2020 has been a challenging year. As I write this it is Christmas Eve here in Ontario, Canada, and for many, this Christmas will not be particularly merry! There are heavy hearts, struggling spirits, anxious minds and questioning souls. Some have been hit much harder by events in the past months than others – but none of us have totally escaped the unique challenges which have crashed uninvited into our lives in these most unusual times.
In working my own way through life’s circumstances these past weeks I have been challenged, comforted, humbled and helped by the following words describing our Lord Jesus Christ: “For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted” (Heb 2:18 KJV). I particularly like the Holman Christian Standard Bible translation of this verse: “For since He Himself was tested and has suffered, He is able to help those who are tested” (Heb 2:18 HCSB).
What really stood out for me in this verse were five simple but powerful words – “He is able to help”. Maybe you’ve had times during these past few months where, in your own personal struggles, you’ve been gripped by a sense of helplessness and near-despair. You’ve been disappointed, discouraged, downcast and defeated. With forced isolation, and increasing polarisation you’ve felt all alone, and you’ve longed for someone who could genuinely help. Allow these five simple words to sink deep into your soul – “He is able to help”.
But before considering the significance of these five words – just consider with me the ending of the verse. In the ESV translation, this clause also consists of five words “those who are being tempted”. Could I just ask you to think about all the unfolding events of 2020, and consider how they could be summed up in the words “those who are being tested”. The life of a believer is not a collection of random, unrelated, arbitrary events scattered mindlessly by some indiscriminate hand of fate. Stating that more directly – my circumstances (and yours) over the past months have not just resulted from some mysterious virus, some political agenda, some governmental lockdown, or some irresponsible social behaviour. I am not a victim of fate nor a captive of circumstances. In a very real sense – I am being tested. And my dear brother or sister – so are you!
That is really a very sobering thought. Consider Abraham in Genesis 22. In the historical narrative, we’re not given any indication that Abraham knew the motivation or the master-plan behind God’s request to take his only Isaac and offer him up. But the Spirit of God tells us in Hebrews 11:17 “by faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac” (ESV translation – emphasis mine). Similarly, Job, at the beginning of the book that bears his name, had no knowledge of the heavenly dialogue that triggered the cascading tragedies in his life, nor of the intense interest of both heaven and hell in how he was coping and responding as his life’s circumstances were ripped apart. The fact was that these ancient worthies were being tested – even if that did not appear evident to them in the moment. It has really struck me that the same is true for you and me in today’s circumstances. The trials, disappointments, heartaches and frustrations that have permeated life on this sin-sick planet these past months are not just random events. We are being tested. How are we doing? Is the character of Christ shining brightly through these tests of life? Is the fruit of the spirit blossoming and flourishing against the dark background of life’s events?
Possibly, like me, this reality threatens to depress and discourage you. In this surprise test that is being sprung on us, we’re not doing terribly well. We’re not rising above the circumstances. Our spirits are not soaring. Our hearts are not joyful. Contentment and gratitude are not flowing from our hearts and grace is not proceeding from our lips. We feel like failures.
But just pause with me for a moment, and consider the import of the words we’re considering together. When we are being tested – there is one who is able to help! He is able to help those who are being tested!
These words, of course, are found in the Hebrew epistle – and right in the context of this letter, I have enjoyed four specific reasons that support this truth that He is able to help!
First of all – He is able to help us because he made us. That’s the truth of chapter 1. In the middle of describing the transcendent wonders and glories of the Son, the writer makes this simple statement – “by whom also he made the worlds” (Heb 1:2 KJV). It is interesting and important to note that in John 1, Colossians 1 and Hebrews 1 – all chapters extolling the virtues of the Lord Jesus Christ (“the Word” and “the Only-Begotten” in John 1, “his dear Son” in Colossians 1, and “the Son” in Hebrews 1) – specific attention is drawn to his creatorial power and agency. The fact is that he is able to help us because he made us and he understands us.
Human beings are indescribably complex creatures. The inter-relationships between our minds, our bodies, our emotions, our spirits, our wills and our hearts is intricate, complicated and almost indecipherable. These complexities can make interpersonal relationships both exhilarating and exasperating. They complicate life and often leave us feeling confused and frustrated. Does anyone really understand? Can anyone truly know how I feel and what I’m going through? Is there anybody who knows how hard I’m trying and how quickly I’m slipping and how close I am to the end of my rope? The answer is a resounding YES! There is one who is able to help. He knows exactly where we are and precisely how we’re doing. Because he’s our maker. He knows every intricacy of our personality and our character and our circumstance and our condition. He understands when nobody else can – because he is the designer, architect and agent that has actually put us together – and ultimately he’s the one who keeps us ticking!
But secondly, He is able to help us because he’s actually experienced testing here himself. That’s the point of this verse in chapter 2:18 – “since He Himself was tested and has suffered, He is able to help those who are tested.” A similar thought is expressed again in chapter 4:15-16 “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need”. He’s not some distant, detached, disinterested Diety who made us and left us. Nor is he some mastermind inventor that understands us in a technical sense as our maker, but has no direct involvement or interest in what we’re actually going through. Far from it. He actually came near. He lived here. He suffered. He was tested. He felt disappointment. He knew isolation. He wept. He was weary. He hurt. My dear brother or sister, he is able to help – because he knows first hand what it’s like to live in a sin-riddled world where heartache and sorrow are all too common. Wherever you are in life’s circumstances as you’re reading this – he understands and he can relate.
In chapter 7:25 we have the third reason the he is able to help. “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them”. As you and I sit at the end of 2020, we have one who is able to help – not just because he made us and knows exactly how we tick. And not just because he was once here and has experienced testing himself. But He is able to help – because he’s alive and he always will be! That’s the whole point of Hebrews 7. Earthly high priests would die and, of necessity, there had to be a succession to another priest. But this one – the one who is able to help us – he will never die. He lives in the power of an indissoluble life. I know there are some of you reading this, and you know all about losing someone who used to help you. A son or daughter, taken away prematurely. A parent who was your confidante and guide for so long – but now they’re gone and you sit in loneliness without them. A husband or wife – or a close friend – whose help saw you through countless storms, but death has claimed them and you feel so alone. Please remember – you’re not alone. There is one who is able to help – and death itself cannot touch him. He lives. The well known (and well worn) words of Bill Gaither are so true – “Because He lives – I can face tomorrow!”.
But finally, as we consider this one “who is able to help” – there’s one more touching truth given to us in the Hebrew letter just before it ends. Chapter 13:5 gives us this precious promise from his own lips “He has said – I will never leave you nor forsake you”. So we can boldly say “The Lord is my helper”. What a balm for our troubled spirits. I know it’s hard and I know we’re struggling. Maybe you’re reading this and you’re thinking “the man writing this has no idea what it’s really like for me right here, right now”. You are right – I don’t! But He does! Not only because he made you and therefore knows exactly how you are. And not only because he was once here and therefore understands firsthand what it’s like. And not only because he is still alive. But, my dear brother or sister, he is able to help because he is actually right there with you, walking along by your side as you tread every step of the way. He’s not away off somewhere – he’s right there with you, carrying you along. He’ll never leave you. He’ll never turn away. He’ll never abandon you or isolate himself from you. He is your constant companion.
So I hope these truths might encourage your soul as they have mine. Whatever you’ve faced in the past months…however unkind 2020 has been to you…however gloomy, or lonely, or disappointing or disheartening your circumstances might be just now – could I just ask you to please remember this. View it as a test – because that’s what it is. We are being tested. But don’t let that beat you down. When we are being tested – there is one who is able to help! Lean all your weight on him. Cast all your anxieties on him. Unburden your heart to him. Cry out to him and cling to his promises. And allow the strength and warmth and capability and compassion of this heavenly helper to buoy your spirits and strengthen your heart.
Let us encourage one another and pray for one another. May it be true of us that “when he has tested us, we will come forth as gold”. We can – with his help!
God bless you!
Andrew Ussher (Toronto, Canada)