The Emotional Jesus

The primary objective of the Christian life is to be like Jesus, to be conformed to his image (Romans 8:29). “The man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5) reveals what it means to be a truly normal, fully integrated human being. Paul tells the Corinthian church that as followers of Jesus gaze upon the glory of the Lord, “with unveiled faces,” we “are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). As we look intently on the Lord Jesus, as he is revealed in the Gospels, the Spirit of God will bring about a metamorphosis into his image.

Becoming like Jesus includes becoming like him in his emotions. In 2006 Pete Scazzero, the former pastor of New Life Church in New York City, published a groundbreaking book called The Emotionally Healthy Church. His thesis in the book is that spiritual maturity and emotional health are inseparably linked. Therefore, both must be equally emphasized in the process of Christian discipleship.

Jesus, of course, is the perfect model of emotional health, of what the secular writer Daniel Goldman called “emotional intelligence.” In this article, I want to share a few examples of the emotions of Jesus from the Gospels. My prayer is that as we gaze at the emotional Jesus, the Holy Spirit will work transformatively to conform our own emotions to the image of Christ.

Compassion

In several places in the Gospels, we read that Jesus was “moved with compassion.” The Greek word for “compassion” literally means to experience the physical sensation of being “moved in the guts,” however, it was also used metaphorically to speak of an intense emotional sensation–just as we speak of “heart-breaking” or “gut-wrenching” feelings today.

Jesus felt compassion for people in various kinds of need: a leper (Mark 1:40-41), a widow at the funeral of her son (Luke 7:13), and two blind men (Matt. 20:34). He also felt compassion when a crowd who had invaded his and his disciples’ privacy were hungry at the end of the day (Mark 8:2). His compassion was stirred by spiritual, as well as physical needs. His heart broke when he saw crowds who were harassed and helpless (like victims of spiritual abuse) like sheep without a shepherd (Matt. 9:36).

Jesus’ deep feeling of compassion was invariably translated into action. He healed the leper, reaching out to touch him, an action, that according to Jewish law, made him ceremonially unclean. That man had probably not felt a human touch for years, and, though Mark does not say so, I imagine that Jesus’ physical contact brought him emotional healing from shame and rejection. Jesus restored sight to the blind men, miraculously fed the hungry crowd, and raised the widow’s dead son.

In Colossians 3:12, the apostle Paul exhorted the Christians in Colossae to clothe themselves with compassion (along with other Christlike virtues). By the power of the Spirit, we can feel the pain of hurting people and act to alleviate their suffering.

Anger

Sometimes Jesus’ compassion moved him not only to act to relieve suffering but also to anger. In a dramatic scene, Mark portrays Jesus “looking around with anger” at super legalistic religious leaders who were “bent out of shape” because Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath (3:5). Jesus felt “indignant” with his disciples and sharply rebuked them when they tried to bar mothers from bringing their children to him for his blessing (Mark 10:4). On another occasion, the zealous anger of Jesus was aroused by the crass commercial “wheeling and dealing” that was going on in the Court of the Gentiles, hindering them from praying and worshipping there. He said they were turning his Father’s “house of prayer for all nations ” into a “den of thieves.” His anger moved him to a dramatic forceful action of social protest (Mark 11:15-17).

At the tomb of his close friend, Lazarus, Jesus displayed anger. When he saw Lazarus’ sister Mary weeping, “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (11:33). When he stepped near to the tomb, “again he was greatly disturbed” (11:38). The Greek word translated “disturbed” was sometimes used to denote the loud snorting of horses. When used for human emotions, it signified a mixture of anguish and rage. One commentator says that Jesus was greatly disturbed “at the outrageous abnormality of death.” He was raging at the terrible enemy of death and the evil satanic power behind it.

Several years ago, at a large evangelistic rally in Sydney, Australia, the evangelist, at the close of his message, invited people in the audience to submit written questions on feedback cards. The first several questions were typical of those raised at such forums, and the evangelist answered them smoothly. But then he read a question that created quite a stir. A young woman had scribbled on a card, “Where was God when I was raped?” The question shook the evangelist, and each time he leaned into the microphone to answer it, he couldn’t find the words. Then he began to weep openly, out of compassion for the woman in the audience who had been raped. When he finally composed himself, he began to rage against a patriarchal society that gave men the assumed permission to see and treat women as sex objects. That was an example of Christlike anger–the kind of anger we are called to display in reaction to such injustices as sex trafficking, rape, racism, exploitation of the poor, and the despoiling of the environment.

Grief

The shortest verse in the entire Bible is John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” Jesus snorted in anger at Lazarus’ tomb and then he wept. The Greek word for “wept” refers to a quiet shedding of tears. This was only moments before Jesus performed the astounding miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead. This begs the question, “Why was he weeping.” I think the best-educated guess is that he was saddened by the wrenching emotional trauma of grief that death causes. He was angry at death and saddened by grief. As Isaiah the prophet says, “He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4).

A few days later came the event that is called Jesus’ “triumphal entry” (Luke 19:41-44), when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, enthusiastically welcomed by a crowd who hailed him as their long-awaited Messiah. But instead of elation, Jesus experienced the emotion of grief. “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it” (19:41). He foresaw the impending catastrophe of the destruction of Jerusalem and that vision stirred in him the feeling of grief because the inhabitants of the city did not recognize “the time of God’s coming” to them (19:44).

In his open displays of grief, Jesus was showing us a sign of emotional health: the acknowledgment and expression of grief. The denial, repression, or suppression of feelings of grief is emotionally harmful. In one of his sermons, Rob Bell said, “If we don’t let it out, it’s still in there. Jesus lets it out. If the Son of God needs a good cry, so do I.” An emotionally healthy person embraces grief over the losses of life–small ones as well as big ones.

Joy

While Jesus was a “Man of Sorrows,” he did not always walk around in a somber mood, wearing a perpetual frown. Luke describes a scene where he “rejoiced very greatly in the Spirit” (Luke 10:21), which, as one commentator puts it, “implies more than cracking a wry smile.” The occasion of Jesus’ joyful outburst was the return of 70 of his disciples from their successful “short term mission.” They had been given spiritual authority over all the powers of the enemy, and they had exercised that authority to heal the sick and liberate the demonized. If you look closely, you will find numerous flashes of humor in Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels. It is surely as accurate to say that Jesus was the “Man of Joy (and Laughter)” as it is to say he was the“Man of Sorrows.”

On the eve of his execution, Jesus told his disciples that all he had revealed to them was so that “my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11), and he prayed for them that “they may have the full measure of my joy within them” (17:30). Joy is the second of the qualities of the fruit of the Spirit Paul lists in Galatians 5:22, 23. Jesus intends his followers to be “filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1:8).

Love

It is common for Bible teachers to assert that love is not an emotion but a commitment of the will, but that is not entirely accurate. For sure, In the New Testament, love is primarily a volitional commitment. Love transcends feelings and keeps on going when emotion is lacking. But love, in the New Testament sense, also involves and expresses emotions.

Jesus felt love for people. The sisters of Lazarus sent a message to Jesus, “the one you love is sick” (John 11:3), and the Greek verb (phileo) denotes the deep affection of friendship. In Mark’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the “rich young ruler,” he says, “Jesus looked at him and loved him” (10:21), meaning he liked him a lot!

Jesus instructed his disciples to live up to his standard of love: “This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12, 14). To live by that standard of love requires much more than an emotion. It calls for a total commitment to give yourself sacrificially for someone else. But loving as Jesus loves also includes emotion. Paul says, “love one another with mutual affection” (Rom. 12:10 NRSV), and Peter says, “love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22).

When we meditate on the Gospels and gaze upon Jesus with the eyes of our heart, we can trust that the Holy Spirit is working to transform us into a higher degree of Christlikeness. This means, in part, that His emotions become our emotions.

As we conform more to His image, we become emotionally healthy people who bear witness in our lives to the power of Christ–the power that can make broken people whole–the ultimate result of God’s transforming sanctification!

Jack Hammans



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