John Owen has been peeling back the layers of what Jesus meant in Matthew 26:41 when he cautioned us to not enter into temptation. Here he unpacks three things in what Jesus meant by the command to “watch and pray” that we don’t enter into temptation. We need to be aware of the dangers of temptation. We must realize we are powerless to keep ourselves from temptation; we cannot save ourselves. We have to have faith in God that he will preserve us.
“Always bear in mind the great danger that it is for any soul to enter into temptation.” Owen commented how it was regrettable how little regard many people have for their need to avoid temptation. If they can keep themselves from open sin, they are content. Yet they will regularly put themselves in the way of temptation. He said that someone who keeps bad company, will eventually become bad company! First such a person will abhor the thoughts and practices of those around them, ignoring the warnings to avoid such persons.
They argue they should be free to try everything—whether it comes from God or not. What was been the result of such an approach? Owen said he didn’t know anyone who had not suffered some consequence; even including the downfall of his or her faith. No one should pretend to fear sin if they don’t fear temptation. The two cannot be separated. Remember: “He hates not the fruit [of sin] who delights in the root [of temptation].”
“Sin will not seem great or heavy to someone who thinks the temptation is light or small.” When an individual decides to dabble in a temptation, sin is at the door. Rationalizing why they must enter into temptation has ruined innumerable believers. Owen said he did not have any hope for a more fruitful profession of faith among believers until there was a greater fear of temptation. Therefore, “the daily exercise of our thoughts with an apprehension of the great danger that lies in entering into temptation, is required of us.”
Secondly, we must keep in mind that we are powerless to keep and preserve ourselves from entering into temptation. So we must pray that we are kept from it, because we cannot rescue ourselves. There are so many ways we can enter into temptation—“the means of it so efficacious and powerful,—the entrances of it so deceitful, subtle, insensible, and plausible,”—that we cannot prevent or preserve ourselves from it. We must realize we are so weak and Satan so cunning and powerful, that if left to ourselves, we will not know that we are ensnared until it is too late—until “sin hath got ground in my heart.”
In God alone can we trust for our preservation and to him must we constantly turn. This will make us aware of our need to always commit ourselves to the care of God; to do nothing without asking God’s counsel. There is a double advantage to following this advice. The first is engaging the grace and compassion of God, who has called the fatherless and helpless to rest upon him. The second is its usefulness for preservation. The person who looks to God for help is both sensible of their danger and conscientious in the use of the means to preserve themselves.
The third thing meant by Christ in his admonition to watch and pray is that we must believe he will preserve us. “To believe that he will preserve us is a means of preservation.” We must come to believe that if we fall into temptation, that God will provide a means of escape. We should pray for what God has promised. James 1:5-7 says that God gives generously to all without reproach. “Let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose he will receive anything from the Lord.” This is also what Christ meant in telling us to watch and pray. If we act in faith on the promises of God for our preservation out of temptation, he will keep us and deliver us from the evil one.
If we separate these two commands, to watch and pray, we should first of all take prayer into consideration. “To pray that we enter not into temptation is a means to preserve us from it.” If we want to be minimally involved with temptation, we should pray continually to avoid it. As Paul encourages us in Ephesians 6:18 to pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication, let us keep watch so that we aren’t diverted by anything whatsoever.
Abide in prayer, and that expressly to this purpose, that we “enter not into temptation.” Let this be one part of our daily contending with God—that he would preserve our souls, and keep our hearts and our ways, that we be not entangled; that his good and wise providence will order our ways and affairs, that no pressing temptation befall us; that he would give us diligence, carefulness, and watchfulness over our own ways. So shall we be delivered when others are held with the cords of their own folly.
Once again as I read Owen’s thoughts here in chapter five from Of Temptation, I was reminded of the suggestions in Twelve Step recovery for coping with addiction. Minimizing the dangers of potential addiction triggers or avoiding people, places and things seems to correspond to the first point. The next two contain echoes of Steps One through Three. The parallels don’t equate his views on temptation and recovery, but they demonstrate the compatibility of the principles of recovery with Christian spirituality.
A digital copy of Owen’s work, Of Temptation, is available here.