few years ago I spoke for a Week of Prayer at one of our high school academies. As the week progressed, I became particularly burdened with the reality of these young people’s experiences.
And so I did a little exercise with them on Tuesday morning. I picked up a piece of chalk, wrote the number 1 on the board, turned to them, and said, “Tell me what the biggest temptations are that you face as a young person.”
Predictably, there was silence. Finally, a few seconds later, one of the kids jokingly blurted out, “I am often tempted to eat my lunch in class.” That, of course, got quite a few giggles from the other students. Another girl immediately said, “To chew gum in school.”
Putting those two ideas together, I said, “So it sounds as though you guys are tempted to disobey authority.” They sheepishly agreed, and then other students started joining in.
One by one things were blurted out by these kids. One of the young men got brave and yelled out, “Women!” Everyone laughed. And when I started writing down “women,” one of the girls objected, “But what about us women? We’re tempted with boys.” So I erased the word “women,” and simply wrote a word that is, to an academy audience, loaded: sex. Finally, after a few minutes, we had a list of about 9 or 10 temptations—including anger, laziness, sex, lying, gossip.
When I was done writing, I put down my piece of chalk and read the entire list out loud. I turned to the young people and said, “Now, how many of you have ever heard that Jesus was tempted by the same things?” There was total silence in the room. I turned again to the board and said, “How many of you have heard that Jesus was tempted to disobey authority, to lie, to get angry, to lust after a woman . . . How many of you have ever heard that Jesus was faced with these same temptations?” Again, not one young person raised his or her hand, or even acknowledged with a facial expression that something was clicking.
Truthfully, I didn’t expect a forest of hands to be raised. But I expected at least a few token hands to be held up. No such thing happened. These young people had never thought that Jesus had, in fact, been tempted with the same things—that He had faced the same temptations; that He was touched with their weaknesses.
And what about us? If we were to compile a similar list, whether we are adults or children, would we look at that list and realize that Christ faced the same temptations that we face? Do we understand that Christ walked in our shoes, not only for a mile, but a whole lifetime?
We talk about Jesus becoming a human quite often. But how often do we slow down and explore the implications of such an idea? How often do we pause beside His humanness and appreciate the depths of His humanity?
Could it be that we have robbed ourselves of one of the most important messages of Christ’s character? Could it be that we have robbed our young people of one of the most beautiful aspects of the gospel?
Christ’s Amazing Identity
Fortunately, the book of Hebrews has good news for us. We read, tucked away in Hebrews 4:15, this about Jesus: “For we do not have a High Priest who is not able to sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.”1
This is a truth that we far too often don’t understand, comprehend, or appreciate. Jesus, as our high priest, is able to sympathize with our weaknesses—or, as The Message
translates this passage: “We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality.”2
Jesus isn’t some ancient grandpa, sitting in a rocking chair in heaven, reminiscing about the “good ol’ days.” Reality is not history for Him. It is a present, ongoing experience. He isn’t someone who is pontificating about our experience and yet is truly clueless about what we’re going through.
Though not addressing the subject directly, C. S. Lewis hints at this in his classic book Mere Christianity.
Lewis, that great Christian apologist, volunteered to serve in the British Army during World War I. And so, exactly on his nineteenth birthday, he found himself placed on the front lines in the Somme Valley of France, engaging in trench warfare. A few months later he was wounded in battle, and had to be discharged from the army. And in his introduction to Mere Christianity,
written some 30 years later, he shared this very appropriate thought: “Ever since I served as an infantryman in the First World War I have had a great dislike of people who, themselves in ease and safety, issue exhortations to men in the front line. As a result I have a reluctance to say much about temptations to which I myself am not exposed.”3
You see, this 19-year-old boy realized something that many of us realize as well: We don’t like taking advice, or following a leader, or a God, who cannot identify with our experiences. We don’t like it when people command or demand things from us if they cannot sympathize with our plight. Whether we’re 19, or 29, or 89, we certainly don’t want to listen to a God who is out of touch with “our reality.”
Fortunately, we do not have a God who stood back in the “ease and safety” of heaven and offered advice from the sidelines. We do not have a God who stood back and commanded us simply to “pray” to Him when we have a problem. We have a God who came down on the front lines with us, and fought the battle alongside us.
And He continues to do so. That word in the text for “cannot” or “able,” depending on the Bible translation, is actually in the present tense, meaning that it is an ongoing reality. Jesus wasn’t simply able to sympathize with us when He was here on earth, but He is “presently able” to sympathize with us now.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of Hebrews 4:15, however, is the latter part of it. We read that the reason Christ can sympathize with us is that He was “in all points” tempted as we are. This doesn’t mean, of course, that He was tempted in the exact same ways we are. He wasn’t tempted, for example, to steal a car, or stay up late watching TV. But at the very least we could say that He was tempted to break all of the Ten Commandments, could we not? Wasn’t He tempted to turn His back on His Father as His only God? Couldn’t we say that He was tempted to steal, commit adultery, bear false witness, break the Sabbath? Wasn’t He tempted to indulge sin, to give in to selfishness and pride?
This is where many of us err. We don’t realize that Christ faced the same trials and temptations we face. We don’t believe He really, truly experienced the same struggles. So when we face challenges, we shrug our shoulders at the temptations and say, “Well, I’m only human.” But thank God that Christ, when faced with the same temptations, didn’t just shrug His shoulders and say, “I’m only human.” Thank God that when Christ, struggling in the Garden of Gethsemane (with His human nature urging Him to throw in the towel and preserve His life over ours), said to His Father, “Please take this cup from Me!” He added, “Nevertheless, not My will, but Your will, Father. In the throes of this temptation, I submit My will to Yours” (see Matt. 26:39).
The truth is, Christ didn’t simply face “make-believe” temptations. Sometimes we like to sterilize Christ’s existence and almost imply that His Father put a moat around Him, sheltering Him from any external trials and temptations. As if, whenever something would come His way, God would deflect it away from Him before Christ had to react to it. But Hebrews says quite unequivocally that Christ is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, with our struggles, with our trials, because He faced all of the same temptations that we face.
And do we understand that Christ is still touched with our weaknesses, still burdened with our struggles? We may be facing loneliness. We may be facing discouragement. We may be facing temptation to an infinite degree. But we have a Savior who is on the front lines with us; a Savior who is right there beside us in the game, trying to help us understand that He knows what we’re going through because He went through it Himself, and He continues to do so.
Lessons From Another Priest
Perhaps you’ve heard of the well-known missionary priest from Belgium known simply as “Father Damien.” In 1864 Father Damien arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii, where he was to serve as a Christian missionary. Unfortunately, soon after his arrival, there was an outbreak of leprosy that swept across the Hawaiian islands. In an attempt to minimize the spread of the disease, the king at that time quarantined all those with leprosy to a small colony on the north side of the island of Molokai.
Amazingly, Father Damien was so compelled by the sad predicament of the lepers that he went to his superiors, asking them if he could be assigned to the colony on Molokai. His superiors begrudgingly allowed him to do so, and in 1873 Damien began caring for the lepers—bathing them, dressing their wounds, building coffins, digging graves, holding worship services. He did this for 12 years until, one morning, as he stood up to preach, he opened up his robes and began his sermon with the words “We lepers.”4 He too had contracted the dreadful disease.
For the rest of his short life Father Damien was touched with the feelings of those whom he ministered to and for—this priest could sympathize with the weaknesses, pains, struggles, temptations, and everything else that those lepers struggled with. He was one of them.
I am blown away by the love that a mere human being such as Father Damien could show. Here was a priest who could truly identify with those he was serving. Indeed, he truly became a leper.
And the only reason that this priest could display such a heart of love is that he was surely touched with the heart of love that his
priest—Jesus Christ—has. Yes, Jesus is our high priest. He is our doctor who tends to all our weaknesses. And just as Damien pulled back his robe to reveal the scars from his leprosy and said, “We lepers,” so Jesus, the greatest priest of all, pulled back His robes—in fact, He was stripped of His robes—and revealed His scars from humanity, and cried down from Calvary, “We humans.”
Jesus does the same today. He is still touched with our weaknesses. He still knows what it’s like to be a human. He still knows what it’s like to be plagued by temptation. And thus, that gives Him the power to help us in our times of need.
Doesn’t that type of understanding give you a deep sense of appreciation for God? Doesn’t it motivate you to say “Thank You” to the God who can identify and sympathize with you?
1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scriptures in this article are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2 Texts credited to Message are from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
3 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. xii.
4 J. P. Moreland and Tim Muehlhoff, The God Conversation (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2007), p. 29.
Shawn Brace pastors the Bangor and Dexter churches in Maine. He and his wife, Camille, have a son and a daughter. This article was published October 20, 2011.