I wear a bracelet on my wrist with four letters: WWJD—What Would Jesus Do? This saying has become a guiding principle for many Christians. For me it serves as a moral compass, helping me apply abstract elements of my Christian faith to the practical questions I face each day.
The WWJD movement started in 1989 when the youth group at Calvary Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan, studied Charles Sheldon's 1896 novel, In His Steps. In the novel, parishioners preface every thought and action with "What would Jesus do?" and begin to see the difference it makes. Calvary's youth took Sheldon's model to heart and made up colorful woven bracelets to wear as a tangible reminder of that powerful question. Soon people throughout their community were wearing the bracelets, and it mushroomed from there. By the late '90s, the letters wwjd could be found on a multitude of books, T-shirts, and other Christian merchandise. To date, an estimated 14 million bracelets have been sold.
But the message of wwjd should not be taken for granted due to overexposure. As simple as it seems, sometimes the question—What would Jesus do?—still leaves me wondering. Consider these scenarios:
• I'm hustling out the door to church with the family in tow. Pulling out of the garage, I glance in the rearview mirror and see my neighbor across the street. She's working alone to clear her yard of debris from a recent storm. A thought races through my mind: Stop the car. Go back inside, and change your clothes. Skip church today, and prove to your neighbor you love her. What would Jesus do?
• With lots of neighbors coming and going, we've had many opportunities to build strategic kingdom relationships. But for the first time, our new neighbors are two men in a "domestic partnership." We face a quandary: If we take them the same housewarming gift we've always given new neighbors, are we condoning their lifestyle? Or are we being "friends of sinners" (see Matt. 11:19)? What would Jesus do?
• I've been setting aside money for the construction of a new ministry center at our church. We're reaching people for Christ, and the expansion is necessary. But on the day I intend to write my check, I discover that an unemployed friend is in danger of losing his house. What would Jesus do?
First Peter 2:21 says that Jesus left us "an example, that [we] should follow in his steps." So, it's admirable and biblical to ask "What would Jesus do?" in the decisions we face each day.
However, this hypothetical question presupposes we have already answered another equally important, yet less obvious, question: What did Jesus do? If we don't know what Jesus did in his life, how can we expect to guess what he would do in ours? I looked at the four gospels with these questions in mind and discovered seven priorities that guided Jesus:
1. He sought the Father
Jesus demonstrated intimacy with God by seeking him continually in prayer. Forty-five times the gospels tell us that Jesus went alone to pray. Every aspect of his life and ministry was saturated with prayer.
Mark 1 gives us a glimpse of Jesus early in his ministry. His life was swirling with people, needs, and opportunities. Jesus ministered around the clock. Still, he would make time to commune with the Father and concentrate on his purposes. He might sleep less or work less, but he would find time to pray.
2. He embraced the outcasts
Jesus demonstrated the love of God by accepting the castaways of society. This provoked great disdain from the religious establishment. But Jesus was much less squeamish than most about embracing the sinful and sickly, the unseemly and unimportant.
Luke 5 offers a good example. Shortly after accepting Jesus' invitation to follow him, Levi (later known as Matthew) "held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them" (v. 29). On the social-ethical scale of the day, tax collectors landed somewhere between a pimp and something that crawls out from under a rock. An upstanding individual would not associate with them at all. But Jesus not only talked to Levi, he asked the man to become his disciple.
3. He restored broken lives
By the power of God's Spirit, Jesus provided for people's physical and financial needs (Matt. 14:14-21-21, 17:27). He cast out demons (Luke 4:36), healed broken bodies (Luke 5:17), raised the dead (John 11:1-44), and forgave the sins of the guilty (Matt. 9:6). Jesus proved that God's power is sufficient to meet every need. And the Scriptures promise us that the same power works in and through our lives today (Phil. 2:13).
I am by no means a miracle worker. But I do know miraculous things still happen. I remember the day we laid hands on Judy and asked God to free her from the cancer that seemed unshakable. Nine years later, his positive answer to that prayer stands firm. And I'll never forget the time my phone rang with an unsolicited job offer just before I'd planned to file for unemployment benefits. Then there were the doctors who said that Cheryl couldn't have another baby. We prayed, and God's power proved them wrong.
Jesus operated on the assumption that we have a wonder-working God who delights in restoring lives that seem irrevocably shattered. Jesus saw the people around him as miracles waiting to happen.
4. He confronted hypocrisy
Jesus demonstrated the heart of God by standing against lifeless religion. He openly confronted religious hypocrisy (Matt. 23:13-39), inciting great opposition that ultimately led to his execution. Jesus repeatedly rebuked religious people who buried the true heart of God in their manmade traditions (Matt. 19:3-8, Luke 13:10-17). He cleansed the temple because people were using God's house for their own gain (Luke 19:45-46).
I have to be very careful with this principle in my life. Sometimes, when I'm looking for an excuse to be "righteously indignant," it comes in a little too handy. When I want to blow off some steam at another's expense. I fancy myself following in Jesus' steps. In reality, however, my outbursts have usually been more about my anger than God's righteousness.
What would Jesus do? He would go on record against people who act in the name of God to hurt others. He'd stand up against crusaders parading with signs that venomously attack and label others. And he'd speak out against those who profit from the oppressed but who claim their God is full of compassion.
5. He taught God's Word
Whether addressing curious crowds or the committed core, Jesus took advantage of every teachable moment. He was always helping people discover his Father. He lived and spoke the truth, a perfect expression of God's character (John 1:14).
But even though he was the incarnate Word, Jesus often directed people back to the written Word. When a religious expert asked Jesus, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus replied, "What is written in the Law?" (Luke 10:25-26). The rich young ruler asked the same question, and Jesus answered him from the Scriptures as well (Matt. 19:16-21).
Many of us do not consider ourselves teachers. If we don't stand in a pulpit on Sunday or lead a study during the week, we may be tempted to think this aspect of Jesus' life doesn't apply to us. However, that understanding of teaching is too narrow. Jesus taught when he conversed one on one with Nicodemus and when he preached to thousands of people. His life shows us that teaching doesn't demand an outline with three points that begin with the same letter. Teaching simply requires being so filled with God's Word that it naturally overflows from our lives into the lives of those around us.
6. He served
Service marked Jesus' life from start to finish. He served through sacrifice, putting the needs of others above his own. At the last supper, he put on a towel and washed his disciples' feet (John 13:2-17). His life of service culminated at the cross, where the Son of Man died to pay our spiritual debt.
Sometimes I feel I'm so busy doing God's work that I don't have time for people. But God's work is people! His business is helping a homeless couple find shelter before nightfall. His business is praying with a child for her sick kitty and reading the Bible with a new Christian. His business is pushing a stalled car through the intersection and taking that midnight phone call from a struggling friend.
7. He equipped leaders
Finally, Jesus demonstrated God's character by equipping leaders who continued his mission and changed the world after his departure. He refused to let the ministry pressures of today stop him from identifying and investing in the leaders of tomorrow (Matt. 10:1-4).
I meet weekly with three young men. I believe each one has great potential for God's work. For me, following Jesus means passing on the Scriptures to them, modeling a Christ-focused life and ministry, and helping them identify and prepare for the mission God has designed for them.
Beyond the fad
So what would Jesus do? He would seek the Father for the strength and wisdom to embrace, restore, confront, teach, serve, and equip the people around him.
These seven priorities should drive us back to the gospels to take a fresh look at how Jesus lived. The fad phase of WWJD may be over, but we need to hold on to those bracelets and keep asking ourselves—What would Jesus do? It's a great question. But remember: If you're not sure what Jesus actually did in his life, then you're just guessing at what he might do in yours.
Adapted from Discipleship Journal (Nov./Dec. 2000), 2000 Mike Fleischmann. Used by permission. Fleischmann is senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Albany, Oregon.
Copyright 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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