Tuesday, September 11, 2007

WWJD — Really?

A common acronym used among Christian worshippers is WWJD, which stands for, “What would Jesus do?” As is common with anything Christians consider sacred, this acronym has been wielded as a cynical weapon by critics of religion and it has been mocked by comedians. But even Christians occasionally have fun at their own expense.

One of my favorite stories in this respect tells of a person standing in line behind an older man at a Christian bookstore. Near the register was a display of ball caps with the letters “WWJD” embroidered across the front. The older man was not familiar with the acronym, and asked what it meant. The clerk replied that it meant, “What would Jesus do?” The older fellow seemed thoughtful as he looked at the price tag, and then he said, “Well, I don’t think he’d pay $18.95 for that hat.”

Believers in Christ tend to embrace the WWJD acronym because they believe that doing what Jesus would do will yield eternal joy. But eternal joy does not always equate to earthly happiness. It seems to me that Christians sometimes lose sight of this fact.

Darla Isackson reminds us in this article that “Jesus wasn't always nice” and that he wasn’t always happy. “But,” writes Isackson, “He was always true to Himself and His high purposes. He was perfect in His integrity.”

Isackson discusses how she had spent a portion of her life confused about this. She thought that it was her duty as a Christian to be happy, and especially to be nice. But she eventually came to realize that she had sacrificed her integrity on the altar of niceness. She now advocates an approach that reminds me of the saying Ezra Taft Benson used to keep on the wall of his office (see here): “Be right, and then be easy to live with, if possible, but in that order.”

Since Christians believe that “God is love,” (see here) they believe that Jesus was the physical embodiment of love on this earth. A friend of mine experienced several exasperating years of conflict with her teenage daughter (as if that’s an uncommon thing). After studying Christian doctrine, she figured that if she only loved her daughter more that her daughter would treat her better. She spent several months withholding criticism, doting and fawning over her daughter, but her daughter’s behavior only became worse.

The problem was that my friend misunderstood what Christ taught about love and charity. Jesus loved Peter, his chief apostle. Yet on one occasion he roughly said to Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.” If you’re Christian, you believe that Jesus loved even the guys that were profiteering in the temple, and yet he whipped them, dumped out their money, and drove them out of the place (see here). Although Jesus surely loved the scribes and Pharisees, he was often extremely harsh with them. Jesus even once suggested with racial overtones that a woman seeking his aid had about the same status as that of a dog (see here).

But Jesus also showed love by being mild. His careful action allowed a woman caught in the act of adultery to escape capital punishment (see here). He took time to bless little children (see here). He healed many that came to him seeking miracles. And, of course, Christians believe that Jesus, although he was God, humbled himself to be tortured to death so that our sins, pains, and burdens might be relieved in the eternities.

Jesus always loved, but he was not always fawning over people. He wanted the very best for each individual and he did what it took in each instance to work toward that end. When he was chastising Peter and when he was beating on moneychangers in the temple, he was fully in control and knew that what he was doing was for the best. That’s a lot different than when I get frustrated and yell at my kids.

Another lesson my friend had to learn with respect to her teenage daughter is that no matter how much you love someone, you cannot make them treat you nice. You may sacrifice a great deal for someone you love and they may still treat you badly. Christ loved those that crucified them and even asked his Father in Heaven to forgive them (see here). Yet his love did not stop them from killing him.

In Christian doctrine, you don’t love someone to get them to behave a certain way; you love them because it’s the right thing to do. And until you do that, you don’t really love them at all, because charity and manipulation are not very compatible. Sometimes love calls for social niceness. Other times it calls for somewhat anti-social behavior.

It’s also important to note that Jesus had periods of depression. But these instances seem to be more about his concern for others than about his own problems (see here and here). His sorrow seemed to be more about his foresight of the eternal problems that would be endured by people rather than about his personal challenges.

My point is that the answer to WWJD can only be understood when one understands how Jesus actually behaved. We sometimes glibly throw this acronym around as a way to make our point — as a way to suggest that Jesus agrees with our point of view on one matter or another. I’m not sure He appreciates our attempts to use Him in that way.

The question, “What would Jesus do?” is meant to be an introspective search that can only be properly answered when one has sufficient information to serve as a premise for formulating an appropriate answer. You can’t correctly answer the question without adequate study. WWJD is intended as a platform for a personal counseling session, and not as a cudgel for bashing others. Each of us should study and then privately ask ourself WWJD on a regular basis.


Frank Staheli said...

It's kind of obnoxious when people wear that kind of stuff around, because it sort of implies that they have a monopoly on knowing what Jesus would do. It's not that easy.

I think the closest we could really approximate the reality is in the alternate acronym "WDITJWD"--"What do I think Jesus would do?" That's not nearly so presumptuous.

Scott Hinrichs said...

I don't wear (or even own) anything that has the WWJD logo on it. I like to think that it is written in my heart, although, I often fall short of this ideal.

I can see how one might see WWJD wear as rather presumptuous. Mormons are more likely to employ CTR (choose the right) wear, which is a less presumptuous message. Although, I don't have any of that stuff either (some of my family members have CTR rings).

Charles D said...

What bothers me about WWJD is that many erstwhile followers of the carpenter from Galilee restrict their WWJD tests to personal behavior and behavior within the context of their congregation or religious community.

In a democratic society where each person has a responsibility as a citizen to choose the representatives in government who make the policy for the nation, why is there not a responsibility to ask How Would Jesus Vote?

It is not enough to merely support those who claim to be Christian or claim to live a righteous personal and family life. One, it would seem, should support those who will carry out policies that reflect the principles Jesus taught:

* Solving problems peacefully whenever possible,
* Treating everyone equally regardless of their station in life or their background.
* Treating other nations as we in our own nation would like to be treated (within bounds of reason at least).
* Working to insure that the least of those among us are not hungry, homeless, or without adequate medical care.

Instead, I see many Christians supporting politicians who actively work to undermine these principles, making the excuse (essentially) that their political ideology is more important than doing what Jesus would do.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Ah, yes. I figured we'd get at least one comment that used WWJD as a cudgel for bashing Christians. Thanks for not disappointing me.

Charles D said...

I don't intend to bash Christians as a group, merely to point out that some of them are hypocritical in their claims - a trait they hold in common with pretty much any other group one could name.

I don't think you can relegate WWJD to personal issues alone - that is certainly not what He did. If you think WWJD is important for your personal decisionmaking then it must be important for your social, economic and political decisionmaking as well.

Scott Hinrichs said...

The trouble is that you cherry pick some of Jesus' teachings and apply them the way you think they ought to be applied. Others cherry pick things they like, and on it goes.

The fact is that you're simply not going to find any politician that satisfactorily adheres to what Jesus would actually do. You're stuck with picking someone that leaves much to be desired.