Dear Father John, since bad spirits are very manipulative by nature is it possible for bad spirits to present themselves as good in certain circumstances in order to fulfill their plan and if so, what are some ways to distinguish that representation?
Yes indeed, evil spirits are experts at deception. Our Lord, speaking of the devil, pointed this out: “When he [the devil] tells a lie, he speaks in character, because he is a liar and the father of lies.” And St. Paul states this explicitly: “And no wonder, for even Satan masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). The modus operandi of demons is deception and dissimulation. For this reason, exorcists are forbidden from engaging in conversation with devils – they may only ask questions necessary for the rite of exorcism itself.
Take the High Road
The best way to avoid being deceived by duplicitous tempters is to stay focused on the one who is the Truth and the Light: Jesus Christ. If we make the positive, proactive, loving cultivation of our friendship with Jesus into the great obsession of our lives, we will make it very hard for the devil to deceive us. This proactive approach to our spiritual journey is what Jesus was referring to when he exhorted us all to “But seek first the kingdom (of God) and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” (Matthew 6:33).
Of course, “fixing our gaze on Jesus” (Hebrews 3:1) involves using all the normal means for spiritual growth that we have at our disposal: daily prayer (vocal, mental, liturgical), frequent reception of Communion and confession, spiritual reading, self-denial and discipline, active love for our neighbor, fidelity to God’s will and the inspirations of the Holy Spirit, ongoing study of our faith, spiritual direction, etc… When we do these things, we are doing our part in the arena of spiritual warfare, and we become much less vulnerable to the deceits of the enemy. This is what St. Paul meant when he described “putting on the armor of God”:
Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground. So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all [the] flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Ephesians 6:13-17).
Know Your Enemy
Much has been written through the centuries about the deceitful tactics of the devil, and your continuing study of the spiritual life will certainly bring you into contact with a lot of this material. It may be worth mentioning here a few rules of thumb about the devil’s methodologies, without trying to be exhaustive.
If someone is already on a path of sin in their life, if they are moving away from God, the devil will in general try to keep that person comfortable and at ease. He will suggest thoughts of self-justification (“I’m not as bad as everyone else… I’m just doing what other people are doing… No one can really follow the Ten Commandments anyway… God is merciful and he won’t blame me for my sins…”). Notice how these kinds of thoughts aren’t really false, but they can blind someone from seeing the full truth about their actions; they can dull a person’s conscience.
If someone is on the path of Life, actively and intentionally pursuing greater intimacy with Christ, the devil will switch tactics. He will insinuate doubts, scruples, and contradictions that stir up turbulence in a soul, tiring the person out and impeding them from continuing forward: “God can’t really love me the way the Gospels say he does… My sins and failures are too much for God’s mercy… I just don’t know if I should pray the full Rosary every day or just one decade – I feel so guilty just praying one decade!…” The point of these smokescreens is to distract and tangle a person so that they lose their focus on God’s quiet voice in their heart.
The devil will also tend to tempt us in areas where we are weakest – either by temperament, by vice, or even by wounds that we received while growing up: all of these can make us vulnerable. This is why it’s so important to cultivate true and humble self-knowledge, and to ask for that grace.
Sneaking in the Back Door
If our spiritual enemies can’t convince us to commit evil actions, they will often try to convince us to over-commit ourselves in doing good. Stimulating our vanity or our unhealthy emotional patterns that make it hard for us to establish healthy boundaries, he will make it hard for us to say “no” when we ought to. This opens us up to wrongly continuing in destructive relationships, or simply exhausting ourselves doing too many things – good things, but more than what God actually is asking of us. These are common challenges for Christians who are well along on their spiritual journey. They need to be addressed in spiritual direction before they lead to burn-out, cynical frustration, or paralyzing discouragement.
In general, the inspirations of the Holy Spirit are sweet, insistent, and gentle. And when we follow them, they bring us interior joy and peace, even if they require self-sacrifice and uncomfortable generosity. In contrast, temptations from the evil spirit tend to be somewhat noisy and violent, passing, and strident, even when they seem to be drawing us to something that appears to be good in itself. And after we follow them, we end up feeling a certain emptiness and vague sense of dissatisfaction or courseness.
My favorite book illustrating the devil’s usual tactics is C.S. Lewis’s classic: The Screwtape Letters. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it! And if you like to listen to books, there is a wonderful dramatized recording of this one produced by Focus on the Family. Here’s a promo of it. And here is a link to the product.
Stay on the High Road
These are just a few rules of thumb. It is not always easy to apply them in real life situations. It takes knowledge, prudence, and experience. But they may give you something to think about. I would like to end where I started, though: the best defense is a good offense. “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness,” and you will surely keep the devil on his heels. As St. James puts it, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:7-8).
Art for this post on whether evil spirits can be good: 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 / www.Lucnix.be, 2008, CCA-SA 3.0 Unported, Wikimedia Commons.