Cynics are everywhere today, even in the church. This point came home to me when I was doing a Bible study on leadership for a local church group. One of the lay leaders took issue with Saint Paul’s words: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1; ESV). The person pushed back with a hint of cynicism. In short, he said: we should not exhort people to imitate us today; nor is it possible for us to imitate Christ. It was almost as if he were saying that saints are relics of the distant past.
While I was not won over by the cynicism, I appreciated the man’s honesty, just as I appreciate honest struggles with doubt and discouragement. In my reply, I acknowledged the seeming audacity of Paul’s claim to follow his example as he imitates Christ, and the steep challenge it poses to us. After all, who am I to tell someone else to imitate me? How in the world could I ever imitate Christ to such a level that I could tell others that by imitating me they are imitating Christ? I’m certainly not there yet, but I want to get there. Don’t you? And deep down inside, doesn’t the Christian in the Bible study who reacted to Paul’s claim want to get there, too? I can appreciate some measure of doubt about whether or not we can live up to the high calling, but not cynicism that callouses us and causes us to throw in the towel.
I found out later that the person in question had grown somewhat disillusioned because a senior leader in their midst (not at the Bible study) was not living as he ought as a Christian. The senior leader had made such an amazingly good impact on his younger brother early on in his Christian sojourn, only to fail to set the same example later on in life. And yet, he was still in a position of leadership at the church. In the attempt to make space for the older Christian and not chuck the faith, the brother at the Bible study had come to settle for cynicism and with it compromise.
Paul’s call to follow his example as he imitates Christ follows his discussion of the need to glorify God in all things, to be on guard against serving as an offense or stumbling block, and to do whatever is possible so that others might know Christ (1 Corinthians 10:31-33). When we are stumbling blocks, we create cynics of the faith. Not all cynics are the result of our false steps, but many are. It is vitally important for Christians that, in the midst of our struggles to live up to Paul’s exhortation, we don’t become cynical and give up.
With this point in mind, I always exhort young Christians never to listen when older Christians tell them that while they once had passion and lofty ideals in their pursuit of Christ, they have since come down to earth and have become realistic. The intent, or at least potential fallout, of such statements is to discourage these young Christians from pursuing Christ with all their hearts. What younger Christians need is the wisdom of zealous and passionate believers who have gone before them and who encourage them to keep pressing on with all their heart, never giving up, but continuing to pursue Christ and imitate their example to do the same.
Younger Christians need older Christians like Saint Paul who told Timothy—his younger brother and son in the faith—that he should continue in what he learned and firmly believed. Such confidence resulted in part from the radical example of those like Paul from whom Timothy learned the faith (2 Timothy 3:14). Note the contrast in 2 Timothy 3 between Paul with his sufferings along with his impact on Timothy’s faith and the imposters who cause others to suffer and who keep them from growing in the faith. Tradition claims that 2 Timothy was the last of Paul’s prison epistles, written just prior to his execution in Rome. One of the first Christian martyrs, many Christians celebrate today—November 1st/All Saints’ Day—Paul’s witness and other saints who lived holy lives unto death and who make up what the writer of Hebrews calls the great cloud of witnesses before God in heaven.
Further to the author of Hebrews’ encouragement, may their example and those like them in our day inspire us, even as we look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. His example, and theirs, make it possible for us to lay aside every weight—such as cynicism—and run the race with endurance until we see Christ—and his saints—face to face.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-2; ESV).