During Lent, many Christians take time to contemplate their lives honestly and prayerfully, and focus afresh on Jesus -- who he was, what he did and taught, how he lived and how he calls us to live. An intense examination of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life and ministry can open us to some challenging realities that we must deal with. And what better time to do so than in Lent?
I was teaching a Sunday school class recently using my book, "The Passionate Jesus: What We Can Learn from Jesus about Love, Fear, Grief, Joy and Living Authentically." The goal of the class was to come to a deeper, richer understanding of Jesus -- and ourselves in the process.
I noticed a perplexed woman squirming in her seat as I spoke. I was explaining that, by exploring key moments surrounding Jesus' birth, life, death and resurrection through the lens of human emotions, Jesus could come alive for us. That an open-minded, openhearted reading of the Gospels through this lens, exploring how he experienced and responded to emotions, can help us better grasp who Jesus really was. And that a better understanding of Jesus' authentic humanity can strengthen our own emotional integrity.
"But why emotions?" the woman interrupted. "How does getting to know Jesus' emotional life matter? I mean, if I let myself act on all the emotions I feel, I would be divorced, jobless and alone! It's like we're making Jesus into a big drama king!"
She has a point if we take this too far. But I responded, "Maybe it would help if I explained how I came to this approach."
I told the class that a few years ago I was struggling through a series of personal difficulties, feeling overwhelmed by fear, grief and anger. I felt awfully distant from God because of it. In spite of my spiritual stuckness at the time, while on a personal retreat on St. Simons Island, Ga., I started reading through the Gospels, hungry for any insight that might come -- and what I found truly startled me. The emotions of Jesus shone brightly on the pages; I saw how passionate he was, how fully he experienced whatever he was feeling -- living it, expressing it, not apologizing for it, but simply being and feeling in direct, whole and authentic ways.
I explained to the Sunday school class that wrestling with how Jesus handled his own and others' emotions was helping me better identify, appreciate and deal with my own emotions in authentic, honest ways, leading to a fuller, richer, more integrated life even in spite of life's continuing difficulties.
This realization of a passionately feeling Jesus shattered by own comfortable presuppositions. I grew up watching movies about Jesus and seeing Sunday school illustrations and stained glass windows that displayed a Jesus who appeared utterly cool, calm, and collected, freshly shampooed and wearing crisp, clean robes. This Jesus seemed to float above and wholly apart from the grit and grime of human existence. He was above emotions. He didn't laugh or even smile. He never was afraid. He seemed to be beyond human love. Frankly, he was a cold fish. There was nothing passionate about him.
And perhaps unconsciously, I had adopted this approach to emotions as "Christlike." In truth it kept the edge off how I was feeling so I could avoid conflict, inappropriate behavior or even deep, honest love. It also kept me from dealing with internal identity issues I had to confront in order to live life as God intended.
As I read the Gospels through the lenses of my emotional state at the time, the picture of Jesus I saw was of a person who was present, connected and sometimes painfully direct with everyone he came in contact with. He was a human being capable of being "deeply moved" (John 11:33). He was aware of and embodied the emotions he felt, and he expressed them in honest, clear, and positive ways.
So I wrote a book to explore this phenomenon, and I hope that as we meet Jesus again, as he weeps at the death of a beloved friend, or allows a heartbroken woman to lovingly massage his dirty feet with her oiled hair, or lashes out angrily at the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, or quakes in fear at his impending death, or speaks to a sorrowful thief on the cross next to him, we too can truly 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.
So, to get you started on your own journey toward authenticity with God and others, here are just six ways that Jesus was emotionally real with those around him.
1. Jesus offered love in uninhibited, freely shared, actively expressed ways.
There are glimpses of this throughout the Gospels. Take for example his relationship with the so-called "beloved disciple." During the final meal in the upper room (John 13:21-26), a troubled Jesus announces that one of his disciples would betray him. A shockwave of surprise shoots through those gathered around the table. In the midst of this intense moment the writer notes, "One of his disciples -- the one whom Jesus loved -- was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, 'Lord, who is it?'" And Jesus indicates it is Judas.
In this moment heavy with concern and confusion, this beloved disciple leans closer to Jesus and lays his head on his rabbi's chest. The original language indicates much more strongly that this beloved one "was reclining ... in the bosom of Jesus" (John 13:23). There he rests in Jesus' easy embrace. It is a place of acceptance and safety, a place of supreme trust and unashamed devotion.
This vignette offers us a breathtaking reality: Jesus welcomes our affectionate devotion. In our mind, our heart, our innermost being, we too can rest against the bosom of our Lord and he will not push us away. Like the beloved disciple, we can experience a relationship of love and trust, now and forever.
This was the love Jesus lived with his disciples, as revealed within the pages and between the lines of the Gospels: It was honest, clear, passionate, without shame or restraint. Jesus expressed a wide range of emotions with his followers -- even anger -- but love was the foundation of them all.
2. Jesus expressed anger in straightforward ways -- in the service of God's justice.
We are surrounded by anger in our divisive society, and much of it is unhealthy, harmful and counterproductive. But there's a category of anger that we must also recognize: righteous anger, the kind of anger Jesus displays. Righteous anger can give us courage to do what we might otherwise not be able to do, helping us to overcome the paralysis of fear. It can fuel outspokenness to rebuke evil or injustice, giving force to reproaches that otherwise we'd keep to ourselves or simply mumble in complaint. We can see this sort of anger today, for example, in the call for gun control in response to recent horrific shooting rampages.
In one incident recorded in all four Gospels, Jesus puts his fury into action. Jesus comes to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, and what he finds in the temple makes his blood boil (John 2:14-17). The religious establishment was profiting from the law of God, forcing the people to purchase "unblemished" sacrificial animals at grossly inflated rates, and compelling them to pay to exchange their money for "acceptable" coins. What God had established as a means to enter into the divine presence in worship had been corrupted into a tawdry moneymaking enterprise. When Jesus saw what was happening, he responded in whip-cracking fury with tables and coins flying, animals and temple leaders scrambling.
Jesus is revealed as a person who feels his anger deeply and unambiguously. You know where he stands. His actions show us that what we believe and how we act matters to God. It reveals what's wrong. It fights against injustice and oppression. It causes change. It makes noise. And it may even get us into trouble.
3. Jesus felt his fear, allowing it to energize and empower his resolve.
Jesus experiences a climax of fear in an olive garden called Gethsemane. As he and his disciples gather on this dark night, Mark's account (14:32-42) says he takes Peter, James and John with him a little farther to a place in the garden where he could pray. Jesus "began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, 'I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.'" In another translation Jesus says, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death." He went further into the garden and "threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him." He acknowledges that with God "all things are possible" and pleads for God to "remove this cup from me" -- the cup of suffering and death. And yet, "not what I want, but what you want." Jesus is willing to let go of his fear, his terror over the betrayal, suffering and death that await him, for the greater glory of the will of God.
Perhaps this act of surrender to his purpose calms his troubled soul. Jesus has wrestled with his terror -- the ultimate matters of torture and brutal death -- and surrenders to God's will. As a fully human being he has embraced his feelings, acknowledged them, prayed over them and turned them over to God. He confronts his deepest fears, his ambivalence about what is to happen, so that, out of his deep anguish, he can say "yes" to God: "Your will be done."
4. Jesus fully felt his grief and so is able to offer true hope.
When Jesus joins his friends Mary and Martha, at the tomb of their beloved brother Lazarus in John 11, we witness the unrestrained weeping of a broken heart. Some commentators assume Jesus would not grieve because he knew he was able to restore Lazarus to life, but it cannot be clearer that Jesus experiences a rush of grief so deep that he bursts into tears. Here, together with sorrowful family and friends outside the tomb, Jesus enters into and embraces the grief of those around him. His fury at death is strangled and overwhelmed by his sorrow over death's catastrophic impact on the human family.
Again this moving story reveals to us that Jesus experienced and expressed real emotions just as we do. The message of this account in John, however, goes much deeper than that, as N. T. Wright has pointed out:
When we look at Jesus, not least when we look at Jesus in tears, we are seeing not just a flesh-and-blood human being but the Word made flesh (1.1-14). The Word, through whom the worlds were made, weeps like a baby at the grave of his friend. Only when we stop and ponder this will we understand the full mystery of John's gospel. Only when we put away our high-and-dry pictures of who God is and replace them with pictures in which the Word who is God can cry with the world's crying will we discover what the word 'God' really means.
5. The truly joyful Jesus promised complete joy to those who follow him.
An incident in Luke 10:17-24 contains surprising moments of joy. Jesus, managing the ever-growing impact of his popular ministry, appoints 70 of his followers to go ahead of him in pairs to every town to minister in his name, healing the sick, preaching his message of hope in the coming of God's reign.
These 70 followers return from their assignment "with joy," reporting amazing responses among the people as they healed and taught them. They are bursting with happy excitement over their spiritual successes. Jesus encourages them, and then explains that the source of their joy should not be in their authoritative empowerment to serve in exhilarating ways. They have nothing to do with that; it is the work of God within them. Their joy should arise wholly out of the reality that they belong to God, who gives them their healing mission and the power to fulfill it.
Then Jesus tells his disciples, "Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it." Their joy in fulfilling his ministry is unmatched in human history. Even the famous prophets and powerful kings yearned for this reality, but the disciples have seen it with their own eyes.
Jesus' joy is palpable, and even more intense and exuberant than his followers'. They are happy and excited, but he is thrilled and exuberant. He can see his mission bearing fruit, because his followers have caught his vision. Jesus sees God at work among the people, he realizes his message is making headway, and he encourages his disciples to be happy because of their amazing experiences. They are finally fulfilling the will of God on this earth, satisfying a yearning that has existed among God's people for centuries. The time has come, and their joy is real. Although dark opposition looms, ultimately all will be well. Their joy will be made complete.
6. Jesus possessed an integrated spirit as a fully realized human being -- and we can follow his model.
Was Jesus a drama king? In no way. Yes, Jesus' emotions were intense and honest. He let himself feel his feelings wholly and expressed them directly. While Jesus' emotional life may resemble a roaring mountain river, with clear water flowing in uninhibited torrents, we may feel our emotional lives resemble a stagnant, scum-covered pond, decaying, subdued and murky.
So Jesus invites us to open ourselves to him and drink deeply of his life. "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the Scripture has said, 'Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water'" (John 7:37-38).
By accepting this invitation we fulfill the ancient Hebrew prayer, the Shema, which calls us to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." Such a love has as its goal not emotional ecstasy nor spiritual detachment, but rather the experience and expression of a full range of healthy, passionate emotions, which are the natural overflow of our spiritual life.
Jesus offers the promise of a pure and whole emotional authenticity if we will seek it. And when we do, God can shatter the oppressive, hyper-controlled order that we have so carefully constructed to protect ourselves from the pain and difficulty of life. God forces us to choose whether to hold tight to a stifling, unfulfilling emotional life, or to let go in the liberation of genuine wholeness.
When we choose to live authentically, important implications arise for our relationships with others. Just as Jesus built relationships of love and trust, we too are called to do the same, enjoying the company of one another in a fellowship of love. In doing so we are better prepared and engaged to carry one another's problems and burdens, as well as all of life's troubles that threaten to overwhelm us.
Jesus desires that we thrive as individuals who in healthy, transparent ways are able to forgive and love. In order to help us become what we truly yearn to be, we will have to deal with a little chaos in our lives, but that can only help to crack apart our self-protective barriers and yield the blessing of a fulfilling, fruit-producing life as an authentic human being.