A perplexed middle-aged woman squirmed in her seat as I was teaching a Sunday school class recently using my new book, The Passionate Jesus: What We Can Learn from Jesus about Love, Fear, Grief, Joy and Living Authentically.
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 reveal who Jesus really was. And that a better understanding of Jesus' authentic humanity can help us 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 may have 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, Georgia, 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 recognition of a passionately feeling Jesus shattered my 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" (Jn. 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 (Jn. 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.