We have to remember that our guardian angels can use the same strategies for our good … and anyway, Christ has already conquered.
Those of a certain age will remember the great comedian Flip Wilson. (If you don’t know him, look him up!) One of his most famous routines was about a woman confronted by her husband about buying too many clothes. She defends herself by shouting, “The devil made me do it! The devil made me buy this dress!” and gives an elaborate and hilarious account of Satan following her and hounding her to purchase a new outfit.
The Flip Wilson Defense, as we might call it, is a common one. To hear the way some people speak, we would think that Satan is the cause of every evil that man commits. But can the devil really “make us do it” and cause us to sin?
Well, yes and no.
Satan and the fallen angels chose against God, and, because they are angels, their wills were locked in to that choice. So they are permanently opposed to God, and they act in the world to subvert His will and to try to lure us into sin, to cause our downfall and bring us into their own wretched state.
As Scripture tells us, “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8) It was through the temptations of the serpent in the garden that sin and death entered the world. As Jesus says of him, “He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks in character, because he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44) The devil’s business is to capture souls!
But a demon can never cause you to sin in the strictest sense. The devil doesn’t press buttons and pull levers on your decision-making capacity and cause you to do things against your will. He can’t raise up your arm to smack your friend in the head, nor coordinate your legs, arms, and mouth to rob a bank while you helplessly watch. We always maintain our freedom of choice.
Still, Satan and the demons can tempt us toward sin. They can try to entice us and lure us. St. Thomas Aquinas discusses the assaults of the demons in his Summa Theologiae (ST I, q, 114). Because of original sin, we suffer from concupiscence, which means we have a tendency to choose sin. Our intellects are dark, so that we know the good with difficulty. Our passions are disordered, so that we tend to want the wrong things. Our wills are weak, so that it’s hard for us to do right. We’re already fertile ground for sin.
The demons work on that ground and try to pull us in the direction of evil. There are a number of ways they do this.
First, they can sometimes manipulate the natural world, creating “lying wonders” as St. Augustine called them, as the magicians of Pharaoh who caused serpents to appear.
Second, they can work on our imagination and even our senses. They can put alluring images in our minds, say in offering us a mental picture of a ourselves doing and enjoying some sinful act; or they can affect our senses, like by making those cookies you’d like to swipe from the bakery smell that much sweeter. (Aquinas essentially says that demons can affect our body chemistry to produce physical effects on our passions—though in his 13th–century way he puts it as “moving the animal spirits and bodily humours.”) St. Thomas likens the temptations of the demons to setting out wood to dry so that it will burn better. Their actions upon us are trying to further dispose us to make the wrong choice.
This can sound scary! Demons messing with our minds! But we must remember, too, that the good angels, our guardian angels, have similar power, and use them for positive effect: putting positive images in our minds, nudging our senses to be repulsed by those things we shouldn’t want. And always, the choice is left to us. As Aquinas reminds us, no angel, good or bad, can change our will. They can entice or persuade, but they cannot dominate (ST, I, q. 111, a. 2).
The devil prowls like a lion and hisses like a serpent, trying to frighten us. He can even appear as an angel of light, trying to fool us (2 Corinthians 11:14). He is the prince of the world, but Jesus assures us, “Fear not, for I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
I recommend The Spiritual Combat, a spiritual classic for those trying to discern their path to God.