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?”