By the Rev. Peter Wallace
An Excerpt from The Passionate Jesus: What We Can Learn from Jesus about Love, Fear, Grief, Joy and Living Authentically
(SkyLight Paths Publishing)
One of my most beloved life rituals is to carve a few days out of my schedule and take off to St. Simons Island, Georgia, for a creative retreat. I started doing this about twenty years ago when friends invited me to stay with them at a cottage they owned on East Beach. Immediately I fell in love with the island. For a few days each year since, I have painted, written, read books, walked the beach, watched old movies, and simply relaxed.
Each year I visit St. Simons, I am surprised by the changes in the shoreline as I walk along the broad, white-sand beach. How many years have I walked along that seaside? And yet every year the shore is different. The sea breezes and tides have reformed the sand bars and the beaches. Gulls waddle in the shallows of new eddies waiting for their meals, eddies that weren’t there the year before. 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, 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. I hope I have learned and grown in some areas, and I hope I have noticed other areas that need attention. My spirit has been wounded in new ways, and cracked open for fresh 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 deep familiarity juxtaposed with unique 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 read them I try to see them with fresh eyes. A phrase I never noticed before shines with relevant meaning. A minor gesture of Jesus’s 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.
As I was dealing with the latest crises in my life during my visit to the coastal island two years ago, I reread the gospels once again and, through the lenses of my emotional state at the time, noticed something different in the scriptural landscape. 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, we see a Jesus who is utterly 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 present, connected, and sometimes painfully direct with everyone with whom he came into contact. He was one who was “deeply moved” (John 11:33). He knew and embodied the emotions he felt and expressed them in honest, clear, and life-giving ways.
What I hope to do in The Passionate Jesus is discover with you what we can learn from Jesus about our emotional authenticity. Sometimes what we already “know” about Jesus only gets in the way of our really knowing him. It is 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 gospels.
So as we meet Jesus again, as he weeps at the death of a beloved friend, or allows a heartbroken 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, we 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.
This journey toward authenticity with Jesus as guide is intensely personal. In my case, a dozen years ago it began to dawn on me that the way I had been living my life was dishonest, empty, exhausting, and ultimately impossible. As a person of faith I yearned for clean, clear integrity and wholeness in my relationships with God and with others. Yet I found myself as far away from that goal as the east is from the west. My faith, so carefully constructed on certain premises and misunderstandings, seemed useless. I was a total fraud.
Yet something within me, surely the Spirit of God, kept pushing me, guiding me throughout this unfolding transformation, and in hindsight I could see that God was with me every step of the way. I just hadn’t taken my eyes off myself to notice it.
I came to understand how shallow, inhibited, and inauthentic my existence really was. I was disconnected from my true self, detached and unaware of whatever emotions coursed through my mind and heart, or else aware of them but denying them, smothering them. I realized I was not being myself, not acknowledging the reality of my soul. I was not really living. I was not me.
I decided to open my eyes and my heart to God’s wisdom all over again. I tried to see anew where Jesus, who is at the center of my faith, could be found in all this, how he himself dealt with the emotional realities of his life, how he trusted God through them. I sought to grasp the wisdom he shared through his words and his actions. And I began to appreciate how passionately Jesus lived.
Over the years since, I have been striving to keep moving forward on this journey to authenticity, a journey often experienced as three steps forward and two steps backward. In the process I have come to acknowledge that life in its passionate fullness can be lived only when you are open and honest with yourself, with others, and especially with God. I still have a long way to go.
Each of us wrestles with areas of our lives that push against our authentic selves, aspects of our identity that we skillfully manage to keep hidden or suppressed, even from ourselves. As we explore the realm of Jesus’s emotions, I hope we can be open to the light of wisdom that Jesus can shed on these dark areas of our own self-deceit.
So let us follow Jesus the wisdom teacher on our journey as he urges us, goads us, teaches us, shoves us, and cheers us on as he walks with us toward our goal. We’ll search for the wisdom he reveals through his teachings and actions as they relate to his emotional life, coming to see how he expressed his emotions, how he shared and dealt with his feelings.
As we do, we’ll grapple with some important questions, such as: Who is Jesus? What was it like to be with him as one of his followers, or as one he touched with his healing hands, or as one he argued, laughed, or wept with? What did he do or say that would shock us, challenge us, or give us hope or joy? I want to understand how his provocative approach to living authentically provided clarity for his followers, his opponents, and anyone else who came in contact with him.
As we wrestle with these questions, we can better grasp larger overarching truths about faithful living: How do we approach our circumstances as Jesus did? How do we see through Jesus’s eyes, and feel with his heart? How do we learn to respond to the world with the same wholeness and healing love that he so generously demonstrated?
Jesus did not play games. He was as direct with people as anyone I have ever encountered. He didn’t wear his emotions on his cloak sleeves, but he identified them, acknowledged them, and expressed them as honestly as possible, and then accepted the consequences.
Jesus’s life is a model for authenticity and honesty, but it’s more than that, too. As spiritual writer Cynthia Bourgeault writes, “Jesus’ life, considered from this standpoint, is a sacrament: a mystery that draws us deeply into itself and, when rightly approached, conveys an actual spiritual energy empowering us to follow the path that his teachings have laid out.”
For this to happen we must be with Jesus for a while. Rest in his presence. Spend time with him. See him, hear him, and feel him.
The landscape of life has changed for me, and is always changing. And I hope it will change for you as we walk through the gospels with our eyes, our minds, and our hearts open to how Jesus lived and expressed his emotions. We can learn much about being authentic if we will open ourselves fully to this passionate Jesus.
Adapted from the Introduction.