In one of my classes at grad school my professor brought up a unique, but potentially overlooked detail within the heart of the story of Lazarus in Scripture. This story, contained in John chapter 11, reveals another powerful attribute to Christ; that being, his ability to raise someone from the dead. Now, for those who are reading this, rolling your eyes at such a fairy tale, hold on. This is not about the metaphysical act of being raised from the dead, but what precedes it.
So, my professor points out this fascinating part in the story where Jesus weeps before he does the miraculous, pointing to something very special and integral to understanding the heart of God.
To give an abridged version of the story, Jesus is informed that Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus, has died. He travels to their place of residence and is at first approached by task-oriented, cognitive, Martha. The dialogue is imbued with logic over the tragedy, since this is the way Martha operates in the world.
Martha leaves and Mary returns, who is in emotional upheaval over the death. She bargains with Jesus that if he were here sooner, her brother would have been healed (interesting, how they knew Jesus could heal the living, but had no frame of reference for his ability to call someone out of physical death). One can assume that Mary is fairly emphatic, raw and emotionally demonstrative regarding her brother’s death.
What does Jesus do? He tells her to “calm down”, that “everything is going to be okay”, to focus “on the great things about Lazarus,” right? Or he quickly jumps into praying for her? Or he gives really encouraging, sage advice to help her in her pain and unwaveringly tells her to wipe those tears away, and as he rolls up his sleeves, he informs her he is going to raise her brother from the dead (his version of getting her an ice cream cone for her emotional pain)? NO!!!!!!
Quite the opposite happens. Jesus viscerally weeps. It says that he was moved two times and wept before he called forth Lazarus from the dead. Think about when you have wept. What is that feeling like? How does the body respond? It is a guttural contraction of grief, the body doubling or bent over with the deepest, heartfelt feeling of anguish. The foundation of this felt emotion is in the bowels, that reflexively radiates throughout the body.
Jesus wept with Mary and the others. Out of deep compassion, he viscerally sobbed, mirroring their pain. He could have reassured them. I mean he was going to heal Lazarus; is not that the greatest reassurance? No, instead he felt with them, traveling together in the pain. Then he performs the miraculous.
What does this say about God? About our feelings? What does it teach us about responding to our own emotions and that of others?
When Things Just Stop Working: Am I a Heretic? (yes)
For a long time, I felt this deficit in my relationship with God. It could be characterized as disconnected and detached, cerebral and obligatory. My understanding of this relationship came from those significant in my life; family, churches, speakers, friends, small groups, etc. Forced, often anxiously-steeped prayers would be my “connection” time with God; trying to figure out the correct combination of words to “feel” His presence or receive an answer to my cries.
I would go to bed, obligated to utter some half-ass prayer, just to relieve the guilt I felt for not giving an adequate amount of time “to” Him. The church would instruct us to do “devotions”, these carved out 30 to 60 minute dedicated times of reading something in scripture or a guided journal, ending the time with a prayer, believing this would set the template or mood for the day. The purpose was to get our minds set on the “thoughts” of God, whatever that meant.
When I even thought about approaching the Bible, anxiety would strike, because of the daunting task of reading it as a text book, scrutinizing every detail, and making sure I understood the context. Or I would take a more mystical approach, turning serendipitously to a page and whatever grabbed me was this metaphysical message for my life.
My reaction to others asking for prayer, or bringing prayer requests up in a group, was saturated with discomfort and disconnect. I could not stand going through the litany and encountering myself publicly meandering through conversation with God, detached emotionally, as I nervously prayed for someone. Immediately I felt anxious, flooded with pummeling thoughts of how to pray.
I was also instructed to “give it” to Him, meaning my problems. Always out of encouragement, we would be informed to “lay it down at the cross”, or would go through some guided prayer or casting out some “spirit” to end the emotional pain.
But all I felt was further pain, isolation and distance from God, toiling in guilt and forced moments with Him. It was easy to believe I was doing something “wrong” and was left on my own to feverishly figure out how to get it “right”.
I began to question these “methods” and approaches. The prayer requests, guided prayers, devotions and promptings to “lay it down at the cross” only stirred up struggle for me. I bitterly criticized myself and thought I was blasphemous for recoiling at these “spiritual” tenets. But I was only left with questions. What was the point of all this? Why was I doing this? How come I am so pissed at these approaches? Did my recoiling mean I was heretical?
Years ago, I had this revelatory moment. In my conversation with God, it hit me how I was neglecting my emotions and genuine felt expression to God. Instead I substituted such for logical, repetitious pleadings that looped over and over, leading to frustration. I switched to what was really happening internally for me and I felt greater relief, although nervous I would get smitten by the “righteous wrath” of God. But to my surprise, what I feared did not come true.
My understanding of prayer and connection with God began to shift. These were powerful moments of deeper, richer, vulnerable and more transformative experiences.
What I started to see was this deep cry for something genuine, raw, and emotionally unfiltered in my relationship with God. I could no longer push down these frustrations over the mantras that blocked me from living vulnerably and authentically. In my anxious, cerebral pining, I was missing the most important chunk; the present rumblings within my heart. Could this be the key to greater connection with God and life?
The Beatitudes: Mirroring the Heart of the Divine
Jesus presents this enigmatic list to his Disciples in Matthew chapter 5 called the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes is this fascinating layout for those living life fully and truly. It is a blueprint and a key to understanding the process of becoming alive, deeply connected and attuned to God. But it starts off weird and ends weird. It is an anti-invitation. Who starts off an invitation to greater living with loss? Or ends it with persecution? I mean don’t most parties beckon others with the promise of something pleasurable? Welcome to the upside-down world of God.
Let me fast forward for a moment. Something unique happens towards the end of the Beatitudes. Jesus talks about how those who pour out mercy and peace will be blessed with the mercy and peace from God. But how is this kind of living possible if we have not yet experienced it internally?
Consider our human relationships like a mirror. They reflect what is within us and influence or shape our internal world. Notice how children will emulate what their parents do and how they act. For example, children want to dress or cook like dad or mom. Or think about how they react the way their parents do when they get upset. Their brains (mirror neurons) are taking in both their parent’s behavior and the motives threaded within it.
Or look at the group you spend time with; how you develop a similar language, perspective, interests, style or attitude. The more you connect with those in your life, the more your internal self is shaped by the one’s surrounding you, reflecting this influence in your outward expression towards the world (politics, culture, religion, etc.).
Now bring it back to this peace and mercy thing. If we reach a state where we are pouring this out to others, or “reflecting it”, then something enigmatic must have happened in our intimate moments with God, where his peaceful and merciful presence begins to impact our internal world. To operate out of this state, we must first encounter it from something or someone that already holds it. A child learns the language and expression of love by the way her parents speak and model it. The way we learn to share love is not by reading about how it happened to others thousands of years ago or memorizing Scripture or convincing ourselves that God loves us. The learning comes from experiencing it personally and deeply.
So how the hell do we get to this place of a love overflow? This leads us back to the start of the Beatitudes. That anti-invite. It’s where things get messy and real. What is the beginning of living? Powerlessness, Loss, mourning and softening (meekness). We begin by opening ourselves up to encountering reality; the pains, wounds, unfulfilled desires, longings, attachments, false/protective personalities, warped perceptions, what we’ve held to as the meaning of life, etc.
Courageously we go into the terrifying and unknown world of our heart, unraveling the layers that have blocked the True, Vulnerable, Authentic Self. This mourning and loss are the deep, bellowing groans of the painful transition away from what we’ve believed to be our actual selves, giving way to the real. It is a dying process, which manifests feeling loss, lost, directionless, empty and powerless.
It is a bloody and bruising battle, feeling what we have never felt, facing what we have never faced, seeing what was obfuscated. It is an invitation into the deepest, richest, most vulnerable connection you have ever encountered. We are feeling and seeing everything we have turned away from; sexuality, abuse, hatred, rage, murder, gender, painful longing, etc. Whatever we have turned away from, pushed away or stuffed down, we face boldly.
To become more connected to God means, simultaneously, we become connected to ourselves. We move towards our hearts, leaving nothing unturned. We give up the ego and the false protection, exposing all that lives within us to Him. Quite the invite, right?
The Beatitudes marks this mysterious and powerful journey of going through this emptying process, leading to hunger, followed by being filled or satisfied. When we open ourselves up and then unbridledly pour it all out, we are actually emptying ourselves to become filled with something new, satisfying and live-giving.
How does it all connect?
The Invitation to Feel it All
Jesus wept deeply, profoundly, and gutturally. He had the greatest connection to the Source of Life, having the ability to do the miraculous and the supernatural; yet he sobbed and grieved with the others. He was moved by their pain and despair. It was the purest display of compassion; feeling what they felt, giving permission to go into the pain together. He never shut it down, but instead instinctually opened himself up to be in the emotional heartache with them.
What does this tell us about God, this Divine Presence, this Mystery, this Source? If Jesus reflected the heart of God, then it is safe to say that God feels with us in our pain and would never shut it down nor pull us away from our emotion, need and desire. Instead, he invites us into it all; the anger, rage, murderous desires, envy, lust, horniness, sadness, excitement, joy, etc.
The one does that does not push away, detach, disconnect, split off from his or her heart, but chooses, instead, to move into every present emotion, that stirring within, is listening and honoring the deeper messages of the heart. And these messages are not just some random biopsychological/neurochemical utterances to pay attention to. They are much more meaningful. They connect us to something Greater, something Transcendent.
Emotions have been vilified, cauterized, feared, judged, numbed, pushed down, dismissed, devalued, etc. Why? I wonder if such reactions speak to emotions’ inherent, transcendent and vital importance. Feeling through our emotions changes us, moves us into greater beings, into greater connection and closeness with God, generates aliveness and shapes us into persons that pour out to others, impacting them with a Profound Love.
My Story Continued: Getting Out of Formulas and Into The Uncensored
Within the last five years there has been a drastic shift in my engagement with God. I realized how much I was striving, heavily steeped in obligation, guilt and the compulsion to get myself “right”; spending inordinate amounts of time ruminating on what went wrong. I would set out to solve the mystery of the occurrences in my life, guessing what God was doing. However, I would end up in the same place, lost, discontent, disillusioned, and hating myself. I would avoid my emotions, ache, desires, longings, etc., and all would succumb to the serrated blade of judgment.
The transition went from operating in my head to pouring out of my heart. This meant that not only did I need to acknowledge what resided within me, but it was vital that I go into the emotion and allow its presence to be a part of me. A contained, suffocating, muted inner dialogue became an externalized outpouring expression of what stirred inside.
I no longer wanted cling to the handrails of guided prayers and detached formulas. I felt the hunger for something authentic, honest, uncomfortable, paradoxical, mysterious and real. And boy, did I go through the uncomfortable, tension-filled, conflictual, disquieting struggle of making known what was inside me, both to myself and to God.
Nothing stayed hidden; whether I felt hatred or horny; shame or joy. When I masturbated or looked at porn, I stayed in conversation with God, expressing to him my deepest desires. Sadness, grief and unfulfilled longing filled my conversation. I embraced wrestling with God in anger and discomfort over feeling alone and seeing things differently than my church community. At certain moments I would contend with God on something he was inviting me to do or to go into and began to boldly express my anger towards Him. Like I said, nothing was hidden nor filtered. The greatest healing took place in uncensored dialogue.
And as I committed to this way of connecting, things shifted. Shame and self-hatred reduced, replaced by this energetic hunger and aliveness. I felt a great security between me and God. Anxiety or restlessness would communicate to me when I was pulling away from my feelings and from Him. I could only be present by turning towards my emotion, feeling it robustly and deeply. The wonderful byproduct of creativity emerged as well (quite a discovery, how connecting to our emotions leads to a surge in creative outpouring).
The core of this message is that God cares wholeheartedly for our emotional realm, since it is a reflection of his vulnerable, emotional expressive nature. He feels deeply with us, which is clearly indicated in the story of Lazarus. God loves all of our being deeply, because he carries within himself a deep love that he expressively enjoys pouring out. When we accept, care, feel and travel into the emotional dimensions of ourself, this innate hunger surfaces to venture with people into their own pain. It is an unrelenting ripple of healing love.
There is another option, however. The other route is turn away from our hearts, living detached, but constantly seeking out that Connection down various paths. However, there will always be that nudge to turn back, to go into the heart, to venture down that narrow, less-traveled path to something greater, richer, abundant, lavish, satisfying and true. May you accept that anti-invite and enter into the life you were wired to live unbridledly free in.