What Would Jesus Do?

As Christians, we talk a lot about the imitation of Christ; Jesus, we are told, provided us not only with teachings, but also with the example of his life to follow. However, I find that putting this into practice is often more difficult than questions along the lines of “what would Jesus do?” might make it appear. Since few people would argue that we are all required to be itinerant miracle-workers and die excruciating deaths, it’s clear that at least to some extent, we have to make judgment calls about just which aspects of Christ’s life we are expected to imitate.

One issue which often comes up in this context is that of suffering. Some Christians have historically interpreted the imitation of Christ as including the practice of physical mortification. On a milder note, I know people who are reluctant to take pain medication because they see it as more virtuous to suffer; Jesus didn’t shrink from drinking the cup, and they’re not going to, either. Given that Jesus suffered, and we believe that this suffering was redemptive, what attitude should we take toward the suffering in our lives and in the world? How can we talk about suffering as potentially having positive effects without thereby undermining efforts to alleviate it?

There’s another “what would Jesus do” question I’ve been wondering about lately. Quite frankly, Jesus at times comes off in the gospels as pretty obnoxious. He calls people names and pulls no punches in denouncing unrighteousness. On numerous occasions I’ve seen scathing condemnations of others made by people who when confronted about it point out that they’re only doing what Jesus did. To be fair, I think they have a point: Jesus tells the Pharisees just what he thinks of them, without any of this politically correct stuff about sensitivity and tolerance.

But my question is: to what extent are we as Christians expected to imitate Jesus’ methods? I see a number of reasons to be wary of any idea that we should precisely mimic them. There are the fairly obvious points that none of us are called to the same life mission that he was, and that none of us can claim the perfect love that motivated him. It’s also worth considering that he acted in a cultural context quite different from our own, and adopting his rhetorical style and tactics wholesale might be as nonsensical as adopting his dress and eating habits.

In translating foreign languages, a common problem is that if you simply render the text word for word into the second language, you often thereby mangle the meaning of the original. I think a similar problem arises if we see the requirement to follow Christ as meaning to simply copy his behavior. I’m continually trying to figure out what it really means to “translate” the imitation of Christ into the specific situation of my own life, to live in a way which reflects his commitments to love and justice. And I don’t think the question, “what would Jesus do?” is always all that helpful in this endeavor. A more useful question, perhaps, is “what would Jesus want me to do?”


  1. I agree that the WWJD should probably be rephrased, but I’m not entirely comfortable with WWJWMTD (What Would Jesus Want Me To Do). That comes a bit too close to the whole mantra of “I’m unique, none of the other answers apply to me, I need my own solution” (as you see with many of the pop churches).

    I love your analogy with translation — after all, you *do* want to capture the meaning, not just the words, but sometimes — it’s the words that *do* need to be captured. In other words, sometimes we need to do what Jesus would do and not worry about whether or not it fits our own individual situation.

    An interesting thought on “obnoxious”, though — is it obnoxious when the behavior is for our benefit? Is it a characterization that depends on where you sit?

  2. Yeah, I can see that concern. (Not to mention that WWJWMTD is just too long to fit on bracelets and so forth. 😉

    By the way, I realized after I posted that this might sound like an argument for privatizing morality (e.g. reducing “right” to “what’s right for me”), which, just to clarify, isn’t at all what I’m trying to say. I think following Jesus is important precisely because I believe in a “right” that goes beyond the individual. What I’m wrestling with is the difficulty of figuring out what that discipleship consists of.

  3. On suffering–Jesus drank the cup because He *had* to; that was part of the Plan from the beginning. We all have suffering we *have* to go through, too, but there is a lot of suffering we *dont* have to go through. I don’t think suffering in general is intrinsically redemptive (though Christ’s suffering specifically is)–if it were, He wouldn’t have healed so many people during His life, and eased their suffering. Then again, how many of those He healed would have come to Him if they *hadn’t* been suffering?
    I’ve started 4 different responses on undermining, and I still can’t work through to one I like. Tougher question to answer than I thought it would be.

    One of the hardest parts I have with discipleship is in not seeing the path. Because I know that if I could see the whole thing, I could do it better. Or, at least with less suffering (to me, anyway). But then I look back, and see the results of some of the places I’ve been, and realize I wouldn’t go back and change it if I could–I’d lose too much of what makes me me. That doesn’t always help in the here and now, though, knowing I might understand in a few years.

    On WWJD, I’m reminded of an editorial-type cartoon I saw years ago, with an Evangelical Christian and a Mormon. Basic dialogue: WWJD? He’d CTR.
    Fits good on rings, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it on a bracelet…
    Of course, in order to choose the right, one must know what the right is, so we’re back at where we started.

  4. I’ve often asked myself, “What would Jesus do?”, only to answer, “He never would have gotten himself into this situation in the first place!”

  5. Zwoelfet1, I agree that the suffering question is a tough one. I feel quite strongly that as Christians we’re called to do what we can to reduce human suffering–and yet I don’t know quite how to square that with the idea that God doesn’t remove our trials because it’s somehow good for us to go through them.

    Anonymous, lol. I think you’ve touched on an important point: if we ask, “what would Jesus do,” we’re not going to come up with things like “apologize” or “ask for forgiveness,” because presumably Jesus would never be in a situation where such things were necessary.

  6. I think there’s more than one way to approach the idea of living as Jesus lived. On a very literal level, I could move to Nazareth and become a carpenter. It seems a little silly because it’s a superficial imitation that ignores the more important actions of Christ’s life, such as healing, loving, teaching, suffering and ultimately dying. (It’s probably worth noting that some very devout Christians have arranged to be scourged or non-lethally crucified in an act of extreme devotion. Mormon church culture doesn’t really tend towards such displays, excepting perhaps for pioneer re-enactments.)

    Moving on from a literal imitation of Christ leads to the (conditional) question “What Would Jesus Do?” This is certainly an improvement, as my attempts to learn, love and teach are probably going to be of more benefit to those around me than an impulsive move to the Middle East. However, there are some thing that Jesus did that I simply can’t do, like heal the sick, and some which only He was called to do, like die for our sins. And as anonymous points out, any wrong step, let alone several, puts us in a situation which He would never have encountered, anyway, leading to philosophical puzzles along the lines of rocks so heavy that God can’t lift them.

    In the end, I have to look at the motivations behind Christ’s actions and say that His life was perfect because He did exactly what the Father wanted, and my life (even though it’s not going to be perfect) might still be good enough if I try to do the same.

    I don’t agree with queuno that What Would Jesus (or God) Want Me To Do necessarily has to lead to reinventing the doctrinal wheel. I can look to centuries of wise teachings, inspired revelation and solid doctrines to paint the basic outline of my life, even if it’s up to me to put in most of the detail. Furthermore, the two scales of reasoning don’t have to be at odds: Praying and worshipping, and not lying, cheating or stealing will put me in a frame of mind to make wise decisions regarding employment or schooling (decisions that are unique to my life, yet still important). From the other direction, improving my mind, body and spirit in ways specific to my situation can improve my happiness and wellbeing such that I can better love God and others, on a general level.

    I’m not arguing that it’s easy to figure out what God would have me do, but I do find it more to the point to focus on the motivation behind Christ’s actions than on the actions themselves, necessarily.

    If I might come back to Lynnette’s metaphor, I don’t know that I’m trying to translate Jesus’ life so much as I’m trying to write my own life in the same style.

  7. Of course, in order to choose the right, one must know what the right is, so we’re back at where we started.

    Good point, Zwoelfet1. I don’t think asking “What Would Jesus Do?” is particularly helpful when you’re trying to puzzle out complicated moral issues (“Is it wicked to lie to the SS to save your Jewish neighbors from the concentration camps?”). I think it can potentially be helpful when you’re trying to gain perspective in an emotionally-confusing situation.

    “My roommate made a really nasty comment that hurt my feelings recently. Should I confront him about it or let it drop?”

    “I’m so crazy about J., but she just isn’t interested. What should I do?”

    In my opinion, the value here lies not solely in finding an appropriate action. You also gain some perspective on the attitude which goes into performing that action. That is, if a person of infinite strength and compassion were confronted with this situation, what would he do? I don’t have infinite strength and compassion but maybe I can fake it until I find it, the same way putting on a smile even when you’re down can improve your mood.



  8. I like Katya’s point about motivation being the crucial factor. Which brings me back to the question queuno asked at the beginning about obnoxiousness. I think that Christ could call people to repentance in a way that might sound obnoxious to the 21st century reader of the text, but which probably wouldn’t count as truly “obnoxious” because we can be assured that his motivation was pure love. However, when we start calling each other to repentance, I think we’re often good at precisely imitating the action, but fail miserably when it comes to reproducing the motivation. In other words, if I called someone a “whited sepluchre,” chances are I’d be acting obonxious. 😉

    Katya said,

    I don’t know that I’m trying to translate Jesus’ life so much as I’m trying to write my own life in the same style.

    Nicely put.

    Anonymous, it sounds like you’re getting at a similar point in asking what a person with infinite strength and compassion would do. I do think that the “WWJD” question can have the positive effect of making you look at something with a different perspective.


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