04/3/15

Avoiding Temptation

© Bernd Schmidt | 123RF.com

© Bernd Schmidt | 123RF.com

“It is the great duty of all believers to use all diligence in the ways of Christ’s appointment, that they fall not into temptation.” (John Owen)

Owen said that he knows God is able to deliver us out of temptation (2 Peter 2:9); and that he is faithful to not let us be tempted beyond our ability, but gives us a way to escape (1 Corinthians 10:13). However, he was resolved to convince us that it is our great duty to be diligent so that we don’t enter into temptation. Owen emphasized here the theme verse of his work on temptation, Mathew 26:41: “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” Simply put according to Owen, “If we are led into temptation, evil will befall us” (Matthew 6:43).

First he looked at individuals he referred to as “ungrounded” believers. By this he meant someone—as in the Parable of the Sower—who received the word of God joyfully, but had sown it in rocky soil. Temporarily they brought forth some “good fruit,” but when temptation came, they fell away. Owen said the storm of temptation withered their profession and slew their soul. Citing Matthew 7:26, he likened these individuals to the foolish person who built his house on sand. When the storm came against it, it fell. “Entrance into temptation is, with this sort of man, an entrance into apostasy, more or less, in part or in whole; it faileth not.” Judas was an example of such a person.

Owen then suggested that when we consider ourselves with regard to temptation, we should recognize we are weakness itself. “We have no power to withstand.” As with Peter (Mark 14:29), “Confidence of any strength in us is one great part of our weakness.” What’s worse, it is a weakness stemming from treachery in our hearts. He said not to flatter ourselves that we can withstand the temptation. There are secret lusts lurking in our hearts. Perhaps they are not stirring just now, but they are ready to rise up as soon as temptation befalls us. They will never give up until they are either killed or satisfied.

The power of temptation darkens the mind so that the individual may not be able to make a right judgment of things as he did before entering into it. It does this in various ways. First, it fixes the imagination and thoughts upon the object of temptation, so that the mind is diverted from considering the things that would relieve it. “By the craft of Satan the mind shall be so fixed to the consideration of this state and condition, with the distress of it, that he shall not be able to manage any of the reliefs suggested and tendered to him against it.”

Second, temptation blinds our mind and darkens our understanding by entangling our affections (emotions). If there is anyone who does not realize this, let them open their eyes and they will quickly learn it. Owen said show him an individual who is caught up emotionally (i.e., with love, hope, fear) with regard to a specific temptation, and he will show you where that person is darkened and blinded. Their present judgment will not be totally altered, but it will be darkened and rendered too weak “to influence the will and master the affections.” Set free by temptation, these affections will run wild.

Third, temptation will give “oil and fuel to our lusts.” It will incite, provoke and make them rage beyond measure. For a time, it will heighten it and make it wholly predominant. “It will lay the reins on the neck of a lust, and put spurs to the sides of it, that it may rush forward like a horse into the battle.” You don’t know the pride, fury or madness of a corruption until it meets with a suitable temptation.

Temptation can be either public or private. If it is public, there will be strong reasons and pretences to justify it or minimize it. Owen likened this to a person carried into exile. There they degenerate from “the manners of the people from whence they came, and fall into that of the country whereunto they are brought; as if there were something in the soil and the air that transformed them.”

If the temptation is a private one, it will unite with a lust. The temptation will intertwine with it, and they will receive mutual support from each other. “Now, by this means temptation gets so deep in the heart that no contrary reasonings can reach unto it; nothing but what can kill the lust can conquer the temptation.” Self-will may for a season work against it, “but it must come to this—its lust must die, or the soul must die.”

Regardless of where the lust is situated within the soul, the temptation will strive to conqueror the whole soul, one way or another. Suppose someone struggles with ambition. There are a variety of ways to rationalize why they should bridle their desire to cling to God. Not only will this prevent sound reasoning, which it does necessarily, but it will also try to draw the whole soul into the same frame of mind.

In brief, there is no particular temptation, but, when it is in its hour, it hath such a contribution of assistance from things good, evil, indifferent, is fed by so many considerations that seem to be most alien and foreign to it, in some cases hath such specious [attractive] pleas and pretences, that its strength will easily be acknowledged.

You should also consider the consequences of any previous temptations. Didn’t they defile your conscience, disquiet your peace, weaken your obedience and cloud the face of God? Even if you were not overcome to the point of total powerlessness over the temptation, weren’t you still foiled by it? Weren’t you greatly perplexed by it? Did you ever in your life come out of a struggle with some temptation without some loss? Would you be willingly entangled with it again? If you are free, take care. Do not enter into again, if possible, “lest a worse thing happen to thee.”

Owen then cautioned that the person who willfully or negligently enters into temptation has no reason to expect any assistance from God or any deliverance from the temptation. “The promise is made to them whom temptations do befall in their way, whether they will or not; not them that willfully fall into them,—that run out of their way to meet with them.” To enter into temptation in this way is the same as continuing in sin so that grace can thrive (Romans 6:1-2).

Once again, I found myself thinking of how what John Owen said here in Of Temptation applies to addiction and recovery. I see the echoes of powerlessness over alcohol and drugs. In fact, a nonreligious person could substitute the words “addiction” and “addictive thinking” for “temptation” and read it as a treatise on how to avoid addictive thinking and behavior. A digital copy of Owen’s work, Of Temptation, is available here.

02/13/15

Entering Into Temptation

© : Ying Feng Johansson 123rf.com

© : Ying Feng Johansson 123rf.com

Whilst it knocks at the door we are at liberty; but when any temptation comes in and parleys with the heart, reasons with the mind, entices and allures the affections, be it a long or a short time, do it thus insensibly and imperceptibly, or do the soul take notice of it, we “enter into temptation.” (John Owen)

John Owen published Temptation in 1658 to address the nature of temptation, what it means to enter into temptation, and how to prevent it.  A previous article: “Lead Us Through Temptation,” looked at the nature of temptation. Here we begin to look at what it means to enter into temptation. Owen built each of these three facets of his work around the caution given by Jesus to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Matthew 26:41).

Entering into temptation is not simply being tempted, according to Owen. We cannot expect to avoid temptation. “Whilst Satan continues in his power and malice, whilst the world and lust are in being, we shall be tempted.”  However, the Lord’s Prayer pleads that we be not led into temptation. So then it is possible that we could be tempted, but not actually enter into temptation.

Then it must be something more than the ordinary, daily business of being tempted by our lusts. Perhaps it is something to do with the seduction or allurement of sin. Entering into temptation is analogous to a man falling into a pit from which he does not see how he can escape. But the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation (2 Peter 2:9).

When we entertain a temptation, we enter into temptation. But entering into temptation is not the same as being conquered by it. A person may enter into temptation, yet not fall under temptation. God can make a way for the individual to escape. She can break through the snare, and be more than a conqueror—even though she entered into temptation. Remember that Christ himself entered into temptation, but was not stymied by it.

When we enter into temptation, there is usually some special action or occasion by which Satan tempts us. Something beyond his ordinary allurements and seductions. It provokes some greater tumult, a more profound corruption than normal. Our hearts become so entangled with this desire, that we debate whether or not to act on it. And therefore we are not “wholly able to eject or cast out the poison and leaven that hath been injected.”

The entanglement continues, usually to be manifested in one of two ways. First, for reasons known only to himself, God permits Satan to have some particular advantage over the person. Second, the individual’s own lusts and corruptions encounter objects and occasions that are especially provoking. The conditions and circumstances of the person’s life appear to have been almost orchestrated to manifest the opportunity for temptation.

This state of affairs is properly called the “hour of temptation.” It is the time or season in which everything comes to a head—when we have truly entered into temptation. “Every great and pressing temptation hath its hour, a season wherein it grows to a head, wherein it is most vigorous, active, operative, and prevalent.” It may take a long time to rise up. But there is a time when, from the confluence of outward and inward circumstances, it manifests itself fully and completely.

That very temptation, which at one time had little or no power and was easily resisted, now bears the person away quite like a rushing torrent. Either it has gained new strength from other circumstances, or the person has been weakened somehow. David likely had prior temptations to adultery and murder, like in the case of Nabal; but his hour of temptation had not come. So stay alert for the hour, for who is not tempted?

There will be a time when the cravings of temptation will be more urgent; their justifications more plausible; their facades more glorious; their opportunities more available; their entranceways seemingly more beautiful than ever before. Blessed is the person who is prepared for such a time for there is no escaping it. “If we stay here we are safe.”  Here is how we may know that any temptation had reached its high noon and is in its hour.

First, it solicits frequent and persistent thoughts of the evil it seeks to be manifested. At first, the soul in indignation will be offended at the thoughts. But by entertaining the thoughts, the soul grows familiar with it. Instead of being startled as before, it may say, “Is it not a little one?” Then the temptation is approaching its high noon. Lust has been enticed and entangled and is ready to conceive (James 1:15).

Second, when the temptation is known to have prevailed against others, the soul is not filled with dislike and abhorrence of them and their ways. There is no pity or prayer for the other person’s deliverance. And when a temptation has been able to bring low anyone who had previously been able to prevail against it, surely its hour grows closer. “Its prevailing with others is a means to give it its hour against us.”

Third, it will complicate the situation by insinuating itself with many considerations that are not in themselves clearly evil. So it was with the Galatians and their fall from the purity of the gospel. They sought freedom from persecution as well as union and approval with the Jews. Things that were in themselves good were pleaded for, but gave life to the temptation itself.

Fourth, when its hour approaches, a temptation is restless and urgent. “It is the time of battle, and it gives the soul no rest.” Satan sees that it is now or never. So he musters his forces—the opportunities, pleas and pretences for sin. Some ground has already been taken by previous efforts. If he can do nothing now, all is lost.

Fifth, when fears and allurements are joined together, “temptation is in its hour.”  People sometimes are carried into sin by their love of it; and continue in it out of fear for what will come of it. “But in any case, where these two meet, something allures us, something affrights us, and the reasonings that run between them are ready to entangle us, then is the hour of temptation.”

This then is what it means to “enter into temptation.” And there are two means by which we are to prevent it: Watch and Pray. The first is a general expression to be on our guard; to consider all the ways and means by which an enemy could approach us (1 Corinthians 16:13).

A universal carefulness concernment and diligence, exercising itself in and by all ways and means prescribed by God, over our hearts and ways, the baits and methods of Satan, the occasions and advantages of sin in the world, that we be not entangled, is that which in this word is pressed on us.

Of prayer, Owen said he did not need to speak of it. He felt the duty of prayer was known to all. Together with being on guard, “these two comprise the whole endeavour of faith for the soul’s preservation from temptation.”

There are many areas of temptation to which John Owen’s advice can apply. But as I read this chapter, I was struck by its uncanny applicability to individuals who struggle against addiction. Lord, may they watch and pray so that they do not enter into temptation. A digital copy of Owen’s work, Of Temptation, is available here.

12/19/14

Lead Us Through Temptation

We shall never know what strength there is in grace if we know not what strength there is in temptation. We must be tried, that we may be made sensible of being preserved. (John Owen)

Although John Owen published Temptation in 1658, it continues to speak today with clarity into the nature of temptation, what it means to enter into temptation, and how to prevent it.  Each of these three facets of his work were built around the caution given by Jesus to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation”  (Matthew 26:41). Owen’s first task was to lay out the general nature of temptation and tempting, leaving the special nature of how it denotes evil for another chapter of his book.

Temptation, then, in general, is any thing, state, way, or condition that, upon any account whatever, hath a force or efficacy to seduce, to draw the mind and heart of a man from its obedience, which God requires of him, into any sin, in any degree of it whatever.

Whatever causes or provides an opportunity for us to sin is temptation. It is anything that distracts us from our duty or diverts us from communion with God. It will seek to thwart the obedience required of us by either bringing evil into our hearts, or drawing out the evil that indwells there.  Anything within or outside us that has the ability to hinder our duty or provoke the occasion to sin is temptation. An exquisite portrayal of this reality lies within the pages of C.S. Lewis’s classic, The Screwtape Letters.

Be it business, employment, course of life, company, affections, nature, or corrupt design, relations, delights, name, reputation, esteem, abilities, parts or excellencies of body or mind, place, dignity, art,—so far as they further or occasion the promotion of the ends before mentioned, they are all of them no less truly temptations than the most violent solicitations of Satan or allurements of the world, and that soul lies at the brink of ruin who discerns it not.

In this general sense, temptation is neutral. Owen likens it to a knife that can either cut meat of the throat of someone. “It may be his food or his poison, his exercise or his destruction.” And God uses it to try or prove us. First, He uses it to show us what lies within us. He tempted Abraham to show him his faith. Owen said Abraham did not know the power and vigor of his faith until God drew it out of him.

God also tempts us to show himself to us. We discover that God alone keeps us from sin. “Until we are tempted, we think we live on our own strength.” Although anyone else may sin in a particular manner, we will not. And when the trial comes, we quickly see what our defense is by whether we stand or fall. Remember how Paul said in Romans 7:18, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is my flesh.” According to Owen, we must be tried so that we may realize how we are being preserved.

Many times I have talked with Christians who see the wreckage of their lives from active intentional patterns of sin in their lives. They often have great difficulty seeing past the broken relationships; the wasted years; the hurt they did to others. What I try to do is to get them to see, without excusing or diminishing the serious and consequences of their sin, is that despite all that they have done, God still chose them. For by grace they were save through faith. We cannot know the strength of grace without knowing the power of temptation.

I knew a man who came to Christ after his toddler son drowned in a swimming pool accident.  He was in early recovery and instead of picking up drugs he picked up salvation. He had a tattoo on his forearm that said “Li’l Devil” and from what I heard him say he really was when he was an active drug user. He used to talk about how he LOVEDD to get high. God eventually took him through the complication of liver failure due to Hepatitis C. He’d not used drugs since before coming to Christ.

I knew a man who’s surname was Grace—he was well-named. He kept the return of his cancer secret because he needed to care for his wife who had her own health problems. At her funeral it came out that his cancer had returned. He lost his arm and eventually his life to cancer. But he was one of the best examples of a husband and a man of God that I was privileged to know.

I know a couple whose faith and marriage has been tried by what Owen called “an active efficiency towards sinning.” God used sinful circumstances to turn their lives and family upside down. Yet they arose with a stronger, deeper marriage and relationship with Christ. And they wouldn’t trade what they’ve been through if it meant they couldn’t be guaranteed the same deepening of their marriage and their faith.

Owen would point to these people and say that God accomplished their trial or temptation by putting upon them great sufferings. “Our temptations arise from the ‘fiery trial;’ and yet the end is but a trial of faith.” Oh Lord, lead us through temptation. Help us to know you better and deeper. That we may clearly see the beauty of salvation and the strength that is in your grace.

A digital copy of Owen’s work, Of Temptation, is available here.