Review: Searching our Hearts in Difficult Times by John Owen

I did a cursory google search of John Owen before I started to read this book and learned that his primary language of writing, and indeed the language he thought in, was Latin. This knowledge gave me comfort in my reading. Even the modernized version took my full attention and I often needed to re-read sections. So this book may be a piece of cake for those of you who enjoy Milton, but for the rest of us, I found it a hard read.

That being said, it was certainly a convicting read and the time spent was fruitful. The main thrust of the book is a sober, Spirit-lead turning of our hearts and minds to the condition of our souls. The author presents the material as a series of questions and answers and part two and three are based on sermons preached in the late 1600s.

It’s main takeaways in broad terms are: 
To examine ourselves soberly and in light of the deceitfulness of our hearts (Jer 17:9)
To mourn greatly over sin (James 4:9)
To daily mortify resident sin and rejoice over sins that have been forgiven and to be conformed to Christ (Col 3:3-5)

Owen emphasizes the heart’s cheerful willingness to be deceived in difficult times by a sense of complacency. He writes, “Nothing is more hateful to God than a secure, complacent heart in difficult days.” p.77 One of the more prescriptive quotes about the state of our hearts and of the greater church is from page 86. “When people grow tired of sound teaching – when it is too plain too heavy, too dull, too common, too high, too mysterious, or one thing or another that does not please them, and they want to hear something new, something pleasant, that is a sign that here is an age in which there are many who are ready to leave the truth.” I really appreciated the hyperbole in this assessment. It is so easy for me to find myself feeling very high-minded and dismissing sound doctrine in all its forms and satisfying my conscious with, “this teaching is not for me! I am a third-wave egalitarian! Don’t bring your uncontextualized Pauline nonsense to me. ” Not much has changed since 1660.

Perhaps because on my own eschatological leanings, I found, at times, Owen lacked the characteristic ‘Puritan-Optimism’ which fueled their hope of true Reformation. It was interesting, 350 years in the future, to be reading about ‘these last days’, because… they weren’t…. but it did provide confirmation that, indeed, there is nothing new under the sun. The Holy catholic church (small c) as a whole, has been in a battle with principalities and powers since our inception and in the ebb and flow of that battle, it can be hard to see God’s secure victory, particularly while in the thick of bill C-7, Covid, bill C-6, more Covid, boys on my daughter’s basketball team, etc… There are days I totally get the prepper movement. Owen couches this disconsolate sentiment regarding the degradation of culture with the hope of Grace: “The great promise is that Grace will change the nature of the wolf, the lion, the bear, the cobra, and the adder, and that they shall become like lambs. This it will never achieve unless it does so by a continual counterworking of the inclinations that arise from our constitutions.” pg. 37

My favourite section of the book is found in pages 116-126 and is entitled, “Living by Faith in Difficult Times.” Again in question and answer form, Owen addresses the purpose of God in persecution of the church. After addressing our need to actually be zealous for God’s glory and righteously take up imprecatory prayer against the offender when God’s ways are slandered as in Nehemiah, “Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads,” Owen then lays it out: “If you are not concerned for the reproaches that are thrown at the ways of God, persecution will wake you up.”
I hope it will wake me up. Having a family legacy of father, grandfather, and great grandfathers, etc. who have fought in every global conflict as far back as my parentage can be traced, I struggle with the fear of physical battle, of imprisonment, and of torture. Especially torture.  I take comfort knowing that He has promised His Spirit will satisfy every need, in every circumstance.  

Matt 10 – “But when they hand you over, do not worry about how to respond or what to say. In that hour you will be given what to say.”
Jeremiah 1:8 – “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord.
I confidently await His rescue and plead its haste!! Praise God!

– Kathleen Braden

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