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.