The Devil’s Powerlessness

Written By St. Athanasius

Since Our Lord lived, the enemy is fallen, and his powers have lost their strength. Therefore, though he can do nothing, nevertheless, like a fallen tyrant, he does not rest, but threatens, though it be but words. Let each of you think of that, and he can despise the demons. If they were tied to such bodes as we are, they might then say, “We cannot find men who hide, but if we do find them, we hurt them.”

And we in that case might escape them by hiding and locking doors against them. But since they are not so, but can enter where doors are locked, and since they are found in all the air, they and their chief, the devil, and since they are evil-willed and ready to hurt – and as Our Lord said: “the father of evil, the devil, is a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44) – and nevertheless, we live and carry on our life in defiance of them, it is evident that they have no power.

Place does not hinder them from plotting; and they do not see us friendly to them, that they should spare us; and they have no love of justice, that they should amend. On the contrary, they are wicked and desire nothing so much as to injure those who seek virtue and honor God. The reason they do nothing is because they can do nothing, except threaten; if they could, they would not wait, but would do the evil at once, since their will is quite ready for it, especially against us.

Look: here are we not gathered and talking against them; and they know that, as we advance, they grow weak. If, then, they had power, they would not have let one of us Christians live, for the service of God is an abomination to the sinner. As they can do nothing, they rather injure themselves in this, for they cannot do aught of what they threaten.

Again, this must be remembered, to end all fear of them. If any power belonged to them, they would not come in a crowd, nor cause phantoms, nor use devices and appearances; it would be enough that one alone should come and do what he could and would.

Anyone who really has power does not destroy with phantoms nor frighten with crowds, but uses his power at once as he wills. But the demons, who have no power, play as on a stage, changing their forms and frightening children by the look of numbers and by their shapes; for all which they are the more to be despised as powerless. The real angel who was sent by God against the Assyrians needed not crowds, nor visible phantoms, nor clangings, nor clappings, but quietly used his power and destroyed a hundred and eighty-five thousand of them. Whereas helpless demons like these try to frighten, if only by shadows.

Now if anyone thinks of the case of Job and asks, “Why then did the devil go forth and do everything against him – strip him of his possessions, destroy his children and strike him with a grievous ulcer?” let such a one know that it was not the devil who had power, but God who gave Job into his hands to be tried.

Because he had no power to do anything, he asked and received, and did it. Herein, therefore, is the more reason to despise the enemy, that though he desired, he was powerless against one just man. Had he had power, he would not have asked for it. He asked, not once, but a second time; plainly he is weak and helpless. And little wonder he was powerless against Job, when he could not destroy even his beasts unless God had permitted. Not even against swine has he power, for it is written in the Gospel: “They entreated the Lord saying, Suffer us to depart into the swine” (Mark 5:12). If they have no power over swine, much less have they over men made in the likeness of God.

God only must we fear, then; these creatures we must despise and nowise fear. Indeed, the more they do, the more effort must we make on our way in defiance of them. For the great weapon against them is a right life and confidence in God. For they dread the ascetics’ fasting, watching, prayers, meekness, peacefulness, their scorn of wealth and of vainglory, their humility, love of the poor, alms-deeds, their mildness, and most of all, their devotion to Christ. This is why they do all they can that there may be none to trample on them: for they know the grace that the Saviour gave to His faithful against them when He said: “Behold I have given you power to trample on serpents and scorpions and on all the strength of the enemy” (Luke 10:19). 

This article is taken from a chapter in St. Antony of the Desert by St. Athanasius which is available from TAN Books.

St. Athanasius (c. 296–298 – 373) was a Church Father, an Egyptian bishop, a noted theologian, and chief defender of the Christian Faith against Arianism. His book entitled St. Antony of the Desert is a best-selling TAN Books classic.