Rethinking 'What Would Jesus Do?'
February 12, 2014
My earliest point of contact with the WWJD question was the same as most people's: the bracelet. Little woven bands in every color conceivable, each stitched with a stark, white "W.W.J.D?"
I seem to recall owning a red one. My friends, suddenly faced with a fashion trend that didn't unnerve their conservative parents, all owned at least one. Some kids strutted around with a dazzling collection of them shooting up their arms in an eye-splitting array of colors. Celebrities were wearing them too, we were told. I remember one friend breathlessly telling me that he'd seen Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit wearing one on TRL. I, of course, was not allowed to watch MTV.
The fad was based in the '90s and, like all things '90s, is no longer with us (though the possibility of an ironic comeback is not nil) but the phrase itself is much older, stemming from an 1896 book by Charles Sheldon called In His Steps. In it, Sheldon recounts meeting a homeless man who was baffled by Christians who would sing about Jesus but not act like him. As Sheldon recounts it, the homeless man said to him:
It seems to me there's an awful lot of trouble in the world that somehow wouldn't exist if all the people who sing such songs went and lived them out. I suppose I don't understand. But what would Jesus do? Is that what you mean by following His steps? It seems to me sometimes as if the people in the big churches had good clothes and nice houses to live in, and money to spend for luxuries, and could go away on summer vacations and all that, while the people outside the churches, thousands of them, I mean, die in tenements, and walk the streets for jobs, and never have a piano or a picture in the house, and grow up in misery and drunkenness and sin.
This is a haunting story, and it resonates just as powerfully today as it did in 1896. On the face of it, "What Would Jesus Do?" is a good question, with some biblical precedent (1 John 2:6 says "Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.") But as we've co-opted this question into a sort of moral mantra—an ethical rule-of-thumb—we've lost something important along the way.
Not about morality, but about Jesus.
It's hard to tell what jesus would do
If you're looking for a question to help you figure out what the "right" thing to do in any given situation is, you could do a lot worse than "WWJD?" It certainly can't do any real harm to your moral code. But it might do a little harm to our understanding of Jesus.
Realistically, this is a question meant to get us to live nicely. When we ask it, we end up coming to the conclusion that He'd probably forgive, or donate money or tell the truth. These are good things. There's nothing wrong with them. For the most part, we arrive at more or less the same answer we'd come to if we were to ask "What Would Oprah Do?" or "What Would Mr. Rogers Do?" They're fine role models, but you have to wonder how often "WWJD?" actually gets us to do something Jesus would.
Because what Jesus would actually do could be something a bit counterintuitive—and very difficult to predict. One day, He'd sneak off to the Temple to ask questions (Luke 2:49)—later He'd go there to flip tables (John 2:15). Some days, He'd eagerly seek out the crowd (Matthew 9:36)—other days, He'd actively shun their attention (Matthew 14:13.) He's God—knowing the right course of action was a given. For us, the decision can be a little murkier. The answer to what Jesus would do in our shoes isn't necessarily obvious.
The Jesus in "WWJD" tends to not be based on the actual Jesus. Instead, he's a nice guy who's a lot like a nicer version of us. He's not the wild rabbi of the Gospels. He's not the "not-safe-but-good" lion of C.S. Lewis' allegory. He's certainly not the risen king who is coming again to make all things new.
Jesus is not hypothetical
Another problem with our interpretation of WWJD is that it makes Jesus into a thing of the past. Instead of a living, breathing relationship with a living, breathing Savior, we're stuck with a good moral teacher who had a lot of nice things to say.
Jesus, of course, is better than that. He didn't just come to show us how to live. He came to live alongside us. He came to offer us an actual, ongoing relationship with Him.
He rose again so that we don't have to settle for "What Would Jesus Do?" Instead, we can ask "What Is Jesus Doing?"
What Is Jesus Doing?
What Is Jesus Doing (WIJD?) isn't quite as catchy, but it's a question that's served me well. Jesus is not just a blueprint for someone who would always do the right thing. He is the living and active Son of God, who is at work in the world today. And He's not just there when you're not sure what the right thing to do is. He's working around you (and in you) at all times.
"WWJD" might have some usefulness, but asking what Jesus is doing in your life is always pertinent. Asking what Jesus is doing allows you to see the bigger picture of how God is working, and how He is using you in His big story.
In fact, when you ask what Jesus is doing, you take the burden off of yourself. Sometimes, it might require you to do something radical—like clearing out a Temple of your own. Some days, it might require you to get out of the way and just let God finish the good work He started. It may be asking Jesus to help you get past your preconceptions of what He’s like, and reveal to us what He wants to do through us. It means seeking the living Jesus—not just the one who exists in church songs. Because when you do that, you can rest assured, you'll be dealing with the actual Jesus of the Bible.
He'll know what to do.