I am currently in the last week of my sabbatical. There is loads I am thankful for- I have visited some beautiful places (I’m writing this looking out to sea!), caught up with some good friends, appreciated being able to have fellowship with different churches and read a number of good books. Being honest, it has also been nice to lay down certain church responsibilities for the past six weeks! However, there is always a danger in assuming a sabbatical period will be undiluted bliss. It has not been because the war doesn’t stop.
I mentioned in my last post that I had been reminded that warfare is the steady state for the Christian. That continues to be my experience even on sabbatical- Satan’s forces and my sinful nature are still at work. So I continue to be tempted to see other people as a threat to my plans rather than those who should be loved. Doing anything else appears to be easier and more attractive than praying. And for me personally, the struggles in the area of sexuality that I have mentioned previously don’t go away on sabbatical. Now the form of the battle will be different for all of us- but that there is a battle is a universal experience for the Christian. The only issue is whether we will simply give in or fight.
It seems to me that Satan uses a particular weapon in the battle. He tries to get us to see the Lord as uncaring or hostile. Back in the Garden of Eden, Satan tries to portray God as cruel and mean to Eve by falsely suggesting that He has prevented the first couple from enjoying any of the delicious fruit. Today Satan tempts us and implies that God is denying us good things or doesn’t care about the trials we are facing. Or perhaps the nature of our temptations and failings is such that we are ashamed to come to the Lord for Satan tells us that He won’t understand or love us again. And if we accept Satan’s reasoning then we will give into the temptations in our personal battle because we won’t turn to a Lord who seems distant and remote.
With this in mind I have found Thomas Goodwin’s work The Heart of Christ in Heaven towards Sinners on Earth immensely encouraging. I was first put on to it by Mike Reeves’ final talk at last year’s Pastoral Refreshment Conference. It was published in 1651 and, in truth, it isn’t the easiest read. I wouldn’t necessarily describe Goodwin as succinct and in some ways I am writing this blog because I suspect most people won’t read him for themselves! However, I was glad that I made the effort to persevere because Goodwin was dealing with a deep pastoral issue in his- and our- day. He touches on a battle that I experience- the problem is that in the midst of temptation we don’t approach the throne of grace for help because, perhaps under Satan’s influence, we are not convinced of a warm welcome there.
Goodwin notes that whilst Christ was on earth, sinners and those in distress did look to Jesus. However, he says, people fear that Christ is different whilst in heaven and is less approachable than when He was on earth. Goodwin seeks to demonstrate the error of this by showing Christ’s heart towards us from heaven, especially when we are aware of temptation or sin so that he might “hearten and encourage believers to come boldly unto the throne of grace.”
How does Goodwin reveal Christ’s heart for us? In the first half he considers the love of Christ towards His disciples shortly before He entered heaven. He picks up the love shown on that last evening as Jesus washed the disciples’ feet foreshadowing the cleansing work of the cross. As John 13:1 reminds us this is a great demonstration of Christ’s love. Perhaps most movingly, though, Goodwin picks up the attitude of Jesus after His resurrection. Critically, of course, this is also after the disciples had fled the scene rather stand with Jesus and Peter had denied his Lord. What does Jesus say to them? “Peace be with you” (John 20:19). There is special inclusion for Peter (Mark 16:7). The disciples who had dramatically failed him two days earlier are still addressed as “my brothers.” (Matthew 28:10). And Goodwin notes Jesus’ action even as He enters heaven- He is blessing the disciples who had just deserted Him. (Luke 24:51). And if Jesus was blessing sinners as He entered heaven, can we really believe that He stopped once He got there? No- the One in heaven has a great heart for sinners.
For me, though, it was the second half of Goodwin’s book that was most packed with gems as he reflects on Christ’s present work for us as priest. It is largely an exegesis of the first few chapters of Hebrews. Unusually, Goodwin’s emphasis isn’t the fact that Christ has made a full payment for our sins critical as that is. Rather it is the sympathy of Christ for sinners that he emphasises. It is worth quoting Hebrews 2:17-18 at this point:
“For this reason he (Jesus) had to be made like them, (his brothers) fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (NIV)
Jesus could not become our priest unless He became fully human. In part, that is so that He can pay for human sin. However, it is also so that He can show mercy towards us and help us in the midst of temptation. It is not just in the midst of temptation, though, that He can help. It is also in the midst of sin. Listen to Hebrews 5:2 speaking of the role of the priest:
“He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray,since he himself is subject to weakness.” (NIV)
The priest was to have a gentle compassion for those who have gone astray and fallen into sin because he understood from experience how that was possible. Christ has not experienced giving in to sin, but the fact that he has been tempted in every way means that He can be full of compassion for those who have faced the onslaught of temptation and given in. He is gentle with us. And the critical point for Goodwin is that Christ has not changed. He is still a man in heaven. He still remembers what it is to be a man on earth and face the suffering of temptation. As such He is full of love, mercy, compassion and gentleness towards us. Let me give you some of Goodwin’s quotes at this point- with an acknowledgement of the antiquity of the language!
“The ends for which those high priests were appointed was that they speak nothing but grace and mercy unto sinners.”
“He that was high priest was not chosen unto that office for his deep wisdom or great power…but for the mercy and compassion that was in him.”
“God is for everlasting become a man, and so we are thereby assured that He will be merciful unto men.”
Christ was “tempted to all sin so far as to be afflicted in those temptations, and to see the misery of those that are tempted, and to know how to pity them in all such temptations.”
“Your very sins move him to pity more than anger”
You get the impression that Goodwin spent significant time meditating on the compassion of Jesus towards him. On his deathbed, Goodwin said this- “Christ cannot love me better than He does.”
Truth be told, there is not a great deal of application in Goodwin’s work. So here is the question- how does this help me when I am in the midst of the war? At those times when I struggle to pray or I am facing sexual temptation? It teaches me that God is not looking down in a disapproving way. Rather Christ is, at that very moment, recalling the times when He was tempted not to call out to His Father or, as we must say if we believe Hebrews 4, faced sexual temptation. And, as such, He is full of compassion and love towards me His brother. I think that is hugely encouraging- perhaps particularly to those of us who face temptations that others struggle to understand. I have some terrific friends but none of them can completely get inside my head and know what it is like to live with certain temptations. But Christ knows. Goodwin says to his friends, “If you will not pity me, I know one that will, one in heaven, whose heart is touched with the feeling of all my infirmities.”
Does the sympathy of Christ mean that we are more likely to give in during the battle? Of course not! It means that we realise that we are not fighting the battle alone. The love and sympathy of Jesus melts our hearts such that we no longer want to give in to sin but we deeply desire to live for our Saviour. It is why at the end of Goodwin’s life, having received the perfect love of Christ, he says “I think I can’t love Christ better than I do.”
So, friends, don’t give up in the battle. As you face the arrows of Satan, the pain of saying no the spiritual nature and the agony of guilt when you fail, look to Jesus. For at that very moment His heart is aroused with the deepest of compassion for you.