A: We discussed in a previous Q&A that Satan cannot influence us when we sleep, and we explained in a recent sermon that there are several areas of conduct, which Satan is unable to perform. Apart from his inability to influence us when we sleep, we showed that he cannot materialize in bodily form; that he cannot heal or create; and that he cannot do anything against God’s Will. We also explained that he has no power over us and that he must flee from us when we resist him and submit to God.
The question arises whether Satan and his demons are capable of reading our minds, and whether they can know what we think. Most Christian commentaries and articles take the position that they are unable to do so. However, when focusing on Christianity, as far as we can tell, an obscure sect in the Middle Ages, the “decretists,” seemed to have been the first ones to teach that demons cannot read our minds. It does not appear that this question was seriously addressed within Christianity prior to that time.
We will review the Bible to show what we can learn from Scripture. But as we will see, the distinction is more academic than of practical consequence.
The main argument for the conclusion that Satan CANNOT read our minds is an argument from silence—that is, the Bible does not seem to say specifically that he can do so. That argument is collaborated with many biblical passages to the effect that GOD can read our minds and that He knows our thoughts, and that ONLY God can do so.
First, let us focus on Old Testament Scriptures regarding God’s ability to read our thoughts:
We read in Psalm 139:1-2: “O LORD, You have searched me and known me, You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off.” The NIV states: “…you perceive my thoughts from afar.” The Living Bible says, “you know my very thought.”
Psalm 139:4 continues: “For there is not a word on my tongue, But behold, O LORD, You know it altogether.” Most translations render this verse in this way: “Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD” (NIV, compare RSV and Living Bible). [This translation reminds us of what Christ tells us in Matthew 6:8: “For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.”]
We also read in Psalm 94:11: “The LORD knows the thoughts of man, That they are futile.”
1 Samuel 16:7 says that while a man may look at the outward appearance, the LORD looks at the heart. In 1 Kings 8:39 King Solomon says to God: “You alone know the hearts of all the sons of men.” Psalm 44:21 adds: “Would not God search this out? For He knows the secrets of the heart.” Isaiah 66:18 quotes God as saying, “I know their works and their thoughts.” And Job says this to God in Job 42:2: “I know that thou canst do every thing, and that no thought can be withholden from thee” (Authorized Version).
At the same time, we read in Proverbs 17:3 that the LORD “tests the hearts”; and this statement is repeated in 1 Chronicles 29:17. We also read in Jeremiah 17:10 that “the LORD searches the heart and tests the mind.” Proverbs 21:2 states that “the LORD weighs the heart.” In Proverbs 24:12, we read: “If you say, ‘Surely we did not know this,’ Does not He who weighs the hearts consider it? He who keeps your soul, does He not know it?”
In Psalm 139:23, David asks God to search him and “know” his heart.
While God searches our hearts and considers our thoughts, this does not mean that He knows ahead of time what we will think or do in a given situation. Note the following comments by Moses about God, when he told ancient Israel: “And you shall remember that the LORD your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2).
He also said in Deuteronomy 13:1-3: “If there arises among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes to pass, of which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods’—which you have not known—‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams, for the LORD your God is testing you to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul…”
God can look into our hearts (compare Deuteronomy 31:21: “I know the purposes which they are already forming”, RSV), but IF God knew beforehand at all times what all of our thoughts would be, then there would be no need for testing us to find out. God created us as beings with free moral agency, and He wants us to build holy righteous character, which requires free choice and the free will to obey God. Therefore, God has chosen NOT to know many times how we will react when we are tested.
God would not give Satan powers and insight, which He, God, does not even want to have—showing that Satan does not have the ability to know beforehand what we will do.
In reviewing New Testament passages regarding the Father’s and Jesus Christ’s ability to know our thoughts and read our minds, we find that Jesus, as a human being, knew the thoughts of people through the inspiration of the Father’s Holy Spirit in Him (Matthew 9:3-4; 12:25; Mark 2:6-8; Luke 5:21-22; 6:8; 9:47; 11:17).
We also find that Jesus, as a resurrected God being, has the ability to discern and know the thoughts of people (Luke 24:38; Hebrews 4:12-13; Revelation 2:23).
The Bible also makes it very clear that God the Father knows our thoughts (Luke 16:15; compare 1 Corinthians 3:20). In Acts 1:24, the disciples prayed to the Father to reveal to them who should take the place of Judas Iscariot: “You, O LORD, who know the hearts of all, show which of these two You have chosen.” In Acts 15:8, Peter said that God “who knows the heart,” accepted Gentiles into the Church by giving them the Holy Spirit.
The New Testament confirms, what we have already seen in Old Testament passages, that God the Father and God the Son search our hearts and test us to find out how we really feel (Romans 8:27; 1 Thessalonians 2:4).
God will at the proper time make manifest and reveal the innermost thoughts and counsels or motives of our hearts (1 Corinthians 4:5; Luke 2:35). While our hearts might condemn us because of wrongly understood guilt complexes, God is greater than our hearts and knows all things (1 John 3:20). At the same time, we can deceive our hearts, but not God (James 1:26).
The realization that God knows our thoughts has great significance for our relationship with God. After all, we do not only sin when we commit a sinful act, but also, when we think a sinful thought. Christ said that we have already committed adultery in our heart when we lust after a woman (Matthew 5:28). The Tenth Commandment prohibits us to covet what our neighbor has, and evil thoughts and desires originate in our heart (Matthew 15:18-19). Peter told Simon to repent of his wickedness and pray to God “if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you” (Acts 8:22). It is therefore important to bring “every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).
Comparing God’s abilities with Satan’s, we see remarkable differences. But it is important not to jump hastily to conclusions, which many commentaries have done. For instance, we might read about the argument that the fact that Satan tempted Christ proves that Satan could not read Christ’s thoughts—otherwise, Satan would have known that Christ would not give in to sin. The same argument has been made regarding Job’s temptation—that Satan did not know Job’s thoughts because he thought Job would curse God. These arguments would be as wrong as to say that the fact that God tests us proves that God cannot read our thoughts. These temptations and trials have nothing to do with the ability or inability to know the thoughts of men; rather, God’s and Satan’s tests and trials are for the purpose of finding out how man will act and react—while Satan tempts us, hoping that we will sin, God tests us, hoping that we will not sin.
On the other hand, Satan does not even need to be able to read our thoughts to have a pretty good idea and to make a well-educated guess as to what we may think and how we will act. If we are in the habit of sinning in a specific area, his particular temptations will, in all likelihood, lead to further sins in that area; he observes us, including our weaknesses, and knows what we like to do; what we like to talk about; what we like to read, watch or listen to. Our facial expression and body language give him a good sense as to what we think, and what our next action might be. Satan and his demons are watching us very closely; they observe our actions and they hear what we say.
In addition, as the prince of the power of the air, Satan can broadcast his negative and destructive thoughts to human beings (Ephesians 2:2). He moved David to sin (1 Chronicles 21:1); and he put it into the heart of Judas to betray Christ (John 13:2). He also filled the heart of Ananias to lie against God (Acts 5:3). Satan can blind our minds to the truth (2 Corinthians 4:4). He can even take away the Word of God out of our hearts which was sown in our hearts (Matthew 13:19; Luke 8:12).
While Satan can hear us when we yell, scream and voice our frustration, it appears he might not be able to read our thoughts (unless they are “revealed” through our body language, facial expression or other “outward” signs). It is therefore important to follow David’s advice in Psalm 4:4: “Be angry, and do not sin. Meditate within your heart on your bed, and be still” (also compare Psalm 77:6). At the same time, it is much more important to realize that even though Satan may not be able to read our minds, God can, and whether or not we express audibly our improper thoughts, Ecclesiastes 10:20 warns us: “Do not curse the king, even in your thought; Do not curse the rich, even in your bedroom; For a bird of the air may carry your voice, And a bird in flight may tell the matter.”
Still, in ways tremendously difficult, if not impossible to understand by the human mind, God has set in motion a way of direct communication between Him and His people to reveal matters to His Church, which He has withheld from angels and demons, until the Church reveals it to them (showing that they cannot read the minds and thoughts of God or of people).
We read in 1 Peter 1:10-12:
“Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, reaching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ [which] was in them was indicating when [it] testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things which angels desire to look into.”
Ephesians 3:8-10 adds:
“To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.”
There is one most compelling Scripture relating an incident when Satan and his demons were NOT able to read the thoughts of a man. This passage can be found in the second chapter of the book of Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar had dreams, which troubled him, and he asked the magicians, the astrologers, the sorcerers and the Chaldeans to tell him one of his dreams and its meaning, testing them, because if he were to tell them his dream, they could have come up with any interpretation of their own devising. They were unable to tell the king his dream, even though they were clearly Satan’s instruments and perhaps demon-possessed.
The king was enraged and ordered the execution of all the wise men of Babylon. God revealed the dream and its meaning to Daniel, and so Daniel was brought before the king to tell him his dream and the interpretation thereof, stating, “The secret which the king has demanded, the wise men, the astrologers, the magicians and the soothsayers cannot declare to the king. But there is a God in heaven who reveals secrets, and He has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days” (Daniel 2:27-28). Surely, IF Satan and his demons had been able to read Nebuchadnezzar’s thoughts, they would have been able, through their human sorcerers, to reveal the dream to the king, even though they would still not have been able to reveal the meaning of it.
While Satan and his demons may not be able to read our thoughts, they are very able to observe us and notice our words, actions and reactions. More importantly, God can even read our minds. Nothing is hidden from Him, and it is critical that we are aware of THAT fact at all times.
Lead Writer: Norbert Link