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The Emotional Life of Jesus

Understanding Jesus's emotions provides insight into who he really was.

Key points

  • Great religious leaders—such as Jesus—often are not understood in the context of their emotional lives.
  • An emotional analysis of Jesus suggests he likely felt great irritation, sadness, and compassion during his lifetime.
  • Understanding the emotional life of Jesus may give some direction for what the Christian church is to be about.
Heinrich Hofmann | Wikimedia Commons
Source: Heinrich Hofmann | Wikimedia Commons

When I imagine Jesus—similar to when I imagine the Buddha—what initially comes to mind is someone who was pretty emotionally flat or emotionally neutral. If there’s an emotion I associate with Jesus, it’s one of serenity. Maybe this is because, when I consider Jesus, my mind’s eye turns to paintings and statues I’ve seen throughout my lifetime, such as the one my mom hung in our living room when I was a boy. In these, Jesus seemed to be beyond human emotion.

I’ve long been fascinated by emotion. Part of what inspired my calling to psychology as an undergraduate was my experiences at the University of Wisconsin helping to do research in influential emotion labs exploring embarrassment (with Dacher Keltner) and interest (with Judy Harackiewicz). In graduate school at the University of Minnesota, I conducted research investigating correlates of emotional well-being, including anxiety, depression, hostility, and happiness (with Pat Frazier). I’m generally curious about how individuals feel, and I watch for non-verbal indications of how people react to life. It seems to me that someone’s emotional life reveals something deeply important about who they are.

I’ve also long been a follower of Jesus. Surely, a lot of this has to do with being raised in a Christian family in an often Christian-dominant culture. But there’s also something about the stories of Jesus that intrigue me. There’s something about who Jesus was that seems different, countercultural, and stunning.

It wasn’t until recently that I started to seriously explore the intersection of these two parts of myself. That is, I’ve started to wonder about the actual—not the imagined—emotional life of Jesus. In contrast to the sense I’ve received in some parts of Christianity to which I’ve been exposed, as I read it now, Jesus was a person of deep, passionate emotional intensity.

To explore Jesus’s emotional life, I did a focused study of the Gospel of Mark.

This Gospel generally is considered by Bible scholars to be the earliest—written about 40 years after Jesus’s death. As the progressive Bible scholar Marcus Borg argued, this account of Jesus’s life likely includes elements of both metaphor and remembered history, but the emotions attributed to Jesus, as discussed below, seem most likely to be traceable to the historical Jesus. As one reads this Gospel, there’s also an evident sense of immediacy to it, which lends itself to an investigation of Jesus’s emotional life.

To better understand context, as I read through Mark, I noted passages that described where Jesus chose to spend his time. He seemed to spend a lot of his days by the water (1:16; 2:13; 3:7; 4:1; 5:1), in the mountains (3:13; 6:46), in synagogue (1:21; 3:1; 6:2), and, maybe not surprising for someone who didn’t seem to have a home of his own, in other people’s homes (1:29; 2:15; 3:20; 14:3). He seemed to frequently withdraw into nature to get away from the demands of the crowds and to pray (e.g., 1:35; 6:46). This begins to give an indirect glimpse into Jesus’s emotional life.

In looking for more direct descriptions, what most surprised me in studying the Gospel of Mark was how often Jesus seemed to experience great irritation, sometimes to the point of almost seeming impatient. Jesus was said to speak “sternly” (1:25). On several occasions, he was described as being “indignant” (1:41; 10:14). At one point, Jesus looked at his skeptics “in anger… deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts” (3:5). When he finds people selling in the temple courts, he drives them out, overturning tables in anger (11:15-17).

A second emotion Jesus seemed to frequently experience was—again, maybe surprisingly—profound sadness. Many people believe the prophet Isaiah foreshadowed Jesus’s life when he wrote: “he was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief” (53:3). In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus was said to have “sighed deeply” when skeptics asked for a sign about what he was doing (8:12). Before his death, he is described as being “deeply distressed and troubled,” his soul “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (14:33-34).

A final emotion Jesus seemed to often experience was compassion. In particular, Jesus frequently looked in compassion—and acted with compassion—toward those who were in need (6:34) and who were hungry (8:2). He seemed to possess a particular tenderness for children (9:42; 10:12).

It’s interesting to note what emotions Jesus wasn’t recorded as experiencing as well.

He didn’t really seem afraid. He didn’t feel ashamed. Although the most common reaction of others to Jesus seemed to be in the family of awe (e.g., “amazed,” “astonished,” “trembling and bewildered”), Jesus himself is never described as being in awe.

It’s been estimated there are over 2 billion Christians alive today who purportedly seek to be trying to model their lives on the life of Jesus. From a psychological perspective, what does this emotional analysis suggest could be imitated? What can be learned?

Jesus seemed deeply frustrated by those with “stubborn hearts,” who were unwilling to recognize the sacredness amongst and around them, such as the sacred, inherent worth of all people. He seemed upset by those who wanted to demonstrate their worth by trying to elevate themselves, particularly those who could be described as haughty, closed-minded, or materialistic. At various points, Jesus was open and honest about experiencing great loss. He also felt—and acted on—the urge to help the humble and vulnerable, those who knew they needed help. When confronted with stress and suffering, Jesus found ways to be at peace.

Overall, the sense I get from taking a deep dive into Jesus’s emotional life is that Jesus seemed to have emotions all of us can appreciate and connect with. It doesn’t fit the picture of serenity I think most people have of the great religious leaders. The impression I get is of someone who is the opposite of superficial. To put it simply, Jesus seemed to possess a deep and passionate emotional life.

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