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Spiritual Warfare Intro: III of IV: What is the devil up to?

November 16, 2009 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Spiritual Warfare

Dear Father John, I have been working on my prayer life consistently for a few years. During this time I have been on retreats and other similar activities. I have noticed a strange pattern: the conservative groups I have had contact with talk a lot about spiritual warfare, but the less traditionalist groups don’t. Until now, I haven’t paid much attention to the for post on spiritual warfare What is the devil up to?discrepancy. But lately I was wondering if maybe I should look into it – maybe understanding it better will help me grow spiritually?

We have looked briefly at the reality of spiritual warfare, not as a distant and dramatic mystical phenomenon, but as the basic dynamism of our everyday life (Part I). And we have identified, again briefly, the three enemies against which we fight these spiritual battles: the world (understood as the sinful patterns of behavior that society in a fallen world tends to normalize), the flesh (the innate tendencies of our fallen nature that draw us towards self-centered decisions and habits), and the devil (Part II).

The devil was the first enemy that Jesus mentioned in his parable of the sower. There is something to that. We mustn’t forget that the devil is real, that he and his minions (the other angels that joined his rebellion against God and became demons) are our opponents, “prowling around like a roaring lion looking for (someone) to devour,” as St Peter explained it (1 Peter 5:8).

The devil prowls around in at least three different ways.


His most dramatic modus operandi is demonic possession. This involves the devil’s inner control of the actions of the human body. It can be permanent or intermittent. The Gospels describe multiple cases of demonic possession. Even in these cases, the victims maintain their free will – the devil can never force us to sin. Usually, possession occurs as the result of someone’s dabbling in occult or esoteric spiritual activities, or through a free descent towards progressively more decadent sinful activities. But sometimes a victim can have no culpability at all. The main objective of demonic possession is to terrorize the victim and cause suffering. It is a manifestation of the devil’s hatred for those whom God loves so thoroughly.


His second-most dramatic mode of operation is demonic obsession. This involves attempting an external control of a victim’s body or senses. Obsession can at times be violent, leaving bruises and injuries (as in the case of St John Vianney, for example). More often it takes the form of an assault on a person’s powers of sight (disturbing visions), hearing (disturbing sounds), imagination (disturbing images), memory, or emotional equilibrium. The main objective of demonic obsession is to deceive the victim, wear them down spiritually, and induce sin.

Diabolical possession and obsession are real, and I am sure this very brief summary has sparked questions. To get answers, I highly recommend Fr. Gabriel Amorth’s book, An Exorcist Tells His Story. It is also available in audio format. Fr. Amorth was the long-time exorcist in the diocese of Rome. He wrote this book in accessible – not theological – language, precisely for normal Catholics.


By far, however, the most common activity of the devil is simply temptation. The devil’s best allies are the other two enemies: our own fallen nature (the flesh), and the fallen world. Many times, those forces are sufficient to lead us into sin. They are especially sufficient when combined with our own self-centered habits, which most of us freely spend so much time perfecting during our childhood and youth.

But as we grow in our friendship with Christ, with the help of his grace, we also grow in virtue. The gifts of the Holy Spirit bolster our humble efforts to be courageous, patient, chaste, generous, wise, joyful, and self-forgetful. As we move towards or along this path of spiritual progress, or as we set out upon it, the devil will sometimes tempt us directly. He does this by intensifying (in our perception) the seductive attractions of the world, or by turbo-boosting the drives and the tug of the flesh.

Sometimes this activity is identifiable by its suddenness, violence, and persistence. But often the devil’s temptations are extremely subtle, barely discernible to our conscious mind. They usually consist in the devil’s putting an idea – a deceptive idea, a half-truth – in front of us. This deceptive, alluring idea is a hook that, if we latch onto it, will either draw us away from God’s will or draw our attention away from something God is trying to tell us.

Rather than giving specific examples of how this happens, I would like to point you to a resource that dramatizes the process with an entertaining and brilliant accuracy, C.S. Lewis’s classic, multi-generational bestseller, The Screwtape Letters. The book compiles thirty letters written from a senior devil to a junior devil about how to engage in the tricky game of tempting humans. And for those of you who do most of your “reading” with headphones on or while you’re driving, I can also recommend a compelling (and, again, entertaining) audio dramatization of that book, recently released by Focus on the Family Radio Theatre and available here (at a discount for our readers – see below!). If you have already read this book, I recommend that you re-read it every few years. Nothing I have found exposes the devil’s tempting tactics more thoroughly or more enjoyably.

Avoiding the Extremes

Whenever we talk or think (or read) about the devil, we have to be careful. It is dangerous for us to forget about him, but it is also dangerous for us to give him too much credit. It is not difficult for Jesus to keep the devil under control. The devil is a created being; God is the Creator. The devil must obey Jesus and is actually fearful of souls who are in the state of grace. True, he prowls around like a roaring lion, looking to make us fall into his deceits and traps so that he can devour us. But his activity is circumscribed by God’s wisdom and omnipotence.

We can avoid giving the devil too little or too much attention if we reflect on this number from the Catechism (#395), which sums things up nicely:

The power of Satan is, nonetheless, not infinite. He is only a creature, powerful from the fact that he is pure spirit, but still a creature. He cannot prevent the building up of God's reign. Although Satan may act in the world out of hatred for God and his kingdom in Christ Jesus, and although his action may cause grave injuries – of a spiritual nature and, indirectly, even of a physical nature- to each man and to society, the action is permitted by divine providence which with strength and gentleness guides human and cosmic history. It is a great mystery that providence should permit diabolical activity, but “we know that in everything God works for good with those who love him.

We still have one more spiritual warfare related topic to cover: how to fight against our enemies. That, God willing, will be our next post.

Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC


Art for this Introduction to Spiritual Warfare post — What is the Devil Up To?: Statue en marbre de Lucifer (par Guillaume Geefs) à la cathédrale Saint-Paul de Liège (Belgique) [Marble Statue of Lucifer in Saint Paul Cathedral Liège, Belgium], Guillaume Geefs (1805-1883), 19th century, photographed by Luc Viatour /, 2008, CCA-SA 3.0 Unported, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

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  • faith in him

    Hi Fr. John or Dan,
    I have a question about using the Wii or other similar tools that may have questionable material. My key question deals with the Wii Fit (it contains different exercises to improve body and health) One set of exercises is yoga, and it is done for the benefit of the exercise itself so you have to hold your body in a certain exercise position and do repititions. How do we know if it can be used as a faithful catholic? It has one exercise also in the balance games that is sitting infront of a lighted candle to balance yourself–I completely stay away from that one. The other yoga exercises really just look and are used just like any other aerobic exercise move. Any help on this would be GREATLY appreciated so we can differentiate and find out the truth in regards to the use of these exercises, etc..

    • Dan Burke

      Here are a few answers I pulled from Catholic Answers – hopefully helpful. Pax Christ – Dan

      Q: Is it okay for Catholics to use yoga as part of an exercise program? What about in physical education for children?

      A: Two factors are relevant here: First, it depends on whether the yoga is being presented in a manner that is free of religious elements-i.e., purely as a system of physical exercise. If it is coupled with elements of Hindu spirituality (e.g., talk about moving kundalini, or energy, around your body), it is not appropriate for Catholics to use it as part of their exercise routine.

      Children are not mature in their thinking, and while an adult who is firm in his faith might be able to go to an “iffy” yoga exercise class without danger of being attracted to Hindu spirituality, a child well might not. If a child is being put in danger of being attracted to Hindu spirituality-either now or in the future-by the program, then it is not appropriate.

      Q: For several months our parish bulletin has included this announcement: “Introduction to yoga for beginning, intermediate, and advanced Hatha yoga, and Iyengar techniques for your wellness and stress relief. Your teacher has found yoga to be a tool for healing for the body, mind, and spirit.” Is this acceptable and should it be published in a church bulletin?

      A:Particular physical exercises that are common to yoga and that help improve one’s health are perfectly fine. The problem is when a Christian participates in non-Christian Eastern spirituality. If your church is sponsoring an exercise class, it should call it simply an exercise class and omit confusing and possibly scandalous terminology such as yoga. If the church is sponsoring classes in non-Christian Eastern spirituality, that is a serious problem that should be discussed with the pastor.

  • faith in him

    Thanks Dan for this clarification. God bless all your work!

  • Blessed In God

    Fr. John or Dan,
    I don’t know if I can make this short, but I will try. At a young age I have been having, I guess you can say, run in’s with the devil. Last friday, was my last. My god-daughter (she is 20 years old) called me screaming and crying, saying the devil was taking her under. It was about mindnight. I hoped in my car and I went to pick her up. I found her in the pouring rain, in the middle of the road crying. When she came to my house, all she did was cry, she couldn’t speak. So I just walked away and left her alone, but a couple minutes later… I heard her scream, it was horrible. I went to hug her, and she rested. So I stayed and prayed over her. But then her breathing changed, and so did her voice. She began screaming, kicking, laughing, and next thing I knew, her strength just shot up, and she got on top of me, started biting me, kicking me, punching me, anything she could do to hurt me. When I finally pushed her off, I sat on top of her, I took my St. Benedict’s cross and just started to praise God. Saying things like; “satan has no power here, this is the temple of the holy spirit.” “the devil is a liar.” But it wasn’t until I claimed the presence of the Holy Mother, that, she just started screaming no. And things were even more intense. I was there for about an hour. I was extremely tired, I felt like the energy was literally sucked out of me. I’m feeling very sick, a horrible headache, and even my skin tone has changed… I know this might sound crazy but even my dog growls at me, and won’t get not even 3 feet close to me. He stays far and just stares, Like I’m a stranger. Now, all my friends which are servers (like myself) in our charismatic youth ministry keep telling me, I have to go to confession. I was wondering if this is true and why? Also, they keep saying I need a spiritual director, but how do I go about choosing one, or finding one? Are there certain things I should look for in them? I really don’t even know where to begin or what to think at this point. I hope either of you can help. Thank you and God bless!

    • Dan Burke

      Please set up an appointment with a Priest that you trust as soon as you can. If that does not work out – contact your diocese and describe the situation to them.

  • Thank you Fr. Dan for this very illuminating and comforting article. Although I will not be able to access the books you have quoted (I am not sure they are available here in Kenya at the Nairobi Holy Family Basilica Catholic Bookshop) still, your article has given me enough guidelines to help me watch out when Satan is on the prowl trying to insert deceptive thoughts and distractions in my mind or doubts regarding my daily religious activities and routine of morning prayers, Catholic readings from the Internet during the day, the Holy Hour Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament followed by the Eucharistic Sacrifice of the Mass, evening Rosary through our Catholic Radio “Waumini Radio’ and my night prayers. I thank God He led me to this website and I subscribed. I am certainly benefiting immensely in my journey of Faith with the help you offer us. God bless you

  • Sus

    I recommend to everyone to read Don Gabriele Amorth’s books, he is the president of the Catholic Exorcists association. His books are short, easy reading and can be found in many languages, including on

    God bless.

    • Dan Burke

      Dear Sus in Christ,

      We agree with your book recommendation. In fact, you can buy this book through us to support the site. Just click here. As well, on the 30th, there will be a post that talks a little more about this.

      Pax Christi


  • Joseph Mierzwa

    I’m writing a movie and I was wondering if I can get some info. Even though the Devil is totally Evil but do you think he would want the balance between Good and Evil Maintain.

  • For the last couple of years, I’ve had some very disturbing dreams with demons appearing to me. Since then, I’ve also noticed that I’m tempted more fiercely on major feast days, even if they don’t fall on a Sunday. I’ve found so much push back at even hinting at demonic activity in the confessional, that I haven’t mustered the courage to bring this up with my spiritual director, in addition to the very embarrassing and graphic dreams.

    I don’t know if this is what oppression is, but it sure wearies me. Is a prayer of deliverance the recommended solution? What should I do?


    • Dear Friend, the greatest temptation you face is keeping this from your spiritual director. Talk with them right away.

      • Last week I sat with my spiritual director and, in the final minutes of our meeting, I talked about my perceived presence of the devil in my life. He didn’t have much to say, but I’ll wait until our next meeting. My impression was that it wasn’t received in a way too different from that in the confessional.

        Heck! Just today a elated about some things and a couple of hours later the enemy was already trashing those things.

        And yesterday we heard the Lord send His apostles to heal the sick, raise the dead and expel demons. Surely, the healing of the sacraments and “raising” those killed by mortal sin are part and parcel of the Church today. But it saddens me when she neglects expelling demons, if not merely paying lip service to demonic influence. I even asked a bishop about what someone should do to get a prayer of deliverance and he just changed subject.

  • faithful

    You write: the three enemies against which we fight these spiritual battles:

    the world (understood as the sinful patterns of behavior that society in a fallen world tends to normalize),

    the flesh (the innate tendencies of our fallen nature that draw us towards self-centered decisions and habits),

    and the devil. (of the devil himself, you point to obsession and possession; and temptation: which is as you stated; the most common tactic of the devil to ‘get the good’ to disobey Christ within. ie: following our will for our gain not trusting in the slow and steady way of Christ towards heaven and attaining that which we need.

    I’d like to list what I think are the ‘worldly’ ways — and ‘the enemy’ of our
    Christo-centric self. Correct me if I’m off. The ways of the world derive
    wanting ‘love’ from ‘the world’ … trying to fit ourselves into the ways that the world says is ‘cool’ (ie: show no feelings, no passion, no sign we are ‘human’… we show ‘stoicism’ even when we’d like to shed tears, or we try for total independence; never asking for help, we have an answer to every problem; rather than simply listening to another and offering a prayer for God to guide them and us, in dealing with the problem. The answer we might find was in just that, praying and being patient with ourselves while being ‘in tune’ to God leading us through our problem, the worldly way might be in not speaking when another is bullying us (intimidating us) to ‘cower’ and ‘shrink back’ at this other’s supposed power in our job situation, not trusting the GOOD authority that is there (good authority that God gives) Worldy thinking is that any other human ‘like us’ has more power over us than GOD within us ie: that we need ‘them’ in order to succeed and be

    The fleshly enemy (us) as it is said “we are our own worst enemy” comes
    about when we stop attending Mass so as to sleep a bit later because we work hard all week and deserve to sleep, when we stop serious praying
    (serious prayer; there is those quick mutterings of Oh God…help me; when a small difficulty comes) Serious prayer is examining conscience before
    falling off to sleep at end of day, or meditating a bit on the Word of God
    quietly, bringing to the reading the day’s activities, or sitting in silence for
    15 minutes before the Blessed Sacrament, or ‘THE PRAYER’ of just
    ‘doing the good’ … not giving in to the sin of sloth, but to always strive to
    work a bit better (irregardless of anyone noticing our work) read and stay
    in the know, show our inner spirit by outer dressing (be neat, not necessarily high fashion, but well kempt and orderly – thus we will have others come to us, and thus we can be instruments of showing HIM to

    This is ‘world and flesh’ ways that bring THE DEVIL to go to work on us.
    (making us fall for Him and away from sanctified grace) YES? correct?

    • Insightful thoughts…

      • faithful

        Thank you for the comment of encouragement. I just tried to get specific as to your post of what ‘the world’ is and ‘the flesh’ and how we can fall for the temptations of THE DEVIL (he does exist) when our minds are not focused on ‘things above’ (things we can’t see) It’s so easy to get all wrapped up in THE EARTH and all it’s ‘fun stuff’

        Fun IS good. God wants us to be happy. Good clean fun; that exercises or bodies he gave us is good. Sitting playing violent video
        games that KILL (and call it fun; not sure he’d be thrilled about)
        God wants us to be rich, AS RICH as we want…money I don’t think Jesus knew about in his day. I think in his day one worked for
        animals or some food for the day. There weren’t banks, and investing; I don’t think. I think Our Lord would have wanted us to be content with what we are given; be it much or little use it for others besides our own desires. Use our talents and discover ‘the source’ of it…and give credit to HIM somehow. (the SPIRIT will say how; but it’s not just about getting up in a corporate boardroom to say to all “I couldn’t have done it without GOD who gave me my ability” That would have come across as boasting. To give HIM credit, is to NOT seek praise of men, but
        to show in one’s way towards others, patience, kindness, helpfulness,
        and give others their due (as God allows us our due) That’s how we
        live GOD to others…He seeks not for us to ‘name Him specifically’
        but in doing as He did for us…gave us out chance to shine; so we
        need to live that same Spirit.

  • Diane

    I suffer from depression and panic disorder. I am on medication, but often feel that this illness is Satan’s way of getting to me. I am praying more, and offering my panics to God as my way of participating a little bit in His Agony in the Garden. I have a good therapist who thinks that increased spirituality and prayer is a help. Thank you for your posts. Please say a little prayer. I have joined the prayer list on “Catholicsonline”, and do post daily and pray.

    • Dear Friend – be assured you are in our prayers.

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