When you think of Jesus’s life on earth, his emotions might not be the first thing that comes to mind. So many of our conceptions and portrayals of Jesus entail a wise and detached sage keeping his distance from sinful human beings. In some of these visual representations, we might think he was floating six inches off the ground or, rather a holographic representation of a human being if we didn’t know better.
Lately, in series like The Chosen, Jesus has been depicted much more accurately and biblically. He was fully human. That means he experienced all that it means to be human – yet, without sin. He was tempted, hungry, tired, aged like everybody else, and probably got sick or had seasonal allergies. As part of his humanity, he also experienced the full range of human emotions.
Though we intuitively know that emotions are part of our lives, sometimes it seems foreign to imagine what Jesus’s emotions would be like. Like every part of Jesus’s life, his emotional life is exactly what any human would experience without the effects of sin. Put another way, Jesus shows us the full extent of human emotion perfectly lived out. Just as he redeemed the other parts of life, Jesus also redeemed the emotional life.
If you haven’t spent much time thinking about this topic, you’re not alone. The emotions of Christ have received very little scholarly attention throughout the centuries. Aside from Calvin’s commentaries on the Gospels, few biblical scholars and commentators have made it a particular point to discuss Jesus’s anger, compassion, and joy.
B. B. Warfield took up the study in an essay titled “The Emotional Life of Our Lord,” which was published after his death in The Person and Work of Christ. This year, Crossway has released the essay as a part of the Crossway Short Classics series. Warfield (1851-1921) was one of the most gifted American theologians, the pride of Old Princeton, and known today for his stalwart defense of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. I would argue that this shorter essay, “The Emotional Life of Our Lord,” is his most accessible and impactful work.
When people consider Jesus’s emotional life, Warfield observes, they typically fall into one of two camps; “There is a tendency in the interest of the dignity of his person to minimize, and there is a tendency in the interest of the completeness of his humanity to magnify, his affectional movements.
The one tendency may run some risk of giving us a somewhat cold and remote Jesus, whom we can scarcely believe to be able to sympathize with us in all our infirmities. The other may possibly be in danger of offering us a Jesus so crassly human as scarcely to command our highest reverence” (28-29). As it turns out, not much has changed in the last century. We see these two tendencies in popular Christian books and sermons today.
Instead, the Gospels show us that Jesus experienced the full range of human emotions, enabling him to sympathize with us. At the same time, he perfectly navigated these emotions without sin, preserving our reverence and worship. But what did these emotions look like for Jesus?
The emotion mentioned most often in the Gospels might surprise you. Jesus does get angry several times, always on behalf of others, whether that his Father’s name and glory are being dishonored (John 2:13-17) or that the people he encounters have such hard hearts and little faith (Mark 3:5). He is sorrowful overlooking Jerusalem (Luke 19:41) and standing at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:35). In one instance, he is overcome with joy in the Holy Spirit (Luke 10:21).
But more than anything else, Jesus feels compassion for his people. He pities those who have been left like sheep without a shepherd (Matt. 9:36). He’s moved with mercy toward the leper who says, “If you will, you can make me clean” (Mark 1:41). When he saw the widow of Nain burying her only son, he had compassion on her and raised her son from the dead (Luke 7:13). These instances and many others are a window in the heart of the Savior. He was moved by his great love and mercy to action.
In each of these cases, Jesus responds in his compassion. He provides a remedy. He’s not simply dealing with people’s spiritual problems; his compassion draws him to deal with their physical problems as proof of his ability to deal with their spiritual problems. The love of the cross is tangibly demonstrated in his love for the lepers, paralytics, and possessed. Warfield points out that “Love lies at the bottom of compassion” (41). For this reason, Jesus’s compassion was never misguided. He was never taken in or swindled. In the same way that he loved perfectly, he had perfect compassion – seeing things for what they truly are and being moved to appropriate and effective action.
Jesus’s perfect emotions actually display the union of his humanity and divinity; “The mark of his individuality was harmonious completeness: of him alone of men, it may be truly said that nothing that is human was alien to him, and that all that is human manifested itself in him in perfect proportion and balance” (101-102). It would be hard to improve on this observation about the God-man.
One takeaway for us immediately stands out. We’re living in a high time for emotions, to the point that our internal life has taken on the major portion of how we define our identities. Mental health has become a dominant topic of conversation, often toward powerfully good ends. It’s in the interest of the church to engage in these conversations. We welcome emotion. We see it in Scripture. Healthy emotions are modeled by Christ. But even emotions need to be discipled. They are not impervious to the effects of sin or the power of the Holy Spirit.
We should imitate Jesus emotionally. It sounds foreign, but this is as central to our discipleship as imitating any other part of Jesus’s life. Through the Gospels, and particularly the Psalms, we see the redemption of our feelings and longings, our reactions and desires. The deepest parts of who we are must be re-formed to look like Christ.
Warfield ends his essay with an observation that deserves our meditation and our imitation; “As we survey the emotional life of our Lord as depicted by the Evangelists, therefore, let us not permit it to slip out of sight that we are not only observing the proofs of the truth of his humanity, and not merely regarding the most perfect example of a human life that is afforded by history, but are contemplating the atoning work of the Savior in its fundamental elements.”
Indeed, the emotional life of the Lord should give us a deeper appreciation for the gospel and sweeter love for our Savior.
Dr. Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak and the Senior Pastor of Carlton Landing Community Church in Oklahoma.