WWJD bracelets may not be all the rage anymore, but that doesn’t mean that the principle has not lived on. “What Would Jesus Do” remains a reflex for many evangelicals facing everything from daily decisions to ethical dilemmas.
The question assumes one key thing: that whatever it is Jesus would do in our situation is what we ought to do as well. But is this actually true?
Probably not, because we aren’t, in fact, Jesus. To simply try to imitate Jesus’s actions doesn’t work that well.
Many (most) of us are not called to martyrdom. Many (most) of us are not called to wander a land on foot, proclaiming the kingdom to our band of followers. Even Jesus himself told his disciples that when they appeared before authorities, the Holy Spirit would give them the words to say (Luke 12:11-12), when he himself said little to nothing before his own tribunal.
Put simply, we are called to different things and different lives than Jesus was. We cannot, then, live our lives fully by simply using Jesus’s life as a blueprint. Yet, when we ask what Jesus would do, we sometimes smuggle in this idea – that all we have to do is work out exactly what he would do and the situation will resolve.
We need to shift the question. The question is not “what would Jesus do” but “how can I be Christ-like in this situation?” Those are two different questions. The former assumes a copycat Christianity, one that takes its founder and assumes that the only way to live out the Christian life is to duplicate his life as closely as possible.
The second question recognizes that we live in a different time and a different context. Our lives are different from Jesus’s (by God’s design). As such, we must do the hard work of contemplating and reflecting upon Jesus in order to understand how we can image him to the world around us.
In this way, the imitation of Christ finds its fullness. Imitating Christ is not about establishing straightforward one-to-one correlations between his life and ours. Rather, it’s a process of understanding his place and our own in salvation history, recognizing what Jesus’s life shows and teaches us. Sometimes that will manifest in very similar actions to Jesus. Often, however, putting on Christ’s character may well look quite different from Jesus’s life because of our unique and different vocation.
The way we think about these things matters. We want to imitate Christ’s character, not his actions. As such, we need to move away from a simplistic “what would Jesus do” to recognizing who God calls us to be in light of his Spirit’s work of making us more like Jesus.