The Bible calls early Christians “people of the Way.” I’ve always loved that because it forces me to think about the ways of Jesus. It is such a cliché to ask, “What would Jesus do?” but that doesn’t make the question any less important. When questions arise we all have quick, and often firm, opinions, but wisdom requires us to leave room for the possibility that we might be wrong, and faith requires us to be open to the possibility that Jesus’ way might be different from ours.

In 1896, Charles Sheldon wrote a book entitled In His Steps, which was subtitled “What Would Jesus Do?” Sheldon’s novel grew out of a series of sermons he delivered in his Congregationalist church in Topeka, Kansas. Sheldon’s approach to the Christian life was expressed in the phrase “What Would Jesus Do,” with Jesus being a moral example as well as a Savior.

In the popular book—it had been translated into 21 languages by 1935—Rev. Henry Maxwell encounters a homeless man who challenges him to take seriously the imitation of Christ. The homeless man has difficulty understanding why, in his view, so many Christians ignore the poor:

I heard some people singing at a church prayer meeting the other night, “All for Jesus, all for Jesus, All my days, and all my hours” and I kept wondering as I sat on the steps outside just what they meant by it. 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 leads to many of the novel’s characters asking, “What would Jesus do?” when faced with decisions of some importance. This has the effect of making the characters embrace Christianity more seriously and to focus on what they see as its core: the Way of Jesus. What would it take to persuade us to do the same?

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