You may think that this is a strange title for a post on a Catholic blog, since the essential message of Christianity is one of everlasting joy. But there is a place in Scripture where Jesus tells His disciples (and us) not to rejoice. This is because he is making a point about the object of true rejoicing, and He wants to make sure we get it straight.
The disciples had just returned from a very successful mission of demon-thrashing—so successful, in fact, that Jesus remarked that He saw satan fall from the sky like lightning as they worked. “Even the demons are subject to us in your name!” the apostles bubbled. Jesus, while not exactly wishing take the wind out of their sails, still had to redirect it. He noted that, yes, He did give them the power to cast out demons, and that they could be confident that nothing would harm them. But then He said, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven” (Lk. 10:20).
Some modern translations try to soften this command by having Jesus say, Do not rejoice so much in the demons being subject to you, but moreso that your names are written in Heaven. But He didn’t say that. He said not to rejoice in having power over spirits, but rather to rejoice in our heavenly inscription. To some people that may seem to be hair-splitting, but it is in fact an important distinction. It determines the direction of our attention and focus, which is quite serious indeed.
We all need to hear that word of the Lord, and I wish some of the ancient hymnographers of the Byzantine Church had heard it as well. It seems to me that we spend too much time in church glorying in the destruction or condemnation of others, be they enemies of the Church like the heretics or just notorious sinners like Herod or Judas (see, for example, the Offices for the Sundays of the Fathers, the Beheading of St John the Baptizer, Holy Thursday, St Josaphat, etc., in which we are expected to descend even to name-calling in our divine worship). If we are to follow the word of Jesus, we should rather grieve over sinners and enemies and pray for mercy for their souls. “Be compassionate,” said Jesus, “as your Father is compassionate” (Lk. 6:36). But for the grace of God, you and I should also find ourselves on the roster of the reprobate and be the object of ecclesiastical censures put to music.
It is true that the Lord had some harsh words for the Pharisees and other hypocrites. But when they crucified Him He asked only for mercy for them. Jesus wept over sinful Jerusalem; He did not triumphantly denounce it. When two disciples suggested that He send fire from heaven upon those who refused to receive Him, Jesus turned to them only to reprimand them (Lk. 9:51-56). Some ancient manuscripts add the following words of Jesus at this point: “You do not know of what spirit you are. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.”
I wonder if we know of what spirit we are when we rejoice in the destruction of others, even if they are apparently evildoers. It will be an interesting (and perhaps a bit awkward) moment, should we see in Heaven—provided we change our attitudes and actually arrive there—men like Dioscorus and Severus, whom we self-righteously condemn several times a year in our services. Christians of Apostolic Churches other than our own venerate them as saints!
The point is that it is an all-too-human response to the acquisition of power or righteousness to glory in its manifestation at the expense of others. Now there’s certainly nothing wrong with righteousness and not even with power as such—especially when it is power to expel demons, which Jesus gave to the disciples. But when they rejoiced in the exercise of that power, He told them not to. Rather, they were to rejoice in their election as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. The positive focus bears more fruit than the negative and carries no hidden dangers. Fixing your eyes on Jesus and setting your heart on Heaven is better than gloating over demonic downfalls.
What about those demons anyway? Certainly they deserve no regard or compassion from us, as do our fellow human beings. It would be dangerous indeed to develop a soft spot in our hearts for those whose only goal and unremitting efforts are toward our eternal damnation! We should rather loathe all they stand for and have nothing to do with their works.
Why, then, should we not rejoice in the authority Christ gives us over them, and in whatever victories He may grant us? It is a matter of attention. By thinking or speaking of the power you’ve exercised over the demons, you are still giving them attention, negative though it may be. The devil doesn’t care if you love him or hate him. If he has your attention, he has his wish—that is the means by which he can take your power away from you. Rail at him or denounce him all you want; he doesn’t mind. Negative attention will do just fine. But if you ignore him altogether and refuse to fear him, he can’t get to you. Why? He no longer holds your attention.
If we ignore the devil, you may say, won’t we be deceived by him, being unaware of his presence, his strategies and mischief-making? Shouldn’t we try to figure all this out so we can properly arm ourselves against his mean-spirited machinations? No, and I will give you three reasons for saying so.
The first is that we have guardian angels as well as even mightier Incorporeal Powers like St Michael to fight our unseen battles for us. They can see what we cannot see in the spiritual realm, and if we are devoted to them and implore their protection and intercession, they can thwart any and all satanic subterfuge and disarm the entire fallen-angelic arsenal. They can also warn us of anything of which we need to be aware. When I become aware of temptations from the devil, I don’t ordinarily renounce the devil—I call on one of my guardian angels to bring out his spiritual sword!
Second, arming ourselves has nothing to do with giving attention to the devil. St Paul does say that if we are properly armed we can stand firm against the devil’s tactics. But nowhere does he say we have to have them on our minds or to make a study of them. Leave that to the professional exorcists (whom we do need to deal with the big deals). Our armor is truth, righteousness, faith, prayer, the word of God, and the gospel of peace (Eph. 6:10-18). I don’t see where any of these involves paying attention to demons.
Finally, rejoice that your name is written in Heaven. That is, keep your focus on the Lord, praise and worship Him. Stay in the Light and there will be no place for darkness. The devil cannot “breathe” in an atmosphere of praise and thanksgiving directed to God. You automatically toss a spiritual tear-gas bomb to Beelzebub when you bless the Lord! If your eyes and heart are fixed on Jesus, you’ve won the battle without having to fight. Read Second Chronicles 20 and see how the praise of God destroyed entire armies. Not a single sword had to be unsheathed.
I do not mean to minimize the value of the authority Christ has given his people over the powers of darkness. If you are confronted directly by some evil spirit, by all means cast it out!—if you are spiritually mature and experienced enough to do so. But don’t dwell on it, don’t plan your next encounter, don’t even give the attention that comes from rejoicing that demons are subject to you in Jesus’ name. That is the Lord’s own command. Rejoice that God has given you angelic protectors and spiritual armor. Rejoice in his love for you and keep your attention on Him. Rejoice, finally, that your name is written in Heaven!