What would Jesus do? WWJD, a common refrain in Christian subculture of the mid-1990s, exploded into the popular vernacular and Christian kitsch by the end of the decade. Estimates of the number of WWJD bracelets sold in the United States during the last decade of the 20th century range from 15 to 52 million. The famous radio host Paul Harvey mentioned WWJD bracelets on his show every day for a week in the spring of 1997, generating exponential sales and ensuing trademark battles about who ultimately owned the catchphrase.
The origins of “What Would Jesus Do?” are contested. Some place the first reference to Thomas à Kempis in his book The Imitation of Christ, written in the early 15th century. Other observers trace the beginnings to Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon, who used it repeatedly in an 1891 sermon. Most observers seem to trace WWJD’s roots to Charles Sheldon’s 1896 novel, In His Steps: What would Jesus do? The book, which sold more than 30 million copies, was birthed out of a series of Sunday sermons delivered to his Topeka, Kansas congregation. The story chronicles the reverend Henry Maxwell and his church members, who determine not to act until they’ve contemplated what Jesus would do in a similar life situation. Sheldon’s approach — shaped by his commitment to Christian socialism, advocated by clergyman Washington Gladden in the late 1800s — served as a practical roadmap for ethical living.
It’s one thing to consider Jesus’ public actions as documented in the Gospel accounts, but an entirely different matter to contemplate his private, hidden actions. The first approach is more inferential; the second and less deductive and more imaginative.
Jesus’ Hidden Years
Throughout the history of Christian spirituality, the hidden life of Jesus has prompted conjecture and wonder. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius — guided movements of prayer and reflection composed between 1522 and 1544 AD — devote attention to Jesus’ hidden years, as does the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Jesus’ hidden, silent, or missing years refer to the period in his life up to his baptism in the Jordan River. With only a few exceptions — Jesus' birth, his parents’ presentation of him as a newborn at the synagogue, and his temple visit at age 12 — we know nothing of Jesus’ growing-up years in Nazareth. The Gospel accounts from Matthew and Luke offer glimpses of what might have transpired.
When [Joseph and Mary] had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. (Matthew 2:39-40)
And then, at age 12 when his parents mistakenly left him behind in Jerusalem, eventually finding him at the temple, Jesus returned with them to Nazareth, where he “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (Luke 2:52).
Both passages refer to Jesus growing in wisdom and favor in his hometown of Nazareth, which prompts the question: What experiences contributed to his maturation? Jesus’ developing work life — learning and practicing a trade in the context of community — is surely a vital piece of the puzzle.
We often think of Jesus as only a public, salvific figure. However, he was also an apprentice learning a craft, building relationships at home and at work, and making mistakes as he entered his vocational guild. Considering Jesus in these formative years can bring encouragement to us as we learn to be image-bearers in our current settings.
3 Not-Hidden Lessons
A model for apprenticeship. As an adolescent, Jesus would have apprenticed under his father, Joseph, as a skilled tektōn — a carpenter, woodworker, stonemason, and cartwright. Work of this nature was hard, and Jesus and Joseph would have traveled from Nazareth — a small, impoverished, agrarian, Jewish community of less than 500 people — to nearby Galilean cities like Sepphoris, a lavish community with 30,000 inhabitants a 90-minute walk away.
Like Jesus’, most of our work is out of the limelight. We do it quietly when no one’s watching. Imagining Jesus in these private, on-the-job moments can strengthen our sense of integrity and vocation. A calling to a particular trade, field of work, academic discipline, or familial role is something that’s often revealed over time. By learning to follow well, we learn to lead well. As we take active steps of obedience, we grow in wisdom and self-knowledge — learning how our unique experiences, interests, and passions meet particular needs in the world. The Greek verb applied to Jesus in Luke 2:52 for “increasing” in wisdom is proekopten — to advance, progress, and lengthen by hammering.
Early, formative work can feel like metal on metal, hard but vital for forging a good and just life. It’s in these crucible moments that we learn the lessons of work well done in both the means and the ends. As author Mary McDermott Shideler observes:
To be a person is to act, to work. In working we become our true selves and know ourselves and each other truly … work which is essentially trivial or shoddy, or consists of making things that are not worth making at all, diminishes the persons who engage in it at every level of production, exchange, and use. In contrast, they who love their work, and for love do it well, grow into the full measure of personhood.
A model for growing personhood. The 451 AD Council of Chalcedon clarified the doctrine of the trinity, particularly the two natures of the son, Jesus Christ, as both fully human and fully divine. Understanding Jesus’ nature — referred to as the hypostatic union — was a positive outcome for the life of the church, but possibly a limiting factor for the individual understanding of what it means to follow Christ as one being formed. Jesus had to learn how to crawl, walk, run, talk, pray, build friendships, and practice a trade. He didn’t emerge performing miracles and setting captives free. Rather, he had to grow in his understanding of who he was and what he was called to do; to assume otherwise strips Jesus of his humanity and our humanity, too. In dealing with ourselves and with others, we need space to become. Jesus matured. So, too, do we.
A model for rightful action. From his growing up years in the poor community of Nazareth to his work-related trips to wealthier cities nearby, Jesus would have known first-hand the struggle of those who suffer economically. As Jesuit priest and author James Martin observes, “Jesus would have been acutely aware of the income disparities in Galilee, the taxes levied on the people, and the way that something as random as drought can wipe out a year’s earnings.”
Jesus’ hidden years no doubt informed his sense of vocation. Experiences from Jesus’ early hidden life show up in his public teaching:
Take my yoke [a wooden harness crafted by a carpenter for oxen to ease the load of hauling] upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:30)
The missing years in Nazareth that formed Jesus’ heart are the underlayment of the perceptible years in public ministry that changed the world. Our lives are not binary — visible and invisible, sacred and secular, public and private. Lives are best lived holistically, seamlessly, authentically. Jesus’ hidden years encourage us to live lives that acknowledge God’s presence in daily experiences and circumstances. Moreover, they embolden us to carry our deepest passions, hurts, and dreams into the present.
What Would Jesus Really Do?
In a wonderful turn, Jesus, after his baptism and tempting in the wilderness, comes home to announce his public ministry.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ … Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. (Luke 4:16-19, 21)
What would Jesus do? Jesus would grow in wisdom, favor, and stature. He would learn a trade, produce high-quality work, mature as an apprentice, serve customers honestly, build healthy relationships; and pay attention to how, why, and where people were hurting. When entering a more visible vocation, Jesus would step up and proclaim his public intentions unapologetically. He would accept the mantle of leadership, but always remember that he too was a follower and servant.
Jesus had always been about sacred, kingdom, shalom-producing work. WWJD? He’d keep doing what he learned to do when the spotlight wasn’t so bright.