This is a question I’ve wondered about for a very long time. It’s finally moved to the top of my study list, so I’m going to find the answer.
Mormons are Christians, and we believe that there is a devil who tempts us and seeks to destroy us, just as there is a Christ who seeks to save us.
Before we begin, let’s be clear that we are not studying Satan’s power for its own sake. That is clearly an awful idea, and a highway to hell. As then Elder Faust so succinctly put it, “It is not good practice to become intrigued by Satan and his mysteries. No good can come from getting close to evil. Like playing with fire, it is too easy to get burned.”
Despite that warning, one cannot simply pretend Satan doesn’t exist. As explained by many intelligent strategic minds, “the best offense is a good defense.” Vince Lombardi, Sun Tzu, Carl von Clausewitz, Machiavelli, and many other great military leaders all believed this strategy. Carl von Clausewitz went further and sarcastically noted, “The conqueror is always a lover of peace; he would prefer to take over our country unopposed.” Make no mistake about it – Satan is absolutely at war with each of us. If we do not even understand how he is attacking us, then like an anxious defensive lineman leaping the offensive line prior to the snap, he will have our agency before we even know it.
Understanding Satan’s methods, limitations, and intentions can help us keep clear of his wily ways. Brigham Young said that it is important to “study … evil, and its consequences[.]” I’m sure he would add that there must be “tempera[nce] in all things[.]”
Just What Is “Agency” or “Free Agency”?
For many years in the Church, people would talk about “free agency.” In the past several years, it has become en vogue to drop the “free” part, opting instead to simply say “agency.” This is meant to show that although we are free to choose, we are not free to choose the consequences of our choices. Joseph Smith said, “Satan cannot seduce us by his enticements unless we in our hearts consent and yield. Our organization is such that we can resist the devil; if we were not organized so, we would not be free agents.”
Can Satan Read My Thoughts? Can He Put Thoughts Into My Head?
No. Well, not exactly. Is he able to read or view my thoughts the same way we watch TV or listen to the radio? No. Can he figure out what we’re thinking, though? Yes, quite fabulously. He’s been doing it for many thousands of years, and is quite talented at determining, based on our actions, facial expressions, habits, words, etc., just what types of thoughts are in our heads at any given time.
Think of the toddler who doesn’t realize that his mother is quietly watching him from the doorway as he moves a stool over and reaches his chubby fingers up toward the Lucky Charms box on the shelf to sneak some marshmallows. Does that mother need to actually read his mind to know what he is thinking? Could he possibly be thinking at the time, “You know, my mommy sure loves me. I love feeling sunshine on my face. Maybe I want to go run through the sprinkler, or paint a picture”? Of course he isn’t. Mommy knows that because she sees what he is doing, knows his likes and dislikes from past experience, has seen him do this in the past, and notes the planning and preparations made before the little boy even begins reaching.
And no, I did NOT just compare motherhood to satanhood. That would be ridiculous.
Does Satan need to read a young teenager’s mind? What if he sees that teenager hide under the blankets at night, turn on a tablet, type in a web address to a less than virtuous website visited on previous occasions, and begin to view images which are unchaste? Is there any doubt as to what that teenager’s weakness is? Satan need only make plans for the next day, by using others whose agency he already has partial control of, to lay out traps, snares, situations, further images, related temptations, and other dangers to which this poor teenager may be susceptible.
In our online, cookie-controlled world, big business watches and notes every mouse click, search, view, etc., and tailors the advertisements on the pages to our personal interests. Marketing-wise it’s an absolute gold mine. They store the data of our activities over time, not necessarily to stalk us, but to feed that information through logarithms which find that perfect Downton Abbey-themed 3 piece whisk set we never knew we wanted, and so we order it and become the envy of the neighborhood (because who knew they made such adorable things, especially in sets of threes! I know, right? Sorry, they don’t exist in real life. Go ahead, Google it. Now, as I was saying . . .)
Remember that “there is none else save God that knowest thy thoughts and the intents of thy heart.” However, that only means that there is no other being who knows what our thoughts are by reading them directly. Satan can still surmise what we are thinking.
Think about when Christ went into the wilderness to commune with God, and fasted forty days. We don’t know just how much Satan was allowed to view during the forty days that Christ was communing with God, but we can safely assume that for all or at least a portion of that time, Satan was denied the ability to view what was happening, because after Christ communed with God, He “was left to be tempted of the devil.”
How did Jesus feel after fasting for forty days? I know that at the end of a fast Sunday, I am famished, and the temptation to surreptitiously steal a cookie, a piece of bread, or a cracker gets pretty difficult to resist. Even if Satan was not allowed to know exactly what was said between Christ and His Father, Satan at least knew that Christ was fasting during that time. How do we know? Because the first temptation offered was to ask Christ to turn stones into bread. Could Satan read Christ’s thoughts? No, but he knew what Christ was thinking just by observing him.
How Many of My Mistakes Are Simply the “Natural Man” and How Many Are Sourced By Satan?
The distinction might be rather thin. Joseph Smith said, “The devil has no power over us only as we permit him; the moment we revolt at anything which comes from God, the devil takes power.” Thus, the devil has no power whatsoever over man until we choose to give him such power. How is that done? Anytime we make a choice which is not in strict allegiance to what Heavenly Father has taught us to do, we let go of the iron rod just a little, and Satan reaches for us. Maybe our finger slips off, or maybe we let go and wipe our nose for a second, or maybe we let go and peer at something close by in the mists of darkness which is a little off the path. We may fully intend to return to the iron rod, but the distraction from doing what is right gives Satan just the chance he wants to begin tempting us. He has no compulsory power over our agency, but what we may choose to give him.
“President Joseph Smith … observed that Satan was generally blamed for the evils which we did, but if he was the cause of all our wickedness, men could not be condemned. The devil could not compel mankind to do evil; all was voluntary. Those who resisted the Spirit of God, would be liable to be led into temptation, and then the association of heaven would be withdrawn from those who refused to be made partakers of such great glory. God would not exert any compulsory means, and the devil could not; and such ideas as were entertained [on these subjects] by many were absurd.” Okay, so there is the distinction – if Satan “was the cause of all our wickedness, men could not be condemned.” So there is the rub. Part of the great Plan of Happiness is that we need to exercise agency and learn. If Satan were to control all of our mistakes, we would be responsible for none of them. Thus, many of the mistakes we make must be attributable entirely to us.
“For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord . . .” By “natural man” King Benjamin means “mortal man.”
The scriptures teach us that the natural man is all of us until we become converted to the Gospel and are saved through the atonement. The natural man considers spiritual things to be foolish, is an enemy to God and is subject to Satan’s power, is given laws in order to learn and avail himself of God’s mercy, is in a state contrary to the nature of happiness, is spiritually dead, cannot abide the presence of God, and thus are shut out from the presence of God.
On another occasion, Eliza R. Snow recorded that Joseph Smith reiterated his teaching that we are the solo authors of our own mistakes when he “said he did not care how fast we run in the path of virtue. Resist evil, and there is no danger; God, men, and angels will not condemn those that resist everything that is evil, and devils cannot; as well might the devil seek to dethrone Jehovah, as overthrow an innocent soul that resists everything which is evil.”
The answer then, is that our own sins, those which we make completely on our own, lead to sins which Satan guides us to commit. Yes, by committing sin, we actually give a portion of our agency over to Satan. Repentance is the process whereby we regain independent agency, through the merciful atonement of Jesus Christ.
How Does Understanding All This Help Me?
We need to understand how Satan works, “[l]est Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices.” We cannot pretend that Satan does not exist (although I’ll be that really peeves him if we ignore him until he can figure out how to do a sneak attack on us and force us to notice him). Note that Jesus, when he was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, did such a good job thwarting Satan that Satan gave up for a time and “when the devil had ended all the temptation, he departed from him for a season.” Just like Christ did, we can resist temptations effectively and regularly enough to show Satan that we are not going to be an easy target, and thus reduce the temptations coming our way for a time. Have you ever noticed that? It seems that there are times when we are so busy doing wholesome and worthwhile things, that Satan leaves us alone for a season. Just keep vigilant, because even after he gave up on tempting Christ, Satan only gave up “for a season.” A football team, when nearing halftime of the game will, at some point, just take a knee with the ball and let the clock wind down rather than risk running another play. Does that mean they will be doing the same thing throughout the second half? Oh no. You can be sure that Satan “goeth up and down, to and fro in the earth, seeking to destroy the souls of men.” Satan will be back, ready to pound, thrash and enslave us. Remember that he ultimately seeks “the misery of all mankind.”
Satan’s methods, however, are varied and matched to each of our weaknesses. “For behold, at that day shall he rage in the hearts of the children of men, and stir them up to anger against that which is good. And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well—and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell. And behold, others he flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell; and he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none—and thus he whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance.”
We need not, and in fact should not, fear Satan. We have the ability to exert absolute power over him. One of the most hope-inspiring and reassuring scriptures in the Gospel says, “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.”
When temptation arises, just take a breath, and look around for the escape hatch. There is always one there, but sometimes the escape hatch involves a long and hard road of repentance. Sometimes the escape hatch is a quick prayer. Other times it is a friend that comes to your aid. Still other times it will be found when you make an appointment with your Bishop, who can coach your way back to the iron rod.
There are four specific things we can do differently, now that we know how Satan tempts us. Are you doing these? Do you know someone who needs this type of help? Here are the four:
- Decide now, while your mind is clear, how you will react when predictable temptations will come to you.
- Pray for guidance and safety from temptation in every prayer you say.
- Stay well within the safety of obedience to the commandments, for as the song goes, “in this there is safety; in this there is peace.”
- Fill your mind and your time with positive, wholesome, service-oriented activities. Surround yourself with others who are doing the same. Read in your scriptures regularly (look back at how Christ resisted temptation in the wilderness – see Matthew 4:4,6-7, and 10).
Just don’t forget that we are not the only ones who have suffered because of temptations. Christ himself suffered temptations. In fact, this thought gave the Apostle Paul hope. “Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.”
 In On War, Indexed Edition.
 Discourses of Brigham Young, comp. John A. Widtsoe, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1941, pp. 256–57.
 As Recorded by William P. McIntire, quoting Joseph Smith, 1841, in Nauvoo, Illinois; William Patterson McIntire, Notebook 1840–45, Church Archives.
 Quoted by William Clayton, reporting an undated discourse given by Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois; in L. John Nuttall, “Extracts from William Clayton’s Private Book,” p. 8, Journals of L. John Nuttall, 1857–1904, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah; copy in Church Archives.
 History of the Church, 4:358; bracketed words in original; paragraph divisions altered; from a discourse given by Joseph Smith on May 16, 1841, in Nauvoo, Illinois; reported by Times and Seasons, June 1, 1841, p. 429. Quoted in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, (2011), 206–16.
 History of the Church, 4:605; punctuation modernized; from a discourse given by Joseph Smith on Apr. 28, 1842, in Nauvoo, Illinois; reported by Eliza R. Snow. Quoted in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, (2011), 206–16.