COLLEEN R. VERMEULEN
After we’ve put our faith in Jesus as our Lord, we share in God’s divine life. The Holy Spirit flows in us, and we know we ought to be truly living as a disciple of Jesus Christ, but how to do this often seems like an insurmountable task.
The New Testament offers many summary statements on how we are to live, day-to-day, as part of the Body of Christ. First and foremost, what’s called, “The Greatest Commandment” (which is actually two commandments), “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:25-28, cf. Matthew 22:35-40, Mark 12:28-31). Or, as the Evangelist John puts it, “love one another, as I have loved you” (John 13:34). Or, as Paul writes to the believers in the city of Philippi, have the same “mind” or “attitude” as Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5). All in all, daunting to think about how far my daily reality of behaviors, words to others, actions, and attitudes is from how I’d imagine Jesus would treat my family and others in such situations.
But, another summary verse of how to live provides encouraging insights of not only how we go about living as God wants us to, but who we are along the way. The Letter to the Ephesians exhorts: “be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Ephesians 5:1).
Yes, we are to be, act, and think like God. We are to imitate God like children.
Notes from my own family
I’ve seen from my own children how truly childlike imitation is comedic, halting, illogical, persistent, and sophisticated, all at the same time. Take, for example, a baby. A baby, who cannot yet sit, crawl, or say words, imitates the rhythm of conversation. If I coo at our 5-month-old, he’ll make noises back, and then stop, so that I can talk or make noises back at him. He’s imitating the flow of conversations he hears around him. He’s not remotely close to “talking,” but this is a key step of imitation. And so it is for us, before we can live into the moral heights of love we’d like to reach, we start with the smallest, simplest ways of imitating God. Our own equivalent of a baby’s babble — it’s nowhere near talking — yet as “beloved children,” God knows that the smallest things we do in love toward others are a necessary step toward the greater, more self-sacrificing acts of love God calls us to.
When we take small steps, as God’s beloved children, God looks at us with all of the potential that we see in our own children’s tiny babbles.
Toddlers and preschool-aged children too, continue the masterful art of imitation. I recall watching one of my sons, at age two, imitate “cooking.” He would get a pot out of a cabinet, put it on the stove [stove safely off!], pretend to pour water in it, bob his head up and down above and below the pot, then put some toy fruits and vegetables in, and finally, stir. Many times I watched him before I realized what the deliberate step of head bobbing up and down around the pot was — it was him imitating how I would often look under pots on our stove, to check the flame as I adjusted the heat. What care and detail! Had you asked me to write a list of “how to boil water,” I would have completely forgotten that small action, of bending my head to see the flame as it lit. As a toddler imitating a parent, my son had no idea what this action was that he was dutifully copying. He probably understood what getting the pot accomplished, or what placing food in the pot accomplished — but that visual check on the burner? He likely had no mental explanation of what I was doing, he simply copied the action. This example helps us as we follow the way of Jesus.
Some of the ways that God wants me to love others are obvious — meaning that I “get it” or understand what I’m doing and why. But, other elements of loving others can be harder to understand. I’m not God, so I don’t always buy into or have the right heart behind some of my actions. And yet, while having the “mind” of Christ (Philippians 5:2) is truly the goal we’re growing toward in grace, when I’m not there yet, but on the way, I can still imitate. As my son dutifully performed the action of “checking” for a lit burner on the stove, I can choose to do acts of love, even if in my mind or attitude, I don’t fully comprehend how it fits into God’s bigger plan. As a parent, my reaction to discovering my son’s careful imitation was one of delight. I knew that he did not understand his action of imitation, but I recognized it, nonetheless. As God’s beloved children, we too can know that God sees us this same way. Our loving Father delights in us when we choose acts of love in imitation of Him, even if our interior mind or attitude still has a way to go.
Older children continue to imitate us as parents, though it takes a different form. While a toddler’s imitation is mostly through actions, my early-elementary school children imitate me through words. They use phrases that I know are part of my personal lexicon. They are active, not needing to play with me — but they draw close and crave attention for conversation. They want to talk about and ask questions about the subjects that they are most interested in. Through their words, I have a glimpse into their motives and intent.
This imitation through words and communication models how we become imitators of God through prayer. As Christians, while we can make many small, meaningful, and critical steps toward living like Jesus through imitating actions, it is our relationship with God, through conversation — the imitation of words — that sustains and animates us in the most life-giving way. We can draw close to God in love, speaking and hearing his love in our hearts and through the Word of God.
“Be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Ephesians 5:1)
There are many ways we can imitate, small and large, in deeds or words. What binds all of our imitation together, is our identity, as beloved children. We can see the depths of this identity through contrast. Imagine one was to imitate God, not as a beloved child, but instead as a dispassionate, begrudged employee. Some of our external actions might look the same as we imitate God’s love, but our motives and inner disposition would not be that of a beloved child. We might worry about “getting fired” or be concerned about “how am I getting paid for this work?” A beloved child, on the other hand, has a comfort and confidence that whatever he or she brings to the parent in conversation, will be responded to, that every action will be valued beyond rewards or payment. Because we are God’s beloved children, everything we do in imitation can be done from that place of childlike confidence, knowing that we are beloved, that we will not be pushed aside by our Heavenly Father for attempts, but loved all the more as we seek to imitate God in all things.
Colleen R. Vermeulen, MDiv, MNA, is an instructor and director of mission with the Catholic Biblical School of Michigan. She provides ministry and leadership training and consultation for dioceses and parishes. Visit PracticalEvangelization.wordpress.com.
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