My old journals line my top shelf, crammed in next to each other, a mishmash of colors and styles. Hardbound books, cheap scratch pads, date books. I’ve journaled my devotional life for five years now, and I can look up and see it all sitting there: years of questions, answers, musings, recorded on ink and paper.
I don’t go back and read them often. But I flipped one open in search of old notes on the book of Matthew one day and stopped when I came to these words, written in smudgy black ink: “Lord, I’ve come to the Gospels now because I want to know You. I don’t want ‘Love the Lord thy God’ to be a religious maxim I strive to keep. I want to really love the real You.”
My heart moved at those words. I still want that — but it’s no easy goal! Who is He, this Jesus, this God? In so many ways strange; so unlike us. How can we know Him?
The entry continued. “I find the Gospels difficult — I suppose I find You difficult. You won’t fit within the confines of the New Testament or the Old. You’re ever and always Yourself. But it’s Yourself who ‘came to save His people from their sins’; Yourself who chose and ordained me; Yourself who’s living now and reigning. It’s You I want to know.”
Back in my teen years, “What would Jesus do?” was the catchphrase that identified the in-crowds of young Christendom. We wore “WWJD?” on our wrists, around our necks, and on our backpacks. But I never confessed how much the question frustrated me.
“WWJD?” we asked — “How can I possibly know?” I wondered. Christ was unpredictable. He was perfect. And He was God’s Son. I may have grown up in the church, but that didn’t mean I knew this inscrutable being on whom I trusted for life, joy and salvation — not the way I knew my friends and relatives. He was beyond me.
And then God gave me a new question to ask, and it changed everything. It came as I read the book of Matthew and asked God to help me know Him, a quiet, insistent question that flooded the passages I was studying with new light.
Not “What would Jesus do?” — a question that could only invite speculation.
Rather, “What did Jesus do?”
Asking what Jesus did shines light on His teachings, on His character, and on His love — and at the same time, it illuminates our role in this story as nothing else can do. It has done so for me. Actions, as the old saying goes, speak louder than words. Jesus’ actions balance and interpret His teachings, rescuing people like me from the misunderstandings we’re so prone to while challenging us to follow in much deeper ways. They help me understand the heart of God. The more I look at what Jesus did, the more I love Him, admire Him, and want to follow. There has never been another like Him.
Jesus’ teachings are often hard to parse, for by His own admission He spoke in parables and “dark sayings.” In a way, He riddled. But He lived the answers to His own riddles, and studying His actions has helped me understand His teachings.
Take His words about hatred for your family and life, for example. What did Jesus say? “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Hating one’s own family hardly seems like a way to follow a God of love — in fact, I have a hard time reconciling those words with the character of God at all.
But what did Jesus do? Just what He asks of us: On earth, He left His mother, His brothers, and His sisters to walk a road they refused to follow. And in a sense He “hated” His Father — that is, He chose to leave the Father’s presence — to follow a road that would temporarily sever their oneness. This is “hatred” in the biblical sense; it is rejection, leaving, choosing something other.
Why did He do it? Ultimately, He left His Father in order to honor Him — as no one else would ever do. He hated His mother, brothers, and sisters in order to save them. He gave up His earthly life to redeem us.
Jesus hated because that was the best way, the only way, to fully love.
Asking what Jesus did interprets His words and helps me understand His call in this area. More wonderfully, it helped me see Him. I realized as I hadn’t before that leaving His family was a sacrifice for Him. I saw His humility and the unfathomable depths of His dedication to the Father’s call. I realized how much courage and character it took to live out His own teachings, and it hit me that, having gone through such difficulties, Jesus has a great deal of compassion for me.
Asking what Jesus did is life-changing in practical ways too — but not because I’m capable of following in His footsteps. Rather, asking what He did reminds me that my salvation isn’t based in myself, but in Him. When I face temptation, it helps me immeasurably more to ask what Jesus did do than what He would do. After all, what He would do is act with perfection of motive and love, and I am so far from that perfection. What He did do was die on the cross in my place, fill me with His Spirit, and impart His righteousness to me. Trusting in what He has accomplished, I am suddenly able to overcome.
Flipping through my old journals, I find revelation after revelation flowing from the question of what Jesus did. The stories are all there, quietly answering the most important question we can ask. It’s not what Jesus would do that transforms us. It’s what He did do, for us, to us, in us.
For years I tried to make myself into Jesus’ image, but it was an image I couldn’t see. My attempts could only produce warped, muddy imitations. But Paul gives us the key to transformation in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” Open the eyes of my heart, we sing. I want to see You.
The more clearly I see what Jesus did, as a man, as a son, as a Lord, the more I desire to follow in His footsteps. At the same time, I understand my own worth so much more clearly. I know I needn’t fear He will leave me if I fail. Jesus’ actions show such commitment to saving us — to saving me — that I can’t truly believe He would ever let me go.
What Jesus did is the most important reality in my life. By asking a simple question, I find myself on a road to knowing the most remarkable Man who ever lived — the one who sought me, saved me, and seeks fellowship with me now. Through the actions of Jesus Christ, I am saved, I am awed, and I am transformed.
Copyright 2009 Rachel Starr Thomson. All rights reserved.