When I speak to Christians, I’m compelled to ask, “How deep is your incarnation? Is it Hebrews 4:15 deep? Or just sorta kinda deep?” Because if it trucks with what the writer to the Hebrews presents—“One who has been tempted in all things as we are”—then, well, that’s some serious incarnation. In other words, you’ve got a Savior on your hands who could really save the God-so-loved world instead of simply condemning it or tossing around promises He couldn’t keep. So yes, I must ask, how deep is your incarnation? Your answer makes all the difference.
A word has surfaced in Christian circles over the last few years—a word that has been an attempt to try and get at this idea of deep incarnation, this “tempted in all things as we are.” The word is messy. You hear or read it in phrases like “God came down and got involved in our messy lives” or “Jesus is right here in my mess with me.” The attempt is admirable. The word, however, is an awful choice because it doesn’t go far enough.
Messy is spilling coffee all over your presentation moments before giving it. Messy is an old girlfriend sitting down at the table next to a husband and wife out celebrating their anniversary. And while Jesus is definitely with us in those moments, for He is Immanuel, those are situations that you and I can, for the most part, manage ourselves without any outside help. They’re not comfortable by any means, but they are just messes. Yet the High Priest the writer to the Hebrews is talking about dives past the messy platform and keeps on descending, down, down, all the way to the bottom. All the way to the muck.
muck (noun)—wet dirt or mud; solid waste from farm animals; something that is disgusting.
It’s even somewhat of a disgusting word to say, isn’t it? I mean, when was the last time you heard someone use the word muck? But when our High Priest is described as one “tempted in all things,” that means all the things, including those weaknesses or temptations we would describe as disgusting, like muddy water or animal waste.
Now unfortunately, we Christians are pretty good at self-loathing. Brennan Manning once said, “In my experience, self-hatred is the dominant malaise crippling Christians and stifling their growth in the Holy Spirit.” The reasons for this are legion, beyond the scope of this article, but at least that gives us some common ground to wallow in. So, think about the last time you were really disgusted with yourself because of a temptation you succumbed to. Or maybe it was some recurring weakness that you were convinced you’d finally moved beyond, but when the right set of circumstances presented itself, you fell off the proverbial wagon. Got that moment in mind? Good.
Okay, now try picturing Jesus experiencing that exact same temptation—the really disgusting one, the mucky one. Yes, you’re right, the verse states that even though He was tempted, Jesus didn’t sin. But our pressing question is not “Did He give in?” but “Can you see Him being tempted as you were/are?” Can you? If you can’t, then there’s a possibility you’re serving some impostor of our Savior, one who cannot, as the old hymn says, understand “our every weakness.” Such a savior may be respectable, but he cannot relate. And if he can’t relate, then chances are high he really can’t help. He’s a fraud.
I’ve often wondered if after a long, hard day of rinsing sinners in the Jordan, John the Baptist stilled himself and considered his own muck? These lines from a poem I wrote a few years ago reflect the forerunner pausing from the sins of others to confess what was in his own heart. Because when they’d all gone home and it was just him and the river, I think he knew.
I knew of my anger flashed
at the whoring husband
who will never change.
I knew of my breathless disgust
at the shrewd lover of mammon
as he confessed for spectacle.
I knew of my lust stirred low
when she rose from the water
for yes, I am a man.
I knew of my envy as I
watched them leave my wilderness for
settings of silver and beds of ease.
I knew of what posed as indignation
for that brood of vipers but
was actually my own venom of hate.
I knew of what I am foremost.
Anger. Disgust. Lust. Envy. Hate. Can you see Jesus wrestling with any or all of these temptations? Again, how deep is your incarnation?
Anger. Disgust. Lust. Envy. Hate. Can you see Jesus wrestling with any or all of these temptations?
Take anger, for example. In Ephesians 4:26, the apostle Paul admonishes us: “Be angry, and yet do not sin.” Yet how many times do we let anger get the best of us, push us over the line into immorality? Yeah, I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the times. But consider the scriptural episode of Jesus cleansing the temple, found in John 2:1-25. You know, the one where He made a scourge of cords and drove out all the moneychangers, in addition to turning over tables and dumping their money all over the floor of his Father’s house. My gut tells me if you and I had been in the company of disciples that day, we would’ve stood with our jaws open wide and our hearts racing 90 to nothing, wondering what had happened to our Lord. In those moments, He wasn’t the endearing little hothead from Inside Out. This was berserker-Jesus. Yes, yes, but He did not sin. Again, the equally amazing truth of the depth of Christ’s incarnation is that we have a Savior who can fully relate to being pushed to the very brink, bumping up against injustice with a maddening rage that could’ve huffed and puffed and blown the whole town down.
Or consider the scene in Luke 7:1-50 where the sinful woman washed the feet of Jesus with her tears. I mean, really consider it. You don’t drip tears from your eyes on someone’s feet and then dry them with the hair on your head from a respectable distance, safe for the whole family. No, you have to get in his personal space. The sheer intimacy of that moment surely made the onlookers blush and squirm and possibly turn away. Find an honest man and ask him if he were in that situation whether he might have been physically aroused and tempted to lust. You see, we have to be very careful not to paint Jesus as some sort of robot or an angel hovering a foot off the ground. He was neither. Unlike us, He was completely God. But like us, He was also completely and entirely flesh and blood. When Scripture says that He knows, He knows.
We have to be very careful not to paint Jesus as some sort of robot or an angel hovering a foot off the ground. He was neither.
Christian apologist C. S. Lewis referred to the incarnation as nothing less than “the grand miracle.” Ax heads floating on water and the sun standing still, those are truly miraculous, no question. But the incarnation, in all of its depth and complexity? That we would have “One who has been tempted in all things as we are” living and working and dying right alongside us? That’s the biggie. Believe that miracle, and everything else should come easy.
But yes, you’re right, there’s that last phrase—“yet without sin.” Plumbing the depths of the incarnation doesn’t leave us all down in the disgusting muck. No, while He sympathizes and empathizes with our every weakness, He simultaneously reaches over with a nail-scarred hand or two to raise us up, to right us, to stand us back up on our feet to walk in the light of His glory and grace. Lewis says it well: “He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down further still … to the very roots and seabed of the Nature He has created. But He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him.”
So I still feel compelled to ask: How deep is your incarnation? Does it go all the way down to the very roots of who you are and what you wrestle with on a daily and hourly basis? Is it deep enough to include the messy (for sure), but also farther down into the mucky muck? That question really allows no room for gray. Our answer makes all the difference, because one response leaves us with a rather pitiable teacher whose intentions are less than honest. The other means we have a grand Savior who can be described as nothing less than miraculous.
Photograph by Ryan Hayslip