What Would Jesus Think?Posted: December 9, 2011
Over at the BBC, a well balanced article traces the history of the “What Would Jesus Do?” slogan, from its 1890s roots to modern day meme status.
Coined by Kansas minister Charles Sheldon in the novel In His Steps, the phrase gained modern popularity –and the WWJD? abbreviation– after its adoption by a Michigan youth group in the late 1980s. Decades since have seen it grow into a pop culture cliché; gracing t-shirts, bracelets, and window clings, and recently adopted by Occupiers.
But what are we really asking when we ask this question?
The Real Question
Let’s clarify something. What we’re really asking here is “What Would Jesus Do If He Was Presently In My Situation And Had To Make A Decision That I Feel Uncomfortable About.”
Or (I’m trademarking this, so no friendship bracelets) “WWJDIHWPIMSAHTMADTIFUA?”
If you’ve asked yourself this question, likely it’s not when you’re deciding what toothpaste to buy, which sequel of Die Hard to rent, or which direction to hang a new roll of toilet paper. You’re asking it because something is making you uncomfortable, pushing you out of the normal routine of easy choices. You’re feeling stuck between a “want” and a “should,” and need some help from the Big Guy.
I’ll point out that asking this isn’t a bad thing. Raising our consciousness of situations where we need to make a decision is quite healthy, actually. We all should do it. Contemplating the relationship of Jesus to our own situation is profoundly healthy. But the way this line of thinking turns out is only as good as our interpretation.
A Good Mystery
The difficulty comes in when you actually read the Gospels, and are confronted with the biblical Jesus. Even the BBC picks up on this, commenting that the Christ of Scripture “…defies all expectations – hanging around with prostitutes and trashing the temple. Is that the kind of behaviour church youth leaders want to encourage?” Likely not.
This is not the time or place for an extended exegesis of biblical Christology. But my many hours spent studying the New Testament have convinced me thoroughly that co-opting the Son of Man is a difficult and dangerous task. He is unpredictable. He is harshest with the holy, kindest to criminals and sex workers. He talks when he should be quiet, and is silent when he should be speaking. He tells stories to make seeing people blind, and then makes the blind see. He is persistently loving to all the wrong people. He’s the most frustrating, refreshing person I’ve ever heard of.
Though I can form some healthy, general ideas about what he might do in my shoes, “WWJD?” is problematic. I can make some guesses, hash out some general principles, but in the end, the specifics of what he’d do is a good mystery. I find it tough to get much more focused than “love,” and love is a mighty huge thing to do. Jesus lived unpredictable love in his context. So should we.
A Better Idea
“What Would Jesus Do?” is well meaning but not very meaningful. What is a much better idea is to love Jesus, fervently, and live out our lives in the light of his. To be captured by his divine absurdities, his fierce commitment to exposing truth and bringing mystery is to begin to ask not what he’d do in my shoes, but what I’ll do in my shoes, while following him. This may seem like hair splitting, but the phrasing is important. I must realize that he’s not asking me to be him, but (borrowing Paul’s theology) to be me “in him.” There is a strong sense in which my life is the Christ-life. This is cheapened into meaninglessness though, if we claim to narrow Christ’s decision making down into our present contexts.
As Conrad Gempf points out the question “… does get people asking a question about what they’re doing, looking at it from another perspective. Most people don’t ever do that. But the right question is: what did God create me to do?”
Gempf is right, this is a much better question. Asking it, in thoughtful love, at those uncomfortable moments when we see ourselves most clearly should spur us to the Gospels, to contemplation, and to action.
What do you think? Whether you are a Christian or not, is WWJD? a good question for believers to ask?