Chapter 7

Your Text Has Feelings

You know how to interpret the ideas of a preaching passage, but there's much more there. Why the emotion of a text is key to inspirational preaching

Emotion can be used to manipulate audiences. As a result, emotions—particularly in Caucasian and Asian cultures—are often considered the "bad boy" by-products of good preaching; they are the dangerous streets we must traverse to get to the goal of moving people to respond. The nature of the word e-motion makes this clear. Good preaching does move people; it is supposed to animate them. Ah, but that means we must play with those bad boys.

In the narrative, prophetic, and poetic genres particularly, it is clear God intends that there be an emotional context in Scripture. This emotional perspective should be the basis of inspirational preaching. I call this "emotional hermeneutics." If the preacher understands these texts properly, preaching these narratives, prophecies, and poems will inspire and animate a response from the congregation. In fact, God gave these emotionally laden texts for that purpose.

In this article, I will use biblical narrative as an example. After establishing the significance of emotional context within a narrative, I will show how it can lead to powerful, inspiring, and motivating preaching.

The nature of biblical narrative
Narrative teaches by showing us the truth rather than by telling us the truth. It shows us how to live (and how not to) rather than telling us how to live. The emotional content of the passage draws in an audience to learn the lessons God seeks to teach them. We connect with Bible characters and their situations based on how we feel in similar situations. Paul says: "Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction" (1 Corinthians 10:11). Our identification with the characters is crucial for these lessons to be clear.

Empty a narrative of emotional context or natural human emotional responses, and you create a stilted, artificial, and less valid sense of what the authors of Scripture intended to convey.

Historically, Scriptural narratives have suffered from the demythologizing and excessive allegorization of some preachers. However, another way narratives suffer is through our ignoring the emotional context. Perhaps the fear is that the approach is too subjective to produce a valid interpretation.

The exact opposite is true. Empty a narrative of emotional context or natural human emotional responses and you create a stilted, artificial, and less valid sense of what the authors of Scripture intended to convey. In some cases, it could even lead to errors in interpretation. By contrast, when we understand and accurately infuse a narrative with the correct emotional hermeneutics, we not only bring it alive, we also bring to light some details in the story that might otherwise be overlooked.

The emotional context of biblical narrative
If we ignore the emotional context while emphasizing the historical, cultural, and literary context, we can rob the characters of their humanity. We should not paint every character with the same emotional brush. Not everyone reacts or responds the same way to the same circumstances. That is where a larger "emotional context" may come into play. In those narratives where the emotions of the characters are crucial to meaning, God gives us a context for understanding those emotions, usually a glimpse at their personality traits in other passages. There are reasons why we see King David as passionate, Peter as bold and impulsive, and Thomas as doubting. Knowledge of those emotional characteristics helps us when we interpret passages involving those characters.

We find an example of this in John 11 and the raising of Lazarus. We have an emotional context set up by the characters involved (except Lazarus), the situation (an illness where Jesus deliberately delays responding to a call to come, and the result is death), and the relationship of the characters with Jesus (he loves them). If we ignore these emotional contexts, we will be more likely to misinterpret the text, making an otherwise electrifying, motivating, and inspiring narrative less than God intended.

The emotional context of the characters, particularly Martha and Mary, is crucial to grasping the meaning of Jesus' differing responses to them. Luke gives us a context for understanding Martha's and Mary's emotional makeup.

Now as they were traveling along, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. She had a sister called Mary, who was seated at the Lord's feet, listening to His word. But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, "Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me." But the Lord answered and said to her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her," (Luke 10:37-42, NAU).

This snapshot into the two women's lives tells us much. By the Lord's own words we know Martha is "worried and bothered" about many things. We are stunned by the level of anger or frustration it took for Martha to get into the Lord's face and accuse him of not caring about her or her situation, then order him to issue a command to her lazy sister.

The explosion of frustration unleashed on Jesus would not have happened in an instant, but would have built itself through more subtle signals. The passage invites us to imagine vivid depictions of Martha, fretting in that part of their Judean home where food was prepared, banging food utensils together, and shooting fiery looks at her sister. She would "communicate" her frustration before speaking. (One woman in my congregation calls it "cupboard cussing," slamming cupboards in such a way as to express displeasure without saying a word.)

Mary, on the other hand, projects a completely different emotional makeup. She sits quietly at Jesus' feet, listening and learning along with the disciples. She is willing to ignore her sister's formidable efforts to "guilt" her into work (doubtless she is used to it). The historical-cultural context places these two single women in a culture that would view their singleness as a curse. They would have been in a position of needing to impress these young, single men in Jesus' band with their domestic prowess, perhaps inspiring a potential suitor. Martha knew that Mary's choice to sit worked against this.

Mary demonstrates an independence of thought and action that later explains her extravagant decision to pour the spikenard ointment on Jesus, probably her dowry, despite the way others might evaluate the action (John 12:1-8). This quieter, more reflective (yet strong) personality sets the emotional context for the person we see in the second half of the narrative concerning Lazarus.

The narrative makes clear the strong emotional connection Jesus shares with the family:

Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was the Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick. So the sisters sent word to Him, saying, "Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick." But when Jesus heard this, He said, "This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it." Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, (John 11:1-5, NAU, emphasis mine ).

The strength of that emotional connection sets the stage for the narrative tension generated by the next verse. "So when He heard that he was sick, He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was," (John 11:6, emphasis mine).

This inexplicable delay, given the emotional setup of the Lord loving Lazarus and the two sisters, provides the explanation for the responses we see and hear when he finally arrives.

Jesus follows divine purposes in the delay, seeking to display God's glory with the power of the resurrection and, in Johannine fashion, to demonstrate in deed what he announces in word concerning himself (John 11:25-26). When he finally approaches Bethany, word reaches the grieving sisters, and John records what follows:

Martha therefore, when she heard that Jesus was coming, went to meet Him, but Mary stayed in the house. Martha then said to Jesus, "Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You."
Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again."
Martha said to Him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day," (John 11:20-24).

The emotional context for this exchange is implied by the differing responses of the women to the knowledge of Jesus' approach, confirmed by the Luke 10 passage. Martha, assertive and vocal, has demonstrated she is unafraid to confront him if she is upset. Thus she goes out "to meet him." We can picture her walking, or perhaps better, stalking with the fierceness of an angry woman, her eyes blazing with hurt and anger.

Given Martha's prior confrontation in Luke 10 where entitlementto help was clearly an issue ("Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me"), the interpreter should realize that entitlement would likely be on Martha's mind once again. She would feel deeply hurt by the fact that she had shown hospitality—fixed numerous meals, arranged bedding, and so on—not just for Jesus but for his entire entourage. Until Lazarus' illness, she had asked for nothing in return that the text records. Now she asks Jesus to do just one thing for her, and he does not come. This would seem to her extremely unfair, maybe even unjust, especially if he purports to love her.

Therefore she meets and confronts him with "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." Given the emotional context, this was not said in a mild way. She probably had her index finger out pointing in his face and spoke through clenched teeth. The emotional context and her own emotion draws us into the narrative. We feel it with her and resonate with and reflect on all the times we felt God was unfair to us.

The next verse is interesting and provides what I would term a hermeneutical watershed in the passage. She goes on to say: "Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You," (11:22). Numerous interpreters see this as an affirmation of her faith in expectation that he could help the situation even now. This makes little sense at an emotional level. She certainly has no expectation of Jesus raising Lazarus at this point, for her answer in 11:24 shows she thinks of the resurrection in "last day" terms, and she hesitates later when Jesus asks that the stone over the tomb be moved (11:39).

Interpreters sensitive to the emotional context should ask, "What would an intense, angry person say in such a situation?" She would probably explain why she is angry at him, why she feels the right to be angry at him. Likely, she is saying: "Even now I know God answers your prayers, and that if you had just been here and prayed for my brother, he would be alive today—but you weren't here, were You?"

Jesus' reply to this confrontation ("Your brother shall rise again.") anticipates what he is about to do, but the interpreter cannot assume Martha has knowledge of that possibility. It is wrong to read the end of the story back into the tension building in the narrative. Interpreters have to think again about how a woman who is hurt, angry, and confused by what outwardly appears to be callousness and neglect would respond to such a statement.

The nature of the relationship between Martha and Jesus and the emotional context of her grief and disappointment with him helps the interpreter understand her answer. She says, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day" (John 11:24). This is her rabbi whom she loves, who has just said to her what religious leaders tend to say to grieving people. She hears one of the platitudes said beside caskets, similar to "He is in a better place now" or "You will see him again someday."

However, bitterness and disappointment are laced through her comment. Her "last day" strongly contrasts with the "even now" of 11:22. In other words, this "platitude" does not change the fact that Jesus did not come when she called, and now she has to wait until the last day to see her brother again. It is consistent within the emotional context to hear her saying, "I know he will rise again in the last day, but a lot of good that does us nowsince you did not show up!"

Inspiration in emotional release
If I am preaching the story of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus from John 11 (as I have at funerals and in other contexts), the resonance of the audience is usually palpable and the tension extremely high at this moment (vv. 22-24). It screams for release. We identify with Martha getting in God's face, index finger extended, expressing for all of us what we may never have the courage to say.

What answer could he possibly give her? Narrative tension is strong in every great story—it is what makes them great. It moves the audience to the edge of their seats. The roar of a home crowd is loudest when the winning touchdown is scored with seconds left. The greater tension produces the stronger release of emotion. People are ready to be inspired by this text, and I, as a preacher, should not disappoint them. God intended it to have this effect and to move people to faith and action.

Emotional hermeneutics are crucial here. As this devastated woman expresses her pain in fierce anger, Jesus does not cower. Her anger does not make her unsafe to him, and he does not distance himself from her. Nor does he slap her down for impertinence, dominate her, or crush her to wrest control of the situation from her and "put her in her place." Rather, at the emotional level, he meets her eye-to-eye, strength-for-strength, and speaks the truth to her heart. And what truth! To borrow from a TV channel promotion, "God knows drama."

More than giving Martha a platitude about the resurrection, Jesus confronts her with himself. She is mistaken to believe the resurrection is some event far off in the future. The resurrection is a person. Indeed, she is looking at the resurrection right here, right now. "Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?'" (John 11:25-26, NAU, emphasis mine).

Jesus matches her assertiveness with his own—not over her, not under her, but with her—speaking truth into her grief. Confronting her with who he is in this situation, he asks her to believe. The narrative tension broken by the revelation is raised again by the question. That question echoes across the centuries to audiences today. Those seated by the graveside of a loved one are being asked the same thing. Do you believe this?

Martha, lovingly but clearly confronted with the truth of who he is, affirms her faith in him. "She said to Him, 'Yes, Lord; I have believed that you are the Christ, the Son of God, even he who comes into the world,'" (John 11:27).

Proving the importance of the emotional hermeneutic
That is not the end of the story. Mary, with her very different personality, has not yet confronted him. Martha goes and calls her (11:28-29). When she arrives, her response is very different from Martha's, but her words are exactly the same! "Therefore, when Mary came where Jesus was, she saw him, and fell at his feet, saying to him, 'Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,'" (John 11:32, emphasis mine).

The significance of the exact same words being used cannot be overlooked. How can we interpret a text word for word the same and say that something completely different is meant? The only thing that makes the words different is the way they are said, their emotional content. The text itself cannot give us that, nor can the literary, historical, or cultural context, only the emotional context. Mary is not angry with Jesus, but she is no less disappointed. She chooses to express her broken heart at his feet, weeping. We know she is weeping by the next verse where Jesus sees her and others weeping. What we fail to understand, if we get the emotional hermeneutic wrong, is the significance of Jesus' response.

When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled, and said, "Where have you laid him?"
They said to him, "Lord, come and see."
Jesus wept (John 11:33-35).

Why would Jesus weep at this moment? The response seemingly makes little sense, and commentators are all over the map to understand it. Most think it has to do with the unbelief surrounding him. Why weep when you are about to rectify the situation? The crowd of observers also debates the meaning of Jesus' tears.So the Jews were saying, "See how he loved him!" But some of them said, "Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?" (John 11:36-37) They do not understand the significance of the whole narrative because they are not privy to it as we are.

So why does Jesus weep? Emotional hermeneutics gives us the answer. Because, as he demonstrated wonderfully with Martha, the Good Shepherd of John 10 stays with his sheep, whom he loves, when they go through the valley of the shadow of death. As Jesus stayed with Martha, not over her or beneath her, so now the Good Shepherd joins Mary where she is emotionally, weeping. He does this, even though he knows he will raise Lazarus in a few minutes. Jesus lives in the moment of grief with her and shares it.

This truth from the narrative is simple, profound, and inspiring. It moves us to worship; it moves us to love him; it moves us to a deeper commitment with a compassionate Lord who would come and share such moments with his people. Raising Lazarus becomes a miraculous sign of the truth of who Jesus is, but this narrative interaction between Jesus and the two sisters, and its potent emotional content, leads us to a far deeper, more personal place to identify with the characters and be inspired.