesser divisions.
III. Diversion – To be diverted is to be turned away from our primary goal or task. And for all of us, the most critical focus is God and the good things waiting for us in Heaven. Our path is toward Heaven, along the path of faith, obedience to the truth, love of God, and love of neighbor. And thus the devil does all that he can to turn us away from our one true goal.
Perhaps he will do this by making us too absorbed in the passing things of the world. Many claim that they are too busy to pray, or go to Church, or seek other forms of spiritual nourishment. They become absorbed in passing, worldly things and ignore the lasting reality that looms.
Anxieties and fears also distract us. Through these, the devil causes us to fixate on fears about passing things and fail to have the proper fear of the judgment that awaits us. Jesus says, Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt 10:28). In other words, we should have a holy reverence and fear directed towards the Lord. In this way, many of our other fears will be seen in better perspective, or will even go away altogether. But in this matter of fear, the devil says just the opposite: we should be afraid of the thousands of things that might afflict us on this passing earth, and not think about the one most significant thing that awaits us—our judgment.
At the heart of all diversion is the fact that the devil wants us to focus on lesser things in order to avoid focusing on greater things such as a moral decisions and the overall direction of our life.
Once again, we must learn to focus on what matters most and refuse to allow our attention to be diverted to lesser things.
IV. Discouragement – As human beings, and certainly as Christians, it is good to have high aspirations. But Satan often seeks to poison that which is good. For along with high aspirations we sometimes lack the humility to recognize that we must make a journey to what is good and best. Too easily, then, Satan tempts us to be impatient with ourselves or others. We sometimes expect to reach our aspirations in an unreasonably short amount of time and show a lack charity toward ourselves or others. Some grow discouraged with themselves or others and give up on the pursuit of holiness. Others give up on the church because of the imperfections found there.
The devil also discourages us with open-ended aspirations. The fact is, there is always room for improvement; we can always do more. But here the devil enters, for if we can always do more, then it is also possible to think that we’ve never done enough. And thus the devil discourages us, sowing unreasonable demands within us as to what we can or should do each day.
The devil also discourages us through simple things like fatigue, personal failings, setbacks, and other obstacles that are common to our human condition and to living in a fallen world with limited resources.
In all these ways the devil seeks to discourage us, to make us want to give up. Only a properly developed sense of humility can help to save us from these discouraging works of Satan. Humility, which is reverence for the truth about ourselves, teaches us that we grow and develop slowly, that we do have setbacks, and that we live in a world that is hard and far from perfect. Being humble and recognizing these things helps us to lean more on the Lord, and to trust in His providential help, which grows in us incrementally.
Here, then, are four common tactics of the devil. Learn to recognize and name them. In this way we can start to gain authority over them. Consider reading Fr. Louis Cameli’s book to learn more.
I have compiled here a list of demonic titles and descriptions from the Rite of Major Exorcism that refer to some of these tactics of the Father of Lies. You can view it here: Titles of Satan from the Rite.