The classroom held about 30 students. A class that size guarantees a mix of sleepers, zombies, texters and those rare few who participate in discussion. We spent the whole hour talking about the words of Jesus, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Is it possible? Can we really become like God? Was Jesus serious?
One student seemed to pay particular attention but hadn’t spoken up once during the period. I decided to draw her into the discussion: “We’re just about done for today. Tiffanie, you’ve been listening hard but haven’t offered your opinion. Why don’t you have the last word?”
She shifted in her seat uncomfortably and said, “I don’t know if He was serious, but one thing’s for sure: You ain’t Jesus.”
She got that right.
Yet somehow, Jesus asks us to lift our vision higher—high enough to see the possibilities of becoming like our Heavenly Father. That’s a problem: How are we to become like him? The problem grows deeper when we discover that he has ordained the use of imperfect and frail human beings to shape others into the image of Christ.
Most believers quickly jump to the defense of their own shortcomings with the excuse, “I’m not Jesus.” Of course not. Who could be? So deeply do we hold the conviction that we cannot measure up, it also becomes our handy defense to keep other believers at arms length—far enough away to prevent them from effectively shaping us into the image of Jesus.
We welcome the idea that—someday—we will be conformed to the image of Christ. We‘re a little fuzzier on how, exactly, that happens. The answer is both obvious and surprising: The Father uses other people to fashion us into the pattern of Christ.
For many Christians, this is a frightening prospect. This conversation could happen at nearly any church between an earnest disciple and a pastor:
“You’re trying to change me!” complains the disciple.
“You don’t think you need to change?” asks the pastor.
“Well, yes, but not by you!”
In other words, we acknowledge our need of Christlikeness but feel no one is qualified to help effect the change.
How does our perfect Lord expect imperfect people to shape others into his image? The hyperspiritual answer is usually, “No one can do that: He has to do it, by his Spirit.” Such an answer sounds spiritual, but ignores that God has chosen to do much of his work through other people.
“Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1)
The Apostle Paul had little trouble offering himself as an example of the path to spiritual transformation. Was he proud, or practical? His words appear at the end of a long theological discussion about whether the Christians of that day should eat meat offered to pagan idols (1 Corinthians 10-11). The real issue was whether these believers would judge one another over the choices they made. Sound familiar? Finally, after looking at all sides of the question, Paul got practical: “Look, just do what I do.” He could offer himself as an example not because he was so smart, but because he could demonstrate how to live in peace among Christians of differing opinion. The unspoken message is that Christlikeness is not a matter of opinion, but of how we live out our life with one another. Having examples helps: No amount of theology can replace the need for a living example.
Paul had no trouble suggesting that Timothy should follow his example: “You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose. … But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it” (2 Timothy 3:10-14). And this is from Paul, who earlier described himself to Timothy as “the foremost of sinners!”
What about us? Do we have someone to imitate? Before we jump in with the spiritual answer, “I imitate Jesus,” perhaps we should consider if Jesus himself has not given us someone a little closer to home as an intermediate step. Who can I imitate? It worked for Timothy, and it worked for Paul.
I can almost hear the voice of that girl from my classroom: “One thing’s for sure: You ain’t Paul, either!”