“If one of my daughters had been caught having sex in the library, I would have had to leave the mission field,” my father explained to me. His “silent generation” (or GI Generation or Traditionalist) believed that such a blemish on their reputation would negate their ministry and testimony. In cases like these, they thought they would not be able to say as the Apostle Paul did in Philippians 4:9,
Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
This echoes what Paul said in chapter 3:17: “Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do.”
When I read Paul’s words, my first assumption was that he must have been nearly perfect. For I too have been influenced by the older generation to believe that leaders and mentors should not show any weakness. So how can Paul say that? It seems presumptuous, audacious, proud. Who does he think he is?
To be honest, I’m not even sure I want to be like a perfect Paul. I’d really feel the pressure to perform. And I know that I cannot measure up. And that’s the problem with a veneer of perfectionism—it isn’t real, no one actually believes you and those who seek to follow simply give up because they can never be enough.
Was Paul perfect? Absolutely not. He admits in chapter 3:13 that he doesn’t consider himself to have arrived. In chapter 1:20, he hopes that he will not be ashamed. In 2:28, he says he’ll have less anxiety after Epaphroditus returns home. Paul knows that he used to persecute Christians. Because of this he calls himself the least of the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:9) and the worst of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). He even has conflict with his fellow ministers (Acts 15:39-40). These verses help me see that Paul knows he isn’t perfect.
Paul isn’t saying “Follow my perfect example.” Take the Patriarchs for example. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel—all doubted, schemed and faltered in their belief. Yet the point is: it was not about them. It was about the Promise Keeper.
And the Promise Keeper is the one Paul knows we should ultimately follow. In other letters, he says “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1) and “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21) and “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children” (Ephesians 5:1).
To get a feel for what I should learn, receive, hear and see in Paul, I did a quick skim of the rest of the letter. I found that he is straining toward what is ahead and pressing toward the goal of heaven, seeking to exalt, know and become like Christ (3:10). This involves conducting himself in a manner worthy of the gospel (2:7), having the mindset of Christ (2:5), not grumbling (2:14), rejoicing (3:1), setting his mind on heaven (3:19), being united with others (4:2), praying instead of worrying (4:6), having a thought life that is congruent with his outward life (4:8) and being content whatever his circumstances (4:12).
Paul could say “Follow me” because God transforms us (3:21), works in us (2:12b-13) and he will complete what he has begun (1:6).
I know that my father’s main concern was that he and his daughters follow Christ’s example. But his statement revealed to me that he missed something. He missed the blessing of authenticity and vulnerability—knowing that other strugglers can find a way forward because of his foibles and sins. They don’t want to follow a perfect man. They want someone who can who can show them how to follow Christ in the midst of their stuff.
Follow my example as I follow Paul’s who followed Christ’s. And the God of peace will be with us!
How do you feel about saying, “Follow me?”
What aspects of Paul’s and Christ’s examples can you improve on?
Lord Jesus, thank you for the Apostle Paul who gave me such a good example to follow. Thank you that he wasn’t perfect but that he shows me how to follow your example in the midst of life’s struggles. Teach me more about yourself so I can be like you.