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While recent research has confirmed the importance of growing in emotional intelligence, Jesus shows us how to actually embody it in our lives. Jesus demonstrated emotional maturity throughout his life, and, we believe, this has significant implications for us. For if being a disciple of Jesus involves becoming more like Jesus, then part of following Jesus will involve growing in emotional maturity ourselves.
Dallas Willard once said, "Jesus is the smartest man who has ever lived."
Oftentimes we equate being smart with intellectual brilliance. No doubt, intellectual intelligence (IQ) is part of being smart and something Jesus had in abundance. But Jesus was not only intellectually savvy, he also demonstrated a ridiculously high degree of emotional intelligence (EQ). Jesus consistently embodied emotional maturity throughout his life and in all of his relational interactions.
Recognizing that Jesus had an EQ that was off the charts has some pretty significant implications for our own discipleship. If Jesus consistently embodied emotional maturity, and being a disciple involves growing and becoming more like Jesus, then part of following Jesus involves growing in emotional maturity.
Moreover, by carefully examining and reflecting on how Jesus practiced emotional maturity, we gain vision and imagination for how to live with emotional maturity as followers of Jesus in our own lives.
The phrase Emotional Intelligence first gained prominence through the work of Daniel Goleman and his seminal book, Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. According to Goleman’s research (along with many others), individuals with a high degree of EQ are able to recognize and understand emotions both within themselves and in others while also being able to use this awareness to regulate their own behavior and how they are present relationally. The primary categories that encompass emotional intelligence are captured by the following matrix.
Self-awareness refers to the ability to accurately perceive and recognize one’s own emotions in the present moment. This, of course, is way harder than it sounds.
For instance, oftentimes I don’t recognize the feelings bubbling up within me until after the fact. It’s only afterwards, as I look back and reflect on the situation that got me stirred up, that I’m able to identify what I was feeling. With practice, however, I’m increasingly learning how to identify my emotions not just in the rearview mirror (afterwards), but through the side window (in the present) and sometimes through the windshield (as they first begin to bubble up).
Those with a high degree of emotional intelligence are increasingly able to rightly identify their feelings in real time. Additionally, they know who they are & who they aren’t, what they believe & value, and what they are willing and not willing to do. In short, they know themselves.
If you read the gospels through the lens of self-awareness, you’ll notice that Jesus consistently demonstrates self-awareness.
When Jesus was just twelve years old his parents lost track of him for a few days. Eventually they found him mixing it up with the teachers of the law at the temple in Jerusalem. When they questioned Jesus about this, he responded with clarity and conviction about who he is: “Did you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Lk. 2:49). Throughout the gospels Jesus demonstrates a clear understanding of who he is as God’s dearly loved Son (Matt. 4:1-11).
In Mark 1, after a long and successful day of ministry, the crowds are looking for him to continue his ministry among them. But Jesus states clearly to his disciples that they must move on so that he can preach in other places because “That is why I have come” (Mk. 1:38). Throughout the gospels Jesus demonstrates a clear understanding of his mission and purpose (Matt. 16:21-28; Lk. 18:31-34).
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus frequently repeats the line, “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” (Matt. 5:21-22). In these moments Jesus is contrasting what people had been told with what he values and now teaches. This was shocking to his listeners as evidenced by the frequent comments about how Jesus spoke and acted as one having an authority of his own (Matt. 7:29).
Jesus wept over the death of his friend Lazarus (Jn. 11:35). Jesus grieved over Jerusalem for her lack of repentance (Lk. 19: 41-44). Jesus sometimes got frustrated with his disciples and their hardness of heart (Mk. 8:17-21). Jesus experienced intense anxiety in Gethsemane as he prepared to endure the cross (Lk. 22:39-46).
"Jesus is the smartest man who has ever lived."
- Dallas Willard
Self-management refers to one’s ability to determine how to be present because of or in spite of one’s emotions. This is also way harder than it sounds.
Oftentimes my emotions determine how I show up. If, for example, I’m stressed out and tired from a long day at work, chances are I won’t be my playful, goofy self when I get home from work. Quite the opposite. I may even be irritable and snippy.
It’s important to recognize that self-awareness is not enough. Just because someone is aware of what they are feeling, doesn’t mean they are able to manage those feelings in a way that is productive. This is exactly where self-management comes into play.
Those with a high degree of self-management capacity are able to regulate themselves while being aware of their emotional state. Despite being unmotivated, for instance, they can stay self-disciplined. Or, despite being fearful, they can still show up with courage.
Jesus was a master here.
If you read the gospels through the lens of self-management, you’ll notice that Jesus wasn’t driven or controlled by his emotional state, but was able to be productively present without denying his emotional state. Perhaps the best example of this is in Jesus’ willingness to endure the cross for us. The writers of Hebrews state that “for the joy set before him” Jesus “endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Heb. 12:2).
Jesus was aware of his emotions, but his emotions didn’t control him.
Social-awareness refers to a person’s ability to be appropriately attuned to and accurately get a read on the people around them. If you’ve ever interacted with another human being, you likely already know how challenging this can be.
As a pastor, I often am tasked with speaking in front of people. Once, while delivering a sermon, I noticed a woman in the audience who was glaring at me throughout my sermon. Her brows were furrowed, her lips were pursed, and she looked very serious. I remember wondering why she would be upset with me. “What did I say to make her so upset?”
Right after the sermon was over she came up to talk to me. Turns out my read on her was completely wrong. She wasn’t mad at me all. She had been listening intently and was thinking deeply. I had mistaken her “thinking face” for an angry face.
We often misread people. But those with a high degree of social-awareness are accurately attuned to others. Not only does this involve rightly interpreting non-verbals, but it also involves the ability to empathize with others—both cognitively and emotionally—that is, to understand what a person is thinking and feeling.
Jesus was attuned to the people around him without being overly-attuned with them. In Mark 2, for example, the teachers of the law get upset when Jesus claims to forgive a man’s sins who was paralyzed. We are told that “Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts” (Mk. 2:8).
Jesus was attuned to the people around him without being overly-attuned with them.
Jesus was often aware of and exposed what was in the inside of a person’s heart.
Moreover, Jesus was often attuned with the pain and suffering of the oppressed around him and moved with great compassion toward them (Mk. 6:34).
The phrase “relational-management,” at first glance, might seem to describe one who is skilled at managing other people. However, relational-management is actually the exact opposite. It is not about controlling others or trying to get other people to do what you want them to do. Rather, relational-management refers to one’s ability to manage oneself while building and maintaining trust-filled relationships with others. In short, it’s about managing self—not others.
Focusing on oneself is really hard, isn’t it?
Oftentimes when I’m in a disagreement or experiencing an interpersonal challenge, what’s most obvious to me is what the other person needs to change. “If this person would just do this and stop doing that, this entire situation would be resolved!”
But an individual with emotional maturity does the exact opposite. They know that they can’t control or change others. So instead, they put their best efforts into managing and changing themselves while staying connected to those around them.
How Jesus navigated complex relational dynamics is truly astonishing to me. Throughout the gospels we see Jesus not only identify, but escape the traps set for him while simultaneously exposing the hearts of the trap setters!
In John 8, for example, there is a story about a woman caught in adultery. Not only does Jesus detect the trap that is being set for him, but leverages the moment to expose the religious leader’s hypocrisy (Jn. 8:2-11). Or consider how Jesus responds when questioned about paying taxes to Caesar by flipping the test back on the testers and challenging them to give themselves fully the God whose image they bear (Lk. 20:20-26)!
Growing in emotional maturity is not a one and done. It’s a life-long journey. And, wherever you might be starting, we want to help you take your next steps toward growing your emotional maturity in the way of Jesus.
This is why we started Praxis, a podcast devoted to exploring how to practice and embody the way of Jesus in our everyday lives. If you haven’t yet tuned in, we encourage you to check it out as right now we are doing an entire series on how to grow our emotional intelligence as followers of Jesus.
If you haven’t already, be sure to check it out and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.