“What limitations are placed on Satan?” Ensign, July 1984, 30–31
Lawrence R. Peterson, Jr., high councilor, Salt Lake Brighton Stake. One of the most impressive doctrines found in the Book of Mormon is that Satan’s power over a person increases as that person becomes more wicked, until eventually the person is “taken captive by the devil” and bound with the “chains of hell.” (Alma 12:11.) Satan’s method is to influence the thoughts of men, tempting them and enticing them, always working “in the hearts of the children of men.” (2 Ne. 28:20.) Nephi chillingly describes the method: “He whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance.” (2 Ne. 28:22.)
But Satan’s power is not unrestrained. Joseph Smith taught that Satan has no power over us unless we give it to him. (See Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1938, p. 181.) And Nephi explained that the righteousness of a people deprives Satan of his power, “for he hath no power over the hearts of the people, for they dwell in righteousness.” (1 Ne. 22:26.)
Between the extremes of Satan’s power to captivate and of his utter powerlessness stretches the spectrum of his ability to entice or tempt. As a being of spirit, he works in the realm of spirit, counterbalanced by the Spirit of God. In this way, free agency is preserved, giving us a choice between good and evil. As Lehi taught, “Man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other.” (2 Ne. 2:16.) If Satan entices us to do evil, so the Holy Spirit “entices” us to virtue. (See Mosiah 3:19.) Free agency demands that neither the Holy Spirit nor the evil spirit have power to control the person against his will.
Each of these forces, being spiritual, works directly on the mind of man—or the heart, as the scriptures call it—until the individual willfully chooses to obey one and ignore the other. Then the balance of power shifts and the person begins to move upward to eternal life or downward to destruction and misery. A person who has elected baptism and received the gift of the Holy Ghost has shifted the balance greatly in favor of God’s influence, whereas a person whose wickedness has caused his conscience to be “seared with a hot iron,” as Paul says (1 Tim. 4:2), may have put himself wholly within the realm of Satan’s influence. The spirit of the Lord may cease to strive with such a person. (See 1 Ne. 7:14.)
In his effort to entice, Satan has great power. As Elder Joseph Fielding Smith taught, “We should be on guard always to resist Satan’s advances. … He has power to place thoughts in our minds and to whisper to us in unspoken impressions to entice us to satisfy our appetites or desires and in various other ways he plays upon our weaknesses and desires.” (Answers to Gospel Questions, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith, Jr., 5 vols., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1957–66, 3:81.) The temptations we all are subject to often take the form of whisperings and promptings to our minds and hearts.
The question of whether Satan can perceive our thoughts is not so easily answered. In a statement in the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord says to Oliver Cowdery, “There is none else save God that knowest thy thoughts and the intents of thy heart.” (D&C 6:16.)
Some have interpreted the statement to mean that God is the only being who can know another’s thoughts. As support, they point to Moses 4:6 in the Pearl of Great Price, which says that Satan does not know the mind of God. Others suggest that in D&C 6:16 (and D&C 6:24) the Lord may be referring to man’s inability to know another’s thoughts, and that Moses 4:6 doesn’t say anything about Satan knowing man’s thoughts. The question is thus not addressed as to whether or not Satan can directly discern the thoughts and intents of our hearts.
Whatever the answer may finally be, it is possible that Satan can at least determine our susceptibility to a particular temptation from our words and actions, which reveal our thoughts. As the Savior taught, a tree is known by its fruit and “of the abundance of the heart [the] mouth speaketh.” (Luke 6:45–46.) Satan can see our fruits as well as any person—and we can be certain that he’ll be quick to take advantage of the weaknesses we exhibit.
The question of Satan’s ability to know our thoughts is an interesting one. But in the end, it probably doesn’t make much difference what seeming opportunities Satan has. We’re promised that we won’t be tempted beyond our ability to withstand (see 1 Cor. 10:13); we can consistently choose to resist all forms of temptation, if that is our desire.
President Kimball has written, “Temptations come to all people. The difference between the reprobate and the worthy person is generally that one yielded and the other resisted.” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969, p. 86.)
By desiring to serve God with all our heart, might, mind, and strength, we can eliminate Satan’s power over us—which is the power to cause us misery. The battle for the souls of men is fought within every heart, and each of us has the power of victory. As we seek to follow the Savior, we should strive to have such pure thoughts that it will make little difference who knows them.