Compete Well For the Faith

26th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

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This past weekend I accompanied a group of twenty-one college students on a retreat about Spiritual Warfare. As this Sunday’s reading from 1 Timothy reminds us, our spiritual life is a battle.

But you, man of God, pursue righteousness,
devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.
Compete well for the faith.
Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called… (1 Tim 6:11-12)

This eternal life to which we are called by God is not a given.  It is something we have to lay hold of.  It is something we must compete for.

Here are some key aspects to spiritual warfare that we need to keep in mind.

The Devil is Real
There are two mistakes we can make about the Devil.  One is to not believe in him at all.  This makes his job easy, because you won’t be on guard against a threat you don’t perceive.  The second is to see him everywhere.  There is a tendency to attribute every evil and temptation to the Devil, and this gives him too much power.  It also leads to fear, which is a victory for Satan.  God tells us, “Be not afraid!”

Spiritual warfare is fought on three fronts.  We battle against the world, against the flesh, and against the Devil.  By “world” and “flesh” I don’t mean that these things are inherently bad.  God made the world and He made us, so the world and the people in it are inherently good.  But we are fallen, and the world has fallen with us.  We have a tendency to sin (the fancy word for that is concupiscence).  We don’t know how to govern our passions well.  And the world is full of other people who also have these consequences of the fall.

We have desires and impulses that can lead us into sin, so we have to be disciplined and govern our passions.  There are worldly influences that can also tempt us away from God.  We must fight against these, as well.  These are very real aspects of spiritual warfare.  But these are passive threats. The Devil is actively out to get you.  He hates you.  He wants you to go to hell.  While we are capable of damning ourselves without the help of Satan, he wants to make it as easy as possible. We must be on guard against the Devil.  If we don’t know who our enemy is, we can’t effectively engage in the battle.

You Are Not Alone
If that sounds scary, remember this–just like the Devil and his demons hate you and want to steer you toward hell, God and all the angels and saints love you and want to bring you to heaven.

The saints and angels are your comrades and fellow soldiers in the battle for your soul.  Get to know them.  Read the lives of the saints and imitate their holiness of life.  They come in all shapes and sizes.  There are young saints and old saints.  There are saints who are priests, and saints who were married. There are saints who were scientists and poets.  All their stories are different, but they all share one thing in common.  They competed well for the faith and won the victory promised in Christ.  They can show you how to do the same.

And don’t forget the angels!  The Catholic Church teaches that we each have a guardian angel assigned to us by God (Mt 18:10).  Your angel has one task — to help you get to heaven.  He is your greatest ally in the fight against the Devil.  Get to know your guardian angel.

Use Your Weapons
Every warrior needs a weapon. The Church provides us with many spiritual weapons and we need to learn to use them effectively.  Some of those weapons are prayer, scripture and the sacraments. If you are not going to Mass, if you are not praying daily, if you are not reading the scriptures, then you are not in the fight.  These things are vitally important.  But don’t discount sacramentals.  One of the cool things about being Catholic is all the “stuff.”  We have rosaries and saint medals and holy water.  We have icons and statues and scapulars.  All of these things (especially when blessed by a member of the clergy) are wonderful tools to help us compete for the faith throughout our day to day lives.

Don’t go unarmed into battle with the Devil. Take advantage of your weapons!

Keep Up Your Defenses
In a lot of vampire fiction, vampires cannot enter a person’s home unless they are invited.  No one would willingly do that, so a lot of story lines involve the vampires cunningly tricking unsuspecting victims to invite them inside.

Satan is sneaky. No one is going to open the door to a big scary demon who comes knocking.  The Devil comes in disguise.  Think about Adam and Eve.  Satan didn’t tempt our first parents to fall with an obvious evil.  He tempted them with fruit.  He tempted them with knowledge.  He tempted them with things that appear to be good. That’s how he operates.  Don’t fall for Satan’s Trojan horses.  Very often he tempts us with things we think will make us happy, but actually go against God’s love for us.

And by all means don’t play around with the occult!  Things like Ouija boards and Tarot cards are not toys.  Necromancy (attempting to communicate with the dead), witchcraft, astrology and other occult practices are specifically forbidden in the scriptures (Deut 18:9-12).  You may be tempted to play around with these things “for fun” but Satan can use them as vehicles to enter into your life.  Don’t give him that opportunity.

We also have to be wary of accepting the devil in small ways.  He can enter in through gaps in your defenses through small, venial sins.  St. Teresa of Avila, in her spiritual classic, The Interior Castle, likened these to little lizards who enter in through cracks in the castle wall.  I raise sheep, and our pasture is protected by a strong fence. But it’s not enough for me to build the fence.  I have to walk the perimeter on a regular basis to inspect it and make repairs as needed.  We need to do the same thing in spiritual warfare by making a daily examination of conscience and regular confession to a priest.  A good spiritual director also helps!

The War Has Been Won
This is the most important point of all.  The good news about spiritual warfare is that this war has already been won for us.  It would be wrong to think about Satan and God as two equally matched opposing forces.  They are not.  Satan is a powerful creature, but he is a creature.  God is the Creator. Jesus Christ has defeated the Devil definitively on the Cross.  If we stay close to Him, we will share in His victory.

The Choice is Yours
If God loves us and wants us to be with Him in heaven, and if Christ has already won victory over the Devil, then why do we have to fight?  Why does God allow Satan to have any influence over us at all? God loves us, and because of that love He made us with free will.  This freedom to choose is what allows us to love God.  But that same freedom makes it possible for us to reject Him.  God won’t force us into heaven, but neither will God allow Satan to force you into hell.

God will not permit Satan to violate your free will (read the book of Job).  You have the choice between God and Satan.

Keep Fighting!
If you feel like you are struggling at times, don’t despair!  That’s to be expected. It can feel frustrating to repent of your sins, go to confession, and continue to struggle with the same sin.  But that struggle is good!  It means you are still in the fight!  It’s when you stop struggling against sin and the Devil that you need to worry.

As I said above, Jesus Christ has already won this war.  With Christ as our commander, the only way we can possibly lose it to give up. So don’t give up!  When you take a spiritual hit and fall into sin, get to confession, and get back in the fight.  Compete well for the faith!