“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.