Difficult decisions. Tense or fractured relationships. Moral dilemmas. All of us have been faced with situations in which we’re unsure what to do, which way to turn. Often, our self-protective instincts kick in; we respond defensively, automatically, and not always for the best. But a part of us also wants to do what’s right: not just what’s right for me, but right by God. So we look to Scripture for guidance. Are there any clear commandments? Guiding principles? Sometimes.
But as the apostle Paul, Christian tradition, and even Jesus himself teach, we should look to the lived example of Jesus. And as many have suggested over the years, we might ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?”
The popularity of the question originated in 1896 with Charles Sheldon’s novel (a ten-cent paperback!), In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? It was revived as something of a fad in the 1990s, as youth groups everywhere began wearing WWJD bracelets (which, of course, are still readily available on Amazon).
It’s a decent question. But it’s not the only question, and sometimes, not the most helpful place to start.
The apostle Paul, as we’ve seen, writes to his beloved Philippians out of concern for their unity, aware of the pressures they’re facing from their neighbors. It’s not that the Philippians are fractious like the Corinthians, nor standing at a theological precipice like the Galatians. But Paul seems to have heard enough about conflict in the congregation to offer some fatherly pastoral advice on getting along.
What he says in Philippians 2:6-11 is justly famous. Again, these verses are considered by many to be an early Christian hymn. And there’s a sense in which we could read what he says in Philippians 2 as an answer to the question, “What would Jesus do?”
But it’s important not to skip too quickly past verse 5 on our way to verse 6. Notice that he doesn’t begin with the behavior of Christ, but with his moral mindset; what Jesus does, in other words, is predicated on how he thinks. In previous verses, after all, Paul has been urging the Philippians to think the same way as one another (2:2). That doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree on every issue that arises in the church; it means that all agree to adopt a humble frame of mind (2:3).
It should be unsurprising, then, that Paul uses the same word for “think” in verse 5 as he does in verse 2; instead of merely urging them to think the same way as each other, he now urges them to all think the same way as Christ. “Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus,” the New International Version translates, while others translations speak of having Christ’s “attitude” (e.g., NASB, CEB) or “mind” (NRSVUE).
A literal translation of Paul’s Greek would be “This think among you,” with the emphasis pointing forward to what he’s about to say next. And trust me, what he says next is mind-blowing.
These days, we might address tensions in the church by teaching people communication skills or strategies for conflict management. And as someone who teaches such things, I believe they’re useful. But discipleship requires more than that. Too often, in our confusion or lostness, we default to “Just tell me what to do.” That might solve our problem for the moment, but leave us unchanged in the long run.
It’s harder to be challenged at the level of our assumptions, beliefs, and attitudes. It would be one thing for Paul to say, “You should behave more humbly.” But it’s another to have to examine just how much our prideful attitudes are out of step with what we know of Jesus and God. Don’t just do what Jesus did, Paul seems to suggest, think as he thought.
And as we’ll see, what he thought teaches us an astounding truth about God.