Jesus’ Emotional Intelligence


Dear friends,

The emotional intelligence of Jesus inspires me to live differently.

At the beginning of his movement, Jesus overhears a guy named Nathaniel talking about him. Someone told Nathaniel that Jesus was the Messiah, but Nathaniel doesn’t buy it. In fact, Nathaniel takes a stab at Jesus: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46).

Nathaniel was basically saying that Jesus was either a loser or a troublemaker if he was from Nazareth. Nobody expected good things from that rural town. We’re all too familiar with these kinds of generalizing, belittling attitudes today based on something about our identity. They’re often at the root of the isolation and conflict between us.

How does Jesus respond to Nathaniel’s insult?

Two responses were predictable. First, Jesus could have  been offended and insulted Nathaniel back: “Where are you from? You’re the real loser!” Or, second, Jesus could have defended himself and started a debate with Nathaniel: “You’re wrong: Nazareth is actually a great town!”

Most of us would have responded in one of these two ways, attacking the other or defending ourselves.

But Jesus doesn’t get offended or defend himself. He doesn’t allow Nathaniel’s initial insult to define the outcome of their encounter.

Instead, Jesus does something creative and completely unexpected: He praises Nathaniel. Jesus chooses to see Nathaniel’s insulting skepticism as an expression of honesty that’s free of fakeness (John 1:47). It’s like he catches Nathaniel’s punch and receives it as a handshake. Jesus turns an insult into an opportunity to affirm and embrace the other.

A minute before, we expected Nathaniel to become an outsider or enemy of Jesus’s movement. Isolation or conflict was the predictable outcome as we see so often today. But Jesus redefines what was possible for their relationship by his creative choice to see the best in Nathaniel.

Before the story ends, we find out that Nathaniel ends up becoming one of Jesus’s first followers.

Jesus’s emotional intelligence requires an unusual strength that comes from a deep, centered inner life. If Jesus was emotionally insecure and in need of Nathaniel’s praise, he would have been offended by Nathaniel’s insult and mirrored his behavior with another bitter insult. If Jesus was arrogant and addicted to proving his superiority in the face of insult, he would have triggered a fruitless debate about identity and who is better. We’ve all been down this exhausting road.

But Jesus was at home in himself. He wasn’t triggered to attack the other or to defend himself. That is, Jesus didn’t need to make this encounter about himself or his identity. He was at peace with himself and able to focus his care on the other. This is especially profound because Nathaniel’s insulting question cut to the core of Jesus’s identity: “He isn’t the Messiah! He’s a worthless loser!”

Out of this inner fullness, Jesus was able to keep his balance and turn an insult into an opportunity to affirm the other and start a positive relationship. Rather than condemn, Jesus was able to find something to compliment in his skeptic.

We urgently need this emotional intelligence today. It is able to transcend attacks on identity to embrace the other. But it can’t be microwaved or mass-produced.

This creative composure comes from being at peace with God and yourself. It comes from an inner fullness that doesn’t need to make our relationships about ourselves, our territory, or our identity. It comes from living beyond the inferiority/superiority competition that fuels angry insults and identity-based self-defense. Because Jesus didn’t need Nathaniel’s affirmation, he was able to absorb his insult and start something new.

Imagine if the next time someone attacks your identity, you have the creative composure to find something to affirm in them. Imagine if the next time someone tries to trap you in an attack-or-defend, superior-vs-inferior situation, you step outside those lines and define the relationship in terms of the other’s underlying value?

This creative, other-embracing fullness is exactly what Jesus was referring to when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). This isn’t a dead morality. Jesus is inviting us into a counter-cultural liberation from reactive, mirroring relationships and into creative, healing relationships.

This is what our world needs today more than ever before. And it points to the social and political implications of prayer. The person who can creatively pivot around these identity insults has cultivated an ego that is anchored in being created, loved, and protected by their Creator. And thus they don’t need to mask the pain of feeling inferior or inflict the pain of claiming to be superior. They can celebrate the precious value of their own self and also the person who belittles them.

This kind of prayer is deeply personal but never private. It is an inner well that overflows into public life, into the quality of our relationships, into what is possible for culture when isolation or enemy-making are the only options on the cultural menu.

Root yourself deeply in God’s love. Breathe divine love into your being. And then actively look for opportunities to turn insults into affirmations, attacks into embraces, identity hostility into relationship possibility. This is the way to hope.

Each of us can help create this new beginning.

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