We do not need to be sinless to be examples of Christ.
Paul was bold. The outspoken apostle confronted his opposition seemingly fearlessly and continued to preach the gospel, despite very real threats to his life. He publicly chastised Peter when the leader of the disciples was caught turning his back on Gentile Christians to show favoritism to Jewish Christians (Galatians 2). Paul was not afraid to speak Christ’s truth to dignitaries and rulers, and he demanded to be brought to stand before Caesar himself. Yet I believe Paul was at his boldest when he wrote:
Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1 NIV)
Paul was so confident in the transformative power of the Holy Spirit working in him that he held himself up as an example for others to follow. In declaring himself a model for other Christians, he, to a certain extent, increased his responsibility to live righteously. Paul submitted his actions and behavior to scrutiny, believing that the more a person looked at him, the more Christ they would see.
I do not know if I would have that same boldness. I think about how I’ve responded when an unscrupulous salesman tries to swindle me, or when someone cuts me off on the highway — do I want people following that example? Or the times when I was short with my wife or lost my patience with my children — do I want people taking a closer look at that? Not at all. If you are anything like me, you hesitate to call yourself a model of Christ because you know that you fall far short of his glory.
Those who work with children and youth know that they watch us. They follow our example whether we want them to or not. At times, we may feel pressured to put on a holy mask, so they do not see our imperfect example. We are tempted not to mention the struggles of the Christian life because we do not want to discourage those who are looking to see Christ reflected in us. The good news is that we can unburden ourselves from the weight of the holy mask. We do not need to be sinless to be examples of Christ. In fact, the opposite is true. Paul says later:
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. (2 Corinthians 4:7-10 NIV)
In inviting people to follow his example, Paul was not saying that he was a perfect Christian. Rather, he was saying that Christ can shine even through his imperfections. Are we inviting our children and youth to see Jesus shine through us? Are we letting them see that he can shine even through our imperfections?
We are models of Christ for our young people, which is a natural consequence of our relationship with them. Therefore, we should ask ourselves, “What kind of model am I setting?” Am I setting the example of a good churchgoer who follows the Christian rules, but has little to say about the challenges facing our young people on a daily basis? Am I showing them an image of a Christ-follower who frequently quotes scripture but ducks difficult questions? Or am I showing them the model of a Christian who sometimes struggles to figure out how to follow Christ in this fallen world? Am I showing them an authentic Christian who does not have all the answers, but who – moment by moment – looks to the One who does? Am I allowing Christ to shine through — even through my imperfections?
I pray that you live in such a way that your young people will see “that this all-surpassing power” that is at work in you is from God, who began a good work in you and will finish that work to completion (Philippians 1:6). It is not you they should follow, but Christ in you.
US Generations Ministry Coordinator