John Owen introduced chapter seven of his work, “Of Temptation” by saying he would now address how the heart becomes entangled by temptation. Before this chapter, he had addressed the outward means and occasions of temptation (If you’re interested in reading reflections on those topics, search for other articles with “Owen”). Now he comes to the heart, where temptation will often take advantage of our natural temperament and constitution.
Let him that would not enter into temptation labour to know his own heart, to be acquainted with his own spirit, his natural frame and temper, his lusts and corruptions, his natural, sinful, or spiritual weaknesses, that, finding where his weakness lies, he may be careful to keep at a distance from all occasions of sin.
The person who would guard their heart to avoid temptation has to be acquainted with their own temperament, so they can watch over the deceitfulness that is constantly assailing it. Some temptations grow out of what are the best and noblest parts of our natural temperament, which if it were “well broken up and fallowed,” would see God’s grace take root and grow. “But if it is not watched over, it can be a means of innumerable surprisals and entanglements in temptation.” Then there are other areas of our temperament that are more fruitful ground where envy, malice selfishness and the like can grow. Here the person can scarcely make a move without becoming ensnared in one or the other of them.
He who watches not this thoroughly, who is not exactly skilled in the knowledge of himself, will never be disentangled from one temptation or another all his days.
Just as people can have natural temperaments, which can become a great opportunity for temptation if they are not watched over, so they may have particular lusts or corruptions, which become deeply rooted. This can occur through their natural constitution or by personal experience. Unless the person is mindful of its manifestations, it will be continually entangling and ensnaring them. Uselessness and scandal are continually growing branches on the “root” of unfamiliarity believers have with their natural temperament and constitution. “How few there are who will either study themselves or bear those who would acquaint them with them!”
Be acquainted, then, with thine own heart: though it be deep, search it; though it be dark, inquire into it; though it give all its distempers other names than what are their due, believe it not.
When you know the condition and state of your heart, guard it against the occasions and opportunities that are likely to entangle your nature or provoke you corruption. (Here Owen’s advice echoes the common sense advice in recovery to avoid the people, places and things of addiction.) It may be that there are some circumstances that you cannot avoid, suffer them as best you can through the time of temptation. “Seeing we have so little power over our hearts when once they meet with suitable provocations, we are to keep them asunder, as a man would do fire and the combustible parts of the house wherein he dwells.”
Be sure to stock up on provisions to withstand any approaching storm of temptation. Consider when an enemy seeks to attack a fort or castle. If that enemy finds it well protected and provisioned to withstand a siege, they will move on and not assault it. So shall Satan, if he finds our hearts fortified against his batteries and provided to hold out, will flee from us (James 4:7). The provisions capable of withstanding such an assault are the supplies of the Gospel—“keep the heart full of a sense of the love of God in Christ.” Since we all will be tempted, we should do the following to stay alert for the approach of any temptation.
First, we should always be alert to gain an early discovery of temptation. Many times people don’t see their enemy until they are wounded by it. Often, temptation is not easily discerned. “Few take notice of it until it is too late, and they find themselves entangled.” Watch out for the snares that are laid for you. Understand the advantages may use against you before they gain power and strength; “before they are incorporated with thy lusts, and have distilled poison into thy soul.”
Second, consider the aim of the temptation, whatever it may be. Satan does not aim to have you violate the law; it is not the thing he aims at. His intent lies against your interest in the gospel. “He would make sin but a bridge to get over to a better ground, to assault thee as to thy interest in Christ.” Today he might say, “It’s okay to commit that sin in the name of Christ.” But tomorrow he will condemn you for having done so.
Third, meet your temptation with thoughts of faith concerning the cross of Christ and it will collapse before you. Don’t debate with it. Let your temptation do whatever it will—whether that is doubts about your ability to withstand the sin or fear of its power. “I it is not able to stand before faith lifting up the standard of the cross.”
Now suppose you are surprised by temptation and entangled unawares, so that it is too late to resist the initial entrance of it. What should you do to avoid being carried away by its power? Do as Paul did—beseech God again and again that it would leave you (2 Corinthians 12:8). And if you remain in it, you will certainly either be quickly delivered out of it, or receive sufficient grace not to be utterly foiled by it. Don’t focus your thoughts on the things that tempt you, which could lead to further entanglements. Rather, set yourself against the temptation and pray that it would leave you.
Look to Him who has promised deliverance. Remember that he is faithful and will not let you to be tempted beyond your ability, “but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:14). Discover where the temptation that surprised you gained its entrance and speedily close that breach. “Deal with thy soul like a wise physician.” Find out how you were enticed into this situation. If you find negligence or carelessness in keeping watch over yourself, fix you soul there; make up that breach—“and then proceed to the work that lies before thee.”
If you want to read his original work, here is a link to Overcoming Sin and Temptation, a trilogy of three by Owen: “Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers;” “Of Temptation;” and “Indwelling Sin.”