In 1989, a youth minister named Janie Tinklenberg read a book authored by Topeka minister Charles M. Sheldon entitled In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? In the book, Sheldon challenged his readers to consider how Jesus would respond when making important moral decisions.
Inspired by this sentiment, Tinklenberg borrowed the phrase and adopted the acronym WWJD, creating a line of popular bracelets, clothing, hats, mugs, and other items bearing the slogan reminding young people to always ask themselves how Jesus would respond in certain situations and then to act accordingly.
The letters WWJD were seen on rubber bracelets on the wrists of teens all over the United States, a refreshing alternative to some of the other things many chose to wear. WWJD became a well-known catchphrase, being mentioned on the Paul Harvey show, dominating shelves in Family Christian Stores, and even culminating in a teen talk show, WWJD-TV.
A primary outcome of this movement was inspiring young people to think about good Christian sentiments in everyday situations and to make Jesus the perfect model for decision-making.
The phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” seems fairly straightforward. Just picture yourself in a difficult situation; for example, let’s say you’re at a party and someone offers you an illegal substance. You ask yourself, What Would Jesus Do? Of course, he would say no! And so, as a good Christian, you do the same. Easy.
Let’s try another scenario.
You were out late on Saturday night and feel too tired to wake up and go to Mass. You’re tempted to miss “just this once” and sleep in, telling yourself (and God) that you will make it up later in the week. However, you start to feel guilty as you glance at your WWJD bracelet, so you get right out of that bed and take yourself to Mass! As a result, you enjoy a nice, pleasing feeling of self-satisfaction for doing the right thing while your friends slept in. Well done!
It’s this simple, isn’t it? Just make good choices all the time. This is the comfortable version of Jesus we can all agree on. Say no to drugs. Go to church. Be nice to everyone. Follow the rules.
But Jesus didn’t always follow the rules. he wasn’t always nice. And he was hated by many.
So when we ask “What Would Jesus Do?” the answer may not always be so simple.
Sinners to Saints
Living an authentic Christian life is not as easy as it sounds; if it were, everyone would do it. Discerning how Jesus would act in a particular situation is not always easy either; the millennia that separate modern Christians from those who lived and walked with our Lord have effectively erased his true persona from our minds in many ways, but there is no blame to be had for that. Time changes perspective and details vanish throughout the annals of history. So, in many ways, Jesus has been unfairly relegated to the “nice guy” realm of historical figures.
That’s not quite the case, however, and the primary evidence of that is the Cross. He was hated enough by those whose power he challenged to be murdered in the cruelest way imaginable. So when we ask ourselves, “What Would Jesus Do?” the answer must nearly always be a little uncomfortable, because most of his life here on earth was anything but easy.
The lives of his closest friends and followers were not easy, nor were their paths to sainthood conventional. Sometimes we forget that sainthood is not achieved automatically at birth and the greatest saints began their lives as notorious sinners, yet they were chosen by our Lord for tasks that only they could fulfill in a specified time in history.
Before their conversions, some of the most influential Saints in history were not liked, admired, or even tolerated. Yet, they changed the world. Jesus did not come to call the “perfect,” the ones who think they have it all together, the ones who see no reason to grow or change. Why?
Think of the most uncoachable athletes, the most difficult employees, the most challenging co-workers; those who are always “right,” unyielding in their mindsets, and lacking in humility, those who want to win at all costs. These would have made very poor choices for disciples because they would have seen no need to change.
The sinners who came to Jesus for healing, however, loved Jesus. They were grateful to him, they responded to his love with immense gratitude and a burning desire to be like their Beloved, to serve him as he deserved. The righteous had no time for him; they were already convinced of their perfection.
St. Paul referred to metanoia as a turning, or a literal changing of one’s mind, beginning with repentance and turning away from sin and towards God. For Paul (formerly Saul, a persecutor of Christians), this conversion was the beginning of his new life in Christ and the focus of his writing in three Epistles. Metanoia, a Greek word meaning turning or repenting, is also found in all three synoptic gospels.
It’s this drastic sort of conversion from sinner to saint, coupled with the freely-given grace of God that transforms us and makes us able to achieve the impossible—but only if we allow Christ to work through us, and only if we ask that all-important question:
What would Jesus do?
Would he call a former heavyweight boxing champ to the priesthood—after a near-death experience following a motorcycle accident—a most unlikely vocation for a man who only initially became Catholic so he could marry his girlfriend?
Would he appoint an accomplished economist who happens to be a nonbeliever with pro-choice leanings to become a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, recognizing that her ideas about how government investment and leadership in innovation can reduce inequality and sustain economic growth can address one of the devastating reasons a woman feels forced to choose abortion? And in the process, she will also have the opportunity to engage in dialogue and collaboration with Catholics who believe in the intrinsic value of all life.
We can only surmise what Jesus would do in some situations, but we know with historical certainty what he did do in the lives of very specific people, at specific times, and for very intentional reasons.
We know, for example, that Jesus called a loathed tax collector named Levi to be one of His Apostles–later renamed Matthew–who became a trusted follower and evangelizer: a most unlikely choice. We know that he chose a Pharisee named Saul, a persecutor of Christians, to become one of the greatest evangelists the world has ever seen, responsible for spreading Christianity to Asia Minor and Europe.
His choices of these two men were criticized by their contemporaries. Conversions are generally viewed with a level of suspicion. But, Jesus knows what he is about.
To better understand the mind of Christ, we have to be willing to think outside of the box, to see Jesus as the one who came to mend the broken and hurting, not afraid to venture into the places where notorious sinners dwelt, drawing them to himself and calling them to a new life and full conversion.
Jesus said, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk 2:17).
Sometimes one of the most uncomfortable questions we can dare to ask ourselves is “What Would Jesus Do?”
And then act accordingly.
Image: By de:Benutzer:MarkusHagenlocher – Own work (Original text: selbst erstellt), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36962850
Kristi McCabe is an award-winning freelance writer, Catechist, a former teacher and editor who lives with her family in Owensboro, Kentucky. As an adoptive mother of four and an adoptee herself, Kristi is an avid supporter of pro-life ministries. She is active in her local parish and has served as Eucharistic minister and in various children's ministries.