A while back, I went to the grocery store early in the morning. As I walked toward the store, a junky car pulled up driven by a hollow-looking man. The passenger door squeaked open and a woman emerged. She could not have been more than twenty years old. She looked physically ill and weary. It was evident that this man and woman were acquainted with multiple types of poverty. The woman entered the store and collapsed into one of those motorized shopping carts and I hurried past her to do my shopping.
Within a few minutes I was finished and I approached the checkout where I saw this woman struggling to put her few items onto the conveyer belt. As she did so, her purse tipped and dozens of coins spilled onto the floor. I knelt down to pick them up. She made no effort to help, but thanked me, adding that she had spent the night in the hospital and was not yet feeling well. When I was on the floor, I noted some baby items that were on the base of her shopping cart, hidden by a blanket that was draped over her lap. She did not put those items onto the conveyer belt. The cashier rang up her other things, which the woman paid for all in coins. She then turned to drive her cart away.
At that moment I fully understood this woman was shoplifting and I had only a split second to make a decision.
What would be the right thing to do?
What would you do?
I have often heard the counsel to consider “What would Jesus do?” But I, myself, have been bothered by this question. It seems to me that Jesus acted in a role and with a level of knowledge that I do not possess. He was the Savior of the world, and as such had a special stewardship over all people. And, being a god, he had perspective about the circumstances wherein every event took place and he truly knew the hearts of those involved. I knew very little about this woman’s circumstances and nothing of her heart. It seemed presumptuous to claim knowledge of what Jesus would do.
And so after saying a quick prayer, I acted almost unconsciously, calling to the woman and hurrying toward her. I moved her blanket and took the items she had hidden, saying, “It looks like you forgot about these.” I then quickly paid for them and returned them to her, attempting to diffuse any awkwardness from the woman or the bewildered cashier. My heart was racing, but I felt content that I had received spiritual guidance, and so I took some deep breaths and tried to forget about the whole thing.
But it is impossible to forget and it is impossible to escape. We will encounter challenging situations. They are part of our experience here on earth. And, because Jesus is our perfect exemplar, we are commanded to look to him for understanding and inspiration.
In the accounts we read of Jesus’ life and ministry, we see him react to interpersonal situations in diametrically different ways. He responded to all with great love and respect, but to most he offered encouragement, forgiveness and compassion while others he censured and rebuked. We see the difference in his approach to the woman at the well and to the rich young ruler; to the woman taken in adultery and to the scribes and Pharisees; to the soldiers who crucified him and to the merchants who set up shop at his holy house. In each case, it was within the Savior’s role or stewardship to perceive the heart and to judge. But very seldom is it our role or stewardship to do so.
If we casually ask ourselves “What would Jesus do?” in any given situation, we could be self-satisfied in acting in a manner driven by our own pride. We could rationalize improper actions by finding justification from Jesus’ own life as if the question were really “what would I do if I were Jesus.” I have, on occasion, heard individuals justify their inappropriate anger by saying, “Even the Savior cleansed the temple.”
The devil seeks to confuse us. He mingles truth with error, often in a manner tailored to our own weaknesses. If we want to make appropriate choices in difficult situations, we must recognize that the question “What would Jesus do?” is a spiritual rather than a cognitive question. It is a question that, if asked sincerely, will invite the Holy Spirit to show us what we should do.
When we sincerely invite the Spirit to guide our actions, we will be amazed by the things we are inspired to do. I certainly would not have thought to handle the shoplifting situation in the way I did. But that is the beauty of it! Rather than relying on our limited intelligence, we can tap into the problem-solving capacity of a perfectly loving and all knowing God.
In Gethsemane, the Savior gave us the ultimate example of submitting his desire, his will to a higher authority, that of his Father God. We can follow this example by letting go of our stubborn ideas of how things are and should be, and instead asking in each thought and in each situation, “What would Jesus have me do?” As we do so we always remember HIM, and in turn, invite the Spirit to be with us continuously.
The question “What would Jesus do?” is not an invitation for us to think, but rather an opportunity for us to feel.