What Would Jesus Do?
In the 1980’s W.W.J.D. was a thing! Christians and non-Christians alike bought the paraphernalia; everything from bracelets, ball caps, and T-shirts. But only the committed put the “What Would Jesus Do” bumper sticker next to their “Honk if You Love Jesus” sticker!
I still remember the day I peeled the W.W.J.D. sticker from the rear window of my Minivan. It was the Christmas season of 1987. I was making a mad–dash on Christmas Eve to do some last–minute shopping. Traffic was bumper–to–bumper. The mall parking lot was covered with snow. Red tail lights, from the caravan of cars searching for a place to park, reflected on the slushy white surface. It was my third pass through the parking lot when I spotted an open space on the front row. In the corner of my eye, I saw another car heading for the open spot. The race was on! A proud smirk of victory covered on my face as I pulled into the space, a full two links before my competition. When I stepped out of my van an elderly, grey–haired lady drove past; she slowly rolled down her window and said, “I don’t think that’s what Jesus would do!” My smirk of victory turned into a frown of shame. The lady was right. As she drove off his words echoed in my ear:
“When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place.”
What would Jesus do is a great question to ask before making decisions. I wish I had asked it of myself before I raced the older—and more distinguished lady—to the parking space of honor.
What Would Jesus Do, is a question made popular by Charles Sheldon’s book, In His Steps. First written in 1896, the book has sold more than 50,000,000 copies and ranks as one of the best–selling Christian books of all time. It was a “pop classic” in the 1980’s and inspired the W.W.J.D. craze.
There is no doubt, Sheldon’s question strikes at the core of Christian discipleship; but here lately I’ve been wondering, are there other questions that will lead me deeper into the heart of Christ? Or to ask it another way, how does a disciple of Jesus move beyond imitating Jesus, to letting the character of Christ be formed in his or her heart? In my quest to follow Jesus, I have discovered two nuances of the W.W.J.D. question that call for a more personal and contextual response.
How Would Jesus Live My Life if He Were I?
Dallas Willard takes the W.W.J.D. question to a whole new level by asking a similar question, with a more personal twist. In his book, The Divine Conspiracy, Willard challenges the disciple of Jesus to ask her or himself, “How would Jesus live my life if he were I?” This nuance will move the conversation from situational ethics—searching for the moral high ground when faced with an ethical dilemma—to a personal encounter with the living Christ; learning how to live and move and have your being, in the same manner in which Jesus lived and moved and had his being.
According to Willard, “a disciple, or apprentice, is simply someone who has decided to be with another person, under appropriate conditions, in order to become capable of doing what that person does or to become what that person is.” Hence, a disciple of Jesus, signs on to spend time with Jesus—through grace and choice, through study and reflection on the Gospel narratives, through taking seriously what Jesus said and how he lived, and through the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the disciple—in order to learn how to do what Jesus did and to become what Jesus is. Simply put, the goal of Christian discipleship is to develop Christlike character and Christlike competency. Mike Breen, the founder of 3DM, says it like this: “At the end of the day, we can probably boil being a disciple down to two things: Character and Competency. We want the character that Jesus has and we want to be able to do the things that Jesus could do (competency). Discipleship is learning, over the course of our lives, to become people who have both.” The reason Jesus invites people to follow him is rooted in his desire to help people live their best lives and become their true, authentic self—the self, God created them to be.
Jesus knew how to live a truly authentic human life. He knew how to live his life—step by step, breath by breath—in the kingdom of God, and he knew how to apply that kingdom for the good of others. Furthermore, he knew how to make a way for others to experience the kingdom for themselves. This was his mission and his passion; it’s what he was good at! Therefore, the invitation to follow Jesus, is an invitation to learn how to live in the kingdom of God, here and now, in a way that is authentic to who you are. Instead of learning how to do everything Jesus did with his life, disciples of Jesus are challenged to do everything they do in the same manner Jesus did all that he did. The goal of Christian discipleship is to learn from Jesus how to live your life in the kingdom of God; or to say it another way, to do what you do in the manner Jesus would do it if he were you.
The question, “How would Jesus live my life if he were I?” takes into account my real–life experience, including my biological make–up and my history? We can ask the same question in a dozen different ways: How would Jesus live my life if he had my DNA? My mind? My heart? My emotions? How would he live my life if he had my talents and my limitations? My passions, interests, and dreams? How would Jesus live my life if he had my family of origin? Mary and Joseph were rock star parents. They played a big role in the formation of Jesus’s character; but what if Jesus had my parents? How would Jesus live my life if he lived through the formative experiences I had, or endured the traumatic experiences I endured? What if Jesus worked where I work and reported to my boss? How would he do my job? What would he pursue as a vocational calling if he were I? How would Jesus live my life if he were married to my spouse and given the responsibility of raising my children?
These questions demand personal responses that are worked out in conversation with the living Christ. When taken seriously and pursued diligently, they will help you discover your true self. Over time you will learn to operate in the kingdom of God in ways unpretentious and authentic. Your character will begin to reflect the character of Christ and you will cultivate the competency to leverage the kingdom of God, not only for yourself, but also for the good of others.
What Would Jesus Do if He Lived in My Neighborhood?
Yes, Christian discipleship must be personal, but it cannot be private. Following Jesus—learning how to do what Jesus would do if he were I—includes caring about my community in the same manner Jesus cared for his. Asking, “What would Jesus do if he lived in my neighborhood?” offers yet another layer to the W.W.J.D. question; one that leads the disciple into conversations about incarnation, mission, and context.
Jesus, as God incarnate, was sent on mission to a specific place and culture, during a specific time in history, for a specific purpose. Even though our world, and the diversity of cultures that flavor our planet today, are far removed from the Jewish culture of first century Judea, the missional purpose of Jesus remains the same. His mission--to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, relief for the oppressed, recovery of sight for the blind, and to set in motion the kingdom of heaven of earth--is as relevant today as it was when he commissioned his first disciples. The challenge for the twenty–first century disciple is to advance the mission of Jesus incarnationally, in ways that are relatable to the context they find themselves in.
Contextualizing the Christian gospel in ways that are relatable to the culture, and yet congruent with the ways of Jesus, is not a simple assignment. Two things must inform our efforts at living on mission with Jesus. First, we must pay close attention to the things Jesus said, taking them to heart and making every effort to put his words into practice. Second, we must take note of the way Jesus was with people, observing what he valued and how he lived in community, and then adopting his way of being in community as our own. Henri Nouwen observed the way of Jesus and concluded his way was the way of downward mobility—a way of humility and service, a way that leads to the poor, and ultimately to the cross.
Doing what Jesus would do will lead us down the path of humility and service. Any sign of discrimination or injustice, that would have disturbed Jesus, will disturb us. We will learn to ask the hard questions about inequity in our context and wonder what Jesus would do in response to the inequity. The questions will prompt us to live beyond the walls of our comfort. We will be compelled to pray for a more just society and we will seek ways to become the answer to our prayers.
Asking “How would Jesus live my life if he were I?” and, “What would Jesus do if he lived in my neighborhood?” will fan the flames of spiritual formation. They turn up the heat on two fronts: personal piety and social holiness. When taken seriously, they move the disciple beyond imitating Jesus and pave the way for cultivating the character and the competency of Christ.
As helpful as these questions are, there is one problem: They're too long to fit on a bumper sticker!
Willard, Dallas. The Devine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. New York: Harper Collins, 1966.
Breen, Mike. https://vergenetwork.org/2011/09/21/mike-breen-why-the-missional-movement-will-fail-part-2/
Nouwen, Henri J.M. Here and Now: Living in the Spirit. New York: Crossroad, 1994.
Stoess, Larry. Think Red: Imagine Your Community Living and Loving Like Jesus. Oregon, Cascade Books, 2021.
Larry Stoess is an author, public speaker, and urban church planter. He loves telling stories about how dreaming with God will empower people to make old and broken things new again. Larry and a band of friends founded the Church of the Promise in Louisville's Portland neighborhood; The Table, a pay-what-you-can community café; and Promise Housing Plus, a non-profit construction company. He has written about their experience of dreaming with God in his new book: Think Red.