This is the fourth in a series I’m writing on the perils of publishing. Truthfully, I think this series could be broadened to include any area of our lives where we experience temptation. 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 1658 Of Temptation.Owen, a Puritan pastor and theologian, wrote three classic works on sin and temptation, which were re-published by Crossway in 2006 under the title Overcoming Sin & Temptation. 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. Writes Owen, “Until we are tempted, we think we live on our own strength.” Below, in this fourth post, which continues to reflect on Chapter 1, “The Nature of Temptation,” I explore the means of temptation which Satan uses.
Last weekend was unusually busy for our family. (It’s why I never got this post written last week!) Our eldest graduated from high school, and the following evening was the school prom. Because our children attend a small, private school in Toronto—and the graduating class included only 68 students—it was possible for one of the families to host a pre-prom event for both students and their parents. (I say possibleonly because my own high school graduating class of more than 400 students would have made such an event impossible. I say possible—granting that most houses, including my own, would not accommodate a quarter of these guests.)
I’d breathed a sigh of relief when we pulled up to the house, noting that it was hardly the largest or most imposing on the street. (The host family lives in one of the most exclusive ravine neighborhoods in downtown Toronto.) But when we entered the front door and were ushered by “staff” through the marbled hallway out the back door, I understood that we’d entered a kind of portal, one that opened onto luxury belonging, not simply to the lawyers and the doctors and the bankers, but to the monied families of political and social importance.
It was hard not to gawk. The terraced private backyard, each level accommodating tens and tens of guests. The indoor and outdoor swimming pools. The white tablecloths. It all bespoke a wealth so far out of reach that in one sense, I hardly fought a covetous impulse. On the other hand, I knew something else: that Toronto—its ambition, its elastic material want, its “desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life”—can seep into my skin whether I like it or not. I am formed by this place, formed for good, formed for ill
Loving Toronto as I do, there are still are days I dream of moving to rural Iowa, dream of settling down to an obscure life where no one cares to know what degrees you have, what car you drive, what vacation you’re taking, what brand you’re wearing. I dream of a world less tethered to the spectacle of wealth and power. In that blue-jeaned, flannelled world, I imagine myself free of the temptation to buy and consume, to climb and impress. In that flat and grassy stretch of land, the sky wide and high and limitless, I imagine myself holy.
I think we all do this. It’s a bargain we all try making, thinking that a change in our circumstances is a change for good. (As far as the writing life goes, I think we often tell ourselves that we could do this work of writing if it weren’t for the clamoring, climbing world of social media!)
John Owen has something to say about this, of course. (And maybe you’ll be surprised to hear him say that, with regard to temptation, sometimes a change in circumstance can be a change for good.)
In chapter 1, Owen explores three means that Satan uses to tempt his people; some of you will be familiar with his “world, flesh and the devil” formulation.
1. “Satan tempts sometimes singly by himself.” Owen is quick to acknowledge that evil is not something impersonal. However strange to our post-modern ears, Christians have historically admitted the reality of a personal devil and his vast droves of minions. There are writers who have done much good to enliven our imagination about this reality (I’m thinking of The Screwtape Lettersby C.S. Lewis) and others who have done less (I’m thinking of Frank Peretti’s series This Present Darkness). I get that it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that this world is one “with devils filled,” that we have an “adversary the devil [who] prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). Although there have been a few singular events in my life to convince me of the truth of spiritual forces of evil (I can tell you those stories if you’re interested), I confess I don’t think about this often enough, even when it comes to temptation.
To admit the reality of Satan, the adversary and enemy of God’s people, is, for one, to admit that we can’t simply arrange our circumstances to be free of temptation. We are vulnerable to temptation anywhere at any time because Satan wills for our corruption. I don’t have to go to parties at big fancy houses to be tempted by greed, and neither do I have to be scrolling through Twitter, as a writer, to be tempted by the desire for approval. Satan is at work, injecting “evil and blasphemous thoughts of God into the hearts of the world,” writes Owen, and to fight temptation properly, we must pray for protection and look to actively resist him.
The good news of the gospel is, of course, that the devil is already defeated, that we who are in Christ have nothing to fear. “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world,” (1 John 4:4).
2. “Sometimes Satan makes use of the world.” As Owen explains, not all temptation originates with the devil behind the proverbial bush. Satan doesn’t always need to whisper blasphemous thoughts into our ears. Sometimes he just needs to get us to the local mall. Unless you’re living under a rock, to live in this world is to be seduced constantly into a friendship that, in reality, is hostility towards God.
Regarding the world of social media, there is incredible temptation there, simply by virtue of its nature. There is temptation to compare ourselves with other writers. There is the temptation to traffic in outrage. There is the temptation to belittle and dehumanize. It’s a world where approval is quantified and publicized, where hostility becomes virtue. It’s a world that values the loud, the exaggerated, the knee-jerk, a world made for the quippy, the snarky, the self-aggrandizing. Yes, dear writer. While you might have to swim in the polluted water of social media, you are going to need regular lolls on the beach to be away from its noxiousness. If you sometimes wonder why you’re falling prey to the petty temptations of the writing life, I ask: how much time are you spending on your phone?
3. “Sometimes he takes in assistance from ourselves also.” In this last point, Owen wants to say: even if we could be rid of the world, we can’t be rid of ourselves. Satan often finds “a sure party within our own breasts.” And this is to say that temptation cannot simply be handled by re-arranging our external circumstances. (I can take myself to Iowa, but I am, after all, still taking myselfalong.) I am subject to greed, to anger, to lust, to disordered self-love because I have a crookedness about my nature, a bent toward valuing myself above others, above God most of all.
To be sure, there’s a lot of wisdom in staying attuned to our external influences and to searching out communities and contexts that contribute to our spiritual health. But sin isn’t simply about falling prey to external dangers and temptations. What needs the most re-arranging is our inner world because as Jesus reminded the Pharisees—who remained hypervigilant about external pollution—sin is a matter of the heart. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. There are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone,” (Matt. 15:18, 19).
I was reminded of this recently in a conversation with my spiritual director, Beth, as I confessed to her how vulnerable I am to an inflated sense of self-importance, to thinking that I am more needed in the world than I am. It often leads me to say unreasonable yeses in my life and to assume commitments that I don’t have capacity for. I shore up my own self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy by staying unreasonably busy, by making sure that I am needed by others. “I just need to have clearer boundaries, maybe even develop a rule of life,” I told Beth tearfully. I imagined setting down on paper the infallible criteria for discerning the invitations and opportunities and for hearing God’s voice—some externaland objective criteria. Now, I don’t think that’s a bad idea. A rule of life can be a helpful guide and guard rail, preemptively making decisions about our priorities and time before temptation comes. But, Beth and I both knew that a rule of life couldn’t alone deal with my inner world, the appetites and disordered love that drive the busyness in the first place.
That’s why we need practices that lead us to examine our hearts. It’s why we need solitude as well as community, why we need most of all regular formation by the Word of God which reveals us to ourselves—“the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).
When temptation comes, it may come from Satan, from the world, or from my own crooked heart. But when it does come—and I do fail, I have this continual hope: “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” (1 John 2:1).