How often have you stifled a deeply emotional response to a person or situation – or even yourself – out of a sense of wanting to be “a good Christian?” In a new book, The Passionate Jesus: What We Can Learn from Jesus about Love, Fear, Grief, Joy and Living Authentically, the Rev. Peter Wallace challenges our traditional response as he gently dismantles the popular misconception of Jesus as calm and collected, floating above the drama of our lives. In fact, Wallace argues, Jesus was highly emotional — he laughed, he shouted, he loved, he cried, he was afraid – and suggests we might be inspired to live more authentically if we truly engaged this Jesus in our lives.
The host and executive producer of the popular Day1 ecumenical radio ministry took some time recently to respond to a few of our questions about his book. (To read an excerpt from the book, click here.)
Peter, what was your inspiration for The Passionate Jesus?
This book grew out of one simple fact: I love Jesus. I am intrigued by how he lived and what he taught. I work at shaping my life around those things. Over the years in one way or another I have studied and written about him. Several years ago I wrote a devotional on the Gospel of John, Living Loved: Knowing Jesus as the Lover of Your Soul. And in the process some of the seeds for this book were planted in my soul.
But during an emotionally difficult period of time for me, when I was wrestling with a number of tough personal issues—and overwhelmed with anger, fear, and grief—I yearned for the presence of Jesus in a fresh and real way to help me get through. I took a retreat on St. Simons Island, Georgia, as I had for many years, and spent time re-reading the gospels with fresh eyes and an open heart. And as I absorbed what I read in the midst of this mass of feelings, I started noticing the emotions of Jesus clearly evident on every page. He revealed himself as a living and breathing human being who wept tears of bitter grief, raged in anger, celebrated life joyfully, trembled in fear, and loved passionately. He became so real I could almost see him, hear him, smell him. And by writing this book I wanted to try to open the way for others to experience this spiritual phenomenon.
Who did you write this book for?
It may sound selfish, but I guess the truth is that I wrote it first for me—because I wanted to capture what I was learning about Jesus as I worked through the gospels. I realize that I am just like everybody else, dealing with trauma and turmoil as well as love and joy in life. So I hope anyone who wants to know Jesus better, more deeply and more personally, will find this book helpful.
The truth is we will never know what Jesus was really like—and that’s no doubt a good thing, because it leaves our minds open to spiritual imagination. But I think there is so much we can glean from the gospels about the way Jesus lived, how he presented himself so straightforwardly and authentically to everyone with whom he came into contact. He was open and honest about what he believed, what he was all about. He was lavish in sharing his love. I came to appreciate his utter authenticity as a way to get more closely in touch with myself, with others, and especially with God. I had spent a good portion of my life playing games, denying and repressing a big piece of the puzzle that is my life, in an attempt to keep things calm and not make waves. I discovered that’s not how Jesus lived, and that’s not the kind of life he calls us to. Every word he spoke, every action he took, was saturated in love and focused on the pursuit of God’s justice. And he calls us to follow him in this way.
So if someone feels they are missing something in life, that they’re not connected with the reality of who they are in whatever way, I think this approach to knowing Jesus might help them, as it did me, become more self-accepting and thus more empowered to live honestly and serve others without judgment or hesitation.
Why do you think we don’t typically see Jesus as an emotional and passionate leader? What implications does such a new understanding have on a life of faith and action?
In researching this book, I was surprised at how few resources there were on the emotions of Jesus. I found a few recent scholarly works, one sublime devotional book of a century ago, and a number of articles. But I expected this to be a rich field of study. Why isn’t it?
I think part of it is fear. We want to keep Jesus under control. We don’t want him to ask too much of us, to shake up our life, to force us to make difficult choices. “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” the hymn writer wrote, and surely there were times when he was so. But far more often he was freely emotional and utterly passionate in his teaching, his interactions with his disciples and the religious elite, even the needy and suffering.
I think I grew up with the image of a dispassionate Jesus as a result of some of those motion pictures about Jesus from the 1960s, as well as colorful Sunday school illustrations and even stained-glass windows—in which he seemed so cool, calm, and collected, freshly shampooed and blue-eyed, barely raising his voice, leaving no wake behind him. But a careful reading of the gospels reveals a Jesus who is much deeper and more human than those two-dimensional images. When we see and understand his emotional authenticity, we can follow his example and live a much deeper, richer, more meaningful life, a life driven in the pursuit of God’s love and justice.
What’s the response to the book been thus far? Has anything surprised you?
I’ve have been deeply gratified by the enthusiastic comments I’ve gotten so far. I was surprised that so many people I admire, and who are very well read, told me they thought I’d offered something they didn’t think was even possible: a fresh perspective on Jesus. I’m grateful by the many church groups and Sunday school classes who have indicated that they plan on using the book as a study resource. One person told me they didn’t realize I was such a scholar! I still don’t believe that one; I intended this as an accessible book anyone could read and benefit from.
The biggest surprise, I think, is that more than one person told me they cried several times as they read the book—in grief and sympathy as well as in fullness and joy. I would love to hear the responses of more readers, and I hope they’ll share them with me. [firstname.lastname@example.org]
What was the hardest thing about writing the book?
My problem with this study of the emotional authenticity of Jesus was that I realized I needed to respond personally to his example. I needed to be honest with myself and with others. And that wasn’t easy. While I had come out nine years ago to friends and family, I hadn’t shared that aspect of my life much beyond those close circles. But I came to understand that this was part of me, I needn’t keep it hidden, and that being a person of integrity and authenticity required transparency. I hope that in sharing this part of my life I can be of help to others struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identification or whatever other internal struggles they face.
I’ll never forget the time nearly nine years ago now when I sat on my parents’ living room couch and told them that I was gay. My dear father, now passed away, immediately responded, “Well, you’re our son and we love you.” After a pause, he added, “I think you’ll be able to help a lot of people.” I am still moved by those words of acceptance and encouragement, and I hope he is right. But it’s not easy, and I still have many conversations and issues to work through in my ongoing journey toward authenticity. Even so, I feel closer to Jesus than ever.
This idea of reflecting on a more passionate Jesus strikes me as a lovely meditation for the season of Lent. Do you agree?
I’m glad you think so! I know a number of churches are planning to do just that. The questions at the end of each chapter can be used for group conversation or individual reflection.
Lent gives us time to do some soul searching and contemplation about our lives and about our Savior. We spend 40 days in the wilderness with Jesus in penitence and contemplation as we prepare for Holy Week and the Resurrection of Jesus. What better way to spend it than by reassessing our lives in light of the example of this passionate Jesus?