When I moved into my current house, there were several yucca plants on the property. For a few weeks they have beautiful flowers, but then they fall off leaving bare, ugly stalks. The remaining plant is a series of spiny, tough, sword-shaped leaves. They have this incredibly hardy tubular root system. And if you don’t dig up and kill off all the pieces of yucca root, the plants will grow back again and again. If you can’t tell yet, I don’t like yucca plants. So I dug up all the plants and their roots and then spent two years making sure the plants didn’t grow back from the small pieces of yucca root I’d missed when digging up the plants. Sin and temptation are like that—like a yucca plant and its roots.
In chapter four of his work, Of Temptation, John Owen describes how someone can recognize when they have entered into temptation. In previous posts we looked at the general nature of temptation (Lead Us Through Temptation), how we fall into temptation (Entering Into Temptation), and how to avoid temptation (Avoiding Temptation).
The first thing Owen wants us to realize is that all sin springs from temptation. As it says in James 1:14: “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” So whenever someone falls into sin, they enter through a temptation. “Sin is a fruit that comes only from that root.” Sometimes, when people disregard this basic fact, they are their own worst enemy.
They repent and address their sin, but not the temptation that triggered the sin. “Hence are they quickly again entangled by it, though they have the greatest detestation of the sin itself that can be expressed.” So if you want victory over any sin, you must uncover the temptations at the root of that sin and get rid of the roots. If you don’t, you will not overcome the sin.
Foolishly, many people hate the bitter fruit, but still cherish the poisonous root. So despite their humiliations from sin, they continue with the companionship, habits and behaviors that come before it. This inevitably results in further sin.
Temptations also have several degrees. Some are so intense and disquieting, that there is little doubt the individual wrestles with a strangely powerful temptation. “When a fever rages, a man knows he is sick.” Lust will infallibly carry a person into eternal ruin, like a stream that empties into the sea. But if a wind of strong temptation blows, they can be driven onto the rocks of innumerable scandalous sins. So when any lust or corruption disquiets your soul and then leads to sin, recognize that some outward temptation has befallen you. Look closer to find out what has triggered the sin in you.
Temptation can also be more discrete. The heart can secretly grow fond of a temptation and be eventually become content to feed and increase it in ways that aren’t necessarily sinful. For example, a person could have a reputation for piety, wisdom, or learning—and be widely seen by others as such. His heart might be tickled to hear this from others, and his pride and ambition affected by it.
If this man now, with all his strength, ply the things from whence his repute, and esteem, and glory amongst men do spring, with a secret eye to have it increased, he is entering into temptation; which, if he take not heed, will quickly render him a slave of lust.
It is true that God will often bring light out of such darkness and turn things to a better outcome. So it may be that a person studies for years—with an eye on his lusts of pride ambition and vain-glory. But then God comes in with his grace and turns the soul to himself, robbing those “Egyptian lusts.” And thus he consecrates for his purposes what was intended for personal idolatry.
This can even be true of the profession of personal piety or of the ministry. Someone might have a reputation for piety and be honored by others for his or her “strict walking.” If the desire for this honor becomes embedded in their heart and influences them into more than ordinary diligence and activity within their faith walk, they have become entangled in temptation. Often it requires nothing more than the whisper in their heart that the avoidance of honor and reputation is itself honorable.
It can attach in this way to preaching the gospel. There are many things that could lead to esteem—their ability, their plainness, their frequency, their success. All of this could be fuel for temptation. “Let, then, a man know that when he likes that which feeds his lust, and keeps it up by ways either good in themselves or not downright sinful, he is entered into temptation.”
When the circumstances of a person’s life brings lust and temptation together with the opportunity of provoking sin, they have certainly entered into temptation—whether they realize it or not. Remember that to enter into temptation is not merely to be tempted, but is to be so under the power of it as to become entangled by it. It is almost impossible for someone to the have both the opportunity and occasion suited for their lust and not become entangled in it. “Some men think to play on the hole of the asp and not be stung, to touch pitch and not be defiled, to take fire in their clothes and not be burnt; but they will be mistaken.”
Sometimes a person becomes negligent or formal in their spiritual duties. As it was with the church at Sardis: “You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1). So we can even say there is a rule—if your heart grows cold, if you become negligent or formal in your worship of God, some temptation has got a hold of you.
Men may, upon many sinister accounts, especially for the satisfaction of their consciences, keep up and frequent duties of religion, as to the substance and matter of them, when they have no heart to them, no life in them, as to the spirituality required in their performance.
A digital copy of Owen’s work, Of Temptation, is available here.