WWJT: What would Jesus think?

WWJTRoughly twenty years ago, the WWJD fad–“What would Jesus do?”–swept through American Christianity.  Believers took to wearing bracelets and other paraphernalia to remind themselves to follow Jesus’ moral example, especially in matters of compassion for those in need.

The question itself was popularized by Charles Sheldon’s 1897 novel, In His Steps.  But the theme of imitation goes all the way back to the Bible itself.  Jesus, for example, called his disciples to take up their cross and follow him (Matt 10:38), while Paul urged believers to follow his own example (1 Cor 4:16) as well as that of his companions Silas and Timothy (2 Thess 3:7-9).

The WWJD mantra and Sheldon’s novel spurred people to acts of mercy, large and small, and for that we should be grateful.  From the beginning of the movement, however, my concern has been that the emphasis on doing sometimes leaned toward a religion of external conformity to a moral code.  As a question for discipleship, “WWJD?” cannot stand on its own; at the very least, it should be paired with “WWJT?”–what would Jesus think?  If Jesus acted in a way that we would not, is it because he understood things differently?  And what would it take for us to understand in the same way?

It’s not an idle question.  Paul, for example, teaches that there is an unbreakable link between a bodily life of obedient discipleship and the renewal of our minds (Rom 12:1-2).  He urges believers to humble fellowship with one another, not simply as a matter of good behavior, but as the organic expression of the humble mindset of Jesus (Phil 2:1-8).

But Paul’s most stunning statement in this regard may be this: “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16).

In context, the statement comes at the end of a lengthy digression about true wisdom.  Many of the Corinthian believers, it seemed, were fond of following the philosophy du jour, and it was causing some to be skeptical of Paul’s words qualifications as a leader.  Paul admits to not being an impressive orator, but argues that the wisdom of God in the gospel–real wisdom–is something that has to be revealed by the Holy Spirit to be appreciated, else the very idea of a crucified Messiah is nonsense.

At the climax of the argument, Paul loosely quotes Isaiah: “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” (1 Cor 2:16a, NRSV).  It’s a rhetorical question, of course; the implied answer is, “No one–at least no one without the Holy Spirit.”  And with that question left hanging, Paul closes the loop: “But we have the mind of Christ.”

We have to be careful not to read too strong of a distinction between “mind” and “spirit” here; Paul is concluding a line of thought, not introducing some new esoteric truth.  The whole argument to this point has been about the role of the Holy Spirit in our understanding God’s intent and purposes, and the most natural reading is that Paul is making the same point in a different way.

In Rom 8:5-9, for example, Paul emphasizes the importance of how Christians think, moving back and forth between mind and Spirit, and at one point explicitly referring to the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of Christ.”  Add to that the fact that the Greek word for “mind” (nous) can be used to translate the Hebrew word for “spirit” (ruach): the Isaiah quote could be read either way.  All of this may explain why Eugene Peterson doesn’t even use the phrase “the mind of Christ” in The Message, preferring to render 1 Cor 2:16 this way:

Isaiah’s question, “Is there anyone around who knows God’s Spirit, anyone who knows what he is doing?” has been answered: Christ knows, and we have Christ’s Spirit.

Thus, for Paul to say that we have the mind of Christ can be read as the implicitly Trinitarian punch line to the argument: only God’s Spirit can know God’s mind; we have God’s Spirit; that Spirit is also the Spirit of Christ; we can know what he knows.

That’s not to say, obviously, that we are the recipients of some kind of cosmic brain transplant.  But it’s an astounding claim nonetheless: by the gracious gift of God’s Spirit, we become able to understand the things of God, even to think Jesus’ thoughts after him.  And as we learn to see ourselves and the world through Jesus’ eyes, we more organically do what Jesus did and more, applying that mindset to new situations.

WWJD needs WWJT.  Indeed, we can’t answer the first question without making assumptions about the second.  But thanks be to God that we’re not left completely to our own resources–for we have the mind of Christ.