What would Jesus do? That question from the rad 90s bracelets still haunts us today.
In reality, that’s the question that every Christian has been trying to answer, whether it’s an individual, a church, or an entire movement. And it’s funny that the answer we’ve gotten for a long time has been the same one, repackaged in different ways.
For most people, being Christlike means loving God as passionately as possible. This may mean different things. For example, for some this may mean avoiding “worldly” things, such as music, movies, drinking, drugs, etc. Others may say it’s about doing Christian things, like reading your Bible, going to church, and paying your tithes. For the really radical and spiritual ones, being Christlike isn’t about what you do, just about who you are—which usually just boils down to being really nice and accepting.
But what if being like Christ isn’t about us at all?
All these different models have one thing in common: the goal of Christlikeness is about making us into a certain type of person. What that looks like varies, but the end is the same: me. I’m convinced, though, that this misses the point entirely.
For an example, let’s look to a guy who knew what Jesus would do before the rad bracelets came into existence: the apostle Paul.
In the letter to the Philippians, he has this famous passage:
For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.
Paul makes this point: his salvation isn’t about him and his personal relationship with Jesus. There’s so much irony in this passage. Just think about it. If Paul were to die, he would be brought in the presence of Jesus and be made like him—in other words, he would be completely Christlike in the purest sense. And, as he says, this would be better for him! Yet, that’s the point: it would be better for him.
Paul could die and be made completely like Christ, yet the most Christlike thing that Paul can do is to personally not be made like Christ. Are you sensing the irony?
The reality is that Paul’s salvation is not about him, but about others. If Paul lived with the kind of mentality that most people have about being Christlike today, he probably would have considered dying more necessary, because it would be the end goal of his personal journey of salvation. Yet, Paul didn’t think like we think. He understood that the best thing for him may be Christ’s unfiltered presence, but that the best thing for others was his presence to them. And as he was serving others in lieu being with Christ, he was actually more Christlike.
Too many of our churches today are teaching us how to be “Christlike” without ever really teaching us how to be like Christ. We focus on our personal relationship with Jesus and our own status, instead of focusing on how we grow in Christlikeness by focusing on the wellbeing of others.
It’s not as simple as “Get people’s relationship with God right and then they’ll treat people right.” This makes it seems as if growing in Christlikeness is a separate pursuit from caring for others. In the words of Dr. Chris Green, “Loving God is inseparable from loving neighbor. In fact, loving our neighbor just is the way we love God.” In other words, a love for God that that isn’t love for others isn’t actually a love for God at all. As 1 John 4:20 says:
Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.
To love God is to love others. To refuse to love others is to refuse to love God! Which is why Paul understood what God’s love really meant. He thought he loved God before he converted to Jesus, but that led to killing others. Paul was as pious and righteous as anyone could possibly be—just read his credentials in Philippians 3! The problem, though, wasn’t that he didn’t love God enough. The problem was that he wasn’t truly loving God at all—or else, that love would have been primarily concerned with the good of others, not their harm and destruction.
So, what would Jesus do? Perhaps we should stop asking that question as a way of trying to gauge our personal holiness and piety. Instead, maybe we should ask, “Who would Jesus love?” and then love them. I’ll give you a hint: it’s everyone.
Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
Thanks to Dr. Chris Green (@cewgreen) whose ideas (and witness) are responsible for inspiring the bulk of the thought in this post. Buy his incredible new book, “Sanctifying Interpretation“, for a more in depth and nuanced account of what’s here!