This is the second in a series of blogs I am writing which link two of my most favorite themes: Jesus and psychology. In this series, I am attempting to place Jesus’ interaction with Gospel characters in the context of a modern psychological perspective our Lord appears to be using. Today we will delve into one of my all-time favorite Gospel narratives: Jesus challenging the beliefs of the two downtrodden disciples escaping Jerusalem en route to Emmaus.
Luke 24: 13 – 35 recounts an Easter Sunday story in which two people, Cleopas and another (some exegetes posit this may have been a married couple), are leaving Jerusalem for their hometown of Emmaus. As they went “they were conversing about all the things that had occurred” (Lk 24: 14) namely, they horrific death of the man previously believed to be the Messiah. In psychological lingo, they were engaging first in negative self-talk which then transferred into negative group think… a pity party!
During their sorrowful journey, Jesus himself approaches and begins to walk with the two. The Risen Lord is intuitively aware of their negative beliefs of course, but before admonishing them, he asks them to expound further about their distressed state. What follows is arguably the longest continual one-way dialog anyone has with Jesus in the Gospels (Luke 24: 18-24). It appears Jesus is simply allowing them to get grief, frustration, and hopelessness out of their system. Nevertheless, Jesus knew that catharsis alone was not enough to transform these sojourners. He understood that only by firmly calling them out on their irrational and unsubstantiated beliefs could progress be made.
Sometimes when one thinks of psychotherapy, a gentle empathic counselor who builds a warm and caring relationship with the client comes to mind. That definitely was not the case with one of the most prominent American psychologists of the 20th century, Albert Ellis. Ellis’ Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) is an approach that forcefully challenges and disputes one’s destructive and self-deflating thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. For example, Ellis is known to have said, “Thinking rationally is often different from ‘positive thinking,’ in that it is a realistic assessment of the situation, with a view towards rectifying the problem if possible.” Is this not the approach our Lord took with his two disciples? First, Jesus called out their disbelief, “Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!” (Lk 24: 25). He proceeded to challenge and dispute their self-deflating thoughts and emotions… “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the scriptures” (Lk 24: 27). The result of this technique was a drastic change in behavior. Whereas before the pair was browbeaten and dejected, after understanding that it was the Risen Lord in the breaking of the bread, they became energetic and empowered to share their experience.
In our walk towards eternity we too might be aided by opening our ears and hearts to the voice of this Christ who challenged the two disciples on their walk to Emmaus. We might be surprised that there are areas in our life where our Lord might just be saying, “Oh how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe…” Most likely we all have areas in our life we know our Lord wants us to change. Maybe it is our prayer life, and setting up an appointment to see a spiritual director or discerning therapy so as to work through long standing issues that hold us back in becoming the best version of ourselves. Maybe we have dragged our feet in forgiving or asking forgiveness of someone? Surely, Jesus wants to challenge us in some area of our lives! By accepting His challenge, and by challenging ourselves to bring it to completion in our lives, we too will say with these two disciples, “The Lord has truly been risen!” (Lk 24: 34).