Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.
Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.
1 Corinthians 1:11
Abba Poemen said that somebody asked Abba Paisios, “What am I to do with my soul, for it is insensitive and does not fear God?” and he said to him, “Go and attach yourself to a person who fears God, and from your contact with that person you too will learn to fear God from him.
The Case for Imitation
A while ago I made a post on a four-fold method of reforming our habitus, our reflexive bodily behavior, to one which is more Christlike. This post is about the method of having Role Models.
Paul often advocated for the following of him. This is sometimes seen as arrogant behavior typical of Paul, but this is actually nothing more than a pedagogical method common in the ancient world. According to Ben Witherington III, in the ancient world “imitation of good models was seen as the shortcut for the student who wanted to get ahead in life.” First century Greek orator and philosopher Dio Chrysostom said, “For whoever really follows anyone surely knows what that person was like, and by imitating his acts and words he tries as best he can to make himself like him. But that is precisely … what the pupil does – by imitating his teacher and paying heed to him he tries to acquire his art.”1
We see this in child development as well. We are wired to copy the behavior of those around us, particularly those older than we are. I was unaware as to what degree this was done in children until I had kids of my own. My children don’t just look up to me, they often try to copy what I do as closely as possible. Whether it’s bringing a spoon to my mouth, forming certain sounds with my lips or just copying every movement I make when being goofy at the park, my kids are always watching, always copying, and always learning. This does not of course mean that they will become exactly like me, but this devotion to following my actions leads them to grow in a way that is very much like me. We naturally imitate those around us, so let us make sure that those we imitate are those worth imitating.
Obviously the person in whom we should be most adamant in imitating is Jesus himself. In fact, our imitation of everyone else should be only in order to better imitate Christ. That said, I will not be talking much about the imitation of Christ in this post, but will instead focus on the imitation of others. We are, of course, to imitate Christ above all. If in imitating someone else we are not fact imitating Christ, then we are traversing down the wrong path. Additionally, any area of life that someone is not behaving ‘Christlike’ is not an area which should be imitated, although it doesn’t follow that nothing of that person is worthy of imitation. We must always go back to the words and actions of Christ himself. It is helpful, however, to find people who have perhaps gone through specific situations more similar to our own in order to learn how to best follow Christ.
The most effective way to imitate others is surely to interact with them in person. Presumably your spiritual mentor could fulfil this role for you. But in addition to this, or instead of if you really don’t have any Christians near you to follow, we can learn to be students of even those we only know through stories or written word. This could be incredibly helpful for devotional value within the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. Instead of stories that we either read for dusty knowledge or search for morals or lists of virtues, we can see these characters as actual people who lived in a way in which we can follow after them. Now it may seem a bit pointless, distant even, to follow anyone other than Christ even if to do so is to also imitate him. But there is great value in it. As we learn about these people, we can see them in scenarios which may be closer to our situations than any story that we have of Jesus. If they are truly obeying and living in the Spirit, then we can use them as guidance to help us when we are in situations similar to theirs.
Allowing a Biblical Character to be Your Role Model
As an example of how this can look, I’m going to use Moses. When we typically think of Moses and what we can learn from him. We think of the laws which he gave and that’s about it. Here I want to look at it from a different angle: How we can we look at his life and use it as a model for ourselves?
Here’s a quick recap of his life: Moses murders an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave. He then tries to help a dispute between two other Hebrew slaves when they scoff at him and remind him of his murder. He flees to the desert and becomes a shepherd in Midian for 40 years. After 40 years he encounters the burning bush which is never consumed by the flames. Here he meets YHWH and receives his divine mandate to free the Hebrew slaves. He has a great deal of doubt regarding his ability to do so, but eventually trusts YHWH and obeys him, resulting in the freedom of the slaves. They journey to Mt Sinai where he receives the ten commandments. He is incredibly angry to find out that the Hebrews had begun worshipping a golden calf while he was up the mountain, so angry in fact that he threw down the tablets and broke them. Nevertheless, he refused to let YHWH consume them, instead begging for his mercy towards them. From there Moses and his people wander through the desert on their way to the land promised to them by YHWH. Moses, however, is not allowed to enter. He was told by YHWH to speak to a rock which would then pour out water for the people. He was so fed up with the whiny and disobedient people though, that he lost his cool and smacked the rock with his staff while calling them rebels. YHWH still provides the water, but Moses is not allowed in the promise land.
There are several things which stand out here which are directly relevant in my life.
First is the Moses’ incredible compassion for the Hebrews. Whenever I read through Exodus and Numbers.. my goodness I’m impressed that he only hit a rock a few times late into the journey! They engage in idolatry, they complain, they refuse to trust YHWH, they turn on Moses.. Yet his heart still burns with love for them. He intercedes with YHWH on their behalf twice and remains their leader in spite of it all. This is something I need to learn from Moses, especially in terms of the greater society. It can be so infuriating to look at the news and see the support of racist measures, to see millions endangered by a virus for nothing more than greed. It is often infuriating to look at Christianity and see how much corruption it has and continues to cause. My instinct is to just pack it up. Leave them to their own destruction, what do I care? Those are my good days. On bad days I hope for their failure, not just of their unjust behavior, but in their lives. ‘They don’t deserve to be right’, I often think to myself. I want nothing to do with them except to oppose them.
This is where I can remember Moses. Moses, who refused to abandon his people again and again. He never gave up faith, not for good anyway. He continued to lead them, be patient with them and to work with them. And it was not for naught either! Moses is remembered as the greatest Jewish prophet and for good reason. So when I see masses of people supporting harmful policies, though I may keep my anger towards the injustice, I will bring to my mind Moses. “Lord, let me be like Moses who would not waver even if when faced with the worst of his people.”
Second is Moses’ association with the poor. Moses was raised Egyptian royalty, yet he thinks that somehow he has any sort of a say or understanding of the Hebrews. How dare he assume he knows what they go through and to judge them like that? How dare he think he has any respect or authority with them? It took 40 years of living as a shepherd among nomads to gain the perspective he needed. It was slow. It was more than just an intellectual education, he learned what it meant to live in the dirt and to earn his own food. He was not a slave, but he was hardly privileged either. It took this time to humble him. He went from thinking he could solve inter-personal quarrels, to recognising his incompetence.
When I feel I truly understand poor people or try to tell them how they should react or feel, I need to remember Moses. So often I look at myself and see that young Moses in my my thoughts and actions. Where is my Midianite tribe? What do I need to do to become more one with the poor and oppressed? And when I want to give up, I need to remember that Moses, my mentor in such matters, may have gotten tired of his shepherd life, but he kept pushing on until finally God deemed him ready to once again approach his people.
Third is Moses’ uncontrollable temper. Obviously, this is one of the things in Moses which I associate with, but I want to stay clear of. Moses had anger issues. We see this before he left Egypt and after. It was something he clearly struggled with his entire life. It lead to him murdering a man, it lead to his destroying the ten commandments and it led to him not being allowed into the Promised Land. I do not need to be like Moses in every way, and here is a way that I can learn from his mistakes. When I feel anger burning up, I can remember Moses and the lessons he learned from his mistakes and decide not to follow suit.
Notice that I’m not just taking a few life lessons from his story, I’m treating him like a person from whom I’ve actually witnessed this behavior. I bring to mind his story when it parallels mine and gain strength from his exemplary behavior. Of course I left out some of the more difficult aspects of Moses’ life like when he ordered that 3,000 people be killed after they worshipped the golden calf. I don’t need to make sense of everything he did in order to take that in which is clearly embodying Christ and using it as an example to follow.
So where can you find people of imitation? Is there anyone in your life worthy of imitating? Perhaps you are only an acquaintance of such a person. Go out of your way to spend time with that person so you may learn. Which characters in the Bible appeal to you? Who has parallels in your life that you can use as a guide, a councelor, an encouragement. Don’t be passive, search out these people and use them to better grow in Christ.
- Discourse 55.4-5, quoted in Ben Witherington III’s Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary