Can Satan Put Thoughts into Our Heads?
We’ve been talking about thoughts recently, our thought lives. On Friday, we asked if God can read our thoughts. The resounding answer is yes, God can read our thoughts, and not only our thoughts, but also the intentions of our hearts. That fact carries vast implications for each of us. It means God can see the difference between what we want to say and what we actually do say. He can weigh the difference. So we can glorify God by stopping sinful words from exiting our mouths. That’s one of the fascinating implications we looked at Friday, in APJ 1917.
We’re going to start this new week with another short but profoundly important question about our thought lives. It’s asked by Garrick: “Pastor John, can Satan himself put thoughts into our heads?”
Yes, he can and he does. And of course, the urgent questions then are, How do we recognize them? And how do we resist them and not get controlled by them? But before I give some biblical examples of this, it would be good to remind ourselves that Satan’s putting thoughts in our minds and putting desires in our hearts or our bodies are very closely related.
Sometimes he may put desires for something sinful directly into our hearts, followed by thoughts that justify those sinful desires. Sometimes he may do the reverse by putting deceptive thoughts in our minds that lead to sinful desires. Now, Garrick only asked about thoughts, but I just wanted to make plain that thoughts and desires are so closely related that we should be asking about both, so I’ll keep that in mind.
Satan and Our Sinful Nature
Let’s start with the biblical text that actually uses the words that Garrick used in posing his question — namely, “Does Satan actually put thoughts in our minds?” Here’s John 13:2: “During supper” — that is, during the Last Supper — “the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him.” The thought, the intention, the desire was there in Judas. Satan, John says, “put it” there.
Now, here’s another clarification though. That does not mean — it doesn’t mean for Judas, and it doesn’t mean for us — that the intention and the desire did not arise out of Judas’s own sinful nature. He’s described in John 12:6 as a thief who is taking money out of the disciples’ money bag. It says he’s a person who had no heart for the poor, which means he was also a liar, which also means he was greedy. So we can infer pretty certainly from this that Jesus was not the kind of Messiah Judas wanted to follow. He had other things going on in his mind and heart. All Satan had to do was intensify and direct Judas’s own sinfulness. That’s true with us as well. There’s no clear fine line between the thoughts that Satan puts and the thoughts that we come up with, or the desires that Satan puts and the desires that we come up with.
“Our own sinfulness is like an invitation, like a welcome mat and an open door to Satan.”
We don’t know exactly how. It’s these how questions that baffle us, isn’t it? We don’t know exactly how Satan interacts with our own sinful nature to do his ugly work. But I think it is fair to say that our own sinfulness is like an invitation, like a welcome mat and an open door to Satan. That’s what Paul says in Ephesians 4:26–27: “Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” In other words, sinfully holding a grudge is like a welcome mat put out for Satan. And it works the other way around. When Satan beckons us to sin with deceptive thoughts or desires, our own sinful nature kicks in and makes those beckonings more attractive.
Here’s another biblical example to answer Garrick’s question, “Does Satan put things in our heart?” Here’s Acts 5:3, where Ananias and Sapphira decide to lie to the apostles and keep back part of their pledge. Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land?” Ananias and his wife had the thought, “Ah, let’s make a little extra money for ourselves by lying about how much we sold our land for.” And the thought became a plan, and the plan became a deed, and Peter describes that whole process as “Satan filled your hearts.” Satan caused the plan to appear more desirable than honesty or worship. Satan’s design filled them up and conquered all their other thoughts and desires. It was a pretty costly sin (see Acts 5:5, 10).
Another example is how Satan moved King David to take a census in Israel against God’s will. “Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel” (1 Chronicles 21:1) — that is, to take a census of Israel. He put the thought in David’s mind, and he made the thought look like military wisdom when it was, in fact, distrust in God. And eventually, he had to repent of that folly.
We might think, as we go back to the very beginning of the Bible, that the deception of Eve in the garden of Eden was not like the way Satan works today, because it was by means of an actual conversation between the devil and Eve. But Paul said that Christians must be on guard against a similar assault just like in the garden of Eden. He said in 2 Corinthians 11:3, “I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” Here, Satan’s work in our minds is called leading us astray, corrupting our thoughts. We don’t know how Satan does it, but there it is; he does it. He can ruin and distort and mislead our thoughts and turn them into thoughts against Christ and for sin.
Weapons of Truth
Now, the main reality to keep in mind in all this is that Satan is a deceiver, a liar, a murderer. He works his destruction mainly by deceiving, by lying — sometimes with half-truths, but always with deceptive, murderous intent. Here’s Revelation 12:9: “The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.” John 8:44: “[The devil] was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
All his thoughts, in other words, are misleading. They’re misleading thoughts. Whether they are half-truths or whole falsehoods, they’re misleading. All his miracles are lying miracles — that is, miracles in the service of a lie (2 Thessalonians 2:9) — which means that the central and steady-state weapon against him is truth, faith in the truth.
Here’s the way Paul says it in 2 Timothy 2:25–26. We should correct our opponents “with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.” And here’s the effect of that: “. . . and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil.” That’s how he does it: knowledge of the truth. Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
Let me keep reading 2 Timothy; I stopped in the middle of verse 26. “. . . they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:26). How did he capture them? How did Satan capture them? By trapping them with lies, untruth. He persuaded them to believe a lie by putting lies in their hearts, by deceiving them that error is better than truth, sin is better than righteousness. The remedy, Paul says, is to speak the truth and show righteous love.
That’s exactly what we get in Ephesians 6:11–18. “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.” Then six pieces of armor are mentioned, and four of the six relate directly to truth, because the schemes of the devil are lies, and we protect ourselves and others with the truth:
- belt of truth (Ephesians 6:14)
- shoes of the gospel (Ephesians 6:15)
- sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Ephesians 6:17)
- shield of faith, which is faith in the word of God (Ephesians 6:16)
“Satan can put thoughts in our minds, but God has given us everything we need to recognize them and renounce them.”
You have the word of God in your hand like a sword, and you put the shield up, and you trust the word of God, the truth.
Renouncing Satan’s Lies
I think the answer to Garrick’s question is pretty clear. Yes, Satan can put thoughts in our minds, but God has given us everything we need to recognize them and renounce them. Here are the questions I think we need to ask of every thought that comes into our mind.
- Is this thought false to Scripture?
- Is this thought false to the glory of Christ?
- Is this thought false to Christ-honoring love for others?
- Is this thought false to purity?
- Is this thought serving to make sin attractive and to make holiness unattractive?
If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then we remember Revelation 12:11, where John says, “They have conquered [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” In other words, we turn to Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us, and we take hold of precious promises that he’s given of his superior worth and helpfulness, and we testify to Satan, “Christ is my truth. Christ is my treasure. Be gone!” And we turn and we walk with Christ in the truth.