By Father Jacob Dankasa
Special to The Texas Catholic
We’re familiar with the story of the great Apostle Peter, one of the most dedicated followers of Jesus. Peter’s love for and dedication to Jesus can be described as ardent, zealous, and enthusiastic. Peter had a very strong and fearless personality, and he was very ready to go all the way for Jesus. His love for Jesus could make him do anything to defend and protect Jesus, and several times he showed how zealous he was in his love for Jesus. At one point he said, “Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you” (Matt. 26:35); at another time he cut off someone’s ear to defend Jesus (Jn. 18:10). Peter had good intentions, and he meant from the depths of his heart to go all out for Jesus. His enthusiasm, his willingness and his assertiveness to give it all for Jesus were Peter’s strengths.
But Satan also saw these strengths in Peter and tried to exploit them. Satan decided to get to Peter, not through his weaknesses but through his strengths. Satan’s mission was not so much against Peter — it was against Jesus, to stop Jesus from achieving his goal of saving the world. From the very beginning, it was Satan’s desire to stop Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross. He tried, for example, to stop him during the temptations, but he failed (Lk. 4:1-13). Then he came back to attempt again to stop Jesus — this time through one of his greatest allies.
When Peter boldly professed Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16), Jesus made a huge proclamation about Peter: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:17-19).
These are indeed strong recommendations given to a trusted person, one who would assume the leadership of the Church that Christ knew he would leave on earth. Satan saw all these events. He saw how Jesus trusted Peter, and he decided he could use Peter’s strengths, that he could exploit that trust to use Peter to persuade Jesus to abandon the cross. (Satan knew exactly what Jesus’ cross meant, and it wasn’t good news for Satan!)
And immediately after Jesus’ commendation of Peter he also told his disciples about this “cross” that he was to carry, about how he would suffer greatly and be killed and then on the third day be raised (Matt. 16:21). This was when Satan really came in to exploit Peter’s strength, his enthusiasm, his influence and his trustworthiness — those very qualities that Jesus saw, the qualities that had caused him to give Peter the leadership of the Church. Satan entered Peter and pushed him to go in defense of Jesus. The gospel says that Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him (a sign of his privileged connection to Jesus): “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you” (Matt. 16:22-23). But Jesus knew at that point that it wasn’t really Peter talking, but it was Satan speaking through him. And Jesus rebuked him, “Get behind me, Satan.” Jesus recognized the voice of Satan in Peter’s words because Jesus was familiar with such cunning and deceptive words — he had heard similar ones during his three temptations. And he said to Satan, “You are an obstacle to me” (Matt.16:23). Jesus knew that Satan was trying to use Peter’s well-intentioned love for him to achieve an evil goal. The “obstacle” here wasn’t Peter; the obstacle was Satan.
As followers of Christ, we find Satan constantly at work even today, still trying to get to Jesus through us. And he does this in different ways. For some who are weak in faith, he exploits their weaknesses. Those are easy targets for him. But for those who are strong in faith Satan uses their strengths to get to them. He exploits their love and enthusiasm for the faith for his own benefit. We have seen examples, even in our own time, of people who take arms and are ready to exterminate anyone who does not believe in their faith or religion. And all these violent acts are done “in defense of God,” as Peter wanted to do.
What is even more worrisome is that Satan is getting to us — today’s Christians, even Catholics. He is, in a quiet and subtle way, exploiting our love for our faith in order to destroy the very core of our belief. Just as he misled Peter, Satan has found a way to exploit our desires as Christians and Catholics to defend our faith, and he is busy tearing us apart. He is building up religious fanaticism and extremism among us. He makes us believe that we’re simply standing up for our faith. Satan exploits our good will, our strength, our desire to stand for our faith, and he turns us into tools for his purposes. In the name of defending our faith Satan makes some of us become haters, even of the very institution Christ created — the Church. In the name of defending our faith we sometimes stand in the way of the faith, in the way of evangelization. And, of course, there is no way that Satan would want us to believe that some of our actions are in direct opposition to what Christ preached.
The many divisions in the church today have these elements of Satan’s manipulative tendency and its effect on Christ’s disciples. We Christians, and especially we Catholics, must become conscious of what I refer to as the “Irony of Peter’s Enthusiasm.” The irony of Peter’s enthusiasm is drawn from Jesus’ dual statements: “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father” and “Get behind me, Satan” — two different, two opposing statements — all said to the same person on the same occasion.
This duality can arise in us in an instant, especially if we are dedicated followers of Christ. As God speaks to us, Satan also speaks to us. Our task is to identify which voice is God’s and which voice is Satan’s. Otherwise we will confuse one for the other in practicing our faith, just as Peter did. Be prudent in your defense of the faith. Be sure you are guided by God’s voice, so you don’t end up opposing the very teachings of the Jesus you intend to defend.
Father Jacob Dankasa is pastoral administrator of Holy Family of Nazareth Catholic Church in Irving.