Most are well aware of Peter’s denying Jesus three times. We may even recall that Satan was involved in Peter’s debacle. As Jesus said before Peter’s failure and the other disciples’ abandonment, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers (Lk. 22:31-32).” Christians have long affirmed that along with the world and flesh, Satan (and his minions) is often involved in tempting people to evil. But how exactly does he tempt us?
Certainly, under God’s sovereignty, Satan brought external pressure to bear upon Peter by inciting bystanders to accuse him of being in cahoots with Jesus (Lk. 22:56-60). Moreover, under God’s sovereignty (Job 1:12), Satan’s use of external pressure can be quite significant. For example, by prompting a “great wind” Satan killed Job’s ten children (Job 1:19). He also caused illness to befall Job, with the intent of tempting him to curse God (Job 2:7). Surely, Satan may tempt individuals through external pressure. But does he also, at times and still under God’s sovereignty, seek to move and tempt people by posing a suggestion to their psyche?
For instance, how did the people who accused Peter come to do so? It wasn’t luck. Jesus plainly indicates Satan’s behind it (Lk. 22:31-32). So did Satan move them through external pressure? Or, is it possible that Satan, appealing to their own selfish motivation, merely suggested it to them? To reiterate, is it possible that Satan sometimes tempts and moves people by directly suggesting a thought to an individual’s mind? Older divines believed this to be the case. To many moderns, however, such may seem like superstitious rubbish. We assume that all our thoughts are just that, our thoughts… period. But consider the following.
We are told in 1 Chronicles 21 that David commissioned a census. The Bible says he was “incited” by Satan to do this, apparently to lure David into pride (1 Chron. 21:1). Interestingly though, external, human pressure is clearly not what Satan used to steer David in this case. Indeed, in the context, the only external pressure David receives is from Joab, who strongly urged David against the census (1 Chon. 21:3-7).
Similarly, in Acts 5 Peter asks, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit… (Acts 5:3)?” The context indicates Ananias (and his wife) premeditated a lie, so as to appear generous. Yet, again, the prompter is Satan. And once more, it is not external, human pressure Satan used to move Ananias, as Peter himself makes clear (cf. Acts 5:4). On the contrary, it was not the church that encouraged Ananias to lie, but Satan. As Darrel Bock notes, Ananias was culpable because it was “…out of his heart that Ananias has acted…” yet he was, “influenced by Satan… [and] left himself open to follow Satan (Acts, 222).” Consequently, Satan’s modus operandi with both Ananias and David appears as an inward solicitation to evil.
Again, to post-enlightenment moderns, the notion of Satan occasionally suggesting sin to people seems the stuff of eccentric Desert Fathers or un-thoughtful enthusiasts. Yet, many of our Reformed forebears held this to be Satan’s common practice. Consider some examples.
Wilhelmus à Brakel states of Satan’s assaults on the godly, “Sometimes he operates by speaking directly to the soul, which is all the more evident when he presents nonphysical matters and arguments to the soul (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 1:301).” Later, à Brakel dedicates fifteen pages explaining Satan’s assaults on Christians (ibid, 4:235-50). Throughout, à Brakel asserts that a chief way the devil assaults is by directly suggesting thoughts to believers. He also includes counsel on how one can distinguish between one’s own thoughts and Satan’s interjections (4:244). In all this, à Brakel contends that the devil operates from a position of cover. And that, “His entire effort and device is to suggest that it is not he who interjects such thoughts, but that they proceed from the heart of the assaulted person himself (4: 244).”
Second, Westminster Assembly member, Thomas Goodwin, makes a distinction between thoughts that are genuinely ours because they originate from our own hearts, and ones coming to us from others, such as, “…blasphemous thoughts cast in by Satan, wherein if the soul be merely passive… they are none of your thoughts, but his (The Vanity of Thoughts, 6; cf. also à Brakel, 4:243)…” Goodwin teases this out by comparing it to being in a room and hearing a man curse. That curse comes to your mind but it doesn’t personally defile you, as it would if it were personally your thought. But, Goodwin warns, “…when the heart broods upon those eggs, then they are our thoughts, though they come from without [i.e. though they didn’t originate from you] (ibid, 6).” The responsibility of the tempted believer is worth noting here. As another writer puts it, when enticing believers, “Satan hath only a persuading sleight, not an enforcing might. He may tempt us, but without ourselves he cannot conquer us… (Brooks, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, 235).”
Further, in his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, John Bunyan records numerous instances where he claims Satan tempted him by putting a suggestion, word, or argument into his mind. Bunyan says of Satan, “Sometimes also he would cast in [i.e. into Bunyan’s mind] such wicked thoughts as these… (The Works of John Bunyan, 1:19).” At other times Bunyan says, “Sometimes I have endeavored to argue against these [i.e. Satan’s] suggestions (ibid, 17)…” The most severe satanic, mind assault was an occasion where a couple of words were repeatedly run through Bunyan’s mind to, “Sell Him,” that is, to sell out Christ (cf. ibid, 23, sec. 139). In all these, Bunyan clearly attributes the suggestions put to him, neither to other people nor to Bunyan’s own inner voice, but to personal suggestions put to his mind by the tempter.
Finally, in Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, Thomas Brooks warns of copious ways the enemy seeks to tempt Christians. In his presentation, Brooks constantly cites the devil as “saying” or “presenting to the soul” various warped reasoning, in order to lure Christians to sin. To be sure, in Satan’s sting to ensnare Christians, Brooks would certainly not exclude Satan’s use of secondary means (like external pressure or bad, human counsel). Yet, given the testimony of his peers (above), it’s unlikely that Brooks meant for all his references of Satan speaking to the soul, to be taken only in a figurative sense.
If this is true, then God’s people are not exempt from satanic suggestion! And in a world where most trust themselves implicitly, it’s important to know that such self-trust is not only unwise because of our susceptibility to sin (Prov. 12:15), but also dangerous. For there is a real tempter and not every thought that pops into one’s head may originate from one’s self. Sometimes these are Satan’s temptations. By such, the enemy may seek to discourage, suggesting we focus on our circumstances rather than trusting God. He may want to lure God’s people from holiness to lust, from submission to rebellion and from humility to smugness. For, if we meditate on his thought bait and roll it in our heart (as David and Ananias did), we’ll soon scoot to bad behavior. Worse, we may learn to rationalize why it’s okay to nurse a grudge, sow discord, regularly complain, envy or hate; even though God’s Word says: do not (Eph. 4:26-32)!
If this is an element of how satanic temptation works, no wonder Peter calls Christians to be watchful, for our “adversary, the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Pet. 5:8).” And no wonder it’s so vital to measure our thoughts, wishes, desires, plans, attitudes and actions by God’s Word (Deut. 8:2-3; Ps. 19:11; Matt. 4:4; 2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Dean Landry is senior pastor at Indian Valley Faith Fellowship in Harleysville, PA.