Empathetic groans chorused through the group as each person confessed the week’s struggles. “It’s just too difficult,” one complains. “It seems like I get to a point in my lust where I am powerless to resist acting out.” “Yeah,” the man next to him chimes in. “I know exactly how that feels! But the Bible says Jesus does too. He had the same temptations we do!” Everyone knows he is referring to Hebrews 4:15, but a few silently wonder, “Is that what that verse means?”

It is vital that we know Jesus as a sympathetic high priest who “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” This is surely a source of great comfort and encouragement. But there is also confusion over these words. Does it mean that Jesus experienced every temptation that I experience? We must deal carefully here in order to confidently claim the encouragement this verse promises. Here are some thoughts:

1. There are senses in which Jesus’ temptation experiences differed from yours.

Difference in particulars. First, let us nuance our understanding by pointing out that there is some difference between Jesus’ experience of temptation and ours. He did not experience the exact same specific temptations that you have. It’s easy to think of particular temptations he did not experience. Jesus was not tempted to wipe his phone to hide his porn from his employer. Jesus never struggled with a compulsion to open an incognito browser on his phone to look at pornography. The point is that Jesus did not share your exact circumstances and, in that sense, did not experience the exact same temptations that you do. This is obvious. So this verse is saying something other than that. In the same way, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.” He does not mean everyone has shared the exact same temptation events. Have you ever been tempted to melt your jewelry into a golden calf to worship? I didn’t think so.

No, the sympathy that this verse says Jesus has for you does not depend on his sharing your exact circumstances of temptation. You need not imagine him facing your exact temptations—in fact, you ought not do so. This is because of another major difference in his temptations…

Difference in heart inclination. Jesus did not have a sinful nature; we do. We are born with hearts inclined toward sin. And the sinful patterns of thought and feeling generated by our hearts are themselves a major source of temptation for us. Yes, the inclinations and desires of our hearts are both sin and temptation. Do you need a clear example of how something can be both sin and temptation? Consider someone breaking the tenth commandment in his heart, coveting something God has not given. That person is sinning, breaking the tenth commandment. Yet that very sin constitutes the experience of temptation to commit further sin, to steal or commit adultery. Some theologians have found it helpful to describe temptations as being either external to us or internal. The internal temptations are those that are caused by the sinful momentum of our wayward hearts. This momentum meets any temptation coming from outside of us with a willingness by which we both give in to and even pursue sin. Jesus did not have this. His heart was always rightly ordered and steadfast in love of God. He never added his own sinful desires to the temptations that came at him externally, for he had no sinful desires. Remember, he was “yet without sin.”[1]

2. How then do we rightly understand “in every respect tempted as we are?”

In regard to the deepest dynamic. Jesus understands the dynamic of every possible temptation. This is true even though he hasn’t experienced all of the particulars. This is because all sin is an expression of deeper issues of the heart. Every sin, at its deepest level, entails turning from loving, trusting, and worshiping God. This is why Jesus can call loving God the first and greatest commandment. And every sin with reference to other people is a failure to love people as a fitting response to knowing the love of God. Every temptation we experience boils down to these two issues, and every temptation Jesus experienced was the same. He understands the deepest dynamic that characterizes your every temptation.

In regard to the suffering entailed in resisting temptation. But the main point in Jesus’ sympathetic identification with us has reference to the suffering that obedience and resistance to temptation entails. “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 2:10), and, “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18), and, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). Temptation is a “test” of our willingness to pay the cost of suffering for obedience. Jesus fully experienced just how painful and difficult obedience in the face of temptation can be.

In this regard, the fact that Jesus’ heart was not inclined toward sin makes his experience of the cost of obedience more complete than any of ours. When temptation comes, our inclination is to give in quickly rather than to fully accept the cost of obedience. Not so with Jesus. He was willing to follow through against sin to the fullest extent. He knows how difficult your temptation is, how much it hurts to obey. You can be sure of this because it hurt him more than it has ever hurt any of us. This is why the author can apply this to the encouragement of his readers, saying, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood” (Hebrews 12:4). You have not yet felt the full weight, but Jesus has. Even if you are called to bleed and die in order to resist sin, he has been there and is a sympathetic high priest for you.

Jesus is exactly the savior, and the brother, you need in your fight. He does know how difficult this is—and he is able to save because he never sinned.

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[1] You don’t want Jesus to identify so closely with you that he becomes disqualified to be your savior. See John Piper’s expression of this in this article.

You can also watch the video, “How Does a Sinless Savior Help Us Sympathetically?,” which corresponds to this blog.

The book of Hebrews assures us that Jesus is our sympathetic high priest. But how can those who battle with persistent sin struggles make real spiritual use of these assurances? Learn more in this new video from Jim Weidenaar.

To learn more about this topic, consider purchasing one of our resources, such as Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God About Sex by John Freeman and How to Say No When Your Body Says Yes by Dan Wilson. When you buy these books from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.

You can also read the blog, “Jesus Understands Your Temptations,” which corresponds to this video.

I just bought a GPS with a great new feature: It warns me when I’m approaching a traffic light equipped with a camera. The beloved Philadelphia Parking Authority just installed a camera close to the Harvest USA office. Believe me: I’ll never risk sliding through that yellow light again! It’s amazing how compliant drivers become when we’re being watched…

How does this connect with our obedience to God? You’ve probably heard it said that in order to sin, you need to be a functional atheist. You need to believe that God doesn’t exist, and you are free to do whatever you please. On one level this is true, but is it helpful to see God as the cosmic, red-light enforcement agent? Will this produce obedience? Knowing God is always with us does produce obedience, but our understanding of what his presence with us means makes all the difference in the world.

He is not about red light enforcement! The people behind the camera don’t care whether I make it through the intersection safely, only that I don’t break the law. In fact, they exist to profit from my disobedience. Too many people struggling with sexual sin understand God’s presence to mean he’s looking over their shoulders with pad and pen in hand, compiling an endless list of black marks next to their names. At best, some are grateful that, because of Jesus, at least the marks will be erased on the last day. But they are missing the glorious wonder of God’s presence. He is seen as a threat rather than a “very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1, ESV).

This view could not be further from the truth. God is present with you because he cares. Consider Psalm 139: After describing how God knows every thought he’s ever had, knows every word before he speaks it, is monitoring literally every step he takes in his life—all of which tend to fill us with dread—David concludes, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it” (v. 6). He is overcome by joy. God’s closeness reveals his desire for relationship. The depth of intimacy that already exists is what we are invited to embrace. And— gloriously!—when this is our understanding of God’s presence, it motivates obedience. We are compelled by the love of Christ. So, rather than shrinking back from God in shame, David (who was no stranger to sexual sin) ends the psalm asking God to open his eyes, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (v. 23-24). God is so close because he loves and cares for us. When we understand this, we can boldly ask him to enter in and open our eyes, because we know it is in love that he exposes our sin to draw us closer to himself.

I recently made one of my biggest parental blunders to date: showing my daughters a suspenseful film they just weren’t ready for. And I’ve paid the price: repeated cries of “Daaaaddy!” in the wee hours of the morning. (What was I thinking?!) On one of these occasions, I read to them from Psalm 121. The Hebrew word used six times in just eight verses describes God as a guardian, one who keeps close watch, protecting us from all harm. Two of the verses underscore this reality, promising that God “will neither slumber or sleep” (v. 3-4). My daughters can rest secure because God’s eyes are always on them. He is unsleeping, ever vigilant, covering them with his wings so they can sleep in peace.

It’s the same in our struggle with sexual sin. God is always watching because he loves you and promises “to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (Jude 24). He is relentless in his pursuit of our hearts and commitment to conform us to the image of Jesus.

How has your view of God as a traffic cop impacted your relationship with him? What would change if you believed his presence is the result of his love and delight in you?

Updated 5.4.2017

You know, there’s a lot at stake as we live this one, short, earthly life. Speaking at 2012 The Gospel Coalition Women’s conference, John Piper shared thoughts from Isaiah 6. John spoke about the power of gazing upon the Lord, to know our glorious Jesus as the one who is exalted and holy, yet who has come near to us so that we can have a taste of his majesty. Too often, we have a view of God which is way, way too small! To miss him is to spend the fleeting life we have been given on what is fleeting and passing away.

Seventy-five years from now, none of us will regret the decisions we made which flowed from love for Jesus. If we have gotten a taste of the majesty of God, then we will delight to give glory to God in who we are and what we do. We will not regret the ‘inconvenient’ and painful obedience that faith demands; the courageous confrontation and turning away from our favorite idols; the letting go of even good gifts that may not be what God has for us; living in singleness, which leaves a dull and painful ache at times; being faithful to our spouse in a tough marriage; or persevering in love toward wayward and rebellious children.

Many women I’ve gotten the privilege to journey with have become tripped up in their calling to be “glory givers” because their view of God was too small. A small view of God makes other people become big—bigger than they should be in our lives. We become hungry for them, and we feast at the banquet table of emotional cravings. That’s certainly been true in my own life. A growing worship and awe of our Lord Jesus leads me away from people idolatry to truly loving others, rather than using, being controlled by, or obsessing over them.

The Holy One upon the throne, so beautifully described in Isaiah 6, isn’t meant to drive you to a fearful retreat from a Holy God! No, this throne is owned by the Grace Giver, who is glorious and who welcomes needy, robbers of glory like you and me! We come to this throne “receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16, ESV). Read Isaiah 6 in the context of the mercy of Jesus Christ for you, and prayerfully examine your life to see how mercy shapes your life for him.

Romans 12:1-2 says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

How is God calling you to be a living sacrifice for his glory? For his purposes? How is he inviting you to love him by letting go of an unholy relationship that is eclipsing the Lord’s presence in your life? How is he inviting you to fix your gaze on him rather than trying to figure out how obedience will “work” in your favor? How is he calling you to courageously confess to a friend regarding your online addictions?

Updated 5.8.2017

Let’s consider some more thoughts on what God’s Word would have to say to us about ‘holy attachments.’

Part I highlighted John 15 as a key passage for understanding God’s design for our attachments or ‘connections’ with people. Jesus was in his last earthly hours with the faithful eleven disciples. There had been talk of him leaving, of troubles, sorrows, death. In effect, chapter 15 describes for the believer what life in Jesus looks like.

Life in Jesus is more than coming to the temple. Life in Jesus is not merely following rules. Life in Jesus isn’t about us down here and him up in heaven. Life in Jesus is exactly that: in him. He carefully helps us to understand this with the analogy of a vine and branches, of fruit being born through the branches as they abide in their source of life, the Vine—Jesus.

The theory of abiding is so much richer and more hopeful than attachment theory! When I attach to something or someone, I’m stuck to it, clinging, grasping, holding. The picture Jesus draws for us in John 15 is one of “oneness” and shared life. We experience this oneness with Jesus through faith, through his Word abiding in us, and believing in him. It’s a lifestyle of increasing, loving obedience.

None of us, however, experiences this oneness with Jesus without being tempted to abide in something or someone else. Relational habits and sexual habits that have been a home for us, and to which we’ve become attached, can and must be dismantled by the vine dresser! This is Father God.

Part III will discuss how awakenings and arousings fit into the picture. We’ll unpack this into specific scenarios of relational and sexual attachments that are anything but safe.

Part 1., Part 3.

Updated 5.11.2017

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