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WWJD’s Achilles’ Heel

12 December 2007

It has not been too long since “WWJD?” was all the rage. To ask what Jesus would do, if he were I, seems on the surface to promise a window into God’s heart as well as a concrete basis for choosing what to do next. We think that by imagining what Jesus would do if he were in our circumstances, we will be able to work out a path to follow that will earn God’s blessing and favor. It does not hurt either, to speak candidly, that “WWJD?” sounds noble and pious, holiness that fits cleanly on a bumper sticker.

But there our difficulty begins, right away. In all but the most trivial cases, we can only imagine what Jesus would do to the extent that we understand his word and his character accurately and deeply. In a way, “WWJD?” is too lofty a question for us. In general, we can have no idea what he would do because we do not have clear examples of Jesus dealing with an irritating boss, choosing a TV show to watch, or resisting a seductress’ advances. When Scripture says that he “was tempted in every way, like as we are, yet without sin,” it cannot possibly mean that he has experienced every possible combination of experiences and circumstances that gives rise to a specific moral or ethical test. To answer “WWJD?,” we have to use our imaginations to extrapolate from what we know – really know! – of Jesus’ character, and then we have to apply that image to a circumstance that is, ultimately, of our own making.

There’s the fatal rub: what if Jesus would never have permitted himself to be in our circumstance in the first place? What if, with his holy vision, he would have avoided stepping on the track that led inevitably and directly to where we now find ourselves? In that case, to ask what Jesus would do in our setting is to ask an absurd question and to derive an absurd answer.

I am not suggesting that Jesus does not serve as an example of holy living under God. We know that he does. But we must let him dictate his character to us on his terms, not ours. We must let him go where he will go; we must let him enter circumstances and settings according to his own character and will. We must not try to squeeze Jesus into our fallenness, our blindness or our weakness. And those things are what lead us precisely into circumstances that Jesus simply could not and would not experience. For example: who can imagine Jesus simply drifting into an adult establishment “by accident” and then showing us how to get out of there? Or who can suppose that Jesus would ever withhold forgiving someone for so long that bitterness goes to seed…and then showing us by example how to banish the bitterness? No, we need a framework that is more consistent with Jesus’ relationship to us as teacher and disciple, as master and servant. I propose a simple, bracing alternative: What would Jesus command?

Why this alternative has escaped me for so many years I cannot say. But the monk of Tarrawarra, Michael Casey, has helped me at last to see it in his wonderful exposition of St. Benedict. Through the lens of experimental holiness – the monastery, a topic for another day – Casey exposes the games I play to keep Jesus at arm’s length as my object of admiration rather than my close-at-hand master.

It is true that many people do psychological tests. Seminars on personality types and the enneagram are always well attended. The frequency of self-assessment quizzes in popular magazines seems to indicate that people find such pursuits entertaining. Generally, the context of these tests is to define an area in which action is possible with a view to self-improvement. In other words, it is not a question of coming to one’s limits. No experience of desperation is involved; no plaintive cry for help. It is usually the workaday task of finding out what can be done and devising strategies to produce the desired results. All this is very good. But it is not the same species of self-knowledge that comes from discovering that one cannot save oneself…We can learn theology and psychology until we are blue in the face, but such knowledge will not bring us closer to God apart from the humiliating acceptance of our own limitation…

…[N]o program of spiritual growth can be detailed that is applicable for all seasons of everyone’s life. Sin is the ultimate individuator. The battle against sin must, in consequence, be nuanced in each case. This is why spiritual warfare has to begin with an appreciation of the precise configuration sin assumes in the life of an individual person…”How does sin express itself at this point in my life?”

Michael Casey, A Guide to Living in the Truth (Liguori, MO: Liguori/Triumph Press, 2001), 93-95.

I don’t ordinarily think of Jesus in those terms. I tend to think of him mainly as a distant example, someone to emulate, not someone to order me around. But it’s fair to ask if we ought always to take Scripture literally: did Jesus really experience “every temptation that is common to man,” or is that poetry? Given my fallenness (and the tortured web of self-delusions that I use to mask it), shouldn’t I rather submit to Jesus as a bondservant would, granting him all of the latitude that he might require to have his way with me?

And what would that look like, minute by minute? If Jesus were a paid advisor, and I were under contract to obey whatever he might command me to do to avail myself of God’s transforming grace, what would he command me to do?


As I reflect on that question in the concrete circumstances of my life right now, where unforgiveness and bitterness and self-righteousness are governing my choices, it’s pretty clear that I really don’t want to hear from him as my master.  I want a way out that doesn’t require the hard work of simple obedience.


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