This is the third in a series I’m writing on the perils of publishing. To catch up on the conversation, start here where I engage with Michelle DeRusha, who recently announced that she is quitting book writing. Continue to the second post, which introduces the work of John Owen called Of Temptation.
People often remark on the vulnerability of my writing, particularly in my first book. I tell them that it’s easy to be vulnerable when you’re convinced no one is reading. In the opening of the third chapter of Teach Us to Want, I tell a story about temptation and God’s intervening grace.
Ryan and I were in our mid-twenties. He was squirreled away nights and weekends studying for actuarial exams. I was teaching, coaching, and finishing graduate school. It was a busyness that made for a lot of separateness—and a separateness that made for an easy flirtation at work. I had, of course, absolutely no intention of being unfaithful to my husband. But then, at the end of one particular school year, this unmarried colleague and I found ourselves at a graduation party for a student we had in common. Like so many events in that season of our early married life, I was attending alone.
“Want to go out for a drink later?” my colleague asked casually when we bumped into each other in the living room.
“Sure, that sounds fun,” I answered. It was only a flirtation, I told myself.
The night wore on, and we mingled in separate circles. When I finally decided to leave, I knew, with a sudden urgency, that there could be no hesitating. Reaching the door, I knew I could not turn around, could not scan the crowd, could not meet the eyes of this man—that if I did, this flirtation, this future drink, had the real possibility of becoming something I did not want.
I fled to my car, and when I got home, woke Ryan to tell him everything.
This story, almost two decades old, does not pertain to the temptations of the writing life, but it does remind me of the first lesson John Owen shares from the preface his book, Of Temptation, and which I wrote about last week. Count yourselves vulnerable to temptation, Owen insists. He alludes to the warning of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:12: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.”
We are capable of far more than easy flirtations.
What makes us most vulnerable to any kind of temptation—whether in our domestic lives or in our professional ones—is the conviction of safety. We’re in the most danger when we count ourselves reliable. As Owen reiterates in his first chapter in Part I: The Nature of Temptation, “Grace and corruption lie deep in the heart; men oftentimes deceive themselves in the search after the one or the other of them.”
Even the most self-aware among us suffer acutely from spiritual myopia. We aren’t always able to diagnose, with any degree of accuracy, our spiritual health. Here’s Owen again, citing the example of Peter, who after virulently attesting to his loyalty to Jesus, denied him three times. “It would be an amazing thing to consider that Peter should make so high a promise, and be immediately so careless and remiss in the pursuit of it.” Peter counted himself safe rather than vulnerable, and it was reason for his calamitous, bitter fall.
Our resolve is not our refuge. How easily we fail our best intentions.
In the writing life, I think about the intentions I set—and often fail. I commit to limiting my time on social media, to deliberately ignoring the Amazon rank of my recent book, to celebrating the work of others. I commit to resisting distraction; I promise to give myself to deep work. What’s more, I count myself vulnerable to temptation, looking for external structures and spiritual habits to bind me to these promises. And truthfully, there are really good weeks, really good days, and really good parts of days. I know something of the pleasure of doing work that both glorifies God and gives me great joy. I find myself experiencing a degree of openhandedness about it all, trusting God for the outcomes of every word I put on a page. Joyfully, I sense how my own life is enriched by this “naming” work that I do, which is helping me to understand more of myself, more of God, more of the beautiful, broken world I try bearing witness to. Like an electrical current, words surge through me, and so many times, I feel myself alive and awake.
But there are also really bad weeks, really bad days, and really bad parts of days. I can seethe with jealousy when others are extended invitations that I am not. I can find myself impossibly fidgety, struggling to sit still for the 90 minutes I have cordoned off to meet a deadline. I can promise not to check my phone—and can reach, not ten seconds later, for a quick scroll through Twitter to reassure myself that I am seen and known. I can wake anxious, my mind sounding like a gong with vague, unspoken demands.
What hope does Owen have for me here? Much.
In his first chapter, he reassures us that there is hidden grace in temptation. While God never tempts his people to sin, he does use situations to “try” them and expose their hearts. Part of the grace of temptation, as Owen sees it, is that it reminds us of our utter need for God. “A man shall see that it is God alone who keeps us from all sin. Until we are tempted, we think we live on our own strength.” If you and I made resolutions and kept them perfectly, what need would we have for the merciful, faithful High Priest whose grace is readied for us? If intention alone were the only necessary means for overcoming temptation, then wouldn’t the best spiritual practice would be self-dependence?
But instead of relying on ourselves, we must look to God. “All our own strength is weakness, and all our wisdom folly.” Like Peter, we will fail to know ourselves—and fail to keep our promises. As writers, if we’re going to survive the perils of the publishing world, we’re going to need prayers at our disposal like, “Have mercy on me, O God, a sinner.” It will not be the strength of our resolutions that keep us safe; it will be the acknowledgement of our need.
All we need in this perilous writing life is neediness.
I’ll close here with what Owen calls the “foundational text” on temptation, Matthew 26:42. “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” Watch: because temptation is close at hand, and we are vulnerable. Pray: because it’s God alone who can rescue us from temptation.
Watch and pray.
Herein lies the paradox, no? To say that our resolutions cannot be relied upon isn’t to say that we shouldn’t resolve to do what’s right and good. To say that our strength isn’t strong enough isn’t to say that we shouldn’t seek to build spiritual muscle and flex it. Let’s find the spiritual practices that keep us grounded, but let’s not put our faith in the practices themselves but in God. As the late Dallas Willard wrote, “This is an active, not passive, process, one that requires our clearheaded and relentless participation. It will not be done for us.”
Count yourself vulnerable to temptation. Then, watch and pray, remembering the good news of grace:
“A man shall see that it is God alone who keeps us from all sin. Until we are tempted, we think we live on our own strength.”