A Direct Line To God?
1 Thessalonians 1.6 You imitated us and the
The exasperated cry of a parent,
"Do as I tell you," must be familiar to us all. If you're anything like
me, you'll recall the sense of anger you experienced as a child or
teenager when you heard the refrain. And if you're a parent, you'll
probably know how a teenager can look at you as though you're a species
from another planet.
Reflecting on the times I've used the same phrase with
my children, it occurs to me how often over the years I have unconsciously
imitated my parents, how I've done as they told me to. I suddenly become
aware of a gesture, a tone of voice, a phrase which catapult me back into
Imitation is, of course, entirely natural to us all.
Without the facility to imitate others we wouldn't get off first base in
the often harrowing and tortuous process of growing up. Learning language
as a child is probably the most fundamental imitation of them all.
I suspect, however, that the natural gift of imitation
through which we learn to be human isn't what Paul meant when he points
out that the Thessalonian Christians had imitated how he, Silas and
Timothy "lived when we were with you" and had in turn "become an example
to all believers in Macedonia and Achaia."
When Paul talks of being an "example" for others to imitate, he is
saying that he and other leaders had a God-given right to be imitated. He
maintains that the right is initiated and preserved "with power and the
Holy Spirit, with complete conviction of its truth." In other words, it
comes straight from God.
Paul was putting his finger on a basic aspect of the culture in which
he and the first Christians all lived - an aspect which is well on the way
to disappearing in the West today. They thought of a hierarchy of wisdom
extending from God downwards through his inspired leaders to us ordinary
followers. In such a universe, imitation of those above and by definition
better than ourselves proves to be a natural course of action.
Thus on the rare occasions Paul talks about personal choice, as in his
letter to the Romans (2.18), the right thing is to do "what God wants".
And, of course, what God wants is what Paul says is right. Paul is
unambiguous about this. He often talks about himself as "... an apostle
chosen and called by God to preach his good news" and similar phrases. He
warns the Galatian Christians (1.8) that "... if anyone preaches a gospel
that is different from the one you accepted [from Paul], may he be
condemned to hell!"
As the world of the 21st century is westernised, so this way of
perceiving life becomes more and more alienating. Though few of us
recognise it, this is because something strange and new (thinking in terms
of centuries, that is) has happened to us in the West.
We no longer easily think in terms of imitating wise men and women as a
sure way to God. Unlike most people who have preceded us in faith, many of
us have adopted an entirely different way of relating to the world. We
regard ourselves as not only able to to choose for ourselves without
reference to a higher authority, but as less of a person if we don't work
out our own way ahead in life.
It's not as though we refuse to seek counsel. We do that today more
than ever before - through friends, counsellors and other professionals
skilled in the art of helping us understand our needs and
responsibilities. But we have a diminishing need to imitate others because
they claim to have been given the right way by God.
Ask yourself this: If you have a life-choice to make, or if you need to
work out what's right or wrong in a tricky personal or social situation,
do you automatically seek out God's representatives on earth? And if you
do, are you willing to accept their advice or ruling simply because they
claim to have a direct line to God?
I think few of us now do what once came naturally to most religious
people. Imitation of godly people is no longer a priority for most of us -
which is perhaps why so many nowadays have ceased to look to the saints as
examples of how to live the Christian life.
In short, autonomy and not imitation is our norm. God is for us no
longer a power who determines what and who we should be, but a presence
who affirms and supports us in our mature life choices. To put it another
way, we're no longer in bondage to the law, the "right way" given by the
Instead, we're free to discover how God works in the world and to
harmonise ourselves with the wonderful working out of universal purpose.