Temptations: From Ourselves or From the Devil?
Father Fortea, can we distinguish temptations that come from ourselves from those that come from the devil?
There is no way to distinguish temptations of demonic origin from those that come from within us. Demons tempt us by infusing thoughts in our minds. In other words, a demon introduces into our reason, memory, and imagination intellectual objects proper to our understanding that cannot be distinguished from our own thoughts, such as the image of a tree, a memory, or a word. But an angel can also produce such ideas and communicate them to our minds. This is why there is no way to distinguish what comes from us, an angel, a demon, or God directly.
People who are devoted to their spiritual life and pursue an intense life of prayer can recognize those temptations that appear with a fairly surprising intensity and persistence without any discernible reason. For example, if one is reading a book contrary to the faith, we would expect him to experience temptations against faith. But if such a temptation suddenly appears for no reason, lasts for weeks, and is particularly intense, this may be a sign that the temptation may be from a demon. Even then, however, we cannot be sure. As a general norm, we can say that temptations that are persistent and very intense can be suspected to come from a demon.
Priests sometimes counsel spiritual people who have thoughts of blaspheming God or of stepping on a crucifix. If these temptations are chronic, it is reasonable to think that they are the result of mental illness. But if their appearance is sudden, and the person seems to be of sound mind, then there is reason to suspect that such temptations come from a demonic source.
To psychiatrists, we should point out that while we understand the mechanisms of the subconscious, we also need to remember that demons exist. An obsessive temptation can clearly be seen as demonic when it disappears suddenly one day and never returns. The temptations of a demon are never chronic and, no matter how vehement they are, do not leave any lasting effect on the psyche of the person.
Editor’s Note: To learn more about spiritual warfare and demonology, Catholic Spiritual Direction recommends Fr. Fortea’s excellent book Interview With An Exorcist – An Insider’s Look at the Devil, Demonic Possession, and the Path to Deliverance.
Art for this post on whether temptations are from ourselves or from the devil: Temptation of Christ (part of Russian icon), Simeon Holmogorec, 1682, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less; detail of Padre José Antonio Fortea 2017, photographed by Elgatoconbotaselgatoconbotas, 5 May 2017 own work, CCA-SA 4.0 International; both Wikimedia Commons. Cover of “Interview with an Exorcist” used with permission, all rights reserved.