... put off your old self... [and] put on the new self, created to be like God... [Ephesians 4:22,24] We are talking these days about spiritual maturity, about “growing up” in our Christian faith. This past Sunday we read from Ephesians 4, which contains a basic principle of spiritual formation: we learn by copying, and we become by imitating. The principle could also be stated this way: in order to become something we are not, we first need an example of what we want to become, and then imitate that example. The process often involves becoming familiar with the example (study), followed by the practice of “putting on” what we see. In other words, as in the words above, we put off what we don’t want to be in order to put on what we hope to become.
This is something grace allows and empowers in us. Paul said, “be imitators of God... and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us...” (Eph. 5:1-2). We are called to imitate God in the example of Christ because God’s Spirit, his power, has been given to us. The Spirit is the power of God for radical change (see Eph. 1:19).
Back to the principle. We might be impressed by a generous person, for instance. We see how their generosity naturally takes place in all kinds of circumstances and situations. We love who they are because their life speaks of this beautiful deep abundance, a kind of rich freedom we want for ourselves. So we copy their way, and practice what they do. And what happens? Over time, the behavior births the quality. We become increasingly generous of heart; we become something like the example we have copied. This is grace working in us.
Of course, the key here is to have good models to imitate. Sometimes our imagination is limited by the poverty of worthy examples. In that case it is helpful to push away from our local circle of acquaintance, look for a wider perspective on the world, seek new circles of relationship. We can find good models if we look.
CS Lewis famously talked about this principle in Mere Christianity. He called it "dressing up as Christ". He called this idea “the good kind of pretending”:
where the pretense leads up to the real thing. When you are not feeling particularly friendly but know you ought to be, the best thing you can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as if you were a nicer person than you actually are. And in a few minutes, as we have all noticed, you will be really feeling friendlier than you were. Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already. That is why children's games are so important. They are always pretending to be grown-ups -- playing soldiers, playing shop. But all the time, they are hardening their muscles and sharpening their wits so that the pretense of being grown-ups helps them to grow up in earnest.
As adults, we have much to learn from this basic insight into the formation of childhood identity. But it also needs to be asserted that, as adults, we are not beyond the possibility of growing into new ways of being. It is simply true that as long as we live, we can grow.
Who do you know that you would like to imitate? What qualities do you need to “put off” and what qualities do you need to “put on”? This is practical wisdom and not a trick of psychological conditioning because, as we said, the Spirit of God makes real change possible in us. But change is not a passive thing; we have to both see it and want it. We can become imitators of Jesus, and imitators of those who reflect the qualities of Jesus.
See you Sunday at 9:29 or 11:11am.