For most of my life I have failed to understand the command I sometimes hear from Christians to “imitate Christ.” I know this comes from Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians 11:1, where he says, “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” It also makes sense from a Jewish perspective: disciples’ main goal is to become like their rabbi. But the way the command is implied in modern conversations and messages has long frustrated me.
Nowadays when most other Christians say we should imitate Christ, I’ve understood them to mean we should act, speak and think exactly like him. I hear them say we should be factory-manufactured copies of Christ. In short, I hear them say, “Be Christ.” While I agree we should imitate Jesus, I disagree with many people’s meaning behind the words.
I hear this underlying message often. I hear it in the words, “Be Christ to the poor.” I hear it when people urge, “Be Christ to the unbelievers.” And I hear it when they say, “Be Christ to your enemies.” While I can help each of these groups of people by God’s grace and power, I cannot “be Christ” to them.
I am a sinner whom Christ redeemed and freed from the bonds of slavery to sin. I was “dead in [my] transgressions and sins, in which [I] used to live when [I] followed the ways of this world,” but now God has made me “alive with Christ” and He has “raised [me] up with Christ and seated [me] with him in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 2:1-2, 5-6). I have been redeemed. I cannot be the redeemer.
I am also a recipient of our heavenly Father’s grace. And like Abraham, I receive His grace in order to give it to other people. I am a conduit of God’s grace. I cannot be the source of grace.
I am part of Christ’s body. There are many parts to his body and I am but one. I am unique and I am following his lead. I cannot be the head and control the whole body.
I cannot be Christ. But I can follow Christ and learn to “imitate him” more in time.
I said all that to say this:
For so long I have heard a rebuke in the church saying, “Difference is bad!” I have been urged to follow a certain lifestyle, spend my time with certain people and only do certain activities and tasks. I must stay in the boundaries of tradition “because Jesus commanded us to be holy.” “Holy” in this argument means “perfect,” which in turn means “the same as other Christians.” Or, more accurately, “wear the same mask that other Christians wear.”
I have tried to live this way. But it only restricted my freedom to be myself, while Jesus teaches, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” In spite of all my efforts to fit my thoughts, appearance, words and actions into the stencil crafted by the American church, I could never succeed.
I’m learning this is because I am different from other people.
I am intellectual. I think deeply and constantly–indeed, I think too much. I over-analyze people and situations, and I tend to ponder a decision too long to ever make one. I also tend to say awkward sentences in failed attempts to sound poetic.
I am sentimental. I keep objects because they remind me of people I cherish. I cry often when I hang up the phone after talking with my father, mother or brother because I wish to see them again. And I care too much how other people feel.
I am knowledgeable. I enjoy nothing more than learning information I deem beneficial. I carefully observe my surroundings wherever I am. And I often choose to read a book instead of spend time with people.
God has made me unique. Fighting my personality and peculiarities has accomplished nothing but exhaustion, frustration and anxiety.
God has given me gifts. He has made me different to help other people grow and worship Him more. He has empowered me to show His glory and majesty in ways without which other people would not see Him as clearly.
God has shown me specific love. He has given me grace and forgiveness in each of my specific failures and has comforted me in ways I specifically need and crave. He does this so I can forgive and comfort other people, who will always look and act differently than I will.
Instead of grace and forgiveness, I have learned judgment from many people in the church. Difference isn’t tolerated and yet it isn’t punished outright because punishment is taboo in the church. As a result, the only remaining response to difference is judgment. People in general have long responded in contempt when I said or did something they did not understand. And tragically, misunderstanding in the church tends to lead to judgment. Instead of inviting me into their midst with love, mercy and acceptance, they rejected me because I had failed to adhere to their standards, and this resulted in painful exclusion.
Having said all that, I must admit I am a culprit of it all. As much as I despise being the one on the outside, I have been the one to keep other people outside innumerable times. We all, myself included, need our Father in heaven to guide us and empower us to show impossible grace to the people around us. Each of us is different from everyone else; the sooner we accept this, the sooner we can use our differences to better love and encourage one another.
When I submit to God’s endless love and grace, I shine in my differences with His glory and reveal the gospel of Jesus to the world. The same goes for other people, so I need my Father in heaven to help me give grace to them. No lifestyle, passion, personality nor past can stand between any person and God. God has redeemed us in our differences–let us pray He will help us use our differences to encourage, empower and embrace the people we meet.
Let Your kingdom come, Father, and Your will be done on Earth as it is in heaven. And forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from condemnation.