“What Would Jesus Do?” has become a popular catchphrase in Christian circles. The acronym WWJD can be found on bracelets, t-shirts, coffee mugs, etc. in Christian bookstores everywhere. Few Christians today, however, know the origin of WWJD.
Rev. Charles Sheldon was a Congregationalist minister in Topeka, Kansas in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He was also a leader in what was known as the Social Gospel movement. This movement attempted to apply Christian ethics to social problems such as poverty, economic inequality, crime, racism, child labor, poor schools, and the threat of global war.
In 1886, Sheldon preached a series of Sunday-night sermons in which the sermons were centered around fictional characters who experienced various moral dilemmas. One week Sheldon would introduce a character, describe the moral dilemma the character faced, and close the sermon by asking, “What would Jesus do?” The following week he would provide what he believed to be the scriptural answer to the question.
These sermons were very well attended and received, and Sheldon later used the material as the basis for a serial in the Chicago Advance, a weekly religious paper. This led to him compiling the material into a book: In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? The Chicago Advance printed the book in a ten-cent paperback edition that sold 100,000 copies in just a few weeks.
Unfortunately for Sheldon’s bank account, the folks at the Chicago Advance bungled the job of copywriting the material. That mistake caused the material to become labeled as “public domain.” This labeling meant that no one had legal rights to the material, a classification that allowed publishers around the world to print and sell the book without paying royalty fees to Sheldon.
In an odd twist, though, the Advance’s mistake caused Sheldon’s book to be published by more publishers than usual and sold at a cheaper price than usual. This produced immensely larger sales for the book. As of today, In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? is one of the best-selling books of all time, having sold approximately 50 million copies worldwide. What Sheldon lost in royalties he certainly made up for in readership and influence.
But now let’s get to the purpose for this post. Is asking the question, “What would Jesus do?” a good way for Christians to address the multitude of problems, choices, and moral dilemmas that life throws at us? My answer is that, generally speaking, it is. This answer, however, comes with a couple of very important codicils.
Codicil #1: Jesus sometimes did things that we just can’t do. When Jesus was confronted with Lazarus’ death and the intense mourning the sisters Mary and Martha were experiencing, He raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44). That’s not something that I can do. Therefore, I must come up with another approach for funerals and times of mourning.
When Jesus was criticized for not paying the tax that went to support the Jewish temple, he instructed Peter to go fishing and catch a fish that would have a coin in its mouth (Matthew 17:24-27). I wouldn’t advise you to try that the next time you have a financial need. I’ve caught quite a few fish in my life, but none of them came with any money.
When Jesus was confronted by a wild man who had a large group of demons living inside him, He cast out those demons and in so doing restored the man’s quality of life (Mark 5:1-20). Here again, that course of action is above my pay grade. If I ever meet a deranged, demon-possessed person, my best move might not be to attempt to perform an exorcism.
When Jesus was faced on two separate occasions with needing to feed massive crowds — 5,000 men (Mark 6:30-44) and 4,000 men (Mark 8:1-9) respectively — He accomplished each task by miraculously multiplying small amounts of food. In the end, there were even plenty of leftovers. Needless to say, this move isn’t part of my repertoire.
Codicil #2: Jesus wasn’t always consistent in how He handled situations. There were times when Jesus’ actions showed illogical love, mercy, and compassion. Examples would be when He refused to condemn the woman who had been caught committing adultery (John 8:1-11), when He purposely touched a leper (Matthew 8:1-4), and when He invited Himself for a stay at the home of Zacchaeus, the notorious chief tax collector (Luke 19:1-10). These stories, as well as others like them, give us the non-judgmental, tolerant Jesus the world praises.
In the other camp, however, are the times when Jesus flashed righteous indignation and spoke coldly. Examples would be when He looked at the Pharisees with anger because they cared more about their Sabbath rules than about a man with a withered hand (Mark 3:1-6), when He twice overturned the tables in the Temple and ran the money changers out of there (John 2:13-22; Matthew 21:12-13), and when He said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:21-23). I assure you that the characters on the wrong side of these stories didn’t feel much love, mercy, and compassion coming from Jesus at those particular moments.
Similarly, Jesus said that we should love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). Okay, got that. But how much love can be heard when He calls Herod Antipas a “fox” (Luke 13:32) and when He call the scribes and Pharisees: “hypocrites” (Matthew 23:13-30), “blind guides” (Matthew 23:16), “serpents” (Matthew 23:33), and a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 23:33)?
Let’s keep going. When Jesus stood before the Roman ruler Pontius Pilate, He engaged in a conversation with Pilate (John 18:28-38). Contrast this with Jesus standing before the Roman ruler Herod Antipas. Despite the fact that Herod had wanted to meet Jesus for a long time and asked Him many questions, Jesus wouldn’t say one word to him (Luke 23:6-12).
When Jesus first sent the chosen 12 out to preach the gospel, He told them to only preach to Jewish people (Matthew 10:5-6). Later on, of course, He instructed His followers to go preach to the whole world (Matthew 28:16-20). Obviously He had His reasons for giving both sets of instructions. I’m simply pointing out that Jesus gave different instructions for different times.
And here’s one last example. For that first ministry trip, Jesus told the chosen 12 that if a house or a city wouldn’t receive them, they should shake the dust off their feet and move on down the road (Matthew 10:14-15). In other words, each house and city got one shot to receive the message. In regards to His hometown of Nazareth, however, Jesus gave that city a second chance (Mark 6:1-6) to embrace Him as Messiah after they had rejected Him the first time by trying to kill Him (Luke 4:16-30). Go figure.
Summing everything up, I would say that asking the question, “What would Jesus do?” works great to get the discernment process started. After all, Jesus really should be our role model, and the more our lives look like His, the better off we will be. As I’ve pointed out, though, the question will always be somewhat limited in that Jesus sometimes did things that we just can’t do, and even He Himself wasn’t always consistent in how He handled situations.
The fact is that Jesus is a complex Savior, and if you look hard enough in the gospels you can find Him doing just about anything that suits what you want to do. Surely, then, the better question to ask is not, “What would Jesus do?” but, “What does Jesus want me to do in this specific situation?” You see, once you start asking that question in full sincerity, with no slanted bias toward any particular answer, Jesus can provide you with the answer that best suits your situation. Of course, what you do with that answer will always be up to you.