I've seen The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in my recent reading in Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen, edited by Kapic and Taylor. (Consider Ennio Morricone's famous movie score as the soundtrack for this blog, because I'm sure it's stuck in your head now!)
The Good is the numerous profound passages I've encountered along the way, including the parts where Owen discusses the need to know our enemy on page 76 (so simple, but so true and often neglected!) and the necessity of being a believer in Christ in order to truly mortify sin (pages 79-86), which also should be obvious but is basically ignored by a lot of self-help and self-improvement teaching and programs today. But the most moving and useful contributions Owen makes, in my opinion, are when he provides prayers for us that flow from the depth of his reflection and meditation upon the Scriptures and his own sin. Here's a great example:
"What have I done? What love, what mercy, what blood, what grace have I despised and trampled on! Is this the return I make to the Father for his love, to the Son for his blood, to the Holy Ghost for his grace? Do I thus requite the Lord? Have I defiled the heart that Christ died to wash?, that the blessed Spirit has chosen to dwell in? And can I keep myself out of the dust? What can I say to the dear Lord Jesus? How shall I hold up my head with any boldness before him? Do I account communion with him of so little value, that for this vile lust's sake I have scarce left him any room in my heart?" (page 105)
This next one starts on the same dark note, which is important to hit, but it thankfully does go on to the "succor" of the gospel, as men like Owen used to call it:
"I am a poor, weak creature; unstable as water, I cannot excel. This corruption is too hard for me, and is at the very door of ruining my soul; and what to do I know not. My soul has become as parched ground, and an habitation of dragons. I have made promises and broken them; vows and engagements have been as a thing of naught. Many persuasions have I had that I had got the victory and should be delivered, but I am deceived; so that I plainly see, that without some eminent succor and assistance, I am lost, and shall be prevailed on to an utter relinquishment of God. But yet, though this be my state and condition, let the hands that hang down be lifted up, and the feeble knees be strengthened. Behold, the Lord Christ, that has all fullness of grace in his heart (John 1:16), all fullness of power in his hand (Matt. 28:18), he is able to slay all these his enemies. There is sufficient provision in him for my relief and assistance. He can take my drooping, dying soul and make me more than a conqueror (Rom. 8:37)."
Owen then quotes Isaiah 40:27-31, which is the famous "wings like eagles" passage, which I have read many times before. But in this context I saw it in a new way, with the emphasis on "they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength." The point Isaiah is making is not primarily that we should wait or persevere in faith, though we certainly should do that. But in context he is emphasizing is that we must wait on the Lord because no other source of hope or help will do the trick.
The Bad in my recent reading of Owen are a few passages that I didn't like as much, either because they were sub-par or perhaps I failed to understand them correctly (which is certainly possible!). But I have to point out some negative things about Owen's writing, so I can be a good example of exercising discernment like the Bereans and not just nod dully to everything he says simply because he's a great theologian. On pages 112-118 he goes on and on about a particular issue that does not seem to warrant such an extensive discussion (how much more we can know of God than the OT saints did)...it seems that he was in the middle of some controversy with someone at the time, but it is not as applicable to most of us. Also, on pages 126-127 he seems to be advocating a rather mystical approach to knowing when we are forgiven...kinda like "you know that you know when you know." I found this confusing and not very helpful. And finally, the distinction he makes between temptation and "entering temptation" on pages 159 and following also seems unnecessary and confusing to me. Aren't the two wordings just different ways of saying the same thing? The Puritans had a tendency to over-parse the text, precisely because their meditations on it were so thorough and deep. So as with all of us, their strength can be their weakness sometimes. But like I said, I may not be smart enough to fully understand Owen's thinking in these passages...I'm very willing to admit that possibility. Maybe someone who reads this can enlighten me...
The Ugly in my readings in Owen has been my own sinfulness reflected in the mirror of his words...words like these: "There are traitors in our hearts, ready to take part, to close and side with every temptation, and to give up all to them...Do not flatter yourselves that you should hold out; there are secret lusts that lie lurking in your hearts, which perhaps now stir not, which, as soon as any temptation befalls you, will rise, tumultuate, cry, disquiet, seduce, and never give over until they are either killed or satisfied" (page 171). It's hard to look in a mirror for any length of time and not like what you see...you want to avert your gaze and not have to focus on the ugliness there. But though it is far from pleasant, I have realized it is a necessary means to humility and the recognition of my need for God's grace. To switch the metaphor to a biblical one, I have to realize how sick I am before I will go to the Great Physician for help, and the more sick I know I am, the more help I will seek from Him and the more I will rely on Him for that help.