What is right and what is wrong with the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?”

In another post today I asked a question about a blasphemous car sticker involving a variation of the abbreviation WWJD, which we all know is supposed to mean “What Would Jesus Do?”

In my experience, WWJD is tossed about by low-information Christians when they want you to conform to a vague moralism they have just advanced (usually involving higher taxes and bigger government or else ignoring objectively grave sins).

The phrase is mostly misused.  It can probably be used well.

What is right and what is wrong with the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?”

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58 Responses to What is right and what is wrong with the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?”

  1. Jeff says:

    What is right:
    It forces us to take a step back and recall what we know of Jesus and how He would have acted or what He commanded of us. It allows us to invite the Holy Spirit in as well because instead of just acting out in our own emotions or the like, it does require us to take a step back.

    What is wrong:
    A lot of the reasons you mentioned above. More so, those who are uneducated can push their own ideas of who they *think* Jesus is (which is incorrect most of the time), and sometimes allowing for that false idea of who Jesus is to be spread (think reverse evangelization).

  2. Patrick-K says:

    What’s right: It’s good to defer to the authority of Christ.

    What’s wrong: We shouldn’t be so sure that we know exactly what Jesus would do. Jesus is God and omniscient. We’re not. Therefore, instead of hypothesizing on how Jesus would act in some situation, it’s better to obey what Jesus told us to do. “What did Jesus tell us to do?” would be a better motto, in my view.

    In addition, even if we could in principle know exactly what Jesus would do, we don’t necessarily have the authority to do it ourselves. For example, when asked what gave him the authority to drive the moneychangers out of the temple, He answered, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” That is a promise that most of us would be unable to follow through with.

  3. Fr AJ says:

    I’d imagine it’s mostly used as an excuse to tolerate all kinds of bad behavior. For example, a relative is doing something morally wrong but Jesus would want me to be kind and understanding so I don’t say anything and pretend all is well.

    It could be used for good. A childish example: someone wants to rob a bank and they think what would Jesus do? He would not rob the bank so the person decides not to rob the bank.

  4. Lepidus says:

    Right: Ditto Patrick-K’s comment above

    Wrong: Jesus is God. What is appropriate for Him may not be appropriate for me.

    In addition, a lot times people use this along with some particular incident from Jesus’s life. They miss the point that what He said /did was in anticipation of the plan for His life (i.e., crucified within 3 years). That is not His plan for everybody else and what to say / do in any given situation has to take the whole situation into context not just a specific action at a specific time.

    Example: According to some of the folks using this statement, Jesus allowed Himself to be crucified, hence, self-defense should not be done. Of course they miss the point about selling your coat to buy a sword.

  5. amuccini says:

    whenever people try to use that phrase on me I always see that throwing tables over in anger is totally acceptable!

  6. mamajen says:

    What’s right: It’s always good to consider what Jesus would do. We should try to emulate His human example (we obviously can’t run around performing miracles).

    What’s wrong: What the WWJD crowd think Jesus would do often bears little to no resemblance to what Jesus would actually do. Jesus knows what love really is. Sometimes it’s tough. He wouldn’t hug it out with sinners who show NO remorse and have no intention of changing their behavior. Jesus wouldn’t go with a knee-jerk reaction to every situation he encountered; He’d consider what would help the other person the most, even if it doesn’t seem particularly nice. People like to think of cuddly Jesus and forget table-flipping Jesus.

    So many times I’ve tried to stand up for what’s right, and I’ve had people, even Catholics, tell me I must love everybody, like Jesus, and I can’t judge them. Ugh. They don’t have a clue.

  7. stillkickin says:

    For me I prefer WDJTUTD – What Did Jesus Tell Us To Do. That way I am not inserting my own personal preference (aka rationalization) and making God in my image rather the other way around.

  8. mamajen says:

    Oh, and totally agree with Patrick-K and Lepidus. Much of what Jesus would do we cannot or should not do. We’re not God.

  9. Cathy says:

    Right: One should want to be like Jesus, it invites a responsibility to know Jesus through the teaching of the Church, scripture, worship, personal prayer and knowing His best friends, the saints.

    Wrong: Ask a mom whose son decides to consistently refer to her as “woman”.

  10. Supertradmum says:

    Hate the phrase, and always have, as those who use it the most are, at least in my experience, low-Church, none sacramental Protestants who are obviously not doing what Jesus did, which is be part of the institutional Church with apostolic succession.

    I guess if I have to come up with something good, it reminds people that Jesus was a real Man and God, that is, reminds us of the Incarnation. Whatever….!

  11. Martlet says:

    I think it’s good as a question for myself but bad if I use it to silence another, as it so often is used these days.

  12. Choirmaster says:

    Right: Jesus would do the right thing.

    Wrong: It’s arrogant and prideful to think that you are the oracle of Jesus. It could also be blasphemous to throw around the Holy Name to justify your prudential decisions in situations that are morally ambiguous, i.e. uttering the Holy Name in vain.

  13. phlogiston says:

    What is right with the phrase: It allows thinking individuals to quickly and efficiently identify those who are easily distracted by shiny objects. In turn, this allows the thinking individual to adjust their arguments to the level of a fifth grader.

    What is wrong with it: I can’t improve on Cathy’s response.

  14. tonyfernandez says:

    Steps up to the plate.

    “The problem with the phrase is that most people don’t actually know what Jesus what do since they have no relationship with Him.”

  15. THREEHEARTS says:

    here we go again, I have lost count on the number of times I have argued the point over what might be the usual prideful meaning behind this phrase. In the world today we are always deciding for Jesus what H e should do, that is what we want done. The truer question is what did Jesus do? Follow Him and not tell Him what we think He should do, He leads we follow, He died for us go read scriptures and behave as His example tells us.

  16. anilwang says:

    What’s right:
    It focuses on the mind of Christ.

    What’s wrong:
    We are not God nor do we have his mission, so any decision we make based on this statement is pure speculation that will likely be heavily influenced by what we want to do anyway. We have a habit of creating our own personal Jesus in our own image, rather than trying to image Christ.

    At first I thought “What would Jesus have me do?” would be a better alternative, but it’s still liable to our preferences.

    Perhaps, WWJBMF “What would Jesus berate me for?” is a safer alternative that keeps us humble.

  17. HyacinthClare says:

    I couldn’t do better than Choirmaster. Very well put. In fact, I plan on stealing it.

  18. Toan says:

    Good: Contemplating what Jesus would do in any given circumstance can be a great exercise.

    Bad: I am not Jesus, and though I’m a part of His Body, He has chosen not to be me. Jesus has some abilities that I don’t have, both natural and supernatural, and which He won’t give me. Therefore, in any given circumstance, Jesus might be in a position to do something which I would be entirely unable to do. Therefore, the question isn’t necessarily practical in the way people want it to be.

    Alternative question: “Jesus, what would please You?”

  19. One of those TNCs says:

    One cannot answer the question, “What would Jesus do?” with confidence, because Jesus constantly surprised people with His unexpected actions. “For who has known the mind of God?”

    The real question, as stated by “stillkickin” above, is “What did Jesus tell us to do?”

    And the secondary question, as “anilwang” stated above, is “What would Jesus berate me for?”

    To think about what is the right thing to do, and to avoid doing the wrong thing, is what we need to remember and think about.

  20. Ed the Roman says:

    “What Does Jesus Want?” is a much better question.

    What Would Jesus Do on the Last Day? Well, He’ll judge the living and the dead. I won’t.

  21. Potato2 says:

    I was in high school during the WWJD bracelet fad. And also the CTR (Choose the Right) which was a Mormon take on the WWJD marketing. I in fact wore a WWJD bracelet. Having said that I have noticed that many who do use this catch phrase really are theologically weak. Most people now use it as some sort of excuse to actually NOT follow what Jesus or His Church teaches. As in “Jesus hung out with sinners so I really should go get drunk with all my friends tonight”
    Kind of a “Judge not” type of crowd that just does not seem to get what being Holy is all about.
    I usually respond with the idea that WE cannot do what Jesus did. He died for us, He saved us and He changed the world. He went against the social norms and political winds of his time and most certainly would have rebuked and led his “drunk buddies” to life changing reform. So while in each situation we can think about what Jesus would do the real question is WWJTUTD (What would Jesus Tell Us To DO.) Because sometimes we cannot do what Jesus would do. Last time I tried to walk across water I got pretty wet.

  22. JohnE says:

    What’s right: WWJD means that you are trying to discern the best thing to do in a situation in light of Christian teaching. In light of other comments, perhaps What Would Jesus Have Me Do would be better.

    What’s wrong: An attitude that because I spent some time discerning God’s will, then my course of action must be correct. I’m thinking of a Protestant friend who told me one time, “You know what Jesus put in my head just now?” WWJD can too easily become a mask for What Do I Want To Do.

  23. Fr. Andrew says:

    What is Right? I second what most everyone has said.

    What is Wrong? The phrase is the product of dead faith and all that is bad of historical critical scripture study. It reduces the Faith to moralism. By the nature of the phrase it implies that Jesus is a static historical figure who only acted in the past and does not today act through His Body- the Church, the Liturgy and Holy Mass, and through the Holy Spirit. Horrible.

  24. Bea says:

    I’ve always bristled at that phrase.
    Hey, I’m not Jesus.
    God’s Word being used to send people on a guilt trip to do what the speaker wants others to do.

    Jesus had (and continues to have through His Eternal Sacrifice at the Altar) His Mission to teach us, heal us and save us from eternal damnation.

    We have our own missions here on earth.
    Some can heal
    Some can teach
    Some can speak well
    Some have wisdom
    etc.

    Can the ear say to the arm “I don’t need you”
    Etc.
    I don’t remember St. Paul’s exact words, but you all know the text that I’m referring to.

    Maybe a more proper question would be:
    “What would Jesus want you to do?”

  25. Jeannie_C says:

    I dislike the phrase because it is arrogant in the same way as saying “If I were you…” and “I would never…” Rather than taking pot shots at what we think Jesus might do, we should inform ourselves as to what He actually did by reading scripture and following His teachings. We live in a different era but the differences are only variations on a theme. There aren’t too many instances in life where we’re left dumbfounded, and even so, there’s always a priest or deacon to discuss matters with.

  26. StJude says:

    Mamajen ” People like to think of cuddly Jesus and forget table-flipping Jesus.” Amen Mamajen!

  27. amenamen says:

    What is right: It is a good question to ask, properly understood, with a well-formed conscience.
    Better: It could be expanded:

    WWJDO
    Short for, WWJDOOYT
    What would Jesus Drive out of your Temple?

  28. pinoytraddie says:

    The better question would be: “What would the Church propose according to Jesus’s Life and Teachings?”

  29. Priam1184 says:

    That phrased has been (mis)used so much that it really doesn’t do any good for anyone anymore and needs to fall by the wayside. The idea behind it is fantastic as we must always seek to imitate Christ, but we have to find another way to express it and at the moment I do not know what that is.

  30. The Masked Chicken says:

    I, once, wrote an article on this subject for This Rock magazine, but the editor and I finally thought I wrote it a bit too sophisticatedly, so I withdrew it. I’ve been meaning to re-write it.

    The better question, of course, is, “What would Mary do?”

    Jesus is a singular ontology, a singular event in existence. In a sense, one cannot ask the question in a logical sense, because there are two different aspects or substances involved. For instance, say, Jesus wanted to buy a new car (apologies to Pope Francis). Now, Jesus might buy a green car. Does that mean I should? In this case, who cares what Jesus would do? At dinner, Jesus was want to have fish quite a lot. I am allergic (say). In this case, not only shouldn’t I care what Jesus would do, but I, actually, should not do what Jesus would do. Many of these sorts of questions are phrase with an implied, “What would Jesus do, if he were in this situation?” Of course, this question makes no sense for a pregnant woman to ask, at least in one sense, because Jesus would never be pregnant nor be a physical father.

    Jesus’s actions, to the extent that they are useful as guidance, stem from the fact that, in his Humanity, in all essential and universal cases to which one could ask, “What would Jesus do,” he was guided by his Divinity in such a way so as to not contradict it. Thus, it is not the Humanity of Christ that is our model, nor the Divinity of Christ. Rather, it is the interaction of Divinity and Humanity, properly, that is what Jesus and Mary are perfect models of. Since we are not of the same ontology as Christ, but we are of the same ontology as Mary, she is the more fit model for us to be asking for guidance.

    The answer to the question, “What would Jesus do,” is precisely and always the same: what would any man (including Jesus) do if he wished to live in accord with Divinity? Since God, the Father, less clearly, and Jesus, more clearly, have enunciated the will of the Divine, there is no need to ask what Jesus, alone, would do, but, rather, what we, as a part of one of only three types of beings chosen to have fraternal relations with Divinity must do to keep that relationship proper.

    If we ask Jesus at all what we should do, we ask him through his humanity what his Divinity would do and what his Divinity would do is and must be a matter of PUBLIC revelation, so, in that sense, Jesus has already said all there is to be said. You will be tried in the Celestial court on how well you responded to the public revelations of the Divine, not the private ones.

    To ask what Jesus for. Private revelation of his will (which is one way the phrase may be improperly used) can open the imagination to an improper transference of our beliefs onto him. This can lead to an implicit and very subtle form of idolatry, if not demonic interference. You may ask what color car Jesus wants you to buy, but be very careful if you get an answer!

    It took me a long time to realize that our relationship with Christ is a true marriage. One spouse must trust (and be capable of trusting) the other. “What car should I buy,” you ask your Divine Spouse. Why should you be surprised if he should say, “I don’t care. Knock your socks off. Get whatever you like.”

    What would Jesus do? Well, the correct answer was and always will be the one that St. Augustine gave: love and do as you please. Most people get the, “do as you please,” part down long before they get the love part down. In that single sentence is united Christ in his Divinity (which is love) and his humanity (which freely chooses). It is the model of anyone who seeks to make their choices a fit revelation of the joint participation between God and man in this world of time, space, and eternity.

    The Chicken

  31. The Masked Chicken says:

    Should read:

    To ask Jesus for a private revelation of his will…

  32. Sonshine135 says:

    What is right: If used properly, it let’s people put God in control in a situation where our own ego can take over. Letting the Spirit take over shows we are humble and obedient. It is what Paul is speaking about in Gal 2:19-21.

    What is wrong: A lot of people I have run into use it to excuse bad behavior for people who are unrepentant. People tend to forget that with the exception of the forgiveness on the cross for those who nailed Him to it, (which I extrapolate Jesus did due to their shear ignorance of Him), Jesus expected people to truly be repentant before he forgave them

  33. Acanthaster says:

    A priest once shared a story where he said, “I ask the question ‘what would Jesus do?’ But then realized the question is wrong. I should be asking, “Jesus, what are you doing?” He isn’t gone and far off…He’s still working in us and others. That’s the point, isn’t it? When our will and God’s will line up. That we die to ourselves and just let Him work in us.

  34. Palladio says:

    The bad in it so outnumbers and outweighs the good, or at least the putative good, that I see it as next to useless, mostly harmful, if not wholly bad. As used, it is, isn’t it?, a protestant saying. Where protestantism has cut itself off from the Church of Christ, the expression seems a feeble exercise in nominalism. If a Catholic used it, I would say simply how reductive it is.

  35. Peggy R says:

    Right: As many have said, appealing to the example and authority of Jesus, the Son of God.

    Wrong: Many good points above. It is too simplistic. We are not God and cannot do what God did. I tend to think, “What DID Jesus do?” That is a more definitive statement and calls us to look at what Jesus actually did while He was on earth. I think that’s important when we deal with wymym priests who think Jesus would choose women today as apostles/clergy since we’re less patriarchal, their reasoning for Jesus choosing only men. But, Jewish society was different from the pagans who had women priestesses. Judaism distinguished itself by having a male clergy. That is why Jesus choose men, in Jewish tradition, which we continue as Catholics.

  36. AnnAsher says:

    What is wrong with the phrase? It is simplistic.
    What is right with the phrase ? It is simplistic. If it is understood then Jesus: Prayed. Went to “Church”. Obeyed His Father. Read Scripture. And he walked a lot. These would all be good things efficacious for the life of the soul.

  37. iPadre says:

    I hate that phrase WWJD. It sounds like something you would find in a Cracker Jacks Box.

    Plain and simple, Jesus would say the BLACK and do the RED!

    [I like the way you think.]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  38. Ben Kenobi says:

    Couple things.

    “What would Jesus do”, is subjective tense. It’s there for a reason, because you yourself, all alone are able to correctly interpret the mind of God. It implies that “there is no other authority that has the authority that you have in your own individual interpretation.” People, there’s a reason why Protestants use this. Folks should see where I am going with this…

    See, Jesus didn’t ask us to do this. He told us to obey the magisterium whom he specifically appointed (starting with St. Peter). WWJD, does an end around this. “I don’t need to follow what the priest tell me to do, I can figure it out for myself!”

  39. Stephen D says:

    Perhaps: ‘What should I do in this situation to please Jesus?’ (Even if I offend everyone else)

  40. Jeannie_C says:

    iPadre:

    You deserve today’s gold star!

  41. Johnno says:

    What is Right: It reminds us to always keep our cool and think and join our words and actions in imitation of Christ.

    What is Wrong: Most people don’t know who Jesus Christ is or what He said or did or commanded, nor the foundation He stood on. They only have a false feeble impression of him thanks to Protestantism and the Divine Brotherhood of Feelings First/Logic Second, if at all. Most think they are Christ reincarnate and therefore their opinions and Christ’s are one and the same.

    I’m down for ‘What Did Jesus Actually Command You To Do?’

  42. scarda says:

    It will never be popular or fashionable, but I think “Go and sin no more” would be a nice reminder.

  43. acardnal says:

    The Chicken wrote, “Jesus is a singular ontology, a singular event in existence.”

    Aren’t we all? Particularly one’s soul.

  44. Allan S. says:

    Remember, when you ask “What would Jesus do?” sometimes the answer will be “Knock over all the tables, and trash the joint!”

    :)

  45. Fr. W says:

    Want to know what Jesus would have us do? He left us the Church to tell us.
    ‘He who hears you, hears me.’

    What would Jesus do? He would do exactly as his Holy Catholic Church is telling us to do. The Church is His voice on earth.
    but ‘if he refuse to hear even the Church, let him be to thee as the heathen.’

  46. frjim4321 says:

    It’s not a helpful phrase and is almost always misused.

  47. Unwilling says:

    Recte:. Qui sequitur me non ambulat in tenebris (Io 8:12). Verba Christi, quibus admonemur quatenus vitam eius et mores imitemur: si velimus veraciter illuminari, et ab omni cæcitate cordis liberari.

    Male: Post a Patre sufficit.

  48. WWJD usually means what would I do…meaning fit Jesus into my mold.

  49. Deacon6 says:

    Since I see so many people that are so secular in their attitude, I think if they were to begin to ask WWJD it would be a HUGE step in the right direction for them. Given the world today, bringing Jesus into the discussion is a major step forward. When can fine tone the question from there.

  50. Deacon6 says:

    Correction: We can fine tune the question from there.

  51. Scott W. says:

    Since I see so many people that are so secular in their attitude, I think if they were to begin to ask WWJD it would be a HUGE step in the right direction for them.

    I respectfully disagree. WWJD reduces Our Lord to just another guru. The dominant secular view is Political Correctness which is indistinguishable from Unitarianism, which WWJD feeds disastrously into .

  52. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Imitating Jesus is good. It is good to use our God-given intellects and prudence to understand what to do in particular or new situations, by imitating or extrapolating from His actions and commands.

    It is bad to use slogans to lord it over people, or to make what should be a reminder into a source of thoughtless complacency or justifications for doing evil. But then, that’s something we all have to look out for, when it comes to our prayer lives and devotional lives.

  53. Deacon6 says:

    Scott,

    For many Jesus is not listened to at all. A “guru” is at least listened to. Now, they need to listen better and deeper to realize that he is not simply a guru, but Lord. But we have a starting point. Like in the Gospel where an individual first meets Jesus and calls Jesus “sir.” After some interaction with Jesus, Jesus is “Rabbi”, and finally at the end of the exchange Jesus is called “Lord.”
    WWJD types at least have the beginnings of faith, in my experience, even though it may be very immature and imperfect.
    At least the WWJD crowd is recognizing a moral authority outside of themselves, however poorly expressed or developed. It’s a starting point for further evangelizing and catechizing.

  54. Scott W. says:

    At least the WWJD crowd is recognizing a moral authority outside of themselves

    I not so sure. In my encounter with the WWJD crowd, it seemed to me that Jesus was indistinguishable from their own inner monologue. It’s nice, but even pagans are nice.

  55. Scott W said,

    ” it seemed to me that Jesus was indistinguishable from their own inner monologue. “

    exactly. Maybe we should stick with the acronym JMJ :)

  56. Elizium23 says:

    I would suggest for Fr.Z-swag: WWRMD? (What Would the Roman Missal Do?) or WWGIRMD? (What would the General Instruction of the Roman Missal Do?)

  57. MattH says:

    When the phrase began to appear on bracelets, t-shirts, etc as part of Christian pop culture back in the 1990s, it was coming out of a book, “In His Steps.” While the book wasn’t perfect, at least there was some type of content behind the expression. It seems to me, however, that the phrase became more popular than the actual book, and the underlying content for some people might be no more than “I personally feel Jesus would…” It is a good thing to have people thinking about the person of Jesus, if their concept of Jesus is rooted in the Gospels as understood by the Church. It is less helpful if their image of Jesus comes out of some other source, as is too often the case.

    I also agree that a better question is “What does Jesus want me to do?” or “What did Jesus say to do?”

  58. deitzcer says:

    What’s right: The true meaning of “What Would Jesus Do?”, which, as you say, Father, is “Say the black, do the red.”

    What’s wrong:
    1) That it the message has been reduced to anything else you’d see on the back of a car, and has just become a blanket term “to be kind”. Pretty soon retail will drive it down the same road that they sent the fleur-de-lis. It became “French décor”, and has been plastered on anything and everything next to all the “Live, Laugh, and Love” signs. And isn’t it strange how God’s angels resemble fairies more and more each day? No one will know or really care why someone came up with WWJD.

    2)Christ wanted us to bring His message to others by living His message faithfully. I wear a miraculous medal around my neck everyday. It is not a fashion statement, or a way to tell everyone that they need to be “holy like me”. It is close to my heart and a reminder each time I touch it or look in the mirror of how I need to live. WWJD? He didn’t slap his message on the back of a donkey cart and call it a day. Easy or difficult, He told us how to deliver God’s message.

    I liked the reference Allan S. made to Jesus’ encounter with the tax collectors. I thought of the same thing.