Origen: The Angel on the Right Shoulder and the Devil on the Left

Devil+and+angel+homer2

After reaching the end of my Medieval blog series, I wanted to shift gears a bit. I have always enjoyed reading and studying about Origen of Alexandria (185-253 CE). He is one of the more intriguing of the church fathers. One could study any number of Origen’s writings and teachings (many of which are not part of what we would consider “mainstream” Christianity). Today I want to focus on a passage from his Homilies on Luke.

Origen writes in Homily 12, “To every [one] there are two attending angels, the one of justice and the other of wickedness. If there be good thoughts in our heart, and if righteousness be welling up in our soul, it can scarcely be doubted that an angel of the Lord is speaking to us. If, however, the thoughts of our heart be turned to evil, an angel of the devil is speaking to us.” (from The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 1, ed. William A. Jurgens, 201).

While I hardly think Origen’s words are truly represented by the picture above, there are some parallels. Who has not seen an image like the one above depicted in TV, movies, comic books, etc? The idea that we have a good and a wicked conscience each vying for control over our actions is something with which many of us are familiar. Origen attributes righteousness in one’s character to an angel of the Lord working in our lives, while noting that if our thoughts are evil, the devil is winning out. Origen might be on to something…

Picture this: You are sitting at home on the couch, not really doing anything at all. Maybe you’re flipping through the channels on TV and all of a sudden something reminds you of something you did earlier that day. Maybe it was an example of road rage (sorry, I live in Los Angeles and road rage is a way of life here) or an instance where you didn’t respond how you would have liked. Suddenly you feel shame for those actions and deeply remorseful. You may even pray to God for forgiveness in that moment. Should we give credit to a specific angel whispering in our ear? Or is it simply God’s spirit working in our lives? Does it matter as long as we attribute such repentance and life change to God?

What about the opposite? What about when someone irks you and you allow it to fester and maybe you even do something about it. Perhaps you tell someone how awful that first person was to you (and maybe exaggerate the truth a bit). Perhaps you sabotage that person’s promotion at work in order to get revenge? Are such actions the work of the devil on our shoulder? Is it original sin rearing its ugly head in our lives? Is it human nature to want to get revenge?

While the Homer Simpson cartoon above is obviously a reference to a pop-culture phenomenon more than an apt illustration of Origen’s theology, it still illustrates the good/ evil pull in the lives of people. Origen sees either the Lord or the devil working in our lives and in our hearts in many circumstances. In the 21st century, we might back away from such a spiritualization of daily life, but maybe we should adopt a more cosmic worldview. What do you think? Is Origen on to something? Do we close ourselves off in today’s world to such a way of thinking because we truly believe that God isn’t concerned with the mundane elements in our lives?

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7 thoughts on “Origen: The Angel on the Right Shoulder and the Devil on the Left

  1. I usually think in terms of the Holy Spirit and my own fallen nature. People are probably tempted enough without needing a devil to do it for them…
    But the image can be useful. Something I’ve heard about and always wanted to investigate more deeply is Inigo de Loyola’s “discernment of spirits”: the good spirit brings peace to some people, discomfort to others, the trick is in learning which feelings from God and which do not.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts. Like you, I think that temptation is always around with or without the devil pushing us into action. I am not familiar with the “discernment of spirits” idea you mention, but it certainly sounds interesting.

    • Discernment of Spirits: the story goes that when the soldier Inigo de Loyola (who would one day found the Jesuits) was recuperating from a war wound he had no good knights-in-shining-armor books to read and was stuck reading Bible stories. He noticed that when he started reading the Bible stories he felt bored, but later on would feel peaceful. When he read the knight stories, he would feel excited at first, but later feel empty. In later years he would develop a whole set of rules for discerning what feelings and impulses came from a “good spirit”, and which came from an “evil spirit”.
      Unfortunately I can’t find a good explanation anywhere online, and am too lazy for a deeper study.

  3. I think I am usually more comfortable blaming or crediting myself for my choices, but this opened up my eyes to the idea that the spiritual realm is at work in my life. Maybe it is a matter of what kind of presence you build up around you, am I seeking the Lord or ignoring his desires for me? Reminds me of a thought I picked up from a sermon or Bible study some time ago, it is not enough to say no to sin, we must say yes to God.

    • That’s definitely a good way to look at it. I do think it’s a combination though. Our choices matter, but there are other forces around us that can influence those choices.

  4. Pingback: Origen and Infant Baptism | The Historical Christian

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