If anyone ever lived out the “What Would Jesus Do” ethic, Justin did. He moved into an abandoned train depot in the bar district of the next town over and took in homeless people. One night I think he baptized nineteen people in the fountain of the big Baptist church a couple of blocks over. His work with the down and out even made the local newspaper. We all wanted to be like Justin. It seemed that out of everyone anyone we knew, this guy was actually living like Christ.
Justin did what we all thought Jesus would do, but that didn’t mean he had been transformed into the image of Christ. He hadn’t. He could preach on the street one night and then get into a fistfight in a frat house the next night. One day I’d find him sitting serenely among his acolytes; the next I’d get a call from him demanding that I bail him out of jail.
For some reason, Justin was just bad at life. He couldn’t keep down a job. He didn’t know how to navigate his marriage. He had no clue about taking responsibility for his actions. For Justin, itinerancy, singleness, and “martyrdom” offered an easy alternative to tackling his massive growth areas. He could evade life without admitting that he’d failed.
One time, after his wife’s family forced him out of their home, he came to live in our basement. I still remember him staying out to all hours drinking and then complaining that our kids walked around too loudly above his head as he slept until 2PM.
When we went on a short-term mission trip, we left Justin to watch the house. We specifically asked him to make sure the sump pump came on should a heavy rain come through. When we returned, we found our basement flooded and Justin nowhere in sight. He’d been invited last minute to do some outreach to the Rainbow People and decided to just leave the water to sit and the drywall to mold. Eventually, we discovered that he’d raided our five-year-old daughter’s piggy bank for spending money on the trip. When we confronted him over these things, he was unapologetic. Instead, he rebuked us for being too concerned about earthly things!
For Justin, the reproduction of some external details of Christ’s life made him a true Christian regardless of what else he did or did not do. He could wallow in the filth of his own sinfulness while judging every other professing Christian as impostors and Pharisees. Justin called nominal Christians, “Turds with frosting.” Ironically, that epithet could have been applied to him as well. The frosting was just a different flavor.
Justin’s example teaches that external conformity to WWJD accomplishes no more than external conformity to any standard of behavior. Holding up the lifestyle of Jesus of Nazareth as depicted in the Gospels for emulation doesn’t make people like Jesus, it just produces hypocrites of a different type. Whether our confidence before God comes from regular tithing or from selling everything and giving it to the poor, we’re legalists. The only difference is in the law we adhere to.
Not only did attempting to DWJWD fail to develop Christlike character in Justin, I believe that it exacerbated deficiencies which already plagued him. When people struggle to navigate their lives, it can be tempting to escape to someone else’s. That seems to be what drives young people to adopt strange personas such as with the goth or emo phenomena. Finding our authentic selves can be so difficult and risky that we can be easily enticed to abdicate the process and hide behind prefabricated templates. Then, in the dark recesses of our psyche, our souls wither unchallenged and untended. Escape into the Christ persona becomes that much more dangerous since the one who does so will find much internal and external reinforcement of their behavior.
In my own history, I made several attempts at adopting prefabricated personas to compensate for insecurity. I remember in fifth grade, I went through a greaser phase. I figured that if I wanted to be cool, then I couldn’t find a better exemplar than Fonzie. It didn’t work out. As a teenager, I went punk for a brief time. Well, my hair did anyway. Not coincidentally, this phase immediately preceded my conversion to serious Christianity followed by hardcore legalism. When I read about Jesus in the New Testament, I envisioned being him. I wanted to wear a robe and sandals sitting under a tree and laying down wisdom on the masses.
I don’t mean to say that there was nothing sincere in my conversion. I’m just pointing out that insecurity gets often confused for humility and obsessiveness for zeal. I have had times of real healing and insight that I believe have come from the presence of God. At other times, I’ve become inauthentic, judgmental, and self-important while channeling the Nazarene.
When we hold up Jesus’ life depicted in the Gospels as a standard for others to follow, we leave them with a focus on externals that substitutes merit for mercy. Should a person at some point ever perfectly mimic Christ’s life in every detail, they won’t be one whit closer to the actual character of Christ.
As Paul wrote,
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:2-3 ESV)
According to Paul, dramatic, self-sacrificial gestures count for precisely zero when borne out of wrong motives.
The attempt to jump into Christ’s sandals often arises from an attempt to escape the slew of the day to day. Love, on the other hand, slogs through the mundane mess over the long haul.
As Paul continues:
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-6 ESV)
WWJD fosters evasion. Love requires engagement – engagement that carries a cross.
Jesus bore a cross every day of his life. It consisted of hardships specific to his own circumstances and calling. His cross isn’t transferable. That’s why he tells those who aspire to follow him, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) Living by faith will result in an array of struggles, shame, loss, and pain, but each person will only experience their own configuration which is their cross. Ironically, asking WWJD evades my cross in favor of a wire and foam facsimile of his.
If we would become like Christ, we must find our cross and take it up.
Let me illustrate with some examples of personal crosses available in our contemporary world:
- A man finds himself stuck halfway up the corporate ladder in a soul-crushing job serving an unreasonable boss. He could walk away from it to serve an overseas mission effort, but without divine orders, that would just be to shirk his cross. Each day at his job, the man experiences powerlessness, pointlessness, and degradation. Taking up his cross will require him to enter those experiences gladly, trusting in God who raises the dead.
- A woman who has spent her life raising children must face an empty nest. She might busy herself in a women’s ministry, but that could simply be an attempt to continue mothering vicariously. It could be that her cross would be to use her newfound discretionary time on intercessory prayer. Through solitude, she can find authentic, Christ-like love for others free from codependence.
- An academically gifted high school graduate might combat the fear of leaving his church’s youth group by seeking to become a youth minister. Taking up his cross might require him to enter the hostile environment of a secular university and train to use his gifts among hostile colleagues in a secular profession.
- A young woman discovers that she’s made a big mistake at work. She might quit, taking the discovery as confirmation of her long-held suspicion that this job wasn’t God’s calling for her anyway. Taking up her cross might require her to come forward to tell the unvarnished truth about the mistake, entrusting her future, either at the job or in unemployment, to God.
The cross as a Christian ethic applies to every individual regardless of the situation, if we learn to apply it. We must imitate Christ as we find him at the cross and not as we find him in the Gospels. The attempt to do that latter often just turns into escapism which keeps misshapen souls from the therapeutic effects of walking under the weight of tailor-made beams.
“What Would Jesus Do” appeals to people who don’t want to face the hardships and drudgery already present in their lives. Christ’s requirement that we take up our cross sends us under that drudgery with a redemptive purpose. The unredeemed of the world, constantly work to minimize the pain and maximize the pleasure of their existence. They resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms to offset misery and monotony. When I take up my cross, I cheerfully accept the full weight of life’s burden relying in faith on the resurrection to restore all that’s been lost. Rather than seeking to evade the unpleasant elements in my day, I relish them for the sake of learning to be more like Jesus.
“WWJD” is evasion.
The cross is full-frontal engagement.
Christ took up his cross and invites us to take up ours to follow him, so we can learn how to master real life. Jesus never evaded. At his cross, he looked life’s one fearful certainty directly in the face and owned that dude.