Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Sincerest Form

Imitation ... or caricature?
My uncle, having lived in England all his life, has an accent. It is strong and distinctive.

On occasion, my brother deliberately imitates him to humorous effect. You might think his version of my uncle exaggerated until you hear the real thing, when it becomes clear my brother’s homage may well not go far enough. Other times, in conversation with my uncle, one or another of his Canadian relatives finds himself unconsciously picking up and mimicking my uncle’s speech patterns.

Imitation may be conscious or unconscious, but it is always an action (as opposed to a state of mind). It is something you have to DO. Thinking about imitating someone is not imitation.

The writer to the Hebrews says of their leaders:
“Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”
Now of course the word “faith” may be thought of in slightly different ways:

Delivered Faith

First, there is “the faith” Jude speaks of that was “once for all delivered to the saints”. That appears to cover a fair bit of theological territory. I think Jude means the content of what the apostles believed: the sum total of the doctrine about Christ and its practical implications for his followers. Faith in this sense is also a term with very definite boundaries, because Jude appeals to his readers to contend for “the faith”. One can hardly contend for something that cannot be defined.

That sort of faith is not what’s in view here. The “faith” spoken of in Hebrews is not just to be learned by rote or even fully subscribed to, but imitated.

Believe Really Hard

Some people use the word faith to mean believing something with great intensity worked up within ourselves. Thus we speak of “increased faith”, “stronger faith” or “great faith”. While these adjectival modifiers find some support in scripture (as in the instance when the disciples said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”), it is not always noted that the Lord’s response suggests that greater quantities of faith are not the issue:
“If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
Where faith is concerned, the Lord’s emphasis has to do with quality rather than quantity: it is the humility of a child’s faith that makes it a model for all who would enter the kingdom, not its size or spectacular nature. Further, the object of faith is far more important than any quantity or quality. Jesus said, “Believe … in me”. Faith without the right Object is blind faith indeed.

So when the writer to the Hebrews says, “imitate their faith”, he is not suggesting we expend great efforts trying to feel a certain way or to acquire a false sense of assurance.

So What Does He Mean?

The faith referred to in Hebrews 13 is a bit of a synthesis, I think. One can only imitate what one has experienced. How others process the content of “the faith” so that it becomes “their faith” is necessarily a mystery to us, because it occurs in their own heads and hearts where we cannot see it. Such faith cannot be imitated except to the extent it has been observed. We have to hear how our leaders express their faith in words, and then we need to see how they express it in their lives.

And then we need to think and do those same things.

It is about this same sort of works-producing faith that James speaks. Such faith is steadfast under testing, resolute in prayer, doggedly impartial in its treatment of others and practical in its generosity. Such a faith is so bound up with good works as to be measured by them and near-inconceivable in their absence.

It is this synthesis of thought and action and the consistency between them that makes us real and gives Christian testimony its power. Without both together, we are in danger of being caricatures rather than imitators. We may have all the right spiritual moves down, but without the requisite humble heart of dependence directing them, they are no more convincing than the genuflections of a street mime.

The sort of faith that may be imitated is more than just a personal, deeply-held conviction or verbal assent to the content of the apostle’s doctrine: it’s a lifestyle choice.

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