Many are familiar with the proverbial saying of “Monkey see, Monkey do.” The fundamental insight here is that we all imitate something or someone in our lives. People by nature want to imitate or be like others that they see. Guitar players would love to rock it out like Clapton or Mayer, little boys used to want to be like Mike on the court while today Kobe or Lebron will do. Many desire to mimic the style of a celebrity or the success of a person in business. Though some are more leaders and some more followers, human beings, by nature, are made to imitate or emulate others. There is nobody who has taught themselves everything they know.
The 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, rightly observed something profound in human nature. Though his application of this observation went tragically wrong, Nietzsche spoke of human beings as having a sort of herd mentality. People tend to mindlessly mimic and follow one another. He erroneously applied this to morality and ethics, declaring all morality to be an illusion created by other humans then followed mindlessly by the herd. 1 What he did rightly observe is that human beings do indeed mimic one another and it seems very built into our nature.
However, we can be so consumed with the exploits of other people we can completely miss the one we were truly designed to imitate. In the middle of his exhortation of Christians to live a life that is congruent with their calling to God in the gospel, Paul makes it clear who we are to imitate in Ephesians chapter five. Without blushing, the apostle writes the following: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.” This is a massively humbling idea and also one of the simplest articulations of the raison d’être of human beings.
In this essay we are going to discuss the imitation of God by human beings. We will first distinguish imitating God from trying to be a god. Second, we will look at our unique design as human beings to be reflections of God on the earth. This makes Paul’s call for us to imitate (or mimic) God quite appropriate due to what we are. We will then look at how we must “see God” and “know God” in order to imitate him. This requires God’s assistance to help us to understand who he is in order to follow him. Finally, we will close with a brief discussion of the relationship between adoration, imitation and worship.
Imitate God, Don’t Try to be One
The story of the world begins with the wonderful created acts of God. It then quickly moves to a tragic error made by the first human beings. People, created in the image and likeness of God, decide they would rather be as God. Tragically, this has been the course of human history. People are made wonderfully intelligent, moral, creative and willful creatures. We were made by God and for God yet we choose to exalt ourselves as little divinities rather than worship our creator.
When Scripture calls us to imitate God the word means to reflect or mimic the character of God in our own lives. It does not mean that we should aspire to follow that Satanic plea “you shall be as gods.” Scripture calls us to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, to become like God in our lives, but we should never see ourselves as becoming divine beings. Though Scripture does teach that we will be transformed to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) it stops short of man climbing the metaphysical ladder up into godhood. Our Mormon friends notwithstanding, 2 human beings are only called to be reflections of God as we follow him, never ascending to god-status ourselves.
Uniquely Created to be a Reflection
Though not divine, human beings are completely unique in all creation. We are different than rocks, trees, lizards and even those monkeys that share 99% of our DNA. In fact, many non Christian thinkers making the case that modern science is revealing the profound uniqueness of human beings. David Berlinski’s The Devil’s Delusion, Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions and James Le Fanu’s Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves come to mind. 3 In the face of recent understandings of the genome of various animals and the baffling ignorance of consciousness in light of modern neuroscientific brain studies, many are realizing anew just how exceptional nature of the human being being.
Theologically, this uniqueness of humanity is no surprise to those who never bought into the materialistic reductions of human nature. You see the Scriptures teach us very clearly that humans and humans alone are created in the imago dei, the image of God.
Uniquely Created to Image God
Throughout the history of the church, theologians have discussed the profound description given in Genesis chapter 1:
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
There are many ways in which this teaching has been understood. Some have articulated that image of God means that we are made like God in our make up in that we have emotions, intellect and will just as God does. Others have looked to the ancient context of Genesis to understand the phrase image of God. In the ancient world, someone was “image of God” when they represented God on the earth as his vice rulers. The passage above does indicate that rulership over the realm of creation is part of the mandate human beings posses. Finally, others have sought to say that image of God means that we are beings in relationship, much as God the Trinity is one God in three persons. The text tells us that image of God is male and female, designed in and for relationship with God and one another. I find it best to put all these together.
We are created with certain capacities in order to rule and reign this earth with God in relationship with him and one another. This is what it means to be image of God. As such we are designed to reflect God in our nature, in our service and in our relationships. So in one sense, there is a reflection of God in his human creation, so a call for human beings to imitate God is very appropriate. It is the part of the reason we exist; it is why we were made. One question quickly emerges, in order to imitate God we must truly know what God is like. If we cannot see God directly, how do we imitate him?
How can we imitate that which is not physically seen?
To imitate someone we must know what they are like and the way they flow. God has not left us with empty skulls relating to the question of who he is and what he desires. The truth is that God reveals himself to us in various ways so that we might follow after him.
We see God’s Works—God’s works of creation display to us the power and nature of God. Additionally, he places a moral law in our consciences so that we may know right and wrong at a basic level. We may deny this knowledge and act in contraction to it, but it is not because we do not know right from wrong.
We receive God’s Words—In addition to showing us in creation and our consciences God tells us who he is and what he desires for human life in the Scriptures. The Bible contains written accounts of the words of his prophets and messengers through whom God reveals himself to people. By the Scriptures we are fully instructed in the character and ways of God so that we may follow him during our lives. The most important testimony of Scripture is about the person of Jesus. His followers wrote down his works and words so we could clearly imitate and follow him.
We see Jesus and imitate him—God became a human being so we could see most clearly what he is like (John 1:1-3,14; Hebrews 1:1-3). In Jesus Christ we see a full revelation of God in human form so that in the imitation of Jesus, we find the imitation of God.
We see the body of Christ and we imitate the faith of others—Finally, we see in the New Testament Christian leaders calling others to imitate them, as they imitate Jesus (1 Corinthians 4:9, 11:1). We are to imitate their faith and trust in Jesus in the way that they followed him with their lives (Hebrews 13:17). In the church we can see Christ living in others as he works his character into them and we can imitate their faith as well.
Worship—Adoration and Imitation
It has been often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The late secular thinker Ayn Rand once said it this way, “admiration is the rarest and best of pleasures.” 4 If we imitate someone it means we respect and admire them. Through this simple insight we can peer into the heart of Christian worship. We were made to give honor, glory, love, adoration and praise to God; we were made to desire to be more like him and imitate him. In doing so, God enjoys our worship and delights in his people. In turn, we find our greatest joy in seeking to be more like the one who is fully good, right and true.
Imitation in human life is a reality which will never go away. We cannot help but see excellence in something and want to imitate this. Unfortunately, there is also a dark side to human nature in that we imitate that which is self-exalting and sinful rather than imitating God. Imitation is a reality that cuts either in the direction of idolatry, worship that which is not God, or in true worship.
We live in a world of Monkey See, Monkey Do. When we see the lives of others we must ask whether they are resembling God or exhibiting the folly of men. We must wisely choose who we imitate because we become like the things we worship. So many times we follow one another like lemmings over the cliffs of life. Let us choose to follow Jesus who followed the beat of a different drummer. We too can imitate his love, sacrifice and service to others; laying down our lives so that many can break free to find joy in the forgiveness of God.
There will be a cacophony of voices calling to us as we travel the roads of our lives. Calls from the left and the right to take a path other than the one to which God calls.
Sometimes we need to realize that the herd is not always wise, but in following Jesus there is life and peace.
Yours in following him in our time,
Reid S. Monaghan
- See Nietzche’s two works, Beyond Good and Evil and Genealogy of Morals for his constructing of his view of the “herd mentality” – A concise summary of these two works is available here: http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/WeirdWildWeb/courses/wphil/lectures/wphil_theme18.htm
- Mormon doctrine does indeed teach that human beings can actually become gods. The classic statement of this was from the fifth Latter Day Saints president Lorenzo Snow “As man is, God once was, as God is, man may become” This is a doctrine articulated by LDS founder Joseph Smith in his King Follet discourse as well.
- See David Berlinski, The Devil’s Delusion—Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions (New York: Crown Forum 2008) 155-165 for an entertaining look at the differences between men and apes. Additionally, see James Le Fanu’s Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves (New York: Pantheon Books, 2009) 254-256. Fanu’s work is a intriguing look into recent discoveries surrounding the human genome and neuroscience. His thesis is that humans are much more unique than the typical “evolution explains everything” idea.
- See John Piper, An Open Letter to Michael Prowse, online at http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/TasteAndSee/ByDate/2003/1245_An_Open_Letter_to_Michael_Prowse/ accessed March 4, 2008.