Pastoral Perspectives

Fighting Demons

One of my favourite anime series on Netflix is Demon Slayer: Kitmetsu no Yaiba (鬼滅の刃, Blade of Demon Destruction). It’s a critically acclaimed animated adaptation of a popular Japanese manga series with the same title. Taking place in the Taishō era of Japanese history, this period fantasy chronicles the adventures of a pure-hearted and upright teenager Tanjiro Kamado. He returned home one day to find his family killed by a demon and his sister Nezuko having been turned into one. Seeking a cure to reverse Nezuko’s demonization, he ends up in the Demon Slayer Corps (鬼殺隊, kisatsutai), an ancient organisation formed to exterminate the demons that terrorize the country. Tanjiro then learns to fight and slay demons in order to save the common folk from the same tragedy which befell his family.

Demon Slayer is a heart-warming series that artfully brings across the beauty of traditional values such as love between kin, loyalty among friends, respect for seniors, and compassion for fellow humans through the struggles of Tanjiro against the powerful Demons—values increasingly endangered in many modern societies. These values are embodied by Tanjiro—the ideal human in the story—while the Demons embody the negation of all these values that make humans human.

At the heart of this hero’s journey is the age-old trope of universal conflict between good and evil, a trope as old as storytelling itself. Such stories of good struggling against evil resonate with us generation after generation, simply because we experience this same struggle in our hearts all the time. Perhaps what makes Demon Slayer so popular is its expression of the primordial human yearning for what’s beautiful, good, and true, and the flickering hope that what’s demonic in us may one day be exterminated.

From this perspective, Demon Slayer is very Christian. The struggle against the demonic is a concept at home in the monastic tradition of the Christian faith. Unfortunately, this concept has been largely forgotten or confused in contemporary Protestant Christianity. To understand more, we must turn to the father of all monastics, St Antony of Egypt. (The story of St Antony is preserved for us by St Athanasius—the great defender of Christian orthodoxy—in his work The Life of St Antony.)

St Antony was a teenager when he obeyed God’s call to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and live as a monk, wholly devoted to prayer (and work, to earn his bread). He also committed himself to a life of asceticism, living in solitude and simplicity, fasting, and keeping vigils (keeping awake at night to pray). He ate only bread and salt, drank only water, and slept on nothing more than a mat made of rushes. This was so he could discipline himself to control his sinful passions and progress in virtue. For many Protestants, such asceticism may reek of “works righteousness” but that’s a grave misunderstanding. St Antony was following none other than St Paul the Apostle, who wrote,

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified. (1 Cor. 9.24-27)

Asceticism isn’t primarily about outward action but inward attitude. It facilitates the process known as “purgation” in Christian spirituality, in which obstacles and distractions to spiritual growth are eliminated. Christians have long recognised that disorderly passions within the self (lust, greed, fear, etc.) cause inner disharmony and impair our relationships with God and others. This is a result of preoccupation with worldly things like sex, money, and pleasure. Purgation is then the process of purifying the self of attachment to them. Asceticism disciplines the mind and body for this purpose. It’s concerned with growing in holiness and in communion with God—i.e., becoming like Christ.

So where does the struggle against demons come in? St Athanasius records St Antony being attacked by many demonic temptations during his time in solitude. St Antony explained that since demons have fallen from heaven, they don’t want Christians to enter heaven either. Hence, they do all they can to hinder Christians. When Christians strive to make progress in their spiritual life, demons will seek to “assail them and tempt them by continually placing stumbling blocks in their way. These stumbling blocks are evil thoughts.” 

St Antony endured all kinds of temptations from demons. There was once when the devil tried to make him leave the ascetic life by putting into his mind worries about his younger sister, the love of money, the pleasure of good food, and the comforts of life. Another time the devil would stir in him unclean thoughts to make him lust. Yet, another time the devil gathered other demons and manifested to him as ferocious animals to strike fear in him. Despite all that, St Antony was no pushover. He would engage the demons in spiritual combat and by the grace of God defeat them every time!

While this might sound fantastic for us today, these encounters which St Antony describes in vivid detail reflect the struggle against temptation which all Christians experience. Somehow, whenever we resolve to live in an obedience of faith, we will quickly face temptations that tend to drag us back into the mire of sinfulness. The man who strives to be chaste will soon find himself struggling against lustful stirrings. The woman who seeks to give up an ostentatious lifestyle will shortly have to deal with nagging anxieties of looking poorer than her peers. Surely, such temptations are no less demonic than what St Antony experienced!

How then may we battle demonic temptations? Without a doubt, St Antony would advise us to engage in ascetic practices to mortify our flesh and order our passions rightly. Asceticism isn’t just for monks (and nuns). The church has always encouraged Christians to engage in spiritual practices such as prayer, fasting, and almsgiving because they aid us in orienting our hearts to God and away from the things of the world. Without such discipline, it’s easy to fall into sin the moment an impulse arises according to the desire of the flesh.

Next, St Antony would counsel us to discern the thoughts which enter our minds. If they tempt us away from faithfulness to God, then we need to catch them in the nick of time and dispel them. For example, the devil may have put the temptation of betrayal into the heart of Judas Iscariot (Jn. 13.2) but he could have rejected it. Instead of resisting the devil, Judas allowed the demonic thought to persist and move him to sin against our Lord.

After catching the demonic temptation, it is important to dispel them. What St Antony did most of the time was to sing psalms, recite biblical verses to refute demons, or to pray. One example, was when the devil appeared to him as a boy to provoke him. Not even entertaining his provocations, he promptly rebuked him with Psalm 118.7: “The LORD is on my side to help me; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.” The use of Scripture to refute demons no doubt comes from the example of our Lord Jesus Christ who fought back the devil with Scripture when tempted by him in the wilderness. Recalling and reciting Scripture in times of temptation gives us power to overcome it because the evil thought is cut off by the living word of the Lord.

Ultimately, we need not fear demons, for our Lord had already triumphed over them. In the words of St Antony, “the Enemy is fallen and his powers have declined. Therefore, he can do nothing; still, though he is fallen, like a tyrant he does not keep quiet, but threatens even if his threats are but words.” The devil and his legions of demons may still be formidable—and we read of their misdeeds in the newspapers everyday—but he can’t force us to do anything against our will. As long as we will to obey God, to seek what’s beautiful, good, and true, our Lord will bring us victory against the devil and his demons by the power of his might. One day, he shall finally exterminate all that’s demonic, and then the primordial human struggle against evil will find its blessed conclusion. 

Preacher Png Eng Keat

February 6, 2022