This is the fifth in a series I’m calling, “The Perils of Publishing,” in which I reflect on John Owen’s 1658 Of Temptation. Even if you’re not a writer, I think you’ll find helpful content here for whatever particular temptations you face in your own life.
To catch up on the conversation, start here where I engage with Michelle DeRusha, who announced that she is quitting book writing. Continue to the second post, which introduces John Owen’s 17th-century work, republished by Crossway in 2006. In the third post, I remind us that while we are called to “watch and pray,” our resolve alone will not rescue us from temptation. In the fourth post, I explore the means of temptation, namely: Satan, our flesh, and the world.
Today I’m writing about Owen’s chapter, “What Temptation Is and Is Not.”
As I do most days, I woke up this morning early to make coffee, write in my journal and read Scripture. This routine has remained a constant in my life since college, excepting the very earliest days of being home with a new baby. (When I came home with twin babies, I let the routine lapse for a number of months and figured that sleep was just as important a spiritual practice). This morning quiet is a grounding discipline in my life—one way I experience the new mercies of God every new morning. No matter what the previous day has been like, the morning offers up a chance to do what God says his people should get good at doing: stumbling, brushing off our knees, and getting back up again by his grace.
Today was exactly one of those days because I had some grassy, dirty knees. In my journal, I let myself think about the moments yesterday where I’d seemed so far from God. A moment where I withheld the compassion that one of my children needed, turning silent and icy instead. A moment where I laid claim to worldly power, throwing weight around and expecting others to cow. A moment where I chose an unkindness because it felt rightly deserved and I felt self-righteous. I had to come back to those moments and recognize them for what they were: choosing a way other than the way of Jesus, which is the downward movement of grace. “Father, forgive me and cleanse me from pride, and unite me to the humiliated and highly exalted one for your name’s sake.”
Temptation is baying at my heels all day long, and I am sometimes, as Owen says, not simply “facing” it but “entering” into and “being foiled” by it. These distinctions—between facing, entering, and falling into temptation— are important ones that Owen wants to make. We will all face temptation in this life. “While Satan continues in his power and malice, while the world and lust are in being, we shall be tempted.” We enter temptation, however, in a season where its “solicitations” are particularly strong. “When any temptation comes in and [speaks] with the heart, reasons with the mind, entices and allures the affections, be it a long or short time, . . . we ‘enter into temptation.’” Nevertheless, to enter into temptation, writes Owen, is not to be foiled by it.
These distinctions may or may not seem that helpful, but I think Owen’s point is that temptation is a force that grows in strength in particular seasons, so that “entering” temptation is the point where temptation is at its “high noon.” In other words, though we’re tempted on a regular basis, we sometimes find ourselves more vulnerable to temptation by virtue of our circumstances and our relative spiritual health. “Entering” temptation is a step beyond the normal temptations we face in the course of the everyday.
It’s not just sin knocking at the door. It’s sin asking to sit and stay awhile.
How do we move simply from facing temptation to entering into it? Owen offers three reasons.
1. First, “by long solicitations, causing the mind frequently to converse with the evil solicited unto it begets extenuating thoughts of it.” To translate: we enter temptation when we begin to contemplate the sin and diminish its importance. We rationalize. At first, we’re indignant to consider the sin being suggested, but imperceptibly, over time, we grow convinced that it’s “no big deal.”
2. Second, we watch the temptation prevail upon others and our soul “is not filled with dislike and abhorrency of them and their ways, nor with pity and prayer for their deliverance.” Others fall prey to the sin that once roused such indignation in us, but we find now that we’re hardly bothered by it. It’s no big deal for us, and it’s not big deal for others.
3. We allow things to get complicated because we entertain something good alongside the evil. In other words, temptation makes the wily proposal of both good and evil, such that the evil is paid no attention while the good is elevated. Such was the case with the Galatians and the circumcision debate: they fell “from the purity of the gospel [by entertaining the good of] freedom from persecution, union and consent with the Jews.”
I can see all of these at play in the publishing world, but I think the third feels most apt to me. Publishing introduces all the perils that we’ve already talked about. It stokes pride and jealousy and selfish ambition. But it also does great good. As we write, we speak the truths of God that we ourselves and others need to hear. (Just this week, I had one of the most heartfelt letters from a reader who providentially happened upon a copy of Surprised by Paradox weeks before her sister died. She had started with the section of lament. “You reminded me, literally DAYS before I most needed the reminding, that grief is hard and terrible and leaves you in wreckage.”)
What a privilege to speak into the lives of others.
What a peril that we can’t be trusted with very much praise.
And this is kind of both/and with which I began this series. To think of writing and publishing, there are no simply binaries and easy answers. We are both corrupt and called; the work is both privileged and perilous. It’s simply in recognizing this, says Owen, that is the strongest defense we have, and he ends chapter 2 of Part II with advice he’s already given. These are words he’s taken from Jesus himself. Watch and pray. Stay attuned to the way that things can go off the rails and practice “a universal carefulness and diligence.” Seek God’s help.
I suppose that’s what I’m doing every morning, when I let the sun rise and light dawn on my own bedraggled heart, when I practice believing that God, in his tireless compassion, is for me despite that I am—emphatically—not always for him. And in terms of temptation, as Owen writes, “God can make a way for a man to escape, when he is in; he can break the snare, tread down Satan, and make the soul more than a conqueror, though it have entered into temptation.
Christ entered into it, but was not in the least foiled by it.”