“What would Jesus do?” is a slogan that saw peak popularity in the United States during the 1990s, when millions of kids were seen sporting “WWJD” bracelets, wristbands, T-shirts, hats, and much more, year after year. A Kansas preacher and author named Charles Sheldon, active in the 1880s and after, is largely credited as the progenitor of the trendy phrase many people still refer to. In 1897, he put together the book that would become In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?, which has since sold over 30 million copies.
In 1989, youth leader Janie Tinklenberg read Sheldon’s book and began sharing WWJD with her students to encourage them to live in such a manner. After her initial run of merchandise sold out, neighboring towns quickly noticed the trend and began making merchandise lines of their own. It rapidly grew into a nationwide sensation that has since inspired dozens of creative works, including films, songs, and even board games.
Despite disagreements in how WWJD should be thought of and lived out in one’s life, WWJD was an effective effort to balance two realities about Jesus. Christ’s deeply loving approach to personal relationships and His constant focus on truth in action are both defining components of His character. God is both perfectly loving and perfectly truthful, and Christ’s life displays this for all who are willing to learn from it.
Sheldon himself encouraged his congregation (and anyone who would listen) not to do anything without first asking themselves what Jesus would do in any situation. While Sheldon’s work has seen many critics since this idea caught on, at its core, this tenet is biblically rooted and appropriately founded.
Multiple Christian writers who have come after Sheldon have condemned his thinking as self-righteous or even anti-Christian, on the grounds that it encourages people to think their behavior is on par with Christ’s. Careful examination of Sheldon’s work shows he’s not attempting to equate human capacity with Christ; rather, human action can become more God-honoring and biblically aligned via intentional thought about how Christ wants us to live.
Who Jesus is, and what He can do, is more needed than ever. The internet alone has allowed millions of people to remain in their own information silos as long as desired. You can now find endless information that supports your own preconceived notions and block as many pages and people as you want. Because of this, people can become prone to thinking multiple out-groups are not worth interacting with. Why involve yourself with people you dislike if you can find more people like you?
Another phenomenon that’s only grown with time is political polarization in the United States. Individuals across both Democratic and Republican party lines have more fervently supported their preferred leaders and more strongly rejected the opposing party. Perhaps surprisingly, religious beliefs don’t always dictate political beliefs. In other words, there’s high likelihood the church you currently attend (if Christian) has both Republicans and Democrats in it. This means we can accurately conclude that since political behavior in the United States has become more polarized, Christians in the United States have become more polarized, as well.
This leads us into a perfect situation through which WWJD ought to be applied. Thinking about how Jesus would act is easiest done in a Christian environment. If your relationship with a fellow Christian has been tense because of differing perspectives on a topic, ask them if they would be willing to sit down and talk about it. You may be surprised at their willingness to hear more!
Naturally, WWJD applies to everyday scenarios, too, regardless of who you meet. Eager to start an argument with a friend based on what they said last week? Think about how you could approach it differently. Mad that someone cut you off in traffic? Pause for a moment to think about external factors that may have caused it. Jealous as to why God seems to be blessing others, but your life appears to be at a standstill? Think about how Jesus approached His father in the garden of Gethsemane.
We humans are prone to forgetfulness—especially about important matters, like wisdom in living and being supportive in relationships. WWJD as a mindset consistently points us back to whom we should model our actions after: Jesus. Even though the wristbands, T-shirts, and hats have been relegated to dusty corners of our closets and dresser drawers, the firm idea behind this trend lives on. Remember to consider what Jesus would do when you’re faced with your next tricky decision.