It is still rather common to hear people (even unbelievers) speak of having an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. In invoking this image people are usually describing a situation of inner conflict in which two contrary options are vying for our attention and choice. Saint Paul spoke, instead, of that all-too-familiar struggle between the spirit and the flesh—with the latter all too often winning. Anybody who is seriously engaged in the spiritual quest and seeking a growing union with Christ will easily resonate with these two images of the struggle between good and evil that so often plays out in the depths of our still divided hearts. Jesus’ use of the parable of two sons—one obedient and the other disobedient—can be understood to illustrate a similar reality.
In the absence of true self-knowledge—both of our strengths and weaknesses—we can imitate one or other of the two sons. On the one hand, lacking a true sense of our limitations and weaknesses, we can offer an unthinking “yes” to some of the more radical calls to Christian discipleship only to be unable to carry through on our commitment. And so, to use a simple and innocuous example, one thinks of the person who chooses an impressive list of Lenten ascetical practices but is unable to sustain these until Easter. In this the person is like one who chose to build a tower but did not have the necessary wherewithal to complete it. On the other hand, when we are not fully aware of our God-given inner strengths and gifts, we can find ourselves timidly saying “no” to the Spirit’s invitation to a deeper self-denial and a more complete conversion. In this case, the person did have enough to complete the tower, but was convinced to the contrary.
To return to our image of the devil on one shoulder, and an angel on the other, those (like the one son) saying “yes” without true self knowledge of their weaknesses and limitations are usually listening to the devil’s suggestion. So too, those who utter “no” because of an ignorance of their actual inner strength and the unfailing support of God’s grace, are also being deceived by the devil on the one shoulder. However, being able to listen to the angel—and not the devil—calls for that deep humility that neither overestimates one’s strength and capabilities, nor underestimates the inherent strengths and gifts God has endowed one with.
Thus, the meek and humble Moses did not unthinkingly and immediately agree to God’s call to liberate his people. So too, in humility, Jeremiah protested his youth and inexperience in hesitating to accept his prophetic call. Contrast these two men with Saint Peter and his bold and unthinking promise to lay down his life for Christ—only to deny him instead. Peter would still have to learn humility and in utter reliance on Christ he would eventually lay down his life for his Master. Each one of us probably errs either on the side of saying “yes” too quickly and unthinkingly, or “no” when God’s call involves what is difficult, challenging, and unpleasant. Only humility will equip us with that fine-tuned hearing that will distinguish the devil’s misleading suggestions from the angel’s message from God. So let us strive for that true humility that is the only sure way of identifying our God-given strengths and our fundamental weaknesses. In its absence pride arrogantly says “yes” when one should desist, and a false humility says “no” when one should trustingly say “yes.”