Are you humble enough to point to your own life as an example to others of godly living?
I think most of us consider self-effacement and self-deprecation — admitting our sin and brokenness and pointing to others who excel us in holiness — as marks of humility. And they certainly are, when they are true.
But what are we to do with statements in the Bible like Philippians 4:9?
What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
Have you ever told someone in so many words, “If you want to know how to ‘walk in a manner worthy of the Lord’ (Colossians 1:10), listen to what I say and look at what I do and follow my example”? If not, why?
Full disclosure: I don’t recall ever saying something like this — certainly not as straightforward. It’s not that I don’t want my life to be exemplary. I certainly do. But I’m so conscious of my failings that I think I would immediately begin to qualify such a statement. Why?
The most significant factor is my pride. I don’t hold myself up as a godly example like Paul did for two proud reasons: my life is not as exemplary as Paul’s, and I don’t want others to think I’m proud.
Don’t Look at Me
To admit that my life is not as exemplary as Paul’s is a humble admission — not because I’m such a humble person, but because the admission is true. Humility is not a human emotion or demeanor; it’s simply the lack of pretense. Humility is the acceptance and honest confession of what is actually true. So my admission is humble, as far as it goes.
But the deeper question is, why is my life not as exemplary as Paul’s? And the answer is harder to admit: I’m more selfish than Paul was. I’m not as passionate about the gospel (Acts 20:24), not as joyful (Philippians 4:1), not as thankful (1 Thessalonians 5:18), and not as focused and rigorous in my pursuit of attaining the resurrection as Paul was (Philippians 3:11). I don’t anguish over the state of lost people (Romans 9:1–3) or discipline my body like Paul did (1 Corinthians 9:27).
Why don’t I do these things or pursue them with greater tenacity? I could try to let myself off the hook by saying, “I don’t have Paul’s capacities.” This is doubtless true; God gave Paul and me different capacities. But I also know in my heart that I’m not pursuing and experiencing these things in the same manner Paul would have had he shared my constitutional limitations.
Which means, the pride of unbelief and selfishness is active in me — unbelief that greater joy in God is to be had if I pursue these things with greater abandon. And I don’t want others to look too hard at my life and see these things.
I also fear sounding proud to others. Telling people to look at me as an example sounds pompous. However, if there is something in my life that is exemplary that might help you, but I don’t say anything because I’m more concerned with how you view me than with helping you increase your joy, that’s just pride borrowing humility’s clothes. I love me more than I love you.
Look at Me
Paul was not a proud man. He considered himself the foremost sinner whom God saved by grace alone (1 Timothy 1:15; Ephesians 2:8). He knew that he was what he was — including being the hardest working apostle — only by the grace of God (1 Corinthians 15:10). He lived his whole life by faith in Jesus and put no confidence in his flesh (Galatians 2:20; Philippians 3:3). And yet he could say without guile practice what you see in me.
We might be too quick to assume that Paul pointed to himself as an example because he was an apostle. There is, of course, some truth in this. Paul knew he had unique authority as an apostle. But I think he would correct us if we think his example was merely due to his apostolic status, because earlier in the same letter he wrote,
Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. (Philippians 3:17)
There were others whose lives were also exemplary and worthy of imitation. In fact, the entire New Testament teaches us that the fruit of our lives — the observable way we live — is intended to bear witness (to exemplify) that God exists and is the rewarder of those who seek him (Hebrews 11:6). All leaders, in whatever their large or small spheres of influence, are expected to be examples of what living by faith means:
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7)
Do you not wish to be someone who without pride or shame can tell others, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1)?
Imitate Me as I Imitate Christ
That’s what we’re after: so experiencing the reality of Christ in us that we can point others to Christ in us.
Paul could say imitate me because he had pressed on to make the reality of Christ in him, the hope of glory, his own, because Jesus had made him his own (Philippians 3:12; Colossians 1:27). He had not been conformed to the world, but had profoundly experienced his soul being conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 12:2; Romans 8:29). He had put God’s promises to the test and seen God provide all he needed in every situation (Philippians 4:11, 19). He had fully embraced the ministry the Lord gave him (Acts 20:24), had walked in the obedience of faith (Romans 1:5), and had kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:7). Therefore, he could say in all humility — not merely because he was an apostle, but because he was a faithful disciple — “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
Let us also lay aside every weight and prideful sin that makes us timid to hold ourselves up as examples of Christlikeness (Hebrews 12:1). Such timidity often has its root, not in godly humility, but in pride — pride that wants to conceal our tolerated disobedience and fleshly indulgence, or pride that fears what others think of us. Let us with humble honesty confess our sinful failings in order to be increasingly free of them, and our capacity limitations in order to benefit more from others’ gifts. But let us also be humble and honest enough to point to the grace of Christ in us that is meant to help others walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.