When Satan tempted Christ in the wilderness, he appeared openly to him and spoke to him. When we say we are tempted by Satan, we never meet or see him and he does not talk to us. How can he be said to tempt us to do evil?
“St Thomas Aquinas maintained that the devil cannot destroy our free will or even know what is going on in our minds, but he can lead us astray by working on our imagination.”
Christ told us that we must be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48). We struggle to attain this immense ideal of moral perfection but we are hobbled by our defective human nature and its inclinations.
We experience fantasies of the imagination or memory, emotional upheavals and doubts which we find hard to control. There are people who hurt us. We want to get our own back. Such feelings are morally neither good nor bad. We call them temptations, because they prompt us to desire to do something against our better judgment which, if we did it, would be a setback on our path to perfection.
Are such feelings merely emotions due to our human frailty alone, or are they caused by the active intervention of Satan, the fallen angel whom Christ called the evil one (Mt 13:19), the enemy (Lk 10:19), a murderer, never grounded in the truth (Jn 8:44) and the prince of this world (Jn 12:31)?
Christ’s words affirm that Satan has some powerful hold over this world and us in it. We are warned with God’s help and strong in the faith, to stand up to our enemy, the devil who prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to eat (1 Pt 5:8).
St Thomas Aquinas maintained that the devil cannot destroy our free will or even know what is going on in our minds, but he can lead us astray by working on our imagination.
As the prince of this world, Satan tempted Christ’s imagination with the enticements of worldly power and pleasure. He seems to act in a similar way with us. When we are weak through fatigue, sorrow or disillusionment, we feel God has abandoned us or that his demands are unattainable. In this fragile state we can lose our spiritual perspective and succumb to the attractions of material comforts. In these moments Satan, a superhuman being, can work on our imaginations, although how he does so is unclear. He cannot force our consent to sin.
The Church cannot tell us how Satan achieves his purpose, which is to divert us from the path of perfection. But to be true to the Gospel, the Church teaches consistently that Satan and the powers of evil exist yet can be resisted with the help of God’s grace.