In 1896, a man called Charles Sheldon wrote a book entitled In His Steps. According to Wikipedia, the book was a novel based on a series of sermons he had preached. I wonder a bit about how you create a novel out of sermons–the two seem to be somewhat unrelated in my mind. I, like many other people, have never read–or even seen the novel. However, I, like many other people, have a connection with the novel because of its sub-title.
Sheldon used the phrase, “What would Jesus do?” as the sub-title of his book and through a series of events, that phrase became something of a Christian fad in the 1990s. There was a little twist, though, because at the end of the 1800s, people had time and spoke in complete thoughts whereas by the 1990s, we were too busy and stressed to use complete thoughts so we used initials. As a result the 1896 phrase, “What would Jesus do” was reduced to “WWJD”–we also didn’t have time for punctuation in the 1990s.
As well as being faster to write and perhaps say, WWJD was also short enough to be easily reproduced on jewellery and WWJD bracelets became very popular. Sheldon’s work in the 1890s enjoyed a new burst of popularity in the 1990s. In fact, it may have been more popular in the 1990s than the 1890s because wearing a bracelet is a lot less work than reading a book, especially one published in 1896, a time when language was formal and somewhat overly wordy.
The good thing about the whole fad was that people were actually thinking about their actions in the context of their faith. Anything that encourages us to really integrate our faith is a good thing. I didn’t actually wear a bracelet but like many preachers of that time, I probably at least referred to it in my preaching.
And while I think WWJD is a good thing and would encourage people to ask themselves that question, there is one little (or maybe not so little) problem with WWJD. If we are looking to Jesus’ actions as an example for our actions, we are fine if we face a starving crowd of people, 10 lepers looking for healing, a woman caught in adultery and so on. Mind you, we might have some serious difficulty feeding thousands with biscuits and sardines but we could stretch the interpretation to include food banks and emergency food aid programs.
However, what of the things that we face that Jesus didn’t face–or may have faced but the Gospel writers didn’t choose to record? The Gospels don’t show us Jesus interacting with a gay couple wanting to get married. They don’t show Jesus talking with a young rape victim trying to decide if she should have an abortion. They don’t show Jesus dealing directly with terrorism and racial prejudice and gender issues.
In many of those situations, the answer to WWJD seems to be that Jesus would do what I want to do–so Christians end up acting in totally opposite ways in response to the same thing and all claim to be doing what Jesus would have done. With no actual precedent to quote, WWJD ultimately allows us to baptize our actions.
So, maybe before we ask WWJD, we need to ask another question, one that probably doesn’t get asked enough. Maybe we need to focus on “What was Jesus like?” first–we can even reduce it to WWJL as a concession to our era. Jesus’ actions grew out of his character and personality and if we have a better understanding of his character, we stand a better chance of answering WWJD in a way that is consistent with what he was.
Unfortunately, WWJL isn’t as easy to answer as WWJD. WWJL requires that we take the time to serious look at Jesus. And that means serious time with the Gospels. We don’t have the physical presence of Jesus–but we do have the record of significant parts of his life and from that record, we can develop a picture of what Jesus was like. And once we have a better sense of WWJL, it becomes easier to answer WWJD. It also becomes less likely that we will be tempted to baptize our desires–the more we learn what Jesus was like, the more we discover that we have a long way to go in our spiritual development.
May the peace of God be with you.