03/1/16

The Antidote for Temptation

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© kikkerdirk | stockfresh.com

In Of Temptation, John Owen’s last direction on how to guard against temptation contains the ultimate antidote against the poison of temptation. Owen said this antidote was one that Christ himself gave preeminence in his address to the church of Philadelphia in Revelation 3:10. Since Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever, then his encouragement to the church in Philadelphia is for us today as well. This enables us to place the burden of resisting temptation upon “him who is able to bear it.” Therefore Owen thought it requires our particular attention.

In Revelation 3:10, Jesus said: “Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.” The Greek word used here for “patient endurance” refers to the state of expectation or patient anticipation of the arrival of someone or something. Coupled with the sense of “observed” for kept, then Jesus is saying something like, “Because you listened to what I said about waiting patiently, I will keep you from the time of temptation that is coming.”  First Owen unpacks what it means to “patiently endure;” and then how this perseverance is a means of preserving and establishing us in the faith of Christ’s promise.

This command to patiently endure is the work of the gospel. It means that our call to forbearance is based upon the patience and long-suffering that Christ exercises towards all persons—towards the saints; towards those of His elect not yet effectually called; and towards those of the perishing world. Owen said the individual acquainted with the gospel knows there is no more glorious then his patience.

That he should bear with so many unkindnesses, so many causeless breaches, so many neglects of his love, so many affronts done to his grace, so many violations of engagements as he doth, it manifests his gospel to be not only the word of his grace but also of his patience.

With regard to the elect who are not yet effectually called, “he stands waiting at the door of their hearts and knocks for an entrance” (Revelation 3:20). Often, for a long time he is scorned, persecuted and reviled by them. Yet while he stands at the door, his heart is full of love for their poor rebellious souls. He waits patiently, until “my head is wet with dew, my locks with the drops of the night” (Song of Songs, 5:2).

To the perishing world, He “has endured with much patience vessels of wrath” (Romans 9:22). While the gospel is preached, Christ endures many harsh words from them. But he lets them pass. He doesn’t strike back. Rather, he does what is good for them. “Nor will he cut this way of proceeding short until the gospel shall be preached no more. Patience must accompany the gospel.”

Implied in keeping this word are three things that will help keep us from the “hour of temptation”: knowledge, valuation and obedience.

The person that would keep this word must know it—be acquainted with it—in a fourfold way. First, they must know it as a word of grace and mercy, able to save them (Roman 1:16; Titus 2:11; James 1:21). “When the word of the gospel is known as a word of mercy, grace, and pardon, as the sole evidence for life, as the conveyance of an eternal inheritance; when the soul finds it such to itself, it will strive to keep it.”

Second, they must know it as a word of holiness and purity, to sanctify them (John 15:3; 1 Peter 1:2; 2 Timothy 2:19). The person who doesn’t know the word of Christ’s patience as a sanctifying, cleansing word and the power of it in their own soul, neither know it or keeps it. “The empty profession of our days knows not one step towards this duty; and thence it is that the most are so overborne under the power of temptations.” They are full of self, of the world, of fury, ambition, and almost all unclean lusts. Yet they yet talk of keeping the word of Christ!

Third, they must know it as a word of liberty and power to set them free. This freedom is not only from the guilt of sin and from wrath, for that it does as a word of peace and mercy. It is not only from the power of sin, for that it does as a word of holiness.  Rather, it is freedom from all outward respects of the world that might entangle them or enslave them. It declares us to be “Christ’s freemen,” in bondage to no one (John 8:32; 1 Corinthians 7:23).

There is nothing more unworthy of the gospel than a mind in bondage to persons or things, prostituting itself to the lusts of men or affrightments of the world. And he that thus knows the word of Christ’s patience, really and in power, is even thereby freed from innumerable, from unspeakable temptations.

Fourth, they must know it as a word of consolation, to support them in every condition.  “It gives support, relief, refreshment, satisfaction, peace, consolation, joy, boasting, glory, in every condition.”

The second thing implied in keeping this word is seeing its value: “It is to be kept as a treasure.” To value it as your chief treasure means that you “keep the word of Christ’s patience.” The person who wants to have consideration from Christ in a time of temptation must not disregard the things Christ sees as important.

This leads to the third thing in keeping this word: obedience. Personal obedience of all the commands of Christ is keeping his word (John 14:15). It is the life and soul of the duty required. We have arrived then at the apex of this safeguarding duty.

The person who is acquainted with the gospel in its excellencies—its mercy, holiness, liberty and consolation—makes it their business to surrender themselves to it. Then when opposition and apostasy tries the patience of Christ to the utmost, they will be preserved from the hour of temptation. This encompasses all of what has been said before; and it is the only way to guard against temptation. Let no one think they can be kept even one hour from entering into temptation without it. Wherever they fail to surrender to the gospel, temptation asserts itself.

The same promise of preservation given to the church in Philadelphia was given to the sealed servants of God in Revelation 7:3. We should remember that in every such promise there are three things: the faithfulness of the Father, who gives it; the grace of the Son, which is the promise; and the power and efficacy of the Holy Ghost, which accomplishes the promise.  The faithfulness of God consists in his discharge of his promises, for he will not reverse himself. As Paul said in 2 Timothy 2:13: “If we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.”

The grace of the Son is in every promise of the covenant, so that when the hour of temptation comes, the soul that has a right to the promise shall enjoy it. The Spirit is called “the Spirit of promise” not only because he is promised by Christ, but also because he effectually makes good the promise. “He also, then is engaged to preserve the soul walking according to the rule laid down.”

This constant, universal keeping of Christ’s word of patience will keep the heart and soul in such a frame, as wherein no prevalent temptation, by virtue of any advantages whatever, can seize upon it, so as totally to prevail against it. So David prays, Ps. 25:21, “Let integrity and uprightness preserve me.” This integrity and uprightness is the Old Testament-keeping the word of Christ,—universal close walking with God. Now, how can they preserve a man? Why, by keeping his heart in such a frame, so defended on every side that no evil can approach or take hold on him. Fail a man in his integrity, he hath an open place for temptation to enter, Isa. 57:21. To keep the word of Christ is to do it universally, as hath been showed.

Owen has more to say in elaborating on the promise of Christ to keep us from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world (Revelation 3:10). But we will stop here. 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.”

02/9/16

Guard Your Heart

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© albund | stockfresh.com

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.”

10/30/15

Seasons of Temptation

© Carmen Behr | 123rf.com

© Carmen Behr | 123rf.com

“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.”

07/3/15

Temptation Prevention

© Ion Chiosea | 123RF.com

© Ion Chiosea | 123RF.com

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.

06/12/15

Knowing When You Enter Temptation

© Jaroslav Chaplya | 123RF.com

© Jaroslav Chaplya | 123RF.com

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.

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.