To Imitate God

To Imitate God May 26, 2023

Emmanuel Tzanes: Image Of Jesus  / Wikimedia Commons

God is love. Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God (cf. Col. 1:15). While we come to know God through God’s works, through the uncreated energies, those works are shown to us in a comprehensible fashion through the human image of God, that is, in Jesus. All the things God does as God, Jesus does in a humanly fashion (while still, in his divine nature, doing them as God). We best come to know the goodness and love of God through Jesus, that is, by the way Jesus represents the divinity in a created image. The God who cannot be comprehended can and is represented by God in the incarnation. Now we can come to know what God is like. We have something to truly apprehend, not just in and through the divine energies (or works of God), but through our personal encounter with Jesus (and through Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit). Similarly, due to the incarnation, that is, to the way God represents the divine nature in a created form, we have the means by which we can imitate God: by imitating Christ, as Paul says we should do: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.  And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2 RSV).  God is love. Jesus shows us the way not only to love, but to love in a way analogous to the transcendent divine love of God. Everything we say and do should be a reflection of that love. This is what Jesus did with his whole temporal life. He showed the world the love God has for it. And so, when we imitate Jesus, we imitate God, and we are to do so by loving everyone and everything in creation. If we do so, we will find God abiding in us in and through that love:

Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.  In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit (1 Jn. 4:7-13 RSV).

If we have not already done so, we should be able to realize God is love in and through the humanity of Jesus. We will do so, not only because we understand God’s love is being revealed to us in and through Jesus’ humanity, but also because, if we imitate Jesus, we will find ourselves coming to know what love really is and see how it relates to God. That is, even if we at first do not perceive the divine nature in Jesus, we can still see the greatness of his love and imitate it. The more we do so, the more we will engage Jesus and the grace Jesus gives us, leading us to being transformed thanks to our cooperation with grace due to our acts of love. We will begin to see the connection between Jesus’ human love with divine love, to see the two are one in him, that the human will follows and acts in connection with the divine will. In this way, we begin to see Jesus not simply as a man, but as the God-man, as a divine person who assumed human nature to show us the divine nature and the love God has for us in a form which we can properly apprehend.  Thus, what Origen said, that is, what at first might seem impossible, becomes possible thanks to the incarnation:

Whose imitator must I become? Is it the firstborn of all creation? Wisdom? Logos? Truth? Or am I, as a human being, ordered to become the imitator of the human Jesus, so that I may imitate his humanity? I do not say that it is unfeasible to imitate his divinity, for ascending I progress   and by God’s grace I achieve the ability to imitate the divinity of Christ – if it is actually possible to imitate the divinity of Christ. [1]

We can embrace love, and so imitate God’s love, in many fashions. However, in all of them, it is important for us not to neglect showing kindness to everyone:

Generosity is also proper to merciful and gentle souls. There is nothing more worthy of human beings than to be the imitators of the Creator, and, according to the measure of their own faculties, to be executors of divine work. When the hungry are fed, the naked clothed, the sick cared for, does not the help of God fill full the hands of the minister, and is not the kindness of the servant a gift of the Lord? Although he has no need of help in applying mercy, he also regulates his power that he supports the sufferings of human beings through human beings. [2]

We are not to limit ourselves concerning whom we show mercy, grace, and love. All of humanity, indeed, all of creation is loved by God, and so are to be loved by us:

Although the poverty of the faithful ought especially to be helped, still those who have not yet received the Gospel must receive mercy in their troubles. We must love the mutual participation in human nature of all people, and it ought to make us benevolent to those who are subject to us in whatever condition, especially if they are now reborn in the same grace, and redeemed at the same price of the blood of Christ. [3]

In our service to God, therefore, it is important that we do not seek ways to divide people up, thinking some of them, Christians, deserve our help and love, while others, non-Christians, and those we deem as sinners, do not. All of humanity should be loved by us. This is how we overcome the division brought into the world by sin. We should, therefore, take the words of Ficino to heart: “Therefore, most humane man, persevere in the service of humanity. Nothing is dearer to God than love. There is no surer sign of madness or of future misery than cruelty.”[4]

This is how we become imitators of Christ. This is how we are meant to represent Christ to the world. Insofar as we do not do so, we have failed to be imitators of Christ. Christians who do not acknowledge the needs of others, who find excuses as to why they should not help those in need, do not properly follow Christ. And, insofar as they deny such help to those in need, they follow such a Satanic cruelty, it seems they are more followers of the spirit of the anti-Christ than Christ. Those who do this ending up giving in and following all kinds of vices, for love is the foundation of all virtue. They do not develop the character they are supposed to have as an adopted child of God. This is why Solvoyov was right in pointing out the deplorable state of Christians who find a way to excuse themselves, or their country, from helping those in need:

Avarice and hypocrisy are common enough vices of human nature and there is nothing surprising in the objections they raise against charity. What is very surprising is that there are Christian states which still further narrow the eye of the needle through which the rich enter the kingdom of God by enacting laws which forbid begging. By doing so the Christian state undermines its own foundations, for it does not exist to protect man’s vices (such as those of avarice and hypocrisy) but the promote the good of all, and  this supreme office properly depends upon the precept of charity: to uphold the weak, defend the downtrodden, help those who are in distress, and so to pour out divine grace upon the earth. [5]

Thus, those who are Christian are called to the path of love, to show the world the love of God. The more they do this, the more they fulfill their vocation, while the less they do this, the more they contend against the grace they received, and in the end, they become, not a witness of God and God’s love, but its rejection. Instead of following Christ, they follow the spirit of the anti-Christ, the spirit of hate, the spirit which looks at how to keep others down instead of lifting them up. Christians are not to follow the path of hate, but the way of love. It is by that love they will prove themselves to be followers of Christ because they will be imitators of him, and so of God. This is why it is imperative for Christians to discern the ways of love and reject all its violations if they want to be who and what they are meant to be.

[1] Origen, Homilies on the Psalms: Codex Monacensis Graecus 314. Trans. Joseph W. Trigg (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2020),  65 [Homily 2 on Psalm 15].

[2] St Leo the Great, Sermons. Trans. Jane Patricia Freeland CSJB and Agnes Josephine Conway SSJ (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1996), 189 [Sermon 43].

[3] St Leo the Great, Sermons, 178 [Sermon 41].

[4] Marsilio Ficino, The Letters of Marsilio Ficino. Volume 1.  trans. by members of the Language Department of the School of Economic Science, London (London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 1975; repr. 1988), 101  [Letter 55 to Tommaso Minerbetti].

[5] Vladimir Solovyey, God, Man & The Church. The Spiritual Foundations Of Life. Trans. Donald Attwater (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 2016), 42.


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