Temptations of Various Kinds
Every Christian faces temptations of various kinds. They may originate externally from circumstances or spiritual opposition, or they may originate internally from our own sinful desires. The best defense against temptation is to avoid it altogether, which is why our Lord teaches us to pray not to be led into it. And it is why he tells his disciples in the garden to watch and pray that they might not enter into. Still, temptations will come.
This season of isolation, fear, and turmoil makes us particularly vulnerable to temptations. Some of us have more time on our hands. Some of us are stressed and anxious about all that is happening. Some of us are discouraged and depressed. Some are perhaps not sleeping well. All of us probably feel more alone in certain ways. Therefore, we must be all the more vigilant.
Timely Wisdom from John Owen
The most practically helpful book I have read (outside of the Bible) on temptation is John Owen’s treatise, Of Temptation: The Nature and Power of It; The Danger of Entering Into It; And the Means of Preventing that Danger: With a Resolution of Sundry Cases Thereunto Belonging (they just don’t write titles like they used to!). Most of the work discusses the nature of temptation and how to watch and pray that you might not enter into. However, at one point, Owen speaks of what to do when you find yourself surprised and entangled by it. In other words, what do you do when you have entered into temptation (which, for Owen, means a peculiar entanglement as opposed to the simple fact of being tempted, but is not yet giving into it)?
He offers four responses.
1. Set yourself to constant pleading for the temptation to depart. This is what Paul does in 2 Corinthians 12:8 (in his case, it was external in origin). When you plead for deliverance from the Lord, you may be assured that he will remove it or supply sufficient grace that you may not be utterly foiled by it. One caution from Owen is to set yourself against the temptation generally as you pray and not to think too specifically about it. The reason is that the more you dwell on the particular temptation, the more you may become entangled by it in your heart and mind.
2. Set your mind upon Christ as he was tempted. Owen writes, “Fly to Christ, in a peculiar manner, as he was tempted, and beg of him to give thee succor in this ‘needful time of trouble.'” In other words, do not just consider Christ generally, but consider Christ as one who was tempted and victorious, and is therefore able to help others who are tempted. Christ had all the suffering of temptation (so he is sympathetic) without having any of the sinning (so he is able to help), so we can look to him as one who faced the full weight of temptation and never gave in. In this way, we consider and depend upon his sufficient strength to triumphantly endure. We are strengthened against temptation as we look to his strength against temptation. We also find great hope as we consider that his triumph over every temptation was on our behalf. So we are already victorious in him and our salvation rests on his victory.
3. Look to the One who has promised deliverance. Call upon the faithful God who keeps his promises. Cling to those promises. Trust in those promises. And know that God has many possible means of deliverance.
Owen notes six of these means:
a) God may afflict you in such a way that makes the sweetness of the temptation bitter in your heart. b) He may providentially alter circumstances that remove the occasion of your temptation. c) He may so tread upon Satan that Satan is no longer permitted to make any harmful suggestions to you. d) He may supply grace that does not free you from the temptation itself but removes the danger of it. e) He may grant you such confidence of victory that you find great refreshment even in the midst of the trial. f) He may remove it entirely.
As the psalmist says, wait upon the Lord; let your heart take courage, and wait upon the Lord.
4. Consider where the breach was that allowed the temptation to surprise you. We are to watch and pray that we may not enter into temptation, so if temptation sneaks up on us unawares, it may mean there is some area over which we have not been keeping watch. By God’s grace, seek it and close the breach. Owen says, “Stop that passage which the waters have made to enter in at. Deal with thy wound like a wise physician. Inquire when, how, by what means, thou fellest into this distemper; and if thou findest negligence, carelessness, want of keeping watch over thyself, to have lain at the bottom of it, fix thy soul there,—bewail that before the Lord,—make up that breach,—and then proceed to the work that lies before thee.”
You will face temptations of various kinds. Watch and pray that you may not enter into them. But if you do, do not consider your cause to be hopeless. Fly to Christ and fight by his strength.