Learning by Imitation
Imitation, Humility, Love, Generosity,
Over the past several weeks we have been looking at some very specific commands related to living as a follower of Christ. The idea is simple . . . if we are true followers of Christ then our lives should begin to resemble the life of Jesus.
This morning Paul makes that a little more specific with these words at the beginning of Ephesians chapter 5 which are of course connected to what we have been reading in chapter 4.
Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1-2)
We are imitators of God when we do what Paul has been telling us to do. The word for imitate in the Greek is the word from which we get our word mimic. Think about someone who is really good at impersonations. They study their subject closely. They pay attention not only to what they say, but also the tone in which they say it, and the mannerisms of the person as they say it. The best impersonators sound and even look like the person they are imitating.
We Learn By Imitation
We are natural imitators. We learn to walk and talk by imitating (which is why people born in various parts of the country have distinctive accents. You can see imitation clearly in the young child going through various rituals in a batting box imitating their favorite hitter. We see it in the way we talk and the ideas which we hold. We even see this in the way we dress. Sometimes women will bring a picture of someone into the hair stylist and say, “I want to look like this”.
It is a fact of life that we imitate those we admire. We adopt their vocabulary, we try to look like they look and behave as they behave. Sometimes this is unconscious. Paul challenges us to be conscious and deliberate about whom we are imitating.
In Romans 12:2 Paul wrote,
Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [NLT]
How Do You Imitate God?
The command to imitate God is a tall order. God is so different from us that this sounds like someone saying to us: “Imitate the Sun”. How do you imitate a ball of fire?
Before we can imitate God we must understand that God has two kinds of attributes. There are attributes that are unique to God, called incommunicable attributes (or non-transferable) attributes. These attributes would include God’s eternal nature (God has existed for all eternity, we have not), His unchangeableness (we change all the time), or his characteristics as one who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and His ability to be present everywhere. We will never have these attributes. They belong only to God.
There are attributes however, that we can share. These are called communicable attributes. We may never possess these things to the same degree as God does but we can imitate these characteristics. These attributes would include things like love, knowledge, mercy, wisdom, patience, justice and more.
We instinctively know those characteristics of God that are unreachable. Our challenge here is to be like God in the ways that we can be like God. The easiest way to do this is to imitate Jesus. Let me give you some Biblical examples.
We are to be like Christ in our generosity, as God has freely given to us so we should freely give.
But just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us—see that you also excel in this grace of giving. [2 Cor. 8:7]
We are to be like Jesus in the way we respond to those who attack us.
21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 22 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” 23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. [1 Peter 2:21-23]
Since Jesus did not return evil for evil we should not do so either. Since He let God handle any injustice toward Him as a person, so we should do likewise.
We are to be like Jesus in humility and service.
3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.[Philippians 2:3-4]
Jesus wasn’t concerned about what was best for Him. His concern was only what would please and honor His Father in Heaven. These are admittedly tough traits to imitate but we are to try to do so.
In Ephesians 5:2 Paul focused on just one example of an attribute that we can imitate: love. It is a popular term but a difficult trait to practice. We use the word “love” quite freely today. We love sports teams, music groups, vehicles, electronic gadgets, books, movies, clothes, hairstyles, and various people (many of whom we don’t even know). Love as defined by the world around us tends to be selfish. Its focus is feelings. We love those things which bring us some kind of pleasure. This is why people tell you that they “fell out of love” with someone. They mean by this that they no longer derive the same pleasure from someone or something.
The Greeks used different words to describe different kinds of love. Eros referred to intimacy or passion, Philos referred to friendship, Storge referred to family love. Paul did not use any of these words. He used the word agape. This word denotes a sacrificial love. In agape love the focus is not on us; it is on the other person.
Our challenge is to learn to love others not on the basis of how they make us feel, but because they are created by God and therefore worthy of love. It is the kind of love that is consistent and is what we talk about when we promise to love for better or worse, richer and poorer, in sickness and in health. It is a love that reaches to people we like and even those we don’t like. Jesus said,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
Every challenge needs a motivation. Every year a sports team goes through training camp motivated by the desire to be a champion. We are motivated by laws, by profit potential, or by a dream of doing something of significance. Paul gives the motivation of all motivations when he said “live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God”. Our motivation for living a life after the pattern God has set is the love that we have received from God.
We see God’s love illustrated quite graphically in the sacrificial death of Jesus. In Romans 5 we read this description,
6 When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. 7 Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. 8 But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. 9 And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. [Romans 5:6-9 NLT]
Note, God showed His love for us even though we were undeserving. The Bible is clear. We have all sinned and fall far short of the requirements necessary to be right with God. We are all guilty of what has been called “cosmic treason”. We have ignored the reign of God and have made up our own rules. The reason the world is in the mess it is today is because we have refused to do what God has told us to do.
In spite of all this, God sent His Son to pay the price for our sin. He did this because of His love, not because of our goodness. As the old song says, “He looked beyond our fault and saw our need”. If we are going to imitate God, then we must learn to look past the behavior or appearance of a person to see the image of God that may be buried in the rubble of their life. We must see what God sees in others.
Second, Jesus died willingly. Jesus was not a victim of circumstances. He was not “in the wrong place at the wrong time”. He chose to surrender His life as an atonement (or payment) for sin. One of the things you see clearly in the gospels is that Jesus knew why He had come to earth. He warned the disciples. He agonized in prayer. He surrendered to the Father’s plan. He did all of this before He was ever arrested by the Jews.
Love is a choice. If we are going to imitate God, then we must love willingly and not because we have been forced to love. Coerced love is not genuine love. Our world sees love as an emotion. It believes we must “feel close” to or “be attracted” by a person before we can love them. God calls us to choose to love whether or not we “feel” like doing it.
Often feelings of love will come after we have decided to love. This is because we have determined to look for that which is loveable. This is just the opposite of what we normally do. Usually we are attracted by certain character traits and then push away because of the negative things we observe. We need to turn things around.
Third, Love is Costly. The love of God cost Jesus His life. He suffered the penalty that we deserved. When Jesus hung on the cross the pain of the crucifixion (e.g. the nails, abuse, and suffocation) was secondary to suffering the wrath of God. Since God is holy and just He must punish wrong behavior (otherwise it is a perversion of justice). He punished Jesus in our place. This is why Jesus cried out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Let’s say your child did something horribly wrong. For the purpose of the illustration imagine they were involved in reckless behavior that resulted in the death of someone. Your child goes to court and is convicted of 2nd degree murder and sentenced to 15 years in prison. No one doubts that the sentence is fair and just.
Now suppose that you as the child’s parent step forward and agree to serve the time for your son. The Judge agrees because the demands of the law would be satisfied. The sentence would be carried out and the crime would be punished. However, because of your action your son has a chance to do something positive with his life.
This is what God has done for us. Our offense was much worse and consequently the penalty was much greater. However, Jesus took our place and suffered our penalty. He was our substitute. He is able to do this for so many people because as the Son of God His life is of infinite worth. Jesus died so that we could know life.
Return to that boy and his father. What kind of impact do you think the Father’s sacrifice would have on his son? It’s possible the son might squander his opportunity to live a new life and view his father a chump. But it is more likely that this son would be changed forever by the love of his Father. Every time he visited dad in prison, every time he thought about what his father had sacrificed for His freedom, he would be motivated to live differently. He would be much more loving because He understood what love really was.
This is what Paul is telling us to do. He tells us to remember how God has loved us, to embrace that love, and then to allow it to change us forever. Love is not easy. In fact, love often brings pain. Love takes time, is requires sacrifice and it means setting aside thoughts about what “we deserve”. It is hard enough to learn this in marriage . . .harder still to learn this in our everyday relationships or with our enemies.
How Do We Proceed from Here?
What should we do in light of all of this? I have some suggestions.
First, embrace this love of God for you. The Bible summons us to entrust ourselves to this One who loves us with an everlasting love. It seems foolish to walk away from such love yet people do it every day! They hear the truth and quite simply don’t care. They want to do their own thing. They pass on the love God wants to give.
It is impossible to love in the way we are challenged to love if we have not first experienced this love from the Father’s hand. We are all tempted to try to EARN God’s love, but there is no way to do this. Before we will ever be able to love we have to first allow ourselves to know the love of God.
How do we do this? It starts by running to Him rather than turning from Him. It is about believing that His sacrifice is sufficient for our sin and resting in His forgiveness. Simply put, Have you ever said, “Yes” to Jesus?”
Second, Study the character of God. It is impossible to imitate someone you do not know. It is impossible to imitate mannerisms of which you are unfamiliar. The same is true with the Lord. We must get to know Him. We do this through reading the Bible, through quiet reflection, and by talking with Him. Listen to what Jesus taught and learn from how He responded to others. Begin to apply those lessons to your own life.
Third, Make the effort to put into practice what you learn. Let’s go back to the toddler who is learning to walk. At first when the toddler tried to pull themselves up it is frustrating. They only stand for an instant and then they fall. The whole process of learning to walk requires overcoming many frustrations and failures.
Let’s suppose that child tried to get up and simply said to themselves, “This is too hard. I am sure I can’t do this”? Obviously the child would never learn to walk, run, or probably do anything else.
The same is true in our Christian life. Much of the time we know what we are supposed to do. The problem is that we are afraid to make the effort. We are concerned that we will mess things up or fail, or humiliate ourselves.
No matter what we set out to do in life we are not going to be very good at it at the beginning. We will stumble. We will fall. We will look pretty unbalanced and feel like we are out of our league. And this is where the choice comes in. We must make the effort.
We need to take one step at a time. This may involve having a conversation with a friend about their relationship with God; it may involve changing some deeply ingrained habit; or it may mean radically adjusting your values. It is not enough to talk about doing these things . . . we need to make the effort. The biggest reason we fail to change is because we often fail to begin!
This isn’t going to be easy. It will take practice and hard work to imitate His life.
- It’s not easy to love someone who attacks you.
- It is not easy to serve someone who taunts you.
- It is not easy to remain pure in a world that regularly negotiates morality and purity.
- It is not easy to be humbly dependent in a world that applauds pride and arrogance.
- It is not easy to forgive someone who wounded you.
- It’s not easy to fulfill commitments when those commitments are most costly than you anticipated.
None of these things are easy. However, we aren’t asked to imitate God because it is easy. We are told to imitate Him because His way is the best way; it is the only way that leads to new life. We are to imitate Him because as we do, God’s power is released in our lives. We imitate the Lord because this is the best way for us to reveal Him to the watching world. People need to see Jesus at work in our lives before they will ever believe what we have to say about Him. So, in that sense, imitating the Lord in our lives really is a matter of life and death.