Meeting the Surprisingly Real Jesus in the Pages of the Gospels

One of my favorite rituals is to carve a few days out of my schedule each year and take off to St. Simons Island, Ga., for a creative retreat. Each year as I walk along the broad, white-sand beach, I am surprised by the changes in the shoreline. The sea breezes and tides have reformed the sand bars, eddies and shores. It always throws me off a little.

Not only is the landscape different, but each year I realize I am different. I bring a different set of plans and worries and experiences to the shore. I have lived through fresh heartaches, joys and terrors in the months since I've been away. Even the cells of my body have changed. I have aged; my body is different. My spirit has been wounded in new ways, and cracked open for new growth if I have been willing. My own landscape, internally and externally, has changed as much as the seashore.

It is this same phenomenon -- this off-kilter sense of familiarity in the midst of newness -- that I experience when I read the four Gospels in the Bible. I am familiar with the words and the stories, but each time I try to read them with fresh eyes. A phrase I never noticed before shines with relevant meaning. A minor gesture of Jesus' suddenly generates a sea change in perspective. A troubling question or doubt arises, demanding attention. I know this landscape, but it is different, reformed by the changes in my own understanding, my own spirit and needs.

During my visit to the island a few years ago, as I was dealing with the latest crises in my life, I noticed something different in the landscape of the Gospels. The emotions of Jesus started shining brightly on the pages, and I realized how passionate he truly was, how fully he experienced whatever he was feeling -- living it, expressing it, not apologizing for it but simply being who he was directly, wholly and authentically.

This shattered my own comfortable presuppositions about Jesus. So often in classic theological interpretations, movie portrayals or other fictionalized accounts, or even in our own heads, we see a Jesus who is cool, calm and collected. He is beyond emotion. Freshly shampooed and blue-eyed, enfolded by crisp, clean robes, he floats above the grit and grime of human existence. He doesn't hurt, he doesn't fear, he doesn't laugh and, most tragically, he doesn't love very passionately. In fact, nothing about him is passionate. He seems not to feel at all.

Unconsciously, I once adopted this approach to emotions as "Christlike." I kept the edge off how I was feeling so as to avoid conflict or inappropriate behavior or even deep, honest love. But this kind of living is as far as one can get from being truly like Jesus.

The picture revealed in the biblical account is that Jesus was fully present, connected and sometimes painfully direct with everyone with whom he came into contact. He was one who was "deeply moved" as John's Gospel tells us. He knew and embodied the emotions he felt and expressed them in honest, clear and life-giving ways. He lived life to the full.

We can learn a lot from Jesus about our own emotional authenticity. That's why I wrote "The Passionate Jesus." Because what we think we know about Jesus only gets in the way of our really knowing him. It's easy to be lulled by the familiar stories rather than to allow ourselves to be stimulated by the real life, full of emotions, that courses underneath the printed words of the Bible.

We may find ourselves surprised and even shocked by the gritty reality we discover. Jesus can become more real to us than perhaps ever before. It is difficult to sense the passion behind his words and deeds when reading the black and white texts in the Bible. The Jesus we meet in the four Gospels is a man of sorrows, but also a man of joy. He uses blunt language, expresses furious anger, he teases, he hangs out with an unruly crowd. He continually surprises those who meet him.

I think we've lost a lot of that surprise. I know I had. So as we meet Jesus again, as he weeps at the death of a beloved friend, or allows a heart-broken woman to massage his dirty feet with her oiled hair, or lashes out at the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, or speaks to a sorrowful thief on the cross next to him, or just playfully teases his friends, we can experience the emotion of the moment with Jesus. We can sense reality breaking through our carefully constructed self-protections as our souls come alive with passionate wonder.

Adapted from 'The Passionate Jesus: What We Can Learn from Jesus about Love, Fear, Grief, Joy and Living Authentically' (SkyLight Paths Publishing).