by Julie A. Kanarr—
Think back to when you were a child: What were you taught about expressing your feelings? Were all your emotions respected? Or were you encouraged to keep certain feelings—especially negative ones—to yourself?
Early in life, we begin to intuit the meanings of non-verbal reactions, such as a parent’s smile or frown, to our emotional expressions. We absorb verbal and non-verbal messages that transmit family, cultural and social norms, including gender-based stereotypes, such as “boys don’t cry” or “nice girls don’t get angry.” When those around us express strong feelings, we sometimes react by telling them to not be “so emotional” rather than addressing our own discomfort.
We may be surprised when we discover that not everyone shares the same set of emotional cues. Some of us may be specifically coached to swallow our true feelings and show deference to those wielding authority. Others may be encouraged to emote freely, without fear of how others may react. Some can find it difficult to identify which emotions others are expressing. A look of fear can be misinterpreted as anger. Confidence might be misconstrued as aggression. Being reserved or quiet could be misunderstood as being aloof or uncaring.
WHAT WOULD JESUS FEEL?
Did Jesus ever get mad? Passages such as the Sermon on the Mount invite us to view Jesus as perpetually patient and mild-mannered. Jesus blesses the meek and calls for turning the other cheek and giving your cloak to the person who already took your coat (Matthew 5-7). Yet Jesus’ driving out the money changers in the temple with a whip (recorded in all four Gospels) was neither a passive nor a gentle activity (Matthew 21:12-17, Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45-48, John 2:13-17). Jesus spoke out passionately against injustice. He frequently denounced the scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites and even called them a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 12:34). In expressing the belief that Christ is both fully divine and fully human, Christians throughout the centuries have struggled to describe these two natures without diminishing one or denying the other. Does Christ’s divinity really mean there were some human emotions that he could not—or would not—experience?
BEYOND CULTURAL IDEALS
The notions we harbor about Jesus’ emotional life often spring from cultural values that developed centuries later. For example, “Away in a Manger,” a beloved Christmas carol written in 1882, imagines that the newborn Jesus did not cry when awakened by some noisy cattle at the manger. This reflects Victorian-era British and North American ideals about children being “seen and not heard.” It does not describe how a typical infant, including Jesus, would react upon being startled awake. Such pious imaginings can prevent us from recognizing that Jesus would have felt the full range of human emotions, both as a child and as an adult.
We may also get the impression that deep grief or sustained sadness is somehow out of bounds for faithful Christians, even though the Gospels portray Jesus as feeling deep emotions and acting on them. Jesus felt grief in a real, visceral way. In John 11, he wept with Mary, grieving the death of her brother, Lazarus (verse 35). Both verses 33 and 38 say Jesus was “greatly disturbed,” a translation of a Greek word, embrimaomai, whose meaning encompasses both grief and anger, as well as gut-wrenching heartache. Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane before his arrest, was agitated and distressed. He told Peter, James and John that he was “deeply grieved, even to death” and asked them to remain awake and pray with him (Mark 14:33-34). Jesus sharply rebuked Peter when he objected to Jesus talking about his impending crucifixion (Mark 8:31-33). When Jesus sought out figs on a tree that had none, he cursed the tree, expressing an emotion now colloquially called “hangry”—a combination of “hungry”
The Rev. Julie A. Kanarr is a frequent contributor to Gather, the pastor of Christ Lutheran Church, Belfair, Washington, and an avid sea kayaker.
This article is excerpted from the September 2019 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.