Some people object to even asking the question “What Would Jesus Do?”, for various interrelated reasons. Charles Sheldon didn’t ignore these objections. In fact, he gave voice to a lot of them through his characters, all of whom express reservations, not just at the start, but throughout the novel, as they struggle to ask and answer this question in a consistent and honest way.
Here are five common objections to the question “What Would Jesus Do?”:
1. It’s impossible to answer definitively and without bias.
We don’t know what Jesus would do, and it’s as simple as that; any answer would just be our best guess, based, most likely, on our own preferences and beliefs, which color our interpretation of the Scriptures and of the character of Jesus. It’s presumptuous and arrogant, and it’s bad theology, to assume that your decided course of action is exactly the course that Jesus would take under your given circumstances.
In chapter 2 of In His Steps, singer Rachel Winslow admits to Pastor Maxwell, “I am a little in doubt as to the source of our knowledge concerning what Jesus would do. Who is to decide for me just what He would do in my case? It is a different age. There are many perplexing questions in our civilization that are not mentioned in the teachings of Jesus. How am I going to tell what He would do?” Pastor Maxwell responds by quoting John 16:13-15: “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.” In other words, the only way to arrive at an accurate answer is to listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, our “Counselor” and guide.
There is a huge emphasis in the novel on personal conscience and individual discernment of right and wrong. You are not to decide Jesus’ conduct for anyone else, Pastor Maxwell preaches, but only for yourself. Rachel Winslow, for example, decides to turn down an offer to join an opera company so that she can devote her time and talents full time to the church; this, she feels, is what Jesus would do. Her mother asks, “Do you presume to sit in judgment on other people who go out to sing in this way? Do you presume to say that they are doing what Christ would not do?” To which she responds, “Mother, I wish you to understand me. I judge no one else; I condemn no other professional singer. I simply decide my own course. As I look at it, I have a conviction that Jesus would do something else.” Other characters, too, make decisions that sometimes even their Christian friends disagree with, but their pastor leaves it up to their own judgment—so long as their decision honors the general moral principles established by Jesus in the New Testament, and so long as they are “fully convinced in their own mind” of its rightness (Romans 14).
Some would argue that this test is too open and subjective. How do you know, for example, that the moral conviction you’re feeling is put there by the Holy Spirit, versus was put there by a parent or a pastor or a society? And if you don’t feel any conviction about a certain action or behavior, does that automatically mean that God approves, or only that you’re subconsciously suppressing his counsel?
James Forbes Jr., senior minister emeritus of The Riverside Church in New York City, said in the 2007 documentary Beyond Theology that it’s important to ask the question “What Would Jesus Do?” in community, “because that protects Jesus against my projecting my wishes and using him as a kind of stamp of approval on what I’ve already decided.” Personal convictions are good to have, but those convictions should be subjected to the input of other Christians whom we admire and respect.
When the characters in the novel ask the question, it always leads them out of their comfort zones and into places and positions that are new, inconvenient, and risky. They do not use the question, as some do, to satisfy their current views or lifestyle; they use it to open up their minds, and to challenge their lifestyles. One quiet, reserved character, for example, who decides that Jesus would be more involved in city politics, admits, “I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon any time than do this. I dread it because I hate the touch of the whole matter. I would give almost any thing to be able to say, ‘I do not believe Jesus would do anything of the sort.’ But I am more and more persuaded that He would.”
Still, some say the question is not fitly phrased, because it resists conclusive answers. In an effort to establish a more objective standard of conduct, some Christians have suggested the slogan “Do What Jesus Did” as a better alternative. But this phrase is even more problematic than the one it’s aiming to improve on (see #2).
2. It’s oftentimes impossible to enact the answer.
Even if we could determine an answer with any surety, that answer would oftentimes be beyond our ability to enact. We cannot always do what Jesus would do, nor should we, in some cases, because we are not God. For example, we are not authorized to judge people, as Jesus did, because we cannot see into their hearts. We also cannot perform the types of miracles that Jesus did. Furthermore, we need to remember that Jesus’ motives were always 100 percent pure, so whenever he acted on his anger, whether through a violent physical display or merely through harsh words, he was perfectly justified in doing so, whereas our motives are often tainted by self-righteousness, bitterness, self-interest, or thirst for revenge, which would render our actions impure. Moral perfection is an admirable goal, but it’s one that we can never achieve in this lifetime.
Peter Gnomes, former minister of Harvard’s Memorial Church, said that he modified WWJD to “What would Jesus have me do?”—in my circumstances, with my limitations? This, he said, is the more dangerous question. In The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, Gnomes wrote, “The onus is not on Jesus, but on us; for Jesus did not come to ask semi-divine people to do impossible things. He came to ask human beings to live up to their full humanity. He wants us to live in the full implication of our human gifts, and that is far more demanding.” Gnomes said that Jesus should be a source of inspiration for us but not necessarily a model of conduct, because as the Son of God, he possessed certain prerogatives and powers that we don’t, so it’s not always as simple as looking at the Gospels and copying the behavior we see there.
I think that “WWJD” already assumes our human limitations. The point is not to do exactly what Jesus did in the exact same way he did it; the idea is to live in the spirit of what he taught, to follow the basic moral principles he established, to advocate for and support those people whom he advocated for and supported throughout his ministry. We may not have the power to heal people with a touch of our hand, but we do oftentimes have the power to help pay a struggling family’s medical bills, or to help make clean drinking water a reality in other countries, or just to care for a sick friend, or change bed pans at a nursing home once a week. Jesus was passionate about meeting people’s physical needs, and we should be too. This is just one example.
3. It’s too reductionistic.
Some people argue that the question “What Would Jesus Do?” ignores the moral complexity of many situations, and wrongly suggests that there is only one right answer, and that it’s quite simple to arrive at. Sometimes, yes, the answer will be obvious—buckle your seatbelt, don’t cheat on your taxes, respect your elders—but other times, you’ll run into a dilemma, which means that you’re faced with two or more equally undesirable or morally ambiguous options. Ruling bodies face dilemmas all the time, when deciding whether to raise taxes, for example, or whether to enter a war. Individuals face them, too, and they have to weigh the pros and cons of each option. There’s almost always someone who will end up hurt or disappointed. So no matter what some Christians may say, morality is not always black and white; values are bound to conflict.
The bloggers at The Daily Hated suggest, tongue-in-cheek, that “What Would Jesus Do?” be replaced with the less-catchy but more-accurate slogan “How Might Jesus Theoretically Have Addressed The Ambiguous Moral Complexity Of The Situation At Hand And What Lessons Can I Draw From That That Would Benefit All Involved And Achieve At Least A Slightly Better Outcome Than Merely Taking My Own Self-Interest Into Account, Knowing Full Well That No Situation Can Be Perfectly Resolved, That No Two Situations Are Alike, And That I Am Not, In Fact, The Messiah?”
. . . That would certainly not be as marketable.
In Sheldon’s novel, Donald Marsh, the president of Lincoln College, raises the point that what one Christian thinks Jesus would do, another might refuse to accept as His probable course of action. “What is to render our conduct uniformly Christ-like?” he asks. “Will it be possible to reach the same conclusions always in all cases?” Pastor Maxwell concedes that no, two Christians in the same situation might answer the question differently, but if they earnestly seek and respond to the guidance of the Spirit, God will bless their decision.
Another character, Virginia Page, comes to realize that “there could be no one fixed Christian way of using money,” as long as your spending is regulated by the rule of unselfish utility. (She chooses to use her money to finance a Christian newspaper and a mission station.)
Throughout Sheldon’s novel, moral quandaries abound, and the solutions are never cut-and-dry. Whenever the people of Raymond ask themselves “What would Jesus do?”, it initiates an arduous inner process of reflection and analysis. “WWJD isn’t about pat answers,” said Janie Tinklenberg, a youth leader at Calvary Reformed Church who helped promote the bracelets by word of mouth back in the early ’90s. “It’s about struggling with faith, trying to figure it out. The meaning is in the struggle.”
4. It’s irrelevant.
What would Jesus do if he were a gay high school student? What would Jesus do if he were a female victim of domestic violence? What would Jesus do if he had a disabled child, or was disabled himself?
The historical Jesus belonged to a particular time, place, gender, race, profession, and parentage, all of which defined and confined his experiences. How can we separate him from that context? He was a Jewish man living in first-century Palestine. He never had a wife or children—he never even dated. He never owned property. He never ran for political office or worked in a company or managed funds. He never went to a movie or a concert or a dance. He never had to ask himself, “What should I drive?”, or “What should I eat?”, or “What should I clone?”, or “Who should I vote for?” And he never lived past the age of thirty-three.
However, I would venture to say that the issues Jesus encountered and the temptations he faced are not all that different from the ones that are around today. I take comfort in the fact that Jesus was “tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15, emphasis added). Has the human experience changed all that much from ancient to modern times? Don’t you know that people back then struggled with the same dreams and lusts and doubts? Jesus knew frustration and anger and betrayal and abandonment. He had experienced hunger and pain. The devil tempted him with thoughts of power. He was surrounded by beautiful women. He was wronged much more than once. He lived under an oppressive government. He was mocked and tortured and falsely accused. Yet his moral principles stayed firmly in place.
Jesus may not have encountered the specific situation you’re in, but his principles still apply. His creed was, is, and always will be love: of God, and of man. He consistently acted in such a way as to preserve human life and dignity. And he poured himself out—everywhere, and always; he put others’ needs above his own. I’d say that leaves us with a pretty good guide.
5. It’s impractical.
In 1918 article published in The Independent, Sheldon wrote that he knows of a “very curious [and popular] attitude” that posits that the WWJD question “is so ideal that it cannot be made to work in the everyday affairs of men. In other words, it is not practical. It is all right for prayer meeting but will not do for the market place or the legislature.” Sheldon says that the people who raise this objection are just “contemptuous whiners” who are too afraid of what they might lose if they were to honestly ask and honestly answer the question.
Of all five objections, though, this is one that I get stuck on. Because businesses need to make a profit. And it’s hard to do that without putting the needs of your business first. Countries, too, naturally look out for their own interests first; presidents naturally want to protect their own people—not sacrifice their nation’s welfare for the sake of another. Those who know me know that I’m much more idealist than cynic. But Jesus’ kingdom vision—of a world in which everyone and everything flourishes, and none at the expense of another—will be realized only when every man turns in repentance to Jesus. We need new hearts before we can go about building a new society based not on power or wealth or competition but on humility, giving, and cooperation.
In His Steps character Milton Wright believes wholeheartedly that he can revolutionize the way business is done by building his business on Christian principles. He tells his pastor that he is going to start caring more about people than profit, to which the pastor responds, “How about your relations to the selfish world that is not trying to make money on Christian principles?” An honest question.
Clark, managing editor at the Daily News, responds to editor-in-chief Ed Norman’s new plan in a similar way: “I suppose if you put it on the ground of what men ought to do there is no other standard of conduct. But the question is, What is feasible? Is it possible to make it pay? To succeed in the newspaper business we have got to conform to custom and the recognized methods of society. We can’t do as we would in an ideal world.”
I do think that things turn out a little too conveniently for the newspaper man. (I also disagree with how he answers WWJD, but in the spirit of Sheldon’s novel, I won’t judge.) He turns the town paper into a “Christian newspaper”—he hires more Christians to the staff so that they can write from a Christian perspective; he publishes only stories that people “ought to know” instead of want-to-know (nothing trivial, like game results, details of crimes or scandals, etc.), and with a moralistic slant; and he stops printing a Sunday edition, so as to honor the Sabbath. (I wonder what Monday’s paper would look like, if no reporters were working on Sunday?) Having graduated from university with a journalism degree, I know that this model would never work. It would quickly lose its status and its audience. Conflict is the number one news value, and news that is two days old isn’t news. But rather than lose money, this fictional newspaper thrives, bringing in more money than ever before. And everyone loves Edward Norman for his moral vision. (Yeah, right.)
There are many professions in which I think it is a moot point to ask “What would Jesus do?”, because I think that first of all he wouldn’t have chosen that profession. So many industries are based on satiating the base appetites of man. When it comes to media, sex and blood will always sell best. Newspapers, movie producers, advertising execs—they can’t ignore this demand.
All this is not to say that WWJD can’t be asked in the workplace. It certainly can. When one of the book’s characters, Alexander Powers, finds out that his company has been in violation of a commerce law and hiding it, he makes the difficult decision to expose the scandal, which lands him fired, and turns his wife against him. But he acted in the name of truth and justice; he called out an unjust abuse of power, which is what Jesus did. This is an extreme example. For other characters, it drives them to seek more input from their employees and to be more attentive to their needs. One man decides to start bringing coffee to work in the morning for everyone. The doctor decides to provide pro bono medical services one day a week. One person makes it a point to talk more meaningfully with his coworkers, rather than just in a superficial “howdy-do, what-about-this-weather?” sort of way.
By and large, I’m in support of asking “What would Jesus do?” I think that a lot of the objections arise from our unwillingness to sacrifice our ease, our comfort, or our reputations.
In the book, Madam Page says that the question is impracticable, visionary, absurd, and indeed impossible in the modern day. To which Virginia responds, rather insightfully, “Do you mean, grandmother, that we cannot possibly act as our Lord would? Or do you mean that, if we try to, we shall offend the customs and prejudices of society?”
I think that the Gospels give us a round-enough picture of the character of Jesus to enable us to approximate how he might act if he were in any given situation. Whether you’re asking “What would Jesus have me do?” or “What did Jesus do?” or “What would Jesus theoretically have done if . . . blah, blah, blah . . .?”, the point is the same, and that point is that the question will lead you to get to know Jesus better, through the Scriptures and prayer and community and other means, so that you will be better able to discern what he stood for and what motivated him. As Pastor Maxwell tells his fellow pledge-takers,
“I am beginning to understand that I cannot interpret the probably action of Jesus until I better know what His spirit is. The greatest question in all of human life is summed up when we ask, ‘What would Jesus do?’ if, as we ask it, we also try to answer it from a growth in knowledge of Jesus himself. We must know Jesus before we can imitate Him.”
Once you come to see and really understand who Jesus is, then you can adopt his values as your own and practice them in your daily life, and in doing so set the wheels of change in motion for your home, your city, your world.