Participation not imitation

In Bone of His Bone, Going Beyond the Imitation of Christ, missionary F.J. Huegel notes that our calling as Christians is not to imitate Christ but to participate in Christ. Rather than merely semantic, this distinction between "imitation" and "participation" is fundamental to understanding our calling as Christians. It also is a corrective to viewing Christian living (ethics) in a way that tends toward legalism, which then can lead to despair and burnout. Huegel begins his analysis by noting some of the "oughts" in Scripture often cited in addressing Christian behavior:
We are to walk as Jesus walked (I John 2:6). We are to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44). We are to forgive as Jesus forgave - even as He who in the shame and anguish of the Cross looked down upon those who blasphemed Him, while they murdered Him, and forgave (Col. 3:13). We are to be aggressively kind towards those who hate us, yes, we are actually to pray for those who despitefully use us (Matt. 5:44). We are to be overcomers - more than conquerors (Rom. 8:37). We are to give thanks in all things - believing that all things, even those which blast our fondest hopes, work together for our good (Rom. 8:28; Eph. 5:20). 
And, of course, the list of  "oughts" goes on; to which Huegel cries, "Enough!" Indeed, this supposed standard for Christian behavior is overwhelming if we actually think that our calling is to perfectly imitate Jesus in all of these ways. Were that what God actually expects of us, we all are utter failures (are we not?)! The reality is that none of us measures up to the perfection of Christ. To paraphrase Paul in Romans 7, "O wretched people that we are!"

But Huegel notes a way out of this seemingly hopeless situation, which is to acknowledge that we may have been approaching Christian behavior on a false basis: "We have conceived of the Christian life as an Imitation of Christ [however] it is not... It is a Participation of Christ. 'For we are made partakers of Christ' (Hebrews 3:14)" [emphasis added].

As Huegel explains, there certainly are good things in Thomas A. Kempis' book Imitation of Christ, "but the basic idea is false to the principles that underlie the Christian life. To proceed on the basis of Imitation will plunge us in just the sort of 'slough of despond' Paul found himself in when he wrote Romans 7."

What Paul discovered is that what is impossible to us as mere imitators of Christ becomes perfectly natural (actually supernatural) as we become participants in Christ. What this means is coming to know, love and commune with the risen Savior in such a way that we are able to discern what he is doing--able to identify his ongoing life, through the Spirit, in our world. Then, enabled by him through his Spirit, we share (participate) in what he is doing. The perfection is his, not ours.

From this perspective, Christian living (ethics/behavior) is not about "What would Jesus do?" but a watching for and responding to what Jesus actually IS now doing. The only life that conforms to all the standards we reviewed above, is Jesus' own perfect life. And the One who lives and loves perfectly is delighted to share all that he is and does with us.

Will our sharing--our participation--with Jesus be perfect? Certainly not. But, through his Spirit, it will be real; meaningful; life-changing; life-giving.

The reality is that of ourselves we can do nothing that truly measures up to the perfection of Christ. That is why we are called to renounce our own life--our own self-effort--and look, in faith, to Jesus; to embrace our union and communion with him--with his perfect (perfecting) life.

And so let us focus on participation in Christ rather than mere imitation of Christ. That has been our calling all along.