In the 1990s and early 2000s, a popular trend emerged within Christian culture. It was the “WWJD“ trend – which stood for “what would Jesus do?” Teenagers wore bracelets with the letters WWJD sewn in them to signify that the person wearing the bracelet was to be reminded to act in a way that Jesus acted.
While the WWJD movement probably had its roots in pure motives, it’s come to embody the most prevalent issue dragging down the Christian church in western culture today.
At its core, WWJD is a mindset that says that our actions should line up with Jesus‘s actions. And while that seems like a harmless and honest pursuit, at the end of the day it’s no different at all than doing what the Apostle Paul referred to as “living by the law” which, according to him, leads to a mindset of slavery and death.
If Jesus was the perfect embodiment of God’s Law, then to ask ourselves “what would Jesus do“ is to essentially say to ourselves, “how am I doing living up to God’s perfect law or how am I failing to live up to that level of perfection?” It’s a rule of measurement that will always leave us either prideful because we think we hit the mark or ashamed because we couldn’t hit the mark.
This isn’t a new practice. In ancient Israel, certain people wore items around their arms – much like bracelets today – called “phylacteries” that reminded them of God’s Law. Phylacteries are small boxes containing portions of Scripture that certain Jews wore around their arm and around their forehead so they would always be reminded of God’s perfect standard.
Jesus was once warning his disciples about the deceit of the religious leaders of his time, and he said, “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide (AKA their “Bible bracelets”)…” (Matthew 23:5) That warning was for Christians to watch out for pride that comes from trying to chase perfection in order to feel better about themselves. When we do that, we’ll always end up ashamed that we didn’t hit the mark of the reminder that’s tied around us.
The purpose of God’s law was to show people God’s way of doing life, which, if approached with humility, was supposed to cause people to realize they could never be good enough on their own which should have led them to letting go and putting faith in God. But, of course, people twisted it then like some still do today.
Not only does the WWJD mentality cause us to trust in our own self-righteousness, but it also leads us away from having a relationship with Jesus. To ask “what would“ a person do is a very distant and impersonal question to ask. Asking such a question implies that we’re not close to the person we’re asking about. But Jesus said for Christians to abide in him, or to dwell with him, not to just try to be like him.
Jesus never said for Christians to try to be as good as him. Instead, he said they would do greater things than him because he knew the goal was to be in a relationship with him – not to try to outdo him. So the point was never to try to be exactly what Jesus was but instead to embody him through a close personal relationship with him.
Imagine a man standing at a restaurant waiting to order food with his wife. Just as his wife is getting ready to order, he stops her and says, “hmm, what would my wife order?” His wife, a little confused, looks at him and says. “I’m right here. I can tell you what I want.” But the man says, “No, no; let me think about what my wife would want in this situation.” His wife, even more frustrated, says, “I’m right beside you! I can tell you myself if you’ll just listen.”
In that context, can you see how absurd the idea of “what would Jesus do“ is? It’s taking all the relationship and back-and-forth out of the equation and attempting to put things in our control while using Jesus as a tool rather than a friend.
The truth is, there are a lot of situations where there isn’t a clear answer. Jesus did different things depending on the circumstances. There were times when people said negative or derogatory things to Jesus and he let it go entirely. But when his close friend Peter said something negative to him, Jesus called him the devil. Different circumstances called for different approaches.
We were created to interact with God by living in a relationship with Him where we’re constantly listening to Him, talking to Him, and letting our actions follow the direction our hearts naturally go when we’re in a relationship like that with God. All the while we know that when we don’t live up to the standard of perfection, He’s right there to guide us through without any shame. That’s much, much better than “what would Jesus do”.
So next time you’re tempted to ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?”, direct the question to Jesus himself and go on the journey with him. Because that journey is a much more worthwhile pursuit.