Thoughts, Intentions, Choices
To what extent can Satan and/or evil spirits influence our minds? As is often the case, there are extremes to avoid, I think. One extreme is that evil spirits are not actively seeking to oppress and tempt Christians. The other extreme would be that evil spirits are able to read our minds and make us do things that we do not want to do. Using the Bible as our source of truth, rather than giving all claims of satanic activity credibility, we can conclude that evil spirits have the ability to tempt us and influence our thoughts by “whispering into the ears of our minds.” Some doubt this, but what do the scriptures tell us?
“But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, And kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles' feet. But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God. And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things.”
Here is an example in the Bible of Satan tempting someone, not by appearing to him physically, but by “filling his heart” with the temptation to do evil. Ananias could have rejected the sinful suggestion, but it is evident that he did not, thus he lost his life.
The Bible also says:
“And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel. And David said to Joab and to the rulers of the people, Go, number Israel from Beersheba even to Dan; and bring the number of them to me, that I may know it. And Joab answered, The Lord make his people an hundred times so many more as they be: but, my lord the king, are they not all my lord's servants? why then doth my lord require this thing? why will he be a cause of trespass to Israel? Nevertheless the king's word prevailed against Joab. Wherefore Joab departed, and went throughout all Israel, and came to Jerusalem. And Joab gave the sum of the number of the people unto David. And all they of Israel were a thousand thousand and an hundred thousand men that drew sword: and Judah was four hundred threescore and ten thousand men that drew sword. But Levi and Benjamin counted he not among them: for the king's word was abominable to Joab. And God was displeased with this thing; therefore he smote Israel. And David said unto God, I have sinned greatly, because I have done this thing: but now, I beseech thee, do away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly.”
Here is another example of Satan tempting someone, not by physically appearing to him, but by communicating a suggestion to him that once acted upon, was displeasing to God. Nothing in the text indicates that David saw Satan, or even considered this idea as being from Satan, yet the Bible states that is where it originated. Clearly, Satan and evil spirits are able to communicate directly with our minds, though we cannot explain how this communication takes place.
Watchman Nee believed that evil spirits can communicate directly with our minds, as evidenced by the following:
“….the mind is affected by thoughts and imaginations that cannot be controlled, filthy pictures, wandering and chaotic recollections, sudden loss of memory, prejudices that come from nowhere, lack of concentration, thoughts that are stagnant and obstructed as if the mind is chained, or fanatical thoughts that turn uncontrollably…”
“….One point should always be remembered: man has a free will. God’s goal is for man to rule himself. Man has the authority to rule over all of his own faculties. Hence, the mind should come under the rule of the will. A believer should ask himself if he has such a mind, and if his thoughts are his own. If they are not his own, they must be the work of evil spirits who work within man’s mind. The will does not want to think, and the mind desires to obey the will. In spite of this, the mind finds itself continually thinking. This means that the thoughts in the mind are no longer his own thoughts, but the work of another "person" who is utilizing his thoughts against his will. If a believer does not choose to think, the thoughts that are in his mind are no longer his; they belong to evil spirits.
"If a believer wants to differentiate which thoughts are his own and which are evil spirits, he should pay attention to how his "thoughts" come about. If his mind is initially quiet, steady, unperturbed, and working according to its disposed position, and suddenly, an idea or a thought comes like lightning that is totally unrelated to his work or his disposed position or is totally out of order, then the flashing thought is the work of evil spirits. Their intention is to inject their thoughts into the mind of the believer, fooling him into thinking that they are his own thoughts. As a rule, the thoughts that evil spirits inject into man’s mind are always something that he does not have and something that is contrary to his usual train of thought.” (go to www.ministrysamples.org for full article entitled – A Mind Under the Attack of Evil Spirits)
While this is no doubt true, it would be a mistake to think that all unwanted thoughts come from evil spirits. We take in pictures and moving images throughout our lives, and many of them are inappropriate. Our minds cannot “unsee” these images. When we dwell on them for the purpose of self-gratification, they corrupt our minds, creating “ruts” if you will, that are easy for our minds to fall into. They can arise at any time, anywhere. Those who commit their lives to the Lord to follow him in holiness can later experience tremendous distress as they do battle with these pictures and images in their minds. This leads to anxiety and stress and it increases the “power” of these images because we can become worried about their significance. Many people, not just Christians, deal with what is known as intrusive thoughts. They are upsetting thoughts that can reoccur frequently, leading to feelings of condemnation and shame because they involve behaviors one considers to be unacceptable, which can make them worse. It is important to know, however, that these thoughts are just thoughts. When the Bible refers to thoughts as being sinful, it is not referring to images, pictures, or ideas coming to mind, rather it is referring to the intentions of the heart, or intentions of the will. Thoughts become sinful when they become intentions. Intrusive thoughts can wander into our minds and out again, with no lasting impressions, but some individuals become hyper-vigilant because of their desire for holiness, or desire to honor their spouse, and become terrified about these thoughts and in doing so they can increase their frequency. After observing human tendencies for long periods of time, evil spirits can exploit the complexities of our minds and use them against us, by reminding us of our past failures, or by introducing new sinful suggestions. This is why we need to protect our minds. It also means that we should support one another and have mercy on one another rather than condemning one another. People need help in this area, yet often times they are silent because of a fear of condemnation and because all some pastors and other ministers know how to say is that they “need to get right with God.”
The following comes from S.B. Gould:
“Thoughts are only thoughts! who is to beheld accountable for them? They are clouds blown about by fancy, taking various shapes. God is not so hard as to judge us for our thoughts; He will try us by what we have done, not by what we have dreamed. No garden is without weeds; there are tares in every cornfield. Who speak thus? Is it those who are conscientious and scrupulous to drive away evil thoughts? Or those who allow their heads and hearts to be hives in which they dwell? I allow that evil thoughts must enter the mind, and I add that they do no harm so long as they are not admitted into the heart. I allow that it is impossible to keep the mind so closed against evil that no bad thoughts find admission. There is no sin in the bad thoughts coming, but the sin begins when they are allowed to settle, and to fly-blow the heart.
I am not going to speak to-day anything that will distress those good souls who struggle with, and drive away, evil thoughts when they torment them; God has seen fit to try them with these, as He suffered the Israelites to lie tried by the remnants of the heathen nations which remained in the land, -- but I am going to speak to those who indulge in evil thoughts of all kinds, and make no effort to banish them. I tell them that this is a dangerous thing. If they rely on being safe so long as they keep their bodies from evil, and allow their minds and hearts to revel in evil thoughts, they are guilty of sin; they may not be staining their bodies, but they are corrupting their souls.
I have lived for some weeks on the side of the Rhine where a bridge connected the German side of the river with the town on the other side, which is in Switzerland. When the market-women came over the bridge, the Custom-House officers made them open their baskets, and they looked in to see whether they brought over anything taxable. I would have you examine all the thoughts that come drifting through your head, and if they are bad, and not allowable, turn them back. "Wherefore think ye evil in your hearts?" Our Lord tells us that sin commences in the heart, and is as truly in the thought as in the act. "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill. But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery. But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her, hath committed adultery with her already in his heart." S. John Chrysostom truly said, "Men's souls are not so greatly injured by the temptations which assail them from outside, as from those evil thoughts which poison them within." There may be evil thoughts of many kinds, envious thoughts, discontented thoughts, profane thoughts, unkind thoughts, angry thoughts, avaricious thoughts, impure thoughts. All these thoughts come buzzing about the head and heart, and will settle to do harm, unless driven away.”
Regardless of the source, we must drive unholy thoughts away. We cannot allow them to linger. Though we may go through much tribulation and temptation because of the vulnerability of our minds, this does not mean that we are sinning. Satan/evil spirits cannot make you sin, and in fact, your flesh cannot make you sin. The flesh is neutral – only your own will can cause you to sin. Evil spirits can tempt, and you can be tempted because of your own desires, but sin requires a choice of the will. Some thoughts may be temptations, and some may be too repulsive to be a temptation, but either way, sin is not committed unless we commit the act, or we choose (intend) to commit the act, or we dwell on the thought for the purpose of sinful, self-gratification.
May God help us to share one another’s burdens, rather than add to one another’s burdens, as we “exhort one another to continue in the faith”…and remember that “we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.”