“To the extent that man does not use his freedom, he is not himself. In order to emerge from that indeterminate state, he must utilize his freedom in order to know and be known as himself.” – Fr. Dimitru Staniloae
A popular bumper-sticker-level spirituality swept the pop-culture scene several years back asking, “What would Jesus do?” It’s not the first time such a question (slogan) has been put forward as a model for the Christian life. It even sounds right. In 1897, Charles Sheldon published a book, In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? The book has sold over 30 million copies throughout the years, making it among the largest sellers of all time. It offers the story of how asking that simple question changed a number of lives and the world as well. But it’s the wrong question.
Strangely, the right question sounds wrong: “What would you do?”
The Christian life is not the same thing as the moral life. It cannot be described as a series of right choices (the Jesus choices). Our lives are not bifurcated into right and wrong. Our paths are far more complex.
The choices that confront us moment by moment rarely come in two’s. Sometimes they seem almost infinite. I recall a conversation with teenager some years back who was simply staggered at the thought of going to college, choosing a major and laying down a life path. “How can anyone know how to choose,” she said. Fortunately, most people accept the immensity of the whole thing with a bit more eagerness. But her point was well made: how do we know how to choose? How do we dare?
The path of the spiritual life is not a moral mimicry of Christ. I was not born in Bethlehem. My parents were not Mary and Joseph. My life is not that of the Messiah. My path is utterly unique. And this is its point. The uniqueness of the path we take is part of its inherent worth. The use of our freedom, in its right manner, toward the right end, is perhaps the most profound aspect of our Personhood. We do not ask, “What would Jesus do?” But we can ask, “What did the only fully authentic Person [Christ] do?”
The Scriptures offer some insight:
Then Jesus answered and said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner. (Joh 5:19 NKJ)
Every action of a person that is proper to them is ultimately an act of freedom. Love is the most essential act of freedom. Nothing can force me to love – for love cannot be forced. The transformation of the human being from natural existence to personal existence is our transformation from slavery to freedom. Personal existence is not a given – it is a gift of grace, the struggle to live as the Father lives, to do what we see the Father doing.
Perhaps a useful question for our slogan minded cultures would be: “What is the Father doing?”
He is giving Himself through His Son by the Holy Spirit. He is pouring out His grace and love on all without reservation. He is being kind to the ungrateful and the evil (Luke 6:35). In the same manner we can see St. Paul’s description of love in 1 Cor. 13. The Father is longsuffering and kind and does not envy. He does not parade Himself and is not puffed up. He does not behave rudely or seek His own. He is not provoked and thinks no evil. He does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth. The Father bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.
If we do such things we will be like our Father in Heaven and we will exist as true Persons, knowing ourselves and being known.
A profound challenge to present me the day after my deceased son’s 33rd birthday. I attempt, through the grace of God, to see the world – and especially His children – through His eyes. I cannot force myself to love another, but I find as I look at each individual as a child of God that it is very difficult not to love something about them. I do not know what they have suffered, as people who see me in the grocery store don’t know that I have lost a son almost 9 months ago. I hope I am at least on the path to becoming a Person.
Such suffering is almost impossible to share – for others cannot know its depths. But you know something of the depths of their suffering. And that it is something that you’re allowing to let you love others – as hard as it is – is a great gift of grace. I remember Aaron each day in my prayers and commemorate him at every liturgy. Memory eternal!
‘Strangely, the right question sounds wrong: “What would you do?”’
The wrong thing. Always the wrong thing. 🙂
Nihil refert. Quocumque tendimus, erramus.
We were attending a non-denom mega church in Oceanside. Pastor Shawn was preaching on “WWJD?” He said:
I leaned over to my wife and said, “He’d say, ‘Come out of her!'”
Best laugh I ever had in church.
I’m using that one!
Fr. Aidan. The beginning of wisdom.
may our Lord’s Mother grant you her joyous consolation of the Resurrection, She is the Woman who knows par excellence “both extremes”.
The Paschal canon is a fabulous aid in my meagre experience:
Concerning the nature/person = slavery/freedom understanding, I would like to clarify quite a fine point. As Father says: “Personal existence is a gift of grace“; the clarification being that it is not that nature is bad – besides, God has created it – it is that sin makes nature fallen, just as Grace makes nature deified. We mustn’t “escape the bondage of nature” in any Platonic sense, but, acquire God’s grace which frees us from falleness.
I know that F. Nikolaos Loudovikos has tried to clarify his teacher’s (Met. Zizioulas) position on this time and again, although I know his books to be far (very far) from an easy read.
This post is timely wisdom. I’m instructing a parish on confession. It is a huge mindset change for many of them to say that your primary reason for going to confession is not to litanize a big list of what you’ve done wrong, but in fact to start the healing process for a certain area.
Above you say: “The Christian life is not the same thing as the moral life. It cannot be described as a series of right choices (the Jesus choices). Our lives are not bifurcated into right and wrong. Our paths are far more complex.”
This is so true. Traditionally confession has been looked at as a time to update the naughty-and-nice list. Of course it is the correct place to list wrongs we need to right, but our past experience with an “angry God” has totally warped the true meaning of the sacrament.
If you have additional wisdom or sources concerning confession, please let me know.
Personhood hypostasizes nature. It is the hypostasization of nature in the freedom of true Personhood that says this. Would Loudovikos agree? I’ve not read him (or seen him in English).
Most people, most of the time, are going to be all about morality in confession. Sometimes the question of “how am I trying to do something?” versus “What am I trying to do?” is useful. The second question is the moral question. The first one is where the true problem is found. St. Paul would describe the second question as being part of the “Old Man.” Man apart from God can try to do the right thing (and he’ll fail). The point is to live and act in union with Christ, which raises all sorts of questions worth exploring. Thus the most important thing a person might say in confession is that they haven’t been praying, although they’ll think that the big thing is their anger.
Does it not take some time going through the morality list in confession before we can begin to get to not only what are we trying to do, but who am I?
F. N. Loudovikos is quite an expert on has critiqued/clarified the personalism of Berdyaev, Yannaras and Zizioulas in various books – or perhaps clarified it. On Zizioulas he sees an identification of blind necessity with nature and freedom with person as an ecstatic outlet from nature, not (in his opninion) a Greek patristic tradition, but, a Heideggerian one. As if nature is for Zizioulas practically –though not explicitly- identified with fall, in an Origenist manner.
Here’s a quote (one of his more polemical ones – even though he has the greatest respect for his teacher Zizioulas of course), from Loudovikos’ “A Eucharistic Ontology: Maximus The Confessor’s Eschatological Ontology Of Being As Dialogical Reciprocity”
where he critiques a passage from “Communion and Otherness” ( a fabulous book by Zizioulas) which he quotes to start off with:
It’s inevitable. Actually I can recall years ago someone going to confession and being all in his head over stuff like this (not the moral but the other) and being told by his priest, “That’s the worst confession I’ve ever heard.” 🙂
Maybe we could pose the question as, “What is the loving thing to do in this case?” Christ has summed up the Law in the commandment to love God and your neighbor, has identified Love as the most essential quality of God (to the limited extent that a human can attempt to describe the transcendent with a finite label). So, though Christ lived in a particular time and place, I do think we can ask how he would treat someone in our time and place, in the sense that we are trying to show loving kindness to those we encounter each day, following the Great Commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.
There was a moral theologian in the 60’s who used this method, doing what he called “Situational Ethics.” The difficulty, as I recall, was answering the question of “What is love?” I think it’s one of the right questions – but would suggest that it be answered in a dynamic manner – in which it would be descriptive of “What is the Father doing?” Thus, doing the loving thing, actually means we have to love in doing it. If the answer to these questions only prescribes behavior and is not itself the transformation of our lives, then it’s just another form of morality (legalism).
Good to have you comments!
Mary, I can say for myself that I find it quite difficult to determine what the loving thing is. All to often I lapse into simple, selfish sentimentality or what is easiest for me.
There has to be a standard. While that standard is never sufficient or complete, it can be helpful.
God’s grace goes above and beyond because He alone knows my heart. The loving thing is always that which turns one’s own heart and the other’s heart toward God.
My guess is he wouldn’t have used that wwjd “icon” in an Orthodox blog!
Our capacity to devise ways to be free of our freedom is mind boggling. The old man constantly seeks a rule, a law, a certainty, a wisdom or a sign.
“But no sign will be given to this generation but the sign of Jonah”….and ” we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
I guess I have to sound a note of disagreement.
I don’t think the question “WWJD?” is wrong — rather I find that many of the answers are shallow and phony. The imitation of Christ, properly understood, is the essence of the Christian life. The problem is, many only know Christ in a superficial and culturally conditioned way, and so they imitate a shadow at best and a fantasy at worst.
Furthermore, I don’t think we should condemn people who approach confession with simplicity, earnestly and passionately asking forgiveness for their transgressions and nothing more. Childlike trust in the power of absolution and true presence of Christ in the sacrament is wonderful and laudable. In a world where everything is explained away in psychological or sociological terms, it is increasingly rare for people to utter the simple words, “I have sinned by my own fault.” We don’t all have the luxury of access to wise spiritual fathers. Sometimes we must make due with repenting on our knees in the somber darkness of a confessional. To be honest, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
sometime I find it so hard to accept the freedom aspect of my faith. am I supposed to go steal, cheat lie and then just beg forgiveness? My Father used to tell me the time to be sorry is before not after. I face these challenges in my daily life, little sins, pad the time card, steal a cigar take the paper and not pay. no it is before, then my mind does not allow me to play tricks on myself. the rules are the rules and I do not expect to be rewarded for obeying them but am afraid of punishment for willfull diobeying/ not so much Hell just kicked out of the club and left to be alone. no finer thing for a addict and thief in recovery like my self to be ever repentant and aware of God’s mercy and help to overcome the wolf who would steal my soul
You misunderstand if you think I am judging confessions. As I noted, it’s easy for them to become too intellectual when they move away from the sort of simplicity you describe.
As for WWJD, think long enough about anything and it can be understood in an acceptable manner. Let the “lede” stand and serve the purpose for the article’s reflection.
In re: Mary’s comment – it seems to me that only one who loves could know the answer to the question, “What is the loving thing to do?”. It requires not only love, but faith to trust that what is wrong at one time and place is demanded at another.
I ought to add that any situational ethic rooted in any principle but love is most likely to be license to do whatever serves one’s own interest or feels good at the moment. Love does not always feel good.
Yes, yes, yes! I agree that WWJD or “What is the loving thing to do?” could become meaningless if you are trying to use it just to “get the right answer.” The greater point is not to outwardly do moral things, but to be transformed into loving people, people with the capacity to love and be loved by God. It can be a helpful reality check to think about the question because it’s perfectly possible to live entirely in our heads rather than our hearts and just go along doing what looks correct but without love. Maybe a pertinent quote would be “Love and do what you will.”- St. Augustine
I find it thought-provoking that WWJD has, to me, a definite Protestant flavour, (even just because of the simple fact that it is using the 3rd person rather than the 2nd). It sounds a bit cerebral in the 3rd person – as if it is a bit of a mental exercise- while it sounds far more heartfelt in the 2nd person. I guess the Orthodox equivalent could possibly just be “Lord Jesus Christ! Lord Jesus Christ! Lord Jesus Christ! “.
Putting my self under His loving gaze at all times and acting in that freedom makes all else feel like a fall back into slavery.
I wasn’t addressing you re: confessions.
And about the question “WWJD,” I don’t mean to be cantankerous or disruptive. I just don’t think it’s a bad question. Often I’ve paused to consider, “Am I acting in the imitation of Christ?” Such reflection has, in many instances, shaped my action for the better. The problem is that some folks, not understanding what Jesus did or who He was, can’t answer the question adequately. Perhaps I’m not grasping your critique of the question. If so, I apologize.
I want to thank everyone for their comments; they’ve been very helpful. What I now understand is that we start with the external wrongs – and this should begin every confession – but we also need to mature and move toward looking at the internals after that.
In other words, start with “I did something wrong” but over time be willing to take the next step and (with God) examine why “I am something wrong.” In our western mindset we tend to fixate on the punishment we will receive instead of the healing that needs to happen inside. The things we do generally come about because of who we are.
Lest I be misunderstood on this point, I’m not talking about me being inherently bad but being marred by sin.
Anyway thanks again for all the discussion on this subject.
I think that probably the person who was told “That’s the worst confession I’ve ever heard” had a deep and mature faith and that is the reason the priest hearing the confession could risk hurting him spititually
I am finding myself in exactly the dilemma of not knowing what the “loving thing” to do would be. I am considering applying for a new job. The work of the organization is very important and compelling, but the position is actually a little above my (proven) abilities. Also I would feel uncomfortable for being paid for the work since every penny would be away from the ultimate beneficiaries.
So do I apply for the job, because it would make life more interesting, because the work seems more important than what I do right know, at the risk that I get it and am not the best person for the job. And that leaving my current job might only be caused by boredom and a reaction to being irritated at my boss.
Or do I stay where I am and take the risk that my staying in the current position is just an excuse for laziness and inaction and not getting involved.
“What would Jesus do?” – Work without pay? I have a son and mother depending on me.
“What is the Father doing?”- Set up a system wherein people can work to change things? (It would be OK to receive a salary) Has given me a place(my current employment) where I can work out my salvation (lessons in humility)?
“The loving thing to do” – Either answer depending on how you look at it?
It’s not easy being Christian!
Marjaana: I think you apply for the job as you pray for His Will to be done.
Fr. Aiden & Christine,
I’m just reading this post tonight and saw your names among those commenting. I just wanted to say that I still think of both of you and your son in prayer. Though we have never met, I started following this blog shortly after Aaron’s death and encountering you both here moved me deeply. May you hear Him singing to your hearts…
Relying only on the questions “What is the loving thing to do?” or “What is the Father doing?” to guide our lives seems a bit like a catch 22. The only reason we have to ask such questions in the first place is because we lack that continual communion with the Father that would guide us into “knowing” (really, just “doing”) how to respond lovingly to each situation in our lives. If I “knew” what the Father was doing at all times, I sure hope I’d be doing it! It seems easier to try to follow the commands of Christ – do not judge, do not commit adultery in your heart (“whoever looks at a woman lustfully…”), etc.
I think what I was trying to say is that I find the explicit commandments of Christ and the Church to be very helpful. Take the subject of food as an example. If I have to decide whether or not to eat this handful of tasty animal crackers sitting right here in front of me (I work as a elementary school teacher), thinking about what the Father is doing is not all that helpful. What IS helpful is the little I’ve been able to internalize of the Church’s teaching re: indulging my senses (basically, “let him deny himself…” and avoiding “the lust of the flesh”). … I just don’t know what I’d do in any number of small situations like this if I didn’t have some idea of a set of rules to follow.
Hey, Christine and Father Aiden??? You may not remember me but I go to Holy Trinity Mission in Lynchburg, Fr. Alban’s Mission. How have you guys been?? It’s been a long time….you should come up one Sunday and serve the liturgy Fr. Aiden. I am serving as an acolyte and thurifer, its great. Well God bless the both of you.