I am not writing these things to shame you, but to warn you as my beloved children. For even if you had ten thousand others to teach you about Christ, you have only one spiritual father. For I became your father in Christ Jesus when I preached the Good News to you. So I urge you to imitate me.” (NLT)
It is a very brave (or foolish) person who publicly invites a group of people to imitate him. And yet, we seem committed to the idea that we all need good role models and need to be good role models. So perhaps we are like those who suggest, “do as I say not as I do”. This won’t do for Paul though. He isn’t at all hesitant about urging his troublesome Corinthian readers to follow his example.
It is interesting to note that the sort of things Paul wants them to imitate seems to be more about his perseverance in weakness and his grace under hardship than about stunning victories and impressive statistics. We sometimes think that we can’t possibly provide a good example because we seem so weak or so troubled. Life has not gone smoothly for us. Life wasn’t smooth for Paul but he wants his readers to imitate him in the way he coped with the rough spots. Not with the way he avoided them.
We are to be role models, but not models of perfection. Rather models of growth, models of how the constant grace of God can work on stubborn and unpromising material. People who reckon they are pretty good and always on top of things are models of arrogance and self confidence and so no role models at all. Such people tend to discourage others because mere mortals like us can never quite measure up to them.
Of course this ought not to make us complacent. We are to set a good example. We are to be the sort of people others can safely and gladly imitate in a general sense. When we go through tough times remember that others watch us to see if our faith sustains us, to see if we persevere. It is no great problem if we have our bad days and don’t always cope well. That shows we are human. But with the help of God we can press on and even flourish. In doing so, we are examples to imitate. Not plaster saints or pedestal bound heroes. But ordinary people who cling to an extraordinary God.