From the time that we were young, we as Latter-day Saints have intrinsically understood that the most important thing we can do as Christians is to love one another. When Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees, he explained that the first and second great commandments are to “love the Lord with all thy heart…” and to “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:37,39). We also know that charity is the “pure love of Christ” (Moroni 7:47). From these and other scriptural passages, many interpret and use the term Christ-like to refer to words and behavior that are always loving. In Mormon culture, a common belief is that if we’re genuinely trying to be loving, like Jesus, we are always kind, happy, and positive.
As a therapist, I have seen how this pervading assumption that being Christ-like means we are always to be “nice” and never angry or upset can be profoundly limiting, and even damaging to the emotional health of many Latter-day Saints (particularly to women). By denying certain feelings that society often deems negative or not Christ-like, we not only misinterpret the true character of the Savior, but we also limit our own ability to have a full spectrum of human experiences. I ardently believe that a healthier approach to understanding what it means to live a Christ-like life will be enhanced by broadening our view of how we can feel a full range of emotions while being righteous disciples of the Lord.
A close study of gospel texts reveals that Jesus was an emotionally complex individual, and not at all a one-dimensional “nice guy” character that our culture has unfortunately so often stereotyped him as. The most obvious and well-known example of this is when he drives the moneychangers out of the temple and rebukes them for desecrating a sacred place (John 2:15).
However, this is hardly the only instance where Jesus acted in a manner that revealed he experienced emotions other than simply being “nice.” Christ used His emotions for righteous purposes. Since Christ was sinless, this scriptural account helps illustrate that strong emotion and behavior are not necessarily sins and can be used in accordance with God’s will.
One account that shows a clear contrast from the commonly held view of the Savior is when he cures the man with the withered hand. When the Pharisees were looking to accuse him of healing on the Sabbath, the scriptures tell that “he looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts” (Mark 3:5). This one experience reveals that Jesus simultaneously experienced compassion, anger, and grief. These are very human feelings and reveal the depth of his emotional character.
Another example showing the complexity of the Savior occurs toward the end of his mortal life. When he is undertaking the excruciating task of performing the Atonement, Jesus implores his friends for emotional support. “My soul is exceeding sorrow unto death: tarry ye here, and watch” (Mark 14:34). In his darkest hour, he reveals his deep sadness (and perhaps also his loneliness), and he reaches out for companionship.
The scriptures are full of descriptions of the Savior showing other common human feelings such as indignation, joy, agony, empathy, and fear. But how does this apply to Latter-day Saints? We can learn from Christ’s example that is possible to experience and also express a full spectrum of emotions, even the ones that are uncomfortable or painful, and to use them as information to guide our growth. I believe that as we do so, we will be more apt and willing to heed the Savior’s command to “go about doing good” and to truly love our neighbors (D&C 81:4).
Unlike Christ, we are still in emotional development and will be for a long time. I think that part of our healthy psychological and spiritual development means using earthly experiences to learn how to feel our feelings and use them for good purposes. But we have to start with awareness of our emotions—all of them—and open ourselves up to the beautiful lessons they can teach us as we strive for personal and spiritual growth.
Consider the following emotional awareness questions and write down your responses:
- What emotions are the most difficult for you to acknowledge or express?
- What did you learn during your childhood about emotions?
- How did you deal with certain feelings that were off-limits in your family of origin?
- What emotions do you find most difficult to share?
- What are your reasons for not expressing difficult or painful emotions (like anger)?