We don’t often think about angels, but maybe we could learn a bit more about them if we spent a little time contrasting them with their fallen counterparts, the demons. We know some things about the devil’s mind and methods, so we can assume the opposite mind and methods must be present in the angels.
Satan is “the accuser of our brothers,” so then it must be the role of angels to support and encourage us (Revelation 12:10). If fallen angels try to make us self-centered, then the holy angels must try to help us be more selfless. If demons try to trick us into disobeying God, then angels urge us to do the opposite (Genesis 3:1-5).
To get a better idea of what angels do, let’s take a look at one of the most telling stories about the devil and his methods—Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. By looking at the way Satan tried to attack Jesus, we can get a sense of the way angels seek to protect us and support us.
First, though, we should make something clear. In many situations, when we experience some spiritual grace, we may find it hard to tell whether it was God the Father, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit who was at work in our lives. How much more challenging it is to identify without doubt the work of an angel! But as difficult as it may be, it is always helpful to know that God created angels as his messengers and servants to help us in our spiritual lives. They are at work behind the scenes, bringing us grace, encouragement, and comfort. So let’s take a closer look.
Jesus in the Desert. Scripture tells us that the Spirit led Jesus into the desert for forty days of prayer and fasting (Matthew 4:1-10). As the time wore on, a hungry and tired Jesus faced three distinct temptations from Satan. In all three of these temptations, Satan was trying to convince Jesus to be a different kind of Messiah than the one his heavenly Father called him to be.
In the first temptation—to turn stones into bread—Satan tried to convince Jesus to become a Messiah who only worked to satisfy people’s immediate desires. In the second temptation—to jump off the pinnacle of the Temple and be caught by angels—he dared Jesus to become a Messiah of showy and spectacular feats. And in the third temptation—to receive the world’s obedience by bowing down to him—Satan tried to turn Jesus into a Messiah subjected to his own demonic reign.
In each of these temptations, we see the devil trying to twist Jesus into something other than what God intended. This is exactly what the devil tries to do in us. And just as the angels ministered to Jesus in the wilderness, they help us in our times of temptation. They are always with us, telling us: “You are a child of God, filled with dignity and honor. You are beloved of the Lord. Become the person God has always wanted you to be!”
Stones or Bread? In the first temptation, which focused on immediate gratification, we can imagine God’s angels assuring us that our heavenly Father doesn’t have any problem with food in and of itself. They would tell us that God fed the Israelites during their journey in the desert and that Jesus miraculously fed five thousand people with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish.
But they would also tell us that God’s word is an even more important kind of food. They might tell us that fasting from earthly food at times can help us focus our attention on the spiritual food God wants to give us. Jesus once said: “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me” (John 4:34). This is why he rejected Satan’s temptation. It was opposed to his Father’s will at that moment.
Satan doesn’t just tempt us with food, either. There may be nothing wrong with many of the things in this world that bring us some kind of gratification: television, the Internet, an occasional drink, or sexual intimacy. The danger comes when any of these things begins to dominate us. In situations like these, angels might encourage us to examine the impact that our choices are having on us and our loved ones. They might remind us that authentic happiness comes from our relationship with God and our relationships with other people, not from the things that bring us immediate gratification.
Testing God. In the second temptation, Satan focused on great and spectacular feats. God’s plan for Jesus was always to save all of humanity by dying on a cross, not by putting on a magic show. To “put God to the test” by calling on him to do the spectacular bypassed the act of love and self-sacrifice that God asked Jesus to endure. So here, Satan was tempting Jesus to test his Father, or worse, to doubt his Father’s loving plan for our salvation.
Jesus never wanted personal glory, even when he performed a spectacular miracle. He did it all to bring glory to God. He never thought that his miracles could save us. He never thought that they could open heaven for us forever. And he never thought that if he could perform enough miracles, he could convince God that the cross was not necessary.
Satan is always trying to convince us to put God to the test. He moves us to question why we have to go to Mass, why we have to repent of our sins, why we have to forgive, and why we have to obey the commandments. But that wasn’t Jesus’ way, and it certainly isn’t the way he wants us to live.
If Satan is always tempting us to challenge God, then the angels must be with us, urging us to trust in the Lord. If Satan is tempting us to think that our own spectacular accomplishments can redeem us, the angels must be reminding us that salvation comes though faith and surrender, not human effort. If Satan is tempting us to doubt God’s love and his plan for our lives, then angels must be telling us how good God is and that he is worthy of our trust and confidence.
For Jesus, the walk to Calvary was a day-to-day decision to bring glory to his Father. There was no shortcut; every step led him closer to the cross. Some days were good, and others were difficult. But the angels never left him. Similarly for us, holiness is a day-to-day decision. Some days are good and others are not so good. Through all of them, angels are with us, encouraging us to trust God. Moreover, as agents of God’s own infinite power, they are more than a match for the demonic forces of evil!
A Twisted Agenda. The third temptation was a direct attempt by Satan to get Jesus to put aside his commitment to his Father and swear allegiance to the “dark side” instead. If Jesus would only switch sides, Satan would hand over to him all the kingdoms of the world and make Jesus a King of kings and Lord of lords—but with a vastly different agenda. Of course, the father of lies had no intention of giving up all of his power or even sharing it with Jesus. He wants everyone, including Jesus, to worship him, and he will make all kinds of false promises to achieve this aim.
Jesus readily found the strength to reject this temptation, because of his intimate relationship with his Father. But we might find it more difficult, especially since Satan is usually subtler with us than he was with Jesus. We all like to get our way. We all like to be looked up to and to have some sense of authority and even power. This doesn’t mean that power—or its partners, wealth and glory—are sinful in and of themselves. But it does mean that our misuse of these things can lead us to love ourselves more than the Lord. It can lead us to place ourselves ahead of other people. And it can lead us to reject God’s authority.
Power, wealth, and glory are capable of turning us in on ourselves. They can become prisons for us, keeping us trapped in self-concerns. But the angels are here to help us. Just as they freed Peter from prison, they can free us from our personal prisons (Acts 12:6-10). So whenever you feel Satan leading you to misuse power, to take advantage of someone, or to place money above people, recognize that angels are present to lead you in the opposite direction. They can help you use your gifts for the glory of God and not your own glory.
Angels All Around. Satan is a liar. He and his horde of demons are full of empty promises. He tried everything in his power to separate Jesus from his Father, and he will try just as hard to separate us from God and from one another. How reassuring it is to know that God’s angels are all around us! They are constantly helping us, encouraging us, and fighting against Satan’s lies for our sake. With their help, we can overcome every temptation and win the spiritual battle.