In this article, we are going to discuss how you can know whether or not a thought was from the devil, yourself, or God.
I think it’s wise to go in this order because you will see there is a rising holiness that will mark each level of the thoughts you are having. Thoughts from Satan will be the lowest, thoughts from yourself will be mixed, and thoughts from God will be pure. Now let’s unpack those statements in much greater details.
1. Was that Thought from Satan?
Here are 4 ways you can identify a thought that was influenced by Satan.
1. A thought that is influenced by Satan will be triggered by something outside of you.
Now, the first thing I want you to notice is that phrase I just used, “a thought that was influenced by Satan.” I’m using that word “influenced” rather than the word “caused” because I’m talking to Christians in this article. I think it is possible for an unbeliever to have a direct thought from Satan implanted in their minds, but I don’t believe Satan can implant thoughts into Christians.
An example of an unbeliever being affected in this way would be Judas, for Luke 22:3 states, “Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve.” This type of experience differs greatly from the way Satan influenced Peter, which I will talk more about in just a moment in point 3 of this article. Satan entered Judas but Satan influenced Peter.
I don’t believe it is possible for Satan to literally implant thoughts into a believer’s mind because of what the Scriptures teach. 2 Corinthians 4:3-4 states:
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
When you are unsaved, Satan is actually blocking your mind from receiving truth. If you have been saved, however, this means your mind has been freed, opened to God, and the Spirit now lives in you (Ephesians 1:13), “and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17).
So a thought that starts in you is not from Satan if you have the Spirit of God in you as a Christian. Satan can only influence your thoughts through using outside triggers and temptations. The thoughts are from your sinful nature but the triggers are often from Satan.
This is important to realize because if you believe Satan literally controls what you think about, then you will feel powerless when you have thoughts you don’t want to have. But when you realize you actually have control of your thoughts and those evil thoughts are really just from your flesh being triggered by Satan’s temptations in the world, then you can take actions to prevent this thought cycle from occurring. By not living in the world and preparing your mind to quickly resist outside temptations, you can limit your flesh from seizing control of your thoughts. As Romans 8:6-8 explains:
For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
2. A thought that was influenced by Satan will appeal to your flesh.
Satan is not omniscient like God, meaning that Satan is not all knowing. He can’t know what you are thinking. But Satan is not stupid. The enemy has been tempting humans for a long-time. They are expert theologians and they know the human condition better than we know it. So the enemy observes each person, takes note of their sin patterns, and then uses temptations that will be affective on that person.
Again, since Satan can’t put a thought in you, he has to tempt you with things to influence your thinking. The way he does this is by appealing to your fleshly desires. Each of us has a sinful nature, but the way our sinful nature is expressed is different for each individual.
Some are highly sensitive to external stimuli like sexual images, food, or material possession. Satan isn’t going to waste time tempting you to go into debt if you are not motivated by material possession. But if you struggle with wanting to feel loved physically, he will throw sexual situations at you as a way of influencing your thoughts for evil. Satan believes the truth in Matthew 6:22-23 when Jesus said:
The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
The enemy seeks to use this knowledge about our eyes for evil. We must use this knowledge for good. If you want to guard your mind from being influenced by Satan, you have to guard what you look at.
3. A thought that is influenced by Satan will be promoted through the unbelievers in your life.
According to Scripture, those who are not saved by Jesus are actually controlled by the devil (1 John 5:19, Ephesians 2:2). Therefore, since the enemy cannot implant a thought into a believer’s mind, he will use unbelievers like a mouth piece to feed you bad ideas that lead to evil thoughts. This is why Proverbs 13:20 states, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.”
As Christians we really have three enemies: Satan, the world, and our sinful nature. Satan uses the world to appeal to our sinful nature. All play a different role but all three work together to lead us into sin. So the literal thoughts are not from Satan but they are often induced by the temptations Satan is pushing through the words and actions of worldly people.
This is exactly what happened with Peter. Unlike Judas, Satan did not enter into Peter. But in Luke 22:31-32, just before Peter betrays Jesus, Jesus warned Peter and said, “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.”
When Jesus said, “when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers,” this meant Jesus already knew that Peter was going to follow the influence of Satan but that he would later repent. But how did Satan actually influence Peter? When you read Luke 22:56-62, you will see that Satan used other people to influence Peter away from Jesus. Satan never directly talked to Peter in Luke 22:56-62, but again, according to what Jesus said in Luke 22:31-32, it was actually Satan who was behind this temptation against Peter.
Just as Peter’s thoughts and actions were influenced by people who were controlled by Satan, so too will the enemy try to influence your thoughts through the unbelievers in your life.
4. When a thought was influenced by Satan, you will have made a conscious decision to enter into that thought.
Being tempted is not a sin. For sin to occur, the Christian has to actually enter into that temptation and indulge in it. It’s a lot like lust. The first look is usually not sinful because it was just your eye processing the information in the world around you. But when you look the second time once you know there is a lustful image or an attractive person there, that’s when the sin often really occurs in your heart.
Just before Peter fell into Satan’s temptations, in Mark 14:38 Jesus said to him, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” You see? We have to enter into the temptation for sin to actually take place.
So if an external temptation has arisen and then you “enter into it” by dwelling on it in your mind, this is a sign Satan is influencing your thoughts.
2. Was that Thought from You?
In section one we learned that Satan tempts us with things in the outside world that appeal to our inner sinful desires. Now here are 4 ways you can identify when a thought is from yourself and not Satan or God.
1. Sinful thoughts are always from yourself.
Perhaps the most helpful verse on this subject is found James 1:13-15, which states:
Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
The first part of this passage states that tempting thoughts are not from God. However, the second part also rules out tempting thoughts being from Satan too. It clearly states that “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” Again, Satan can tempt you externally which you can then choose to think more about, but the actual sinful thoughts you are having can only come from the sin nature in you.
This is a great opportunity to remind ourselves of some foundation gospel truths. When you become a Christian by putting your faith in Jesus Christ and depending on his grace (Ephesians 2:8-9), the Bible says that you instantly become a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). But that truth does not mean that your sinful nature has died. You died to sin but sin has not died to you (Romans 6:10-12). As a Christian, within your body, your new nature and your old nature fight for control, which is why in Romans 7:19-25, Paul wrote:
For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.”
The true you in Christ serves God, even in your mind with good thoughts. But when you have an evil thought, you can be sure that thought is not from God and not even from Satan. It is actually from the sin that dwells within you. How do you defeat that sin? By embracing your newness in Christ and learning to be sanctified more and more.
(For more on this topic, I encourage you to read through Romans 5-8).
2. Morally neutral thoughts are often from yourself, although they can sometimes be from God.
While asking questions about the origin of a thought can be very useful, it can also lead us down rabbit trails leading to nowhere. For example, if you are asking questions like, “Why did I suddenly start thinking about my ex-boyfriend from 5 years ago? Is this God, me, or the devil?” Or, “Why did I have that thought about switching jobs? Was that God, me, or the devil?” Or, “Why did I have that thought that my dad may have cancer? Was that me, God, or the devil?”
We’ve already ruled out Satan from thoughts like these because we know as Christians the devil can only influence our thoughts through external temptations. But these types of thoughts are not sinful. They could turn sinful if you started worrying or going too far. But thinking about your ex, thinking about a new job, or thinking about a loved one getting sick is not a sinful thing to do.
What about God? Are these types of thoughts from God? Maybe. I don’t think we can say all morally neutral thoughts are from God or all morally neutral thoughts are not from God. God could give you a thought about your ex so you call that person and rekindle. Or that thought could just be you having a random thought that means nothing. God could have given you a thought about finding a new job because he wants you to move on in your career. Or it could be that you just need a vacation and God wants you right where you are. God could have given you a warning about a loved one’s health. Or that could just be a natural concern you have because you love your family member.
My advice is to assume the morally neutral thought was just from yourself until you get more confirmation on it. Be open to believing that thought was from God, but if it was God he will confirm it through his word, through prayer, and through the circumstances in your life. If it was just a thought from yourself, nothing will come of it. If it was from God, he will make it clear in time (Proverbs 3:5-6).
3. Thoughts that are about a personal expression of a godly truth are from you (with the Spirit’s influence).
When I was in seminary going through my preaching class, I remember learning that good preaching is basically God’s truth being expressed through the personality of a man. A good preacher isn’t going to try to teach you something that comes from his own mind. Rather, his goal will be to teach you only what is in the Bible. Advice videos and opinions can be helpful, but that is not a biblical sermon.
However, each preacher is unique. Each human is a real person. So God desires us all to teach the same truths from his word but to do so through our own unique personalities that he has given us. This same principle can even be seen in the writing of the Scriptures. David wrote psalms while Solomon wrote proverbs. Paul wrote in his tone while Peter wrote with his own tone. John wrote his gospel account with his voice and Matthew wrote his gospel account in his voice. The same Spirit worked through them all but they all were real men who used their own personalities to express God’s truth (1 Corinthians 12:4-11).
So if you have an idea in your mind of how you can personally live out a biblical truth in your life, then that personal expression is from you but that biblical truth is from God.
4. Thoughts that flow out of the good desires God has given you are from you.
This point may sound just like the other points but I mean something different here. I believe there are morally neutral things in life and I believe there are moral commands from God. In the middle of those two, however, I also believe there are what I call “biblical options.”
A great example of this is marriage. Marriage was created by God, but marriage is not a command to all Christians like loving people is or serving the poor is or taking communion is. But marriage is also not just a morally neutral thing that has no biblical rules around it. You can’t just do whatever you want when it comes to marriage if you are a Christian. The Bible has commands about marriage. So while marriage is not a command to all, marriage is a biblical option for those who want it.
The desire for marriage comes from God but it’s also a personal choice. If you don’t want to be married, the Bible clearly explains in 1 Corinthians 7 that you don’t have to get married. But in 1 Corinthians 7, it also states that if you want to get married, you are free to make that choice.
The point I’m making here is that if you have a biblical thought that is stemming from a biblical desire, in a way that comes from God but in another way that is your own desire that God wants you to follow so you can fulfill the call he has placed on you. Some callings from God are not optional. But some callings from God will be identified through your personal desires to want to fulfill that call. Again, as an example, your personal longing to be married which is coming out of your own mind and heart is a sign God has called you to pursue this (1 Corinthians 7:7, 1 Corinthians 7:36-37).
That principle can be applied to other callings in life as well. You don’t have to do some things. But if you want to do them, that is a good sign God is calling you to do them. As 2 Corinthians 9:7-8 explains:
Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.”
There are times in life where something is coming from your own heart but which God is also calling you to do.
3. Was that Thought from God?
Here are 4 ways to identify thoughts that are from God.
1. A revelation about a biblical truth was a thought from God.
The canon of Scripture is closed. This means that there are no more new biblical revelations coming from God. No one can now add to the Scriptures nor take away from Scriptures. These are the truths God has given to us in writing and these truths will never leave us while we are on this earth (Matthew 5:18).
With that said, the Holy Spirit does provide us with revelations about the Scriptures we already have. God will never tell anyone a new truth, but God is constantly opening our minds to his eternal truths and giving us new ways to apply these truths to each of our individual lives. As Ephesians 1:17 (NIV) states:
I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.”
So anytime the Scriptures are enlightened to you in your mind, this is from the Spirit, not yourself. As 1 Corinthians 2:12-14 also explains:
Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
2. A thought was from God if that thought was one of conviction.
Another thing humans are unable to do without the help of God the Holy Spirit is to be convicted of their sins. We can feel bad about doing something wrong. We can want to make a relationship right that we messed up. We can have a general sense of right and wrong without the Spirit in us since God has written the moral law on every human heart (Romans 2:14-16). And we can even feel condemned for our sins, though as Christians there is no condemnation for us (Romans 8:1-2).
You can feel all of that without the Spirit of God in you. But what you can’t experience without the Spirit is a deep conviction that leads to repentance. That is something that can only be given to us by God himself (2 Corinthians 7:10). As Jesus said in John 16:8 concerning the Holy Spirit, “And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin . . . .”
3. A thought from God will always happen.
This is the point that many of you probably clicked on this article for. It’s a common experience for Christians to have a certain thought about something that they feel could happen in the future and then wonder, “Was that thought from God, me, or the devil?” I’ve had many Christians singles ask me what their thought patterns about a particular person mean. Are these thoughts a sign from God that you will be together? Are these thoughts a sign of idolatry? Or are these thoughts because of an evil influence meant to pull you away from God?
The reality is, thoughts about future possible outcomes could be from God, you, or because of an evil influence in your life trying to mislead you. If these thoughts are sinful or leading you away from a glorifying life for God, these thoughts about the future are not from God. But if they are just thoughts about something that could happen and you want to know if those thoughts are from God, the only true way to know is to wait and see.
If God says something, it always happens. It doesn’t sometimes happen. It doesn’t depend on you. If God literally tells you something is going to happen and then it doesn’t happen, the only solution to that issue is that God didn’t say it (Deuteronomy 18:21-22). As Isaiah 51:11 states:
. . . so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
4. If you had a thought that was Christ-exalting, that thought came from God the Holy Spirit.
We cannot come to the Father except through Jesus Christ (John 14:6). But the only way to Jesus Christ is to be called by the Father, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). In Matthew 16:13-17 it states:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.’”
Anytime you have a Christ-exalting, true thought about Jesus, you can be sure this is actually not from you but from God himself (1 John 5:6-12).