P. Scott Ferguson, "Withstanding the Evil One," Religious Educator 12, no. 2 (2011): 155-167.
P. Scott Ferguson (email@example.com) wass a full-time Religious Education faculty member at BYU–Idaho when this was written.
An angel appearing to Alma the Younger and the sons of Mosiah. Walter Rane, Alma Arise, courtesy of Church History Museum.
Throughout my career as a faculty member at BYU–Idaho, I have posed a question to my classes that divides students into two groups. To set the stage for the discussion, I ask them to stand if they believe the answer to the question I am about to ask is false and to stay seated if they believe the answer is true. I then pose this question: “True or false? God will not allow Satan to tempt us with evil influences that are beyond our ability to resist.” Without exception, the majority of the class will stay seated, believing this to be a true statement, with only a handful of students standing to indicate this is a false statement. So who is right? Does God allow Satan to tempt us with evil influences that are beyond our ability to resist?
Perhaps some of us have been too confident in believing that the Lord will not allow Satan to tempt us beyond our capacity to resist, only to find ourselves in over our heads. In these situations we struggle to find answers to questions such as, “Where was the Lord when I needed him most?” “If I cannot be tempted beyond my ability to resist, why do I make such foolish choices?” “Can Satan tempt me beyond my capacity to withstand?” We, like righteous Nephi, might feel to exclaim, “Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me” (2 Nephi 4:17–18).
All of God’s children face temptation according to their spiritual capacity. Even Jesus was tested and tempted according to his great capacity. The Apostle Paul taught that Christ “was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Alma notes that Christ’s experience with temptation was complete—he escaped nothing, “suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind” (Alma 7:11). Yet King Benjamin underscores that our experience with opposition will never compare to Christ’s, who suffered “more than a man can suffer, except it be unto death” (Mosiah 3:7).
Clearly temptation is part of the great plan of happiness (see 2 Nephi 2:11). Understanding the nature of temptation is fundamental to not succumbing to it.
In the Garden of Eden were all the components necessary for temptation to flourish: moral agency, opposition, God, and Satan. While the King James Version does not use the word tempt to portray Satan’s role in this first drama, it does indicate that Satan was “more subtil [crafty or sly] than any beast of the field” (Genesis 3:1).
From modern revelation we learn “that the devil tempted Adam, . . . wherein he became subject to the will of the devil, because he yielded unto temptation” (D&C 29:40). This early interaction between our first parents and Satan helps us understand the nature of the devil and his desire to control our lives. President Spencer W. Kimball wrote: “Satan is very much a personal, individual spirit being, but without a mortal body. His desires to seal each of us his are no less ardent in wickedness than our Father’s are in righteousness to attract us to his own eternal kingdom. . . . He is also clever and trained. With thousands of years of experience behind him he has become superbly efficient and increasingly determined.”
Given Satan’s subtlety and craftiness, it is no wonder that when we succumb to temptation we might think, “The devil made me do it.” But prophets have taught differently. The Prophet Joseph Smith gave this commentary on the power of Satan: “All beings who have bodies have power over those who have not. The devil has only as much power over us as we permit. The moment we revolt at anything which comes from God, the devil takes power.”
We as a people must be “chastened and tried. . . . For all those who will not endure chastening . . . cannot be sanctified” (D&C 101:4–5). In the early stages of tribulation, it is challenging to differentiate between God’s proving our valiancy and Satan’s seeking our ruin. Through his testing, God is proving us capable of greater instruction: “For he will give unto the faithful line upon line, precept upon precept; and I will try you and prove you herewith” (D&C 98:12). Satan, on the other hand, seeks our destruction and will take unfair advantage through his subtle enticements. If trials come as instruction from God, they come with divine promises intended to exalt; if trials come from Satan, they are designed to see us fail. “And because he had fallen . . . and had become miserable forever, he sought also the misery of all mankind” (2 Nephi 2:18).
The word tempt is used in scripture to describe both processes—God’s tutoring us for greater instruction and Satan’s seeking our destruction. “God did tempt Abraham . . . and he said, Take now thy son . . . and offer him . . . for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of” (see Genesis 22:1–9). The word translated as tempt comes from the Hebrew nissah, which means, “to test, try, or prove.” The Lord knew Abraham would pass this trial, but “Abraham needed to learn something about Abraham.” If God knows the beginning from the end, and surely he does, the proving part of our nissah trials come when we learn what God already knows about us and prove to ourselves we are trustworthy of his power. Satan, on the other hand, desires to see us fail, “for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself” (2 Nephi 2:27).
Nissah is in direct contrast to Satan’s temptations, which are designed to take away our blessings. For example, Job, who suffered much at the hands of Satan and to whom we look for the great example of enduring faithfully, was “a just and perfect man,” yet Satan obtained “leave from the Lord to tempt and try Job” (Job 1 chapter heading; emphasis added). The Lord, knowing Job’s integrity, allowed the opposition. Even though Satan sought Job’s demise, it was with the Lord’s watchful eye. The Lord knew that Job, like Abraham, would pass the nissah challenge. We, like Abraham and Job, will fare better as we learn to discern between our God-given nissah challenges and Satan’s attempts to see us fail.
At the time the Saints were driven from Missouri, it appeared that Satan was the source of all their troubles: angry Missouri neighbors, weak political leaders, and aggression on every side. Scriptural history, however, teaches us the Saints were chastened, driven out of Zion, because of yielding to the enticements of Satan. The erring Saints needed to learn valuable lessons (see D&C 101:1–7; 105:1–6). Often the Lord uses the opposition to test, try, and prove us to accomplish his purposes. But he is in control, and the goal is our growth and development. “Therefore, be not afraid of your enemies, for . . . I will prove you in all things, whether you will abide in my covenant” (D&C 98:14). Identifying the source of our affliction helps us know whether the Lord is preparing us for something greater or whether Satan is seeking our destruction. In the first instance, God is in control and we must learn to trust him; in the latter, we must exercise self-control as we seek divine assistance.
The Apostle Paul taught the Saints in Corinth that “there hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). The word temptation as used here is a translation of the Greek word peirasmos, meaning (a) an experiment, attempt, trial, proving, and (b) the trial of man’s fidelity, integrity, virtue, and constancy. When Paul’s instruction regarding temptation is understood in this context, it yields a very different interpretation—God does not test, try, or prove us beyond our preparation, or if he does, help or deliverance is available. The New English Bible’s rendering of this verse supports this idea: “So far you have faced no trial beyond what man can bear. God keeps faith, and he will not allow you to be tested above your powers, but when the test comes he will at the same time provide a way out, by enabling you to sustain it.”
Perhaps these verses were not written as instruction on avoiding Satan’s temptation as much as counsel on enduring well God’s nissah. When read in this way, three key concepts emerge from Paul’s counsel to the Saints at Corinth. First, God tries all according to their abilities, and while individual tutorials may seem unique, trials are common to all. Second, if we are faithful, God will not allow Satan to have an unfair advantage over us as the Lord tests, tries, and proves us. Finally, in the moment of trials, deliverance, if sought for, is available.
Looking back to those moments when we yielded to temptation—enticement from Satan—we might feel that God let us down because we assume we could not be tempted beyond our ability to withstand. We might have felt overwhelmed as we struggled to resist evil and to do right. Our failure to overcome temptation leaves us to ponder Paul’s words deeply: “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able.” But expecting God not to let us fail in a moment of temptation would be like accepting Satan’s proposal in the premortal life: it would take away our agency. Our understanding of how Satan works helps us to find strength to resist him. “But ye are commanded in all things to ask of God, . . . that ye may not be seduced by evil spirits, or doctrines of devils, or the commandments of men” (D&C 46:7). Paul’s instruction that God will not try or prove us beyond our preparation is reassuring indeed. However, knowing this is no guarantee that we will not put ourselves into harm’s way or situations where we are vulnerable to Satan and his evil influences.
After explaining this to my classes, I like to ask the question again: “True or false? God will not allow Satan to tempt us with evil influences that are beyond our ability to resist.” There has usually been a shift in thinking; many more students now stand.
The Apostle James taught, “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man; but every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed” (James 1:13–14). The word tempted here comes from the Greek word peiraz?, meaning (a) to try whether a thing can be done; (b) to test people maliciously or craftily to prove their feelings or judgments; (c) to try or test one’s faith, virtue, character, by enticement to sin or; (d) to solicit to sin, to tempt, as the temptations of the devil. God is not in the temptation-to-fail business; this part of the plan of salvation is left to the opposition.
Scripture is rich in counsel on how to avoid the entanglements of sin. Alma offers us a simple four-step formula that is representative of the many scriptures found on avoiding temptation. Note the cause-and-effect relationship set up by use of the word that in the middle of the verse: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and call on his holy name, and watch and pray continually, that ye may not be tempted above that which ye can bear” (Alma 13:28; emphasis added). In other words, if I do not humbly call upon God and watch and pray continually, I can expect to be tempted beyond my ability to resist. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Most of our failures to resist temptation are the result of not watching more vigilantly.
For the last time I pose the question to my class: “True or false? God will not allow Satan to tempt us with evil influences that are beyond our ability to resist.” Usually by now all students in the class are standing. They realize that God will allow Satan to tempt us with evil influences that are beyond our ability to resist, especially when we are not faithful. With this paradigm shift comes a wonderful opportunity to teach how one can withstand the evil one.
We learn from latter-day revelation that “the spirit and the body are the soul of man” (D&C 88:15). For the longest time I viewed this statement in the context of my spirit and my body parts only. Actually, when the scriptures say body, are they not more particularly suggesting our brain or mind? President Boyd K. Packer taught, “Your mind is in charge, and your body is the instrument of your mind.” Our challenge is to get the body (that is, the brain or mind) to be obedient to the Spirit, to light and truth—to the Spirit of truth. The scriptures refer to this as enlightenment or understanding (see D&C 88:11–12). If being taught by the Spirit creates light and understanding and the power to resist temptation, then resisting the Spirit, light, and truth must lead to darkness and bondage. “And by this you may know they are under the bondage of sin, because they come not unto me” (D&C 84:50).
We establish pathways of learning in our brains through the firing of neurons and synapses. Increased amounts of myelin are laid down on these pathways the more frequently our thinking travels a specific path; thus the pathway becomes more prominent in the future. The production of myelin on these neural pathways increases the likelihood that future actions and thinking will travel this same neural pathway. We can compare this process to the interstate highway system across our vast nation, which is intended to increase the efficiency of travel from one state to another. It is much easier to travel via the interstates than to use the frontage roads. Similarly, our acting according to our myelinated pathway is the equivalent of traveling the well-paved, efficient interstate of our minds. In order to change our behavior, we must be willing to unlearn old thinking while trying to introduce new learning.
This is a challenging process; the brain doesn’t necessarily change just because we expose it to a new idea. Whatever thinking we act on, the longer we act on it—laying down myelination over time—the harder it will be to adopt new thinking that countermands it. Perhaps this is why President Packer taught that “true doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior.” The study of doctrine solves the problems in the mind and the heart first and the body second.
If my body is giving into temptation because of established neural pathways, the solution to the problem lies more in changing my understanding of the doctrine than focusing on the body. Focusing on the body, the receptor, addresses only behavior. Understanding the doctrine in my heart and mind changes my desires and leads to a change in thinking and behavior. Nephi observed this about Satan: “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, a lightweight material that is easily torn, represents flirting with temptation and is the equivalent of unmyelinated thinking. Strong cords that bind represent the behavior and thinking that has been etched in our minds repeatedly over a long period time and has become myelinated.
Satan is continually offering new and exciting stimuli for the receptors in our bodies; there is no end to the combinations of wickedness he can produce. “And finally, I cannot tell you all the things whereby ye may commit sin; for there are divers ways and means, even so many that I cannot number them” (Mosiah 4:29). At Satan’s disposal are innocent temptations as well as more insidious sins that can rob us of our temple blessings.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland once referred to our physical bodies as the “great prize of mortal life.” The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that Satan is punished by not having a body. Clearly, temptation is a battle over who will control this great prize. In drawing up the rules for engagement—the battle lines, if you will—the Lord even uses body parts to illustrate who ultimately has greater control: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, between thy seed and her seed; and he shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Moses 4:21).
Satan’s three-part strategy, which begins with temptation and ends in captivity, is a well-tuned attack. Consider the following strategies Satan uses to take us captive.
First, he causes spiritual blindness, “And the mists of darkness are the temptations of the devil, which blindeth the eyes” (1 Nephi 12:17):
He has laid a cunning plan, thinking to destroy. (D&C 10:23)
He deceive[s] and lie[s] in wait to catch. (D&C 10:25)
He goeth up and down, to and fro in the earth, seeking to destroy the souls of men. (D&C 10:27)
Second, he works on the instrument attuned to receive (see 1 Nephi 12:17):
He stirreth them up to iniquity against that which is good. (D&C 10:20)
He [shall] rage in the hearts of the children of men, and stir them up to anger against that which is good. (2 Nephi 28:20)
He stirreth them up, that he may lead their souls to destruction. (D&C 10:22)
He stirreth up their hearts to anger against this work. (D&C 10:24)
He flattereth them, and telleth them that it is no sin to lie. (D&C 10:25)
He flattereth them, and leadeth them along until he draggeth their souls down to hell. (D&C 10:26)
Satan will harden the hearts of the people to stir them up to anger against . . . my words. (D&C 10:32)
Third, he takes us prisoner “and leadeth them away into broad roads, that they perish and are lost” (1 Nephi 12:17). Once off the strait and narrow path that leads to God’s kingdom (or after becoming “lost and fallen,” to borrow a Book of Mormon phrase), we become the servants of sin:
He causeth them to catch themselves in their own snare. (D&C 10:26)
Satan thinketh to overpower your testimony. (D&C 10:33)
And others will he pacify, and lull them away, . . . say[ing]: 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. (2 Nephi 28:21)
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 28:22)
President Wilford Woodruff taught, “There are two powers on the earth and in the midst of the inhabitants of the earth—the power of God and the power of the devil. . . . Whenever the Lord set His hand to perform any work, those powers [of the devil] labored to overthrow it.” The Prophet Joseph Smith saw in vision that Satan’s attack was specifically aimed at the Saints of God. He wrote, “For we beheld Satan, that old serpent, even the devil, who rebelled against God; . . . wherefore, he maketh war with the saints of God, and encompasseth them round about” (D&C 76:28–29). He will employ any means necessary to take us prisoner.
If we are careful, we can avoid being caught by the adversary. And if we have been taken prisoner because of carelessness, there is an escape available if we are willing to switch loyalties. President Kimball observed: “He who has greater strength than Lucifer, he who is our fortress and our strength, can sustain us in times of great temptation. While the Lord will never forcibly take anyone out of sin or out of the arms of the tempters, he exerts his Spirit to induce the sinner to do it with divine assistance. And the man who yields to the sweet influence and pleadings of the Spirit and does all in his power to stay in a repentant attitude is guaranteed protection, power, freedom and joy.” President Packer also taught: “In the battle of life, the adversary takes enormous numbers of prisoners, and many who know of no way to escape and are pressed into his service. Every soul confined to a concentration camp of sin and guilt has a key to the gate. The adversary cannot hold them if they know how to use it. The key is labeled Repentance. The twin principles of repentance and forgiveness exceed in strength the awesome power of the adversary.”
Deliverance is available. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Two of Alma’s four steps reference our need for prayer (see Alma 13:28). The scriptures teach that prayer is vital in the battle of resisting temptation. As we humble ourselves, call upon his holy name, and watch and pray continually, we are fortified and strengthened to resist temptation. Consider the following references, which further illustrate that without prayer we will fail in our attempt to resist the evil one:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, ye must watch and pray always, lest ye be tempted by the devil, and ye be led away captive by him. (3 Nephi 18:15)
Behold, verily, verily, I say unto you, ye must watch and pray always lest ye enter into temptation; for Satan desireth to have you, that he may sift you as wheat. (3 Nephi 18:18)
Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things. (Luke 21:36)
Pray always lest that wicked one have power in you, and remove you out of your place. (D&C 93:49–50)
Pray always, that you may come off conqueror; yea, that you may conquer Satan, and that you may escape the hands of the servants of Satan. (D&C 10:5)
Therefore let the church take heed and pray always, lest they fall into temptation. (D&C 20:33)
Pray always, lest you enter into temptation and lose your reward. (D&C 31:12)
Pray always that you enter not into temptation. (D&C 61:39)
Pray always, that ye may not faint, until I come. (D&C 88:126)
The other part of Alma’s formula references our need to watch continually. What does Alma mean by the phrase “watch continually”? At the conclusion of one of the finest sermons recorded in scripture, King Benjamin warns, “If ye do not watch yourselves, and your thoughts, and your words, and your deeds, . . . ye must perish” (Mosiah 4:30). In other words, we must be vigilant. We are not yet immune to those influences that could cause us to fall. Even the Savior, seeking relief from the difficult and agonizing moments of Gethsemane, prayed “that [he] might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink” (D&C 19:18). In his most difficult moments, He cautioned his sleepy Apostles, “Watch ye and pray, lest ye enter into temptation. The spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38). Standing watch against sin enables us to avoid sin.
We are taught in scripture on eight different occasions and in each of our canonical works of the need to make a “holy stand” or to “stand in holy places” (see 2 Chronicles 35:5; Psalm 24:3; Matthew 24:15; D&C 45:32; 87:8; 101:22; Joseph Smith—Matthew 1:12). For example, “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart” (Psalm 24:3–4). Or in other words, those who stand in holy places, watching, are enabled through prayer to resist the temptations of the evil one. The idea that God will never allow us to be tempted with evil influences that are beyond our ability to resist flies in the face of Alma’s formula for withstanding temptation. Through our continual watching and prayerfulness, we can overcome the arrogance and pride that leads to sin.
The Lord’s goal is to make us resistant to sin through trials and struggles—to make us Saints (see Mosiah 3:19). Satan’s goal is to take us captive with awful chains that bind. Initially, the Lord’s nissah, or trials to refine us, and Satan’s temptations, or trials to entice us, may look very much the same. In the end, however, they are very different. Regarding the Lord’s refining, Alma taught, “Now they, after being sanctified by the Holy Ghost . . . could not look upon sin save it were with abhorrence” (Alma 13:12).
When Satan tempts us, he is enticing us to avoid the hard work necessary to pass the tests and trials designed “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). Like him, he wants us to take the easy way out. When tests and trials are endured well and temptation is resisted, we gain power over Satan (see D&C 121:7–8). We are “encircled about eternally in the arms of [God’s] love” and clothed with the “armor of righteousness” (2 Nephi 1:15, 23).
As we yield to temptation, we trade the armor of righteousness and the warm heavenly embrace for cold “awful chains” that bind” (2 Nephi 1:13). President James E. Faust taught, “We need not become paralyzed with fear of Satan’s power. He can have no power over us unless we permit it. He is really a coward, and if we stand firm, he will retreat.” Elder Neal A. Maxwell has suggested that we remain completely sovereign in this battle for our loyalty.
When facing trials and tests we are of necessity enticed by both Satan and the Holy Ghost. In order to demonstrate loyalty to one over the other, it must be this way—“it must needs be that there is an opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11). The Holy Ghost, as a testifier and teacher, entices us to choose wisely according to our “first lessons” (see D&C 138:55–56). Satan, on the other hand, is continually enticing us to shift our loyalty from God to him that we might avoid learning the “last lessons.” Since the premortal councils, he has been offering alternatives to the great plan of happiness. Nephi observed of those who yield to temptation: the devil “grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance” (2 Nephi 28:22).
Jesus suffered temptations far beyond what men could endure; he confronted the powers of evil and overcame. Since he “suffered temptations but gave no heed unto them” (D&C 20:22), he understands the effort we must make to resist temptation and will succor us accordingly because he loves us (see Alma 7:11–13). We must apply for the enabling power of the Atonement to live our lives full of love and charity. Perhaps most of what separates us from God is not what we do wrong but what we don’t do, which is to love and love well. Avoiding sin seems the easier of the two. Loving well comes from a much deeper place, and we are thus “led by the Holy Spirit, becoming humble, meek, submissive, patient, full of love and all long-suffering” (Alma 13:28).
We should know that Satan will do all in his power to see that we tire before expending our best efforts, that we might not qualify for the Savior’s enabling grace. To qualify for the enabling power of the Atonement, we must prove ourselves faithful. We must watch and pray continually, loving as he loved.
Showing our loyalty to God by following the promptings of the Holy Ghost and dressing sufficiently each day for battle in the armor of righteousness gives us power over Satan. As President Faust taught, Satan really is a coward. As the Savior rebuffed and rebuked Satan on the mount of temptation, Matthew recorded, “Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him” (Matthew 4:11). As we stand firm in observance of our covenants, Satan will flee from us too, because we have power over him.
 Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969), 21.
 Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938), 181.
 Old Testament Student Manual: Genesis–2 Samuel (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2003), 78.
 Hugh B. Brown, in M. Russell Ballard, “The Law of Sacrifice,” Ensign, October 1998, 7.
 See Strong’s Concordance with Hebrew and Greek Lexicon, http://
 The New English Bible—With Apocrypha (London, Oxford University Press, 1970).
 See Strong’s Concordance.
 Boyd K. Packer, “The Instrument of Your Mind and the Foundation of Your Character,” in BYU Speeches 2002–2003 (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2003).
 Boyd K. Packer, “Little Children,” Ensign, November 1986, 17.
 Jeffrey R. Holland, Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2001), 11.
 Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 181.
 Brian H. Stuy, ed., Collected Discourses Delivered by President Wilford Woodruff, His Two Counselors, the Twelve Apostles, and Others (Burbank, CA: BHS Publishing, 1987–92), 5:198.
 Kimball, Miracle of Forgiveness, 176.
 Boyd K. Packer, “Our Moral Environment,” Ensign, May 1992, 66.
 James E. Faust, in Conference Report, October 1987, 43; or Ensign, November 1987, 35; emphasis added.
 Neal A. Maxwell, “Plow in Hope,” Ensign, May 2001, 60.
 Faithful Saints received lessons to prepare them for the testing and proving of mortality. Perhaps one of the roles of the Holy Ghost is to bring these lessons to our memory as we yield to the sweet enticings of the Holy Spirit.