Immanuel, not a manual
I was inspired by Charles Sheldon’s classic In His Steps long before the book spawned the WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) craze of the 1990s. Part of the appeal for me was that one of the characters trying to live for a year as they believed Jesus would if He were in their place was a newspaper editor, grappling with the intersection of little truth and Big Truth: news and the gospel.
While I was delighted to see so many other people impacted by the book, as I had been, I always felt that the WWJD movement actually asked the wrong question. Rather than, “What Would Jesus Do?” people might have done better asking themselves, “What Would Jesus Be?”
I recalled this recently when my wife and I were asked to pray for a friend caught in a tricky work situation. The individual was having to deal with situations that left them unsure how to respond, wondering how to be professional without compromising their beliefs, and operating in an atmosphere that was rather hostile to people of faith.
As we prayed, we didn’t ask God for answers on what the person should do or say, but that our friend first and foremost might simply be a vessel of His presence. That might sound like a bit of a cop-out. Still, we prayed that way sure that Jesus wouldn’t be afraid to show up in that place, even if we did not know, or even dare to suggest, what He might say or do.
However, we did know this: He would be full of grace, truth, and the Holy Spirit—and the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. That seemed like a pretty good starting point.
Yes, it’s right to know what we believe and why. First Peter 3:15 (HCSB) instructs us to “always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.”
But this isn’t just about learning a set of comebacks for any and every argument. After all, Jesus told His disciples, “When they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not worry about how or what you are to speak in your defense, or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say” (Luke 12:11-12, NIV).
Some Christians I know quote the Bible as though the words themselves have some kind of magical power. Often they will add reference to Isaiah 55:11 (HCSB) as a sort of seal: “My word that comes from My mouth will not return to Me empty, but it will accomplish what I please and will prosper in what I send it to do.”
This strikes me as a sort of Christian version of “shazam!,” because the verse actually says the words that come from God’s mouth will be effective, not just words recited accurately. After all, the devil quoted scripture.
None of this is meant in any way to question the importance of the Bible. But it’s essential not to lose sight of the Author. Christianity is not simply having a set of right answers about God, but having God Himself. Jesus advised His disciples not to learn what to say, but to lean close to hear what He had to say.
Grateful as I am for the Bible, Christmas reminds me that the incarnation is ultimately not knowledge about God but knowing Him personally. Jesus came not to provide a manual, but to be Immanuel—God with us.
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