John Owen & Laura Ingalls Wilder on the Heart’s Deceit

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)

I was reading Little Town on the Prairie to my daughter this morning and came across a fascinating conversation between Laura and Mary.  It reminded me of a portion of John Owen’s On the Mortification of Sin in Believers that I had only recently read.  (See too my earlier post from this nice volume edited by Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor.)

Both excerpts deal with the heart being “deceitful above all things” as Jeremiah so poignantly notes.  In the case of Owen, he notes that sin sometimes has success even when one abstains from outward sinful actions:

Frequency of success in sin’s seduction, in obtaining the prevailing consent of the will unto it, is another dangerous symptom.  This is that I mean: When the sin spoken of gets the consent of the will with some delight, though it be not actually outwardly perpetrated, yet it has success.  A man may not be able, upon outward considerations, to go along with sin to that which James calls the “finishing” of it [1:14-15], as to the outward acts of sin, when yet the will of sinning may be actually obtained; then it has, I say, success…. And let not men think that the evil of their heart is in any measure extenuated [made less serious] because they seem, for the most part, to be surprised into that consent which they seem to give unto it; for it is negligence of their duty in watching over their hearts that betrays them into that surprise.

Overcoming Sin and Temptation, pgs. 92-93. (Emphasis added.)

In Little Town on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls-Wilder notes that sometimes one intentionally pursues good actions because the heart is heart is full of vanity and pride.  Listen to this amazing conversation:

Mary had always been good. Sometimes she had been so good that Laura could hardly bear it.  But now she seemed different.  Once Laura asked her about it.

“You used to try all the time to be good,” Laura said.  “And you always were good.  It made me so mad sometimes, I wanted to slap you.  But now you are good without even trying.”

Mary stopped still.  “Oh, Laura, how awful!  Do you ever want to slap me now?”

“No, never,” Laura answered honestly.

“You honestly don’t?  You aren’t just being gentle to me because I’m blind?”

“No!  Really and honestly, no, Mary.  I hardly think about you being blind.  I – I’m just glad you’re my sister.  I wish I could be like you.  But I guess I never can be,” Laura sighed.  “I just don’t know how you can be so good.”

“I’m not really,” Mary told her.  “I do try, but if you could see how rebellious and mean I feel sometimes, if you could see what I really am, inside, you wouldn’t want to be like me.”

“I can see what you’re like inside,” Laura contradicted.  “It shows all the time.  You’re always perfectly patient and never the least bit mean.”

“I know why you wanted to slap me,” Mary said.  “It was because I was showing off.  I wasn’t really wanting to be good.  I was showing off to myself, what a good little girl I was, and being vain and proud, and I deserved to be slapped for it.”

Laura was shocked.  Then suddenly she felt that she had known that, all the time.  But, nevertheless, it was not true of Mary.  She said, “Oh no, you’re not like that, not really.  You are good.”

“We are all desperately wicked and inclined to evil as the sparks fly upwards,” said Mary, using the Bible words.  “But that doesn’t matter.”

“What!” cried Laura.

“I mean I don’t believe we ought to think so much about ourselves, about whether we are bad or good,” Mary explained.

“But, my goodness!  How can anybody be good without thinking about it?”  Laura demanded.

“I don’t know, I guess we couldn’t,” Mary admitted.  “I don’t know how to say what I mean very well.  But – it isn’t so much thinking, as – as just knowing.  Just being sure of the goodness of God.”

Little Town on the Prairie, pgs. 11-13.

Mary proceeds to quote Psalm 23 and they continue on their walk through the prairie grasses.  Though Mary’s points are a bit odd toward the end (frankly I don’t quite follow what she is saying), her description of why she always acted like a good girl was very interesting.

Owen and Ingalls-Wilder seem to be dealing with different sides of the same coin.  Sometimes wicked hearts are able to abstain from sinful actions.  Other times wicked hearts actively pursue what might be considered good works.  In both cases, the person looks good on the outside, though if truth be known, they are sick in soul.

Oh Triune God, continue to conform us to the image of your Son, that we might not only abstain from sin, but do so out of heartfelt gratitude for your wondrous mercy in Jesus Christ!

Andrew Compton
Lakewood, CA