“Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41)
John Owen oriented his book, Of Temptation around his thoughts on the above verse. Chapter six of that work looks at what Owen called the seasons of temptation. He observed how there were various times or seasons when temptation is commonly at hand. These opportunities will unavoidably “seize upon the soul” unless we are watchful to prevent it. When we are under such a season, Owen cautions us to be particularly on our guard so that we do not enter or fall into the power of temptation.
The first of these seasons occurs in a time of outward prosperity. “Prosperity and temptation go together.” Prosperity is the ground for many temptations and without eminent supplies of grace it will create the opportunity for any one of a myriad of temptations. Then it will provide all the food and fuel the temptation needs to burn hotter and brighter.
In Proverbs 1:32 it says the prosperity or complacency of fools destroys them. It hardens them in their way and makes them despise instruction. It puts the day of reckoning far off, lest its terror should influence you into changing your ways. “Without a special assistance, it hath an inconceivably malignant influence on believers themselves.” Agur prayed that he would not have riches (Proverbs 30:8, 9) so that he would not forget the Lord.
David was confident that he would not be moved in his prosperity (Proverbs 30:6), but he gravely overestimated himself. Although Solomon said we should rejoice in the day of prosperity (Ecclesiastes 7:14), Owen advised us to rejoice in the God of mercies, who does good for us by his patience and forebearance despite our unworthiness. He urged that we consider how evil lies close at hand in prosperity. “A man in that state is in the midst of snares. Satan hath many advantages against him; he forgeth darts out of all his enjoyments; and, if he watch not, he will be entangled before he is aware.”
You need something to give poise or stability to your heart. Formality in religious practice can creep in, laying the soul open to various temptation in their full power and strength. “Satisfaction and delight in creature-comforts, the poison of the soul, will be apt to grow upon thee.” Owen said to be vigilant and careful in such a time or you will be surprised. There is a hardness and disregard of spirituality that can happen in prosperity. Many people’s disregard of this warning has cost them dear. “Blessed is he that feareth always, but especially in a time of prosperity.”
Another season to watch for is when there is a time of neglect in our communion with God, a formality in our religious duty, a time of “the slumber of grace.” A soul in such a state of mind should wake up and look around. Their enemy is close at hand and they are about to fall into a condition that could cost them dear for the rest of their life. While a time of neglect in your communion with God is bad enough, it is also an indication that something worse is at the door. Recall how Peter fell into a time of spiritual and physical drowsiness and did not heed the caution of Christ to “watch and pray” so that he not enter into temptation. And since he was not watching as he should, he entered into it.
Consider, then, O poor soul, thy state and condition! Doth thy light burn dim? Or though it give to others as great a blaze as formerly, yet thou seest not so clearly the face of God in Christ by it as thou hast done? Is thy zeal cold? Or if it do the same works as formerly, yet thy heart is not warmed with the love of God and to God in them as formerly, but only thou proceedest in the course thou hast been in? Art thou negligent in the duties of praying or hearing? Or if thou dost observe them, thou doest it not with that life and vigour as formerly? Dost thou flag in thy profession? . . . If thou art drowsing in such a condition as this, take heed; thou art falling into some woeful temptation that will break all thy bones, and give thee wounds that shall stick by thee all the days of thy life. Yea, when thou awakest, thou wilt find that it hath indeed laid hold of thee already, though thou perceivedst it not; it hath smitten and wounded thee, though thou hast not complained nor sought for relief or healing.
Perversely, a season of great spiritual enjoyment is often turned into a season of danger and temptation because of Satan and the weakness of our hearts. Consider Paul, who in 2 Corinthians 12:1 related having visions and revelations of the Lord. Yet to keep him from becoming conceited because of the greatness of the revelations, yet he was given a thorn in the flesh to keep him from becoming conceited (2 Corinthians 12:7). Satan sees that being possessed by the joy before us, we become lax over many of the ways of approach to our souls. So he seeks and finds some advantage to use against us. “Let us not say, ‘We shall never be moved;’ we know not how soon God may hide his face, or a messenger from Satan may buffet us.”
A fourth season of temptation is with self-confidence. At times of high self-confidence temptation is usually close at hand. The case of Peter is a clear example of this. He said he would not fall away or deny Jesus. Even if all the others fell away, even if it meant his death he would stand fast (Mark 14:29-31). “This said the poor man when he stood on the very brink of that temptation that cost him in the issue such bitter tears.” Within a few hours of his confident declaration that he would never deny Christ he did so three times.
Would you think that Peter, who had walked on water with Christ, who confessed him to be the Son of God, who was with him on the mount, would at the questioning of a servant girl—when there was not legal inquisition or process against him—would swear that he did not know who Jesus was? So if you would guard against sin, beware of self-confidence.
And this is the first thing in our watching, to consider well the seasons wherein temptation usually makes its approaches to the soul, and be armed against them.
Here is a link to Overcoming Sin and Temptation, a trilogy of three works by Owen: “Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers;” “Of Temptation;” and “Indwelling Sin.”