Recently I heard an interview on NPR with Reza Aslan, author of the new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Asked about the different ways to think about Jesus, Aslan said, “There are billions of Christians in the world who believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the living incarnation of God. And that’s a perfectly fine belief, but whatever else he was — whether he was the Messiah, or God, or what have you — he was also a man, he was a human being.”
I found that intriguing, because in my own recently published book, The Passionate Jesus, I explore the gospel accounts to determine what kind of human being Jesus was. And as best as I can tell, he was a real human being, one who felt his emotions robustly, resiliently, and authentically. As a result of my study, Jesus has become for me a model for living authentically, honestly, fully, and passionately — if not zealously.
In his book, True Love, Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that in Buddhism, the energy that helps us “touch life deeply” is known as smrti, the energy of mindfulness. It’s clear that Jesus is full of smrti. Jesus knows himself. He is mindful of his feelings and expresses them clearly and directly. He allows his emotions to empower his life positively. And, he invites us to join him in this authentic way of living.
Yearning for Meaning in Life
Jesus began his teaching ministry on a hill surrounded by hungry, wounded people who yearned for meaning and fullness in their impoverished lives. They may have misperceived why he came and what he was about to do; they may not have had even a glimmer of an understanding of what he was all about. Yet, they were drawn to him, and he connected directly and intimately with them as he shared the blessings of God. These blessings, the Beatitudes (Matthew 5), focus on our emotional life — our mourning, our passion, our fear, our suffering.
Roman Catholic priest and author Richard Rohr writes in his book Radical Grace, “Suffering is the necessary deep feeling of the human situation. If we don’t feel pain, suffering, human failure, and weakness, we stand antiseptically apart from it, and remain numb and small.”
Jesus, however, refuses to numb himself from human emotions. “The irony is not that God should feel so fiercely; it’s that his creatures feel so feebly,” Rohr says. “If there is nothing in your life to cry about, if there is nothing in your life to yell about, you must be out of touch. We must all feel and know the immense pain of this global humanity. Then we are no longer isolated, but a true member of the universal Body of Christ. Then we know God not only from the outside but from the inside.”
One Who Is Without Deceit
Jesus brings light to our understanding of who we are and how we feel, and why that understanding is so vital for a deeply meaningful and genuine life. Early in his ministry, while in Galilee, Jesus meets a man named Nathanael (John 1:43-51). His brother Philip has invited Nathanael to “come and see” the man he and his friends have met, a man who has already stirred their faith and hope. Nathanael scoffs, but goes with them. As Nathanael approaches, Jesus says of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”
Jesus is engaging in some clever wordplay — these men would have known that their ancestor Israel, formerly Jacob, was known as the “Deceiver” because of the ways he tricked his brother Esau and his father Isaac. But Jesus is also commenting on the observed character of Nathanael, declaring him to be a man in whom there is nothing false. Nathanael is honest and direct; he says what he thinks (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”). He responds with openness to his brother’s invitation to explore a fresh opportunity for growth by meeting this new rabbi. And Jesus praises Nathanael for this.
“Where did you get to know me?” Nathanael asks Jesus in surprised confusion. Jesus’ answer causes him to fall down in awe and proclaim, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” What could have caused such an enthusiastic response? Jesus simply told him, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” In some way Nathanael must have revealed himself under that fig tree as an honest human being. Jesus then says to Nathanael, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” Nathanael is stunned by this praise of his authenticity, this invitation to new life.
Jesus deeply values living without deceit, without falsehood, without timidity. Whether he was a political zealot as Reza Aslan posits or not, he certainly was zealous for life. He yearns for us to be integrated and whole, filled with smrti. He himself lived in a way that was utterly transparent and emotionally clean, direct, and straightforward, and he wants us to follow in this way. Not only does a life marked by honesty and wholeness open us up to the richness of our spiritual relationship with God, but it also empowers us to live as meaningfully and lovingly as we possibly can.
Rivers of Living Water
Jesus’ emotional life was intense and honest. He let himself feel his feelings wholly and expressed them directly. While Jesus’ emotional life resembles a roaring mountain river, with clear water flowing in uninhibited torrents, we may feel as though our emotional lives resemble a stagnant, scum-covered pond, decaying, subdued, and murky. 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 us liberation from emotional wounding. The way to fullness and wellbeing can be difficult, and may require the help of a spiritual director, counselor, or therapist. Even so, Jesus offers the promise of a pure and whole emotional authenticity if we will seek it.
And this is what God does when we do: God shatters the oppressive, hyper-controlled order that we have so carefully constructed to protect ourselves from the pain and difficulty of life and of all our relationships in this world. 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.
Jesus is not so much interested that we become “nice, well-adjusted people,” but rather 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 crack apart our self-protective barriers and yield the blessing of a fulfilling, fruit-producing life as a human being.