Reading John Owen: Longing for Jesus

Longing for Jesus

This is the fourth post in a series I am doing on how sin works in the Christian, based on John Owen’s book, “Indwelling Sin in Believers”. Here are the first, second and third posts if you are interested in reading them in sequence.

So far we have seen that sin operates generally through deceit, and specifically in five steps that can be identified in James 1:14-15:
“Every man is tempted when he is drawn away by his own lust, and enticed. Then, when lust has conceived, it brings forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, brings forth death.”

My second and third posts in this series have discussed in detail how sin firstly draws away the mind from the things of God. This sets the scene for the second step of its deceit, enticing the affections. Today I'm going to spend less time on the "how sin does this" and more on the "how we resist it" aspect of the study.


In his book, Owen refers frequently to a thing called “the affections”. It’s not really terminology that we use today, so let me explain to you what he means. Put simply, the affections are our desires and longings. Think of Psalm 42:1 which says, “As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you.” This is the sort of affection that motivates us to take action – a panting that makes us willing to do anything to fulfill our thirst.

Owen argues that the “enticement” of sin is directed toward our affections as the “drawing away” is directed toward our minds. The idea of enticing is to create a longing after the pleasure of sin that is promised, which paves the way to the actual committing of the sin.

Cleared that up? Let’s move on…


Having already drawn away the mind, it is much easier now for sin to entice and then trap the affections. Why? Because no one is watching. Consider Proverbs 1:17 which says, “Surely in vain is the net spread in the sight of any bird” (Prov 1:17). While the mind is watching what sin tries to do, it can spot the deceit in it and avoid the trap. But if the mind has been distracted by something else, sin can then take the opportunity to lay out the bait and hide the trap. It does this in two ways:
    • It proposes the sin as desirable. It brings to mind all the ways that it will bring bodily pleasure and fulfill selfish desires and causes the imagination to take hold of these and dwell on them until it is stirred up into a near frenzy of longing.
    • It hides the danger in the sin. Dazzled by the appeal of the pleasures of sin, the danger lies unnoticed, as a hook is covered with the bait. This is how Eve was deceived and ate the fruit – she initially said to Satan “If we eat or touch it we shall die” (showing her awareness of the danger); but then allowed herself to forget it when Satan filled her mind with the beauty of the fruit and the usefulness of it for making her wise. 


I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be tricked into longing after sin. It’s a deception after all – the pleasures that it promises are superficial, temporary and bound to turn to dust in our mouths. So what can you do?

Simple: don’t let your mind be distracted, and long for Jesus (set your affections on him).

Ha! Simple? Really???


I have a dear friend who has a catch cry in her walk with the Lord: “But what does that look like?” By which she means: “That’s just words, how do you actually live it out?” Although she is sometimes teased about it, it is actually a fabulous thing to ask in everything we learn about following God. It has rubbed off on me so much that I will often hear her voice of challenge in my head. So I want to address it: all very well to say “don’t be distracted” and “long for Jesus” – but how do we actually DO that?

The “don’t be distracted” stuff we have already covered in my second and third posts in this series, so I won’t rehash it too much except to say this: our minds and our affections are inextricably linked. The instruction “set your minds on heavenly things” in Colossians 3:2 could just as easily say “set your affections on heavenly things” (and actually, Owen interprets it both ways) – they influence each other that much. The proper place of the mind is to tell the affections what they are to desire and why. But conversely, the things that we desire are the things likely to fill our minds. So the first step to ensuring our affections are not entangled in sin is to ensure our minds are taken up with the things of God and not distracted with worldly things.

(I’m getting to the “what does that look like”!)

The second step is to make every effort to cause your soul to long for Jesus. How do we do that? That’s a good question but let’s answer this one first – how do you create any other desire in yourself? You think about it. And you don’t just think about it. You dwell on it. You imagine it. You swill it around in your mind like the first sip of a really good wine.


Example? Ok, let’s think about fitness. I hate exercise. I really do. The sweat, the burning of the lungs, the physical exertion, the redness of the face, the sweat, the sweat, the sweat…. I just don’t want to do it. And yet. I’d like to be fit. I’d like to run in a park with the sun shining and the birds singing and my breathing coming as effortlessly as if I were sitting on a couch. I’d like to have the endorphin rush and energy that exercise (supposedly) gives you. I’d like to have tight abs. I’d like to feel no guilt about eating a large meal, knowing that I’ve already worked it off. I’d like to be in excellent health as a result of my fitness. I’d like to be able to keep up with my friends who are fit.

You know what. I’m starting to feel more like exercising now.


We foster the desire for Jesus and a corresponding aversion of sin in the same way – thinking about the specifics of who he is and what he has done for us IN DETAIL and ON A REGULAR BASIS.

Let’s try it, Owen style, considering the cross.

“Consider the sorrows he underwent”
Jesus’ friends abandoned him in his time of greatest need, his own people rejected him. How would it feel to have all your friends abandon you? To have not a single person to share the pain of your greatest trial with? Jesus was human; do we suppose that he felt the grief less?

“the curse he bore”
Much worse than his friends leaving him, EVEN GOD ABANDONED HIM. This is the curse of sin that he bore for us. Think of the oneness Jesus had experienced with God up until the cross, as a member of the eternal trinity of Father, Son and Spirit. How must it have felt for him to experience separation after such a relationship? The utter loneliness of it? And yet it was necessary for his payment of the penalty for our sin.

“the blood he shed”
He was flogged, he had a crown of thorns jammed onto his head, he had nails driven into his hands and feet; and after it all a spear thrust through his side. What punishment his body was put through! How many litres of blood must he have lost? How physically weak must he have felt? The God of the universe, on a cross, weak, dying? Incredible.

“the cries he put forth”
The cries of pain, to start. But also the cries: “I thirst” (to add to the rest of his physical discomfort), “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (expressing the agony of his separation from God), “Into your hand I commit my spirit” (indicating his never-ending trust in the sovereign will of his Father) and “It is finished” (showing that the penalty for sin had been paid). Each of these cries (plus three more things he said on the cross) could be meditated upon at length to find the meaning and beauty in them.

“the love that was in all this to your souls”
What could have prompted Jesus to suffer all these things except for “the joy that was set before him” (Heb 12:2) – that is, the gathering of those he loved to himself? How great a love is this; that he would DIE for me, a rebel against him?

“and the mystery of the grace of God therein.”
It doesn’t make sense, this grace of God – we have done nothing to deserve him reaching out to us the way he did. What does this death of his Son mean – such lengths that he would go to in order to satisfy his wrath over sin, yet restore us to relationship with him? Surely it can mean nothing but that sin is very serious, a very loathsome thing indeed?


Are you feeling moved? Are you feeling love for Jesus? Are you wanting to thank and follow him? Are you hating sin yet? Is it losing its shiny appearance? Do you want to fling it far away from you in view of the things Christ suffered to pay for it? Because that’s the whole point – we must think about these things for as long as it takes, in as much detail as it takes, for our hearts to catch up and start FEELING (praying to God all the while for help).

And the cross of Jesus isn't all we have to contemplate in order to stir up our affections for him – there are many, many stories of God’s love and kindness in the Bible, as well as promises of reward for following him (not worth comparing to the trinkets sin has to offer!) There is plenty to occupy our minds and capture our affections so that sin has no room to get in. Application to daily meditation and prayer on these things is therefore our best hope of resisting sin’s enticement.

(I hope that answers your “what does that look like” question, dear friend J)

“I remember the days of old; I meditate on all that you have done; I ponder the work of your hands. I stretch out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.” (Psalm 143:5)


  1. This is just so, so good. Your capacity to distil the crucial points from Owen's turgid writing is amazing. I love your practical example (desiring to get fit) and the tip that we need to think about Jesus, in detail and for as long as it takes for our hearts to catch up. That's it in a nutshell (wow, you may be the only person ever to distil Owen into a nutshell..........) ;)
    Keep going like this and I just might finally feel like I've understood the book! xx

    1. I'm so glad you've found it helpful. It takes a long time to distil Owen and make his message accessible for anyone but it is so worth the trouble. I think it blesses me more than anyone to be honest! Xox

  2. Wow, I really appreciated your blog! That was very helpful in pointing the way to how to meditate on Jesus. What an amazing thing he has done for us and yet we behave so ungratefully sometimes. Thank you for the reminder and encouragement. Love Mum xx

    1. I think the thing that got me most is that we need to persist in the meditation until our hearts are affected. It takes time and discipline and often I get impatient and go on to something else before the duty has had its full work. It's to my own detriment though! It has been helpful to come to understand what is required at least, though I'm sure the practice of it will take much longer to perfect. xox


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