Once again this week, I turn to the generosity of Michael Dodd to provide the weekly devotional. I have been talking to and counseled by a very dear friend of mine, who is a preacher in Alabama, and he has helped me in getting my faith back. I’m still not ready to write a devotional yet, but soon I think I will be.
Some years ago when I was visiting my parents, my young niece was there wearing a woven anklet with the initials WWJD on it. I asked her if she knew what they stood for.
“What would Jesus do?” she replied promptly, smiling up into my face. Then she looked down at the anklet for a moment and turned a puzzled look on me. “What does that mean?” she asked.
Obviously the anklet was more a fashion statement than a religious statement for her at that age. The question she asked, however, was a profound one: What does it mean to ask what Jesus would do?
I suspect some of the people behind the marketing of WWJD jewelry and accessories may have only been asking how much they could make financially, but behind it no doubt lay a sincere wish to find a simple way of calling people – young people, in particular – to reflect on their behavior in the light of the behavior of Jesus.
In this, they were continuing the tradition found all the way back in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ.” (I Corinthians 11:1) In other places, the context makes clear that imitation of Christ is also meant: “Become imitators of us and of the Lord.” (I Thessalonians 1:6); “Therefore be imitators of God.” (Ephesians 5:1) And, of course, one of history’s most popular books of Christian devotion bears the very title The Imitation of Christ.
John of the Cross in his Ascent of Mount Carmel, offers this advice to the person seeking union with God:
First, have habitual desire to imitate Christ in all your deeds by bringing your life into conformity with his. You must then study his life in order to know how to imitate him and behave in all events as he would.
Ascent of Mount Carmel I,13, 3
I would like to point out something that may be easy for believers to overlook in this advice. John says we “must study his life in order to know how to imitate him and behave in all events as he would.” That seems straightforward and points us toward the Gospels, the word of God. And clearly we must turn to the Gospels as our primary source for understanding the life of Jesus.
Yet there is a danger that we need to beware. Sometimes we unconsciously fall into the error of thinking that the Word did not become flesh so much as that the Word became text. We do not turn our gaze upon the living person of Jesus but upon the text of scripture. And we easily think that the particular translation that we have before us or that we prefer is the fullness of the word of God.
It is not so simple. There is an Eastern story about the spiritual master warning his disciples not to mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself. Even the inspired text points beyond itself.
John of the Cross talks about focusing on the life of Jesus. To me, this means that we gaze upon the living Jesus, not the words about Jesus. God’s Word became flesh, not text. When we focus only on the words about Jesus we can let ourselves be led astray. If you think I exaggerate, reflect on the tragic divisions within the Christian community that are due to different interpretations of biblical texts. We need to contemplate what Jesus did and learn the lessons contained in his example.
So What Would Jesus DO?
Michael Dodd has written and lectured about Carmelite spirituality and history for over twenty years. His work has appeared in publications in the United States, Europe and Africa. He is the author of The Dark Night Murders: A Fray John of the Cross Mystery and Jerome Gratian: Treatise on Melancholy. The above devotional is from his book Elijah and the Ravens of Carith: A Twenty-First Century Reflection in a Medieval Carmelite Mode, which can be purchased on Amazon.com in paperback for $9.95.