Several weeks ago, I had the hairbrained idea to read John Owen’s 1658 Of Temptation and blog about it. I’d read Michelle DeRusha’s unfortunate announcement that she was abandoning traditional book publishing, and I feared more attrition in our ranks. Catch up on the conversation here: second post, third post, fourth post, fifth post. While I’m hoping to help writers think through the temptations of the writing life (and the spiritual practices necessary for resisting those temptations), I’m hoping that the content from Owen will be of help to many people in many varied fields.
With the exception of returning library books on time, I am, by nature, a fairly diligent person. I get up early. I make my bed. I leave a clean sink at night. I meet deadlines. In high school, it was my chore to clean the bathrooms in our house, and you’d better believe that I made sure to clean every inch of every surface. I remember having the (what now seems pathological) thought, “If you miss the corners, Jesus will know.”
This explains nearly everything about my spiritual life for the first couple of decades. I was a doer, a trier, an achiever. Hard work was the means to every reward, even—or especially—the spiritual ones. Intimacy with God wasn’t happenstance. You worked to know him. You flexed the muscle of your intention. You proved your seriousness. He would, one day, be finally impressed by your diligence.
I have not come easy to grace. I suppose no one does. It’s why the wisdom of the gospel is foolishness to us. We’d take meritocracy over mercy most days because it feels so good to be in control of something, to position ourselves to take all of the credit (and of course, none of the blame). It’s only been the last years—my writing years, incidentally—that I’ve seen the underbelly of this ethic of diligence. For one, it’s a miserable pace to keep, this trying to outrun yourself in order to keep up with God. For another, it makes you miserable company to keep, you and all of your exacting expectations. In parenting, as in other areas, I’ve seen the murderous effects of perfectionism, how it can trample little hearts under the weight of “not good enough.” (Oh, dear God, have mercy on my children, especially for all the times I withheld it.)
But even as I confess my sin, I want also to admit this: I’m growing. I’m even learning to say it that way. I’m growing. I’m learning to trust that God has far more patience for me than I have for myself, that he is the good Father of Hosea 11 whose compassion burns hot in his own heart.
This prelude has nothing to do, of course, with the writing life, but it is an important preface to what I want to draw out from John Owen today as this particular chapter is entitled, “The Great Duty of All Believers is to be Diligent not to Fall into Temptation.” Ah, there’s that word again. Diligence. HIstorically, I’ve come hungrily to it, come to it with confidence and swagger. Diligence, you say? Yeah, I can be pretty good at that.
But this is not the diligence that Owen intends. He expounds, “It is the great duty of all believers to use all diligence in the way of Christ’s appointment, that they fall not into temptation.” To see Christ in the middle of the sentence is to remember so many things: Christ, innocent Son of God, who died for my guilt; Christ, resurrected and ascended and returning, to whom I am now united and made new; Christ, my Intercessor, my Advocate.
To remember Christ is to remember that diligence has never saved anyone.
But at the risk of sounding like a broken record, there’s more to say. There’s a paradox to discover. Though we have a host of promises from God regarding temptation (that he will deliver us, 2 Pet. 2:9; that he will provide escape, 1 Cor. 10:13), we can’t sit back passively, assuming those promises will become effectual as we binge watch the third season of Parks and Rec. Yes, there’s “diligence, watchfulness, and care” to exercise as we “enter not into temptation.”
Still, the good news is: this diligence involves no crossfit regimen of spiritual fanaticism. It’s just this:
“Our Savior instructs us to pray that we not enter into temptation.”
How delightfully simple—if also difficult—at the very same time. How unlike the diligence of doing for God—and simply the invitation to diligently bring our broken selves to God and invite his help. “Our blessed Savior knows full well our state and condition; he knows the power of temptation, having had experience of it (Heb. 2:18); he knows our vain confidence, and the reserves we have concerning our ability to deal with temptations, as he found it in Peter; but he knows our weaknesses and folly, and how soon we are cast to the ground, and therefore does he lay in this provision for instruction at the entrance of his ministry, to make us heedful, if possible, in that which is of so great concern to us.”
Jesus taught us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation” because he knew we’d need that prayer.
In this vein, I’ve written seven prayers that address some of the temptations I face as a writer—one for every day of the week! In the comments, I’d love for you to offer up your own prayer. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a kind of prayer book compiled by writers and speakers that’s both honest about the temptations we face and hopeful about the help we find in Christ?
Thanks in advance for considering your submission!
Father, deliver me from selfish ambition. I confess that my heart is not conformed to kingdom priorities but driven to make plans and pursue goals independent of you. Remind me of the brevity of my days, that I may gain a heart of wisdom. Give me, as needed, Christ’s courage to live a small and invisible life, if only to love you and my neighbor well.
Father, deliver me from the love of money. I confess how easy it is to conform to the pattern of this consumerist world. Show me the path of contentment, and lead me in Christ’s way of dependence. You’ve proven yourself faithful to clothe the flowers of the field and feed the birds of the air, and I trust you to provide for my family’s needs.
Father, deliver me from the love of applause. I confess that I grow addicted to praise. Apart from your rescue, I am hellbent on the primordial impulse to make a name for myself. With your help, I will not disavow any of the gifts that you have given to me, but I will also be clear to credit you as the Giver of all good things, even and especially Christ himself.
Father, deliver me from habits of hostility. I confess my jealousy of other people’s talents, my envy of other people’s opportunities. I say I want your kingdom to come when I really mean: “Don’t let it come through someone else, lest they be praised.” Help me to encourage others, to celebrate others’ accomplishments, and to generously share resources. Lead me to the sincere delight of being one of many members in Christ’s body.
Father, deliver me from laziness. I confess that I want my words to yield immediate reward, and I grow tired of the hidden disciplines meant for sustaining this vocational calling. I am intellectually restless, leaving books half-read. I neglect the deep work of study, contented instead to skim the surface of understanding. In this age of distraction, by your grace, help me to patiently give myself to deep work for the sake of Christ.
Father, deliver me from heedless outrage. I confess that I am easily given to rash judgments, that I, like the fool of Psalm 109, clothe myself with cursing as a coat. I do not want to cower from speaking hard words when necessary, but I do not want to fail the compassion necessary for speaking them. Make the log in my own eye more apparent, more abhorrent than the speck in my sister’s. With your help, I will recognize the image of Christ in every profile picture and byline, every dissenting opinion and voice.
Father, deliver me from fear. I confess that the temptations in this work are great, and I grow easily convinced of my inability to resist. I forget the good news of grace, that you gave your son, Jesus Christ, to redeem us from sin and to purify for yourself a people for your own possession who are zealous to do good works. I receive his help today, he who was tempted yet remained obedient. I do not know the way, but I trust you to show me the way. Most of all, I trust you to show me your mercy.