“Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” —Philippians 3:17
It is said that “imitation is the highest form of flattery,” and while this may be said in an innocent and even a good way, the fuller quote speaks to the fuller reality. It was Oscar Wilde who said, “Imitation is the highest form of flattery,” and he continued, “that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” That comes off the tongue a bit more sharply and grates on the ears. You sense the arrogance; yet it is a game the masses play along with.
The imitation that this world knows isn’t simply flattery; it is idolatry. We worship the gods, hoping to become one, or a demigod at least. We act as gods, desiring such “flattery.” Image is valued over integrity; coolness over character. Such is the imitation of this world. In contrast, Christian imitation, imitation as it is meant to be, is worship. This is because Christian imitation is an intentional imitation of imitators.
“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1, emphasis mine). We don’t imitate others so that others will want to imitate us. At least we shouldn’t do it for that reason. Sometime we do play the Pharisee, playing pious for self promotion, but in our best moments we imitate imitators because we want to look like the Jesus they want to look like. Christian imitation isn’t about idolatry committed and desired. It is about worship and sanctification.
All the imitations of this world, are cheap imitations. We were created in the image of God to image forth God. We were created as mirrors. We were created imitators. Imitation is. Because of sin, the image of God is marred. Man, in the words of Augustine, is “homo incurvatus in se,” that is, “curved in on himself.” Man has created gods in his own image and he is becoming like them—deaf, dumb, and dead.
But the saints have been renewed in Christ and are being conformed to His image as we imitate our elder Brother. A critical and commanded way in which this happens is by looking to those who imitate Him. Look to Jesus and look to those who are looking to Jesus.
Wilde was on to something; Imitation is a high form of worship that sinners pay to Greatness. The difference is that Jesus stoops to conform us to His glorious image and the saints would never dare to try to usurp or outshine their Savior. We want to be like Jesus, and we will be, but we would never dream of trying to be Jesus. Our goal is not to idolized in hope of becoming an idol, but to imitate as an act of worship. We are mirrors, and when it is Jesus who is reflected, no one is talking about the mirror, and this is just as we want it. So when you’re picking out a mirror, pick one that neither impresses you with the mirror nor yourself. Pick one that helps you look like Jesus.