Role Models

By Gwen Sellers

Who are your role models? That was the topic of conversation at a recent small group meeting. Several of us mentioned people like parents, teachers, spiritual mentors, and a few Bible characters. But we also realized that we do not so much strive to emulate the person in total as we admire a particular aspect of that person's character. And we found this to be important. Let me explain.

One person mentioned that it was helpful to consider aspects of a person in order not to focus on just the bad. Often there are people in our lives who largely hurt us, but who did still teach us something valuable. When we think in terms of character traits or lessons learned, we are able to view our relationships with contrasted clarity rather than as "good" or "bad." In this way, looking at character traits — instead of people as a whole — can be redemptive.

For me, it was important to recognize that my role models are human beings. They are changing and learning. They have done many things right and are currently doing many things well. They have also made mistakes. They have disappointed me. It can be easy to fall into the trap of idolizing those we admire. But then when we realize they aren't perfect, we can be left in a bit of a quandary. Do we throw everything out that we previously believed, as happens for some when the "greats" of the faith fall into scandal? Do we gloss over their missteps or pretend that we are not hurt in order to preserve the perfect image, thus stunting our own maturation process? Must our role models always be right? Can we be different from our role models in some ways and yet still be as admirable? When I acknowledge the humanity and maturation process of my role models, I give myself permission to be human as well. Instead of looking to my parents as people who always know the right answer and who have somehow "arrived," I see them as excellent models for how to grow in Christ. They pattern for me what the sanctification process looks like. Rather than try to become just like them, I look at their journeys as one example and many of their character traits as things I pray God develops in me.

We cannot miss the significance of the word model. Role models are meant to be examples, not templates. I was never made to be exactly like someone else. Psalm 139, Ephesians 2:10, 1 Corinthians 12, and Romans 12 speak to our individual uniqueness. I like this explanation in Ephesians 2:19-22: "So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit." There is unity in faith and a way in which we are meant to be like one another. At the same time, we are each a piece of the building. The stones may be similar, but they are not exactly alike. And those differences matter.

Paul is pretty clear about the importance of role models in 1 Corinthians 10:31 — 11:1. He says, "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ." Notice that he does not say "Be imitators of me." Instead, he says, "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ." It is only insomuch as our role models imitate Christ that we should imitate them. As Paul said in Ephesians 5:1, we should ultimately "be imitators of God, as beloved children."

Having people in my life who demonstrate godly characteristics is vitally important. Role models and mentors are essential for spiritual growth. Titus 2 gives instructions to older men and women in how to train up those younger than they. But the most touching thing for me in my role models is that they are still in process. They have role models also. They are honest about their growth process and show me, both by example and through words, what it means to continue growing in Christ. They do not pretend that God's work in them is completed or that they are wiser merely by virtue of their age or experience. They willingly share their wisdom. But they also openly seek out new wisdom. Maybe most shocking is that they sometimes learn from me; and they let me know. Little did they realize that even this is an example to me. As I find myself among the older members of this small group, rather than in the younger position as I have typically been, I see new meaning in 1 Timothy 4:12. I have not been despised for my youth, but I have despised others for theirs, or at least been tempted to. I have thought that, as an older person, I need to be the quintessential role model. Somehow I am to suddenly have it all together and impart my wisdom. Then I consider Paul's exhortation of Timothy: "Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity." All believers, regardless of age, should be role models. We are each called to imitate God. Yes, the older should be teaching the younger. But they should also be learning. When I look at my younger friends, I see much to emulate. And I am once again reminded to be grateful for the role models in my life, who have shown me that learning never ends. God is constantly shaping us and bringing us into conformity with His image (Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18). Graciously, He provides us with people who exemplify certain characteristics that, when taken together, give us a tangible picture of Himself. The One Person I want to be like is Jesus.

Image Credit: "Looking up to Your Mother"; Christina VanMeter; Creative Commons

TagsChristian-Life  |  Personal-Life  |  Personal-Relationships

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Published on 6-26-2014