One of the things the Lord has been teaching me recently relates to the spiritual battle we are constantly fighting. Paul wrote about this battle:
11 Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.If we aren't wrestling against flesh and blood, who are we wrestling against? Who are the principalities, the powers, the rulers of the darkness, and the spiritual wickedness in high places? They are part of Satan's kingdom and we are in a battle against them. His kingdom mirrors many aspects of the kingdom of God (see Colossians 1:16).
12 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. (Ephesians 6)
While the Holy Ghost and angels try to teach us truth and invite us to live by it, those in Satan's kingdom are trying to either keep us in a state of spiritual blindness or lure us away from the truth and coerce us act contrary to those things we know are true. Their aim is to stop us from progressing.
Satan's Flaxen Cord
Just as the Holy Ghost's communication is subtle, Satan's is subtle too. Just as there are times we don't know that the Holy Ghost is speaking to us (for more on the language of the Spirit, read here), there are times we won't know we are being tempted by demons. Nephi wrote that "he leadeth them by the neck with a flaxen cord, until he bindeth them with his strong cords forever." (2 Nephi 26:22) A flaxen cord is a rope made of several fine strands twisted together. The strength of the cord depends on how many of the finer cords are used to make the cord. When Satan leads us away with a flaxen cord, it is so subtle because each time he speaks to us and we listen, it is like one strand tied around us. And then another and another, until the cord is strong and hard to break. In Proverbs it says: "An evil man is held captive by his own sins; they are ropes that catch and hold him." (Proverbs 5:22, NLT) Repentance is the way we break the cords.
Nephi described some of the ways Satan places these strands around us.
... the temptations of the devil, which blindeth the eyes, and hardeneth the hearts of the children of men, and leadeth them away into broad roads, that they perish and are lost. (1 Nephi 12:17)These strands involve keeping us spiritually blind and having hard hearts. Our blind minds and hard hearts move us away from doing God's will (which is the strait and narrow path) into broad roads, which is living according to our own will. We focus on what we want and what we understand, instead of constantly seeking for the Lord to teach us more.
20 For behold, at that day shall he rage in the hearts of the children of men, and stir them up to anger against that which is good.Satan loves to stir us up to anger against new truth, especially if it is unflattering to us or goes against one of our strongly held beliefs which we don't know is false. Our offense towards this new truth means we aren't willing to hear more and as a result we damn ourselves, which is exactly Satan's plan for us.
21 And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well—and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell.
22 And behold, others he flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell; and he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none—and thus he whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance. (2 Nephi 28:21-22; emphasis added)
Even though we know there is a devil and a hell, we don't believe we could ever end up there. He likes to flatter us, telling us how well we're doing and that we're headed for eternal life, when in fact we are continuing in our sins. Satan gets us to think that a little sin here and there is ok and despite our sin, we will end up in the Celestial Kingdom. When we don't understand what God actually requires for eternal life, we end up living below what is required and Satan has got us just where he wants us.
7 Yea, and there shall be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die; and it shall be well with us.8 And there shall also be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry; nevertheless, fear God—he will justify in committing a little sin; yea, lie a little, take the advantage of one because of his words, dig a pit for thy neighbor; there is no harm in this; and do all these things, for tomorrow we die; and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God. (2 Nephi 28:7-8)Temptations of the Devil
I have come to see that I have had false beliefs about how Satan and his demons operate and interact with me. But, in recent months the Lord has opened my eyes to understand more about how they function and this has enabled me to be more effective in not allowing them to have control over me. I'm far from perfect at it, but knowing their tactics has been half the battle.
This may seem like a dark topic and one that should perhaps be avoided. However, it is necessary to understand how to overcome Satan. Without knowing how he operates, he will have power over us without our knowing. Coming to understand these things is a vital part of the sanctification process.
I have come to learn that they are constantly around us tempting us to sin or believe something false or partially false. (In the past, I thought we had to invite their presence somehow.) To put it simply, the minute we give into the temptation, we allow the demon(s) to influence us, including our moods, thoughts, beliefs, actions, and desires. Instead, when we resist the temptation (as Jesus did many times), Satan has no power over us. The demons will then eventually move on to someone else because they aren't able to influence us.
We often think of demons as dark and scary and as a result we assume that they would always be easily recognizable when they seek to influence us, but that is not the case. Although this is true some of the time, more often they work in far more subtle ways. For instance, Satan and his demons can quote scriptures to us in order to convince us of something partially false (Matthew 4:6) and they can seem like and even appear as angels of light. Paul wrote, "And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light." (2 Corinthians 11:14) Those experiences often lead people to think God is communicating with them, when the reality is far from it.
Satan's temptations can be as subtle as getting frustrated with our children or spouse, or becoming offended by another's words and actions, or feeling irritated or grumpy with another. These things (and others) are the opposite of feeling love for others. Consequently, Satan's goal is to develop strife in our hearts, rather than love. Jesus said,
For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another. (3 Nephi 11:29)How often do you feel irritated or frustrated with others? How often do you justify it? When we have such feelings in our hearts, whether it be with our children, spouse, or another, Satan has a hold on our hearts and we need to repent.
But remember that he that persists in his own carnal nature, and goes on in the ways of sin and rebellion against God, remaineth in his fallen state and the devil hath all power over him. ... (Mosiah 16:5)Satan can also tempt us to desire the things which are of this world, whether it be possessions, influence, our appearance, certain experiences, and so on. We will also be tempted in how we use our time. Satan knows he can't always make us do something that you may consider a more serious sin, but he can keep us from doing the things we should be doing. As I have sought to pray more often during the day, keeping a prayer in my heart, I can see how the Lord wants me to study the scriptures or message someone or focus on my kids (depending on the moment), while Satan prefers for me to be distracted: "Check Facebook" or something else as equally wasteful. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with social media or movies or other things we might do to unplug from life for a moment, they often take us away from the things we ought to be doing and as a result we can't connect to God in the way we need to in order to progress.
It is also important to realize that not every time we sin is because we have a demon influencing us or trying to possess us. Instead, we could be giving into the flesh or the desires of our body. If our hearts are still impure, our hearts will tend towards sin without the influence of demons. Overcoming sin is not as simple as ridding ourselves of all demonic influence. We have to overcome all our weaknesses. In the end, we have to develop pure hearts that are incapable of sinning.
As stated previously, while resisting a temptation from a demon leads to a demon giving up, giving into a temptation can lead to a demon taking hold of our hearts. This temptation can be small or significant. Sometimes repentance is sufficient to make the demon leave us alone. Other times we may need to cast out the demon from our presence by commanding it to depart.
King Benjamin explained how sinning leads to evil spirits grabbing hold of our hearts:
36 And now, I say unto you, my brethren, that after ye have known and have been taught all these things, if ye should transgress and go contrary to that which has been spoken, that ye do withdraw yourselves from the Spirit of the Lord, that it may have no place in you to guide you in wisdom’s paths that ye may be blessed, prospered, and preserved—When we go against the truth we know (in other words, we sin), the Spirit cannot remain with us and we rebel against God. As a result, we are ripe for an evil spirit to take hold of us and influence us. We cannot serve God and Satan. We will always choose one or the other. However, when we sin, we are choosing the devil.
37 I say unto you, that the man that doeth this, the same cometh out in open rebellion against God; therefore he listeth to obey the evil spirit, and becometh an enemy to all righteousness; therefore, the Lord has no place in him, for he dwelleth not in unholy temples. (Mosiah 2:37)
Jesus often cast out demons, but upon examining most of the times Jesus cast them out, the demons made the people do things most normal people didn't do, such as throwing themselves into water or fire, cutting themselves with rocks, being mute, having seizures, and so on. Due to this not being our normal experience, we often don't believe we are ever possessed or influenced by Satan.
However, the Pharisees were just as possessed by demons as these people hurting themselves. They were blind from the truth and sinned against God. This blindness also led them to crucify Jesus. Satan is so good at keeping us in a state of spiritual blindness because it is more subtle and as a result, we don't recognize how much we are under his influence. Since the Pharisees would not repent, Jesus could not help rid them of their demonic influence. They willfully chose to be blind in spite of the truth presented to them. In essence, this meant they were choosing to allow Satan to influence their hearts and minds. Since this influence was so subtle, they would have had no idea.
We are all spiritually blind to an extent, otherwise we'd be just like Jesus. When we choose to remain blind and we choose not seek after more light and truth, we give into the temptations of Satan. There is a difference between someone who is seeking more truth and someone who is willfully blind. The Pharisees were willfully blind. We have to consider whether we desire to seek greater light and truth, regardless of the cost. When Jesus made the blind to see, it was symbolic of how He can remove our spiritual blindness, but unlike overcoming physical blindness, each of us has to choose to seek light from the Lord. Each of us has to choose to repent of all our sins.
Furthermore, when you do not feel like praying, it is possible that you are being influenced by an evil spirit. Nephi said, "for the devil spirit teacheth not a man to pray, but teacheth him that he must not pray." (2 Nephi 32:8) The effect of a demon's influence is varied, but with time we can come to recognize when we need to cast one out.
One time I was with my children and I was teaching my twin boys mathematics. My daughter took something from my five year old son and instantly he became incredibly angry with her and within seconds he was hurting her. Immediately I sternly told him to stop, but I knew that a demon was influencing his behavior. I called all the children together and we knelt and prayed. I asked God to help us cast the demon out and for the Spirit to return. After the prayer, I commanded in the name of Jesus Christ for the demon to depart. Immediately my son's countenance changed. He looked up at me and said, "Mom, it's gone!" I hadn't spoken much with them about demons and the influence they can have on us prior to that experience and so I was surprised by his comment, but even he could tell he felt differently.
Even as a woman, I can access God's power to cast demons out. Jesus said, "And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues..." (Mark 16:17). He did not say that only those with the priesthood can cast out demons. He said those who believe can do so. Faith means we act on the will of God and this always leads us to access God's power (See this post for more on faith as a principle of action and power.). When both men and women have faith, they can access God's power to cast out demons.
Light is the Antidote
Jesus tells a short parable in which we can get some insight into how demons work.
43 When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none. (Matthew 12)Demons find great satisfaction in influencing and possessing someone. It is as if they feed off that experience. When they are not influencing someone, they will search for another because it feels like walking through a dry place in an unrestful state.
44 Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished.When a demon is cast out (verse 43 above), if the person has not filled themselves with the Spirit of God and with light and truth, the demon will come back with others. And, it is harder then to remove them.
45 Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. (Matthew 12)
A few months ago I had a dream in which I was shown a parable explaining this very thing. In the dream, I saw a woman who had been in a relationship with a man. She decided she wanted to break up with him, but he fought her on it, wanting to stay with her. However, eventually after she insisted he leave her, he left. He then called his friend who was more handsome and was a very smooth talker. When he came to her, she could not resist going off with him. I remember watching and knew this second man was more dangerous that the first and I worried about her. After I warned her, I warned others but no one could do anything about it. I was then shown that as we seek to know and live by truth, study the scriptures, pray, and cast out demons, we can resist them. The woman in my dream had not done those things though.
Demons all possess varying degrees of knowledge. Those demons possessing less knowledge are easier to cast out than those with more knowledge. As we gain knowledge from God and live by it, we increase in light. The more light we gain, the more power we have over these demons. As we ascend in light, we will interact with demons with increased knowledge, however God won't put us in a situation where it is impossible for us to overcome the demon. At times, demons will simply flee from our presence because of the light we possess. I have also experienced demons fleeing as I pray, study the scriptures, or repent. But, other times they need to be cast out from my presence.
Seek truth! Seek the will of God. Then, live by it. In the end, possessing light and truth is the antidote. It will enable us to overcome Satan.
24 That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.
25 And again, verily I say unto you, and I say it that you may know the truth, that you may chase darkness from among you. (Doctrine and Covenants 50)