Remember in the 90s when those cloth WWJD bracelets were all the rage? I worked in Christian retail at the time, and we couldn’t keep those little inspirational bacteria magnets in stock. The bracelet was supposed to be a constant reminder to ask yourself “what would Jesus do” before having premarital sex, smoking meth, or putting pineapple on pizza.
The bracelets are long gone, but debates about social issues among Christians still seem to boil down to figuring out what Jesus would do. Would Jesus carry a gun? Would Jesus support capital punishment? Would Jesus support or dismantle Obamacare? Would Jesus boycott the NFL?
Truth be told, WWJD is a pretty stupid question—and not one that should be guiding our personal decisions. Most of the time we’re merely using Jesus as a rhetorical device, but invoking our Jesus hypothesis to win an argument isn’t very compelling—or spiritual.
There’s a particular personality type that sees the Bible as “God’s instruction manual.” These individuals need a template. To them, the religious life is prescribed, and they desperately want a script. Otherwise, what does it mean to be a Christian? If we can’t get all our answers from the Bible, our whole faith is subjective.
But this mindset is just a new version of the Law—a dumber version. Instead of having our spiritual life spelled out for us, we have to extrapolate all of our decisions based on what we know about a three-year period of ministry from an itinerant preacher in Judea over 2,000 years ago. It’s just as subjective without the benefit of being honest with ourselves.
We don’t have a record of everything Jesus did. John tells us that “there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (Jn. 21:25) If it was God’s intention that we were to try and copy Jesus’ behavior, why wouldn’t he include more of these stories?
How am I supposed to copy the behavior of a guy who sometimes heals others with a word (Jn. 5:8), sometimes spits in the dirt and rubs it in people eyes (Jn. 9:6), and sometimes denies them multiple times before eventually conceding (Mt. 15:21–28)?
The more you read the gospels, the more you realize that the answer to “what would Jesus do” is: whatever the situation calls for.
Living faith, breathing spirituality
Scripture isn’t God’s instruction manual. We’re not empowered with the Spirit so that we can live a life imaging what Jesus would do in our world based on a limited look at his behavior in an ancient culture. The truth is that Jesus is doing something in our world right now, and the Spirit enables us to see what it is. The Bible imparts an understanding of the ways of Jesus, but not his static behavior.
The spiritual person lives and breathes God’s presence so that they’re equipped to respond in the wisdom of the Spirit in any environment and circumstance. Am I falling down the slippery slope of situational ethics? Perhaps. But we live in a complex world and trying to devise an exacting formula that works in every situation at all time is not Christian spirituality. Spiritual living demands that we’re not hemmed in by limits, but open to possibilities. The Spirit is always moving and it’s our job to recognize and follow her.
Should a Christian baker make a wedding cake for a gay couple? If you’re trying answer that question based on your understanding of what Jesus did in the gospels, you’re wasting your time. In fact, even if there was a story in Mark’s gospel where Jesus refused to bake a wedding cake of a couple of Judean lesbians, that wouldn’t have a lot of impact on my personal decision. Because the question I’m trying to answer is, “In light of Christ in my life, how should I respond?”
My spiritual life isn’t about copying Jesus’ decisions from another culture in another era. It’s about following the Spirit, loving God with my whole being, and loving others as myself. That way I’m not running the risk of turning people away from being reconciled with God because of how I imagine Jesus would respond. In the end, it’s all kind of a guess, and I’d rather apologize to God for trying to discern the movement of the Spirit and loving too liberally than trying to anticipate what God would do and love too frugally.