We are taught that Satan only has as much power as we give him. It seems there are few exceptions to this, such as when he bound Joseph Smith’s tongue before the First Vision. Why is that?
Thank you for asking this question, and let’s review scriptural passages that give evidence to what power Satan may have. The first experience with Satan is from Adam and Eve while in the garden of Eden. In our Pearl of Great Price we can read the following, “and he sought also to beguile Eve.” (Moses 4:6) Throughout this dialogue we are able to experience Eve being tempted by Satan.
The second scriptural example is our learning of a “perfect and upright” man before the Lord. This is Job’s experience which enters a different medium of Satan’s power. Satan, through this experience, is having a dialogue with God, and the Lord brings attention to Job’s righteousness. The adversary then uses Job’s spotlight as an opportunity for Job to be tested, because according to Satan Job was only “perfect and upright” because the Lord blessed Job’s hand in all he did. This dialogue between God and Satan lead to some pretty awful situations Job endured; although, he was rewarded extremely well after he endured the trials and tribulations faithfully.
Another scriptural example is from our Savior’s life, and this is another personal persuasion from Satan to Jesus Christ. In this we are able to witness how Satan will use scripture to persuade someone to sin. In this example we are able to witness our Savior answering Satan with scriptural understanding also, properly interpreted scripture I would add.
In the New Testament we are also given evidence of possession with “Legion”, the name given when Christ asked who he was.
One other example, as you mentioned in your question, appears to entertain a physical and spiritual manifestation of the adversary. The physical interference caused Joseph Smith to say,
“at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction—not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being.”
The last example, a modern example, hands (but not hands of flesh and bone) begin to wrap around neck (that you can barely breath), hands (but not flesh hands) bind your wrists and feet that you cannot move. The room fills with darkness, and like Joseph Smith, you exert all your power to call upon God to deliver you out of the power that is currently seizing upon you, and fortunately you are delivered from this unseen enemy.
As I have pondered your question, I understand Satan’s power to come in two forms: spiritual and physical. The examples of possessions and physical confrontation (Joseph Smith) highlight the physical capacity given to the adversary. The other examples give evidence to spiritual persuasions that are often through misunderstandings of scripture or simply persuasions that make something look good that is not good, which may indeed lead to physical encounters.
Within the sphere of physical encounters Satan appears to have power should there be sufficient discord, contention, sin, anger, hate, or people who are not living up to the covenants they have made that remove predicated protections. This reminds me of our temple covenant and the promises and warning made therein after Satan’s dismissal. In some encounters, people have invited Satan into their lives, thus giving him power that otherwise he would not have over them physically. Now Joseph Smith’s encounter is within a different sphere itself, and causes me to ponder the concept of “opposites.” Joseph Smith is bound, prays, and is delivered by God. The tree of life provides a similar analogy with Lehi as Lehi experiences a mist of darkness, prays for mercy, and is also delivered from this darkness and who is now able to view the tree of life. Joseph’s experience allowed him to recognize, without any question, there are two opposing forces. The first force sought to destroy him. The second encounter delivered and liberated him, physically and spiritually. This also gives thought to Moses and his first encounter with God, and then immediately after (an opposite) he is visited by Satan who demands his reverence. Moses’s first experience allowed him to judge adequately between light and darkness.
Spiritual encounters are the everyday temptations we receive where we are tempted to sin, or to remove ourselves from the light we have received. Spiritually, this is true, Satan only has as much power as we give him. He is not able to make us sin. He is not able to force our hand to remove us from God’s light. He is bound to honor our moral agency just as Heavenly Father, otherwise I believe he would be much more involved in our lives than he is now physically.
In light of all this, these are reasons I can ascertain from these examples that determine our encounter with the adversary:
1) Sin (i.e. contention, hate, rebellion)
2) Our current knowledge, the light we have received, covenants, and their predicated protection
3) Special events highlighting opposites (possibly we all could have the same encounter as Moses)
4) God’s permission, predicated laws (which we are not fully aware of)