Paul was a humble man. To read of his life and to read his letters is to encounter the testimony of a man who had been utterly captured by pride until the Lord set him free. Free from the captivity of pride he could now say, “Jesus Christ came into this world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” He spent his life among sinners, he labored to convince sinners of grace, he turned men over to Satan so they would learn not to blaspheme, and still he could say that he, he himself, was the chief of sinners. He looked to his own heart, to his own life, and declared, I am the greatest sinner I know.
It takes humility to say those words without a shred of pride, but those are not his humblest words. Paul’s humblest words were written to the Christians in Corinth. To them he said, “I urge you, then, be imitators of me.”
“Be like me.” Those are words that may come from the proudest of hearts and, indeed, we all long for others to be like we are. Sin is inherently narcissistic and the cure we propose for most of the world’s ills is for others to be more like us. “If only she saw things my way.” “If only he did it like I want him to.” To sin is to put yourself in the place of God, to declare that your will ought to be done. Adam and Eve wanted their will to be done even if that came at the expense of God’s; you and I are no more sophisticated than they were.
“Be like me.” Those words may also come from the humblest of hearts. They may come from a heart that has been utterly transformed and that is now utterly transfixed. “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ.” Paul wanted others to imitate him only because he himself was imitating Jesus Christ. Paul had a realistic assessment of who he had been—a proud Pharisee, a religious authority, a man whose academic credentials were unparalleled, whose curriculum vitae was matchless. Yet for all of that his heart had been infinitely distant from God’s. He had hated God and persecuted his people, seeking to destroy his bride.
Paul had a realistic assessment of who he had been and a humble sense of who the Lord had now made him to be. He marvelled at the evidences of God’s grace in his life, rejoiced to see how the Lord was revealing more and more of himself to him, in him, through him. Who was he, who was this persecutor of the church, to be the object of such mercy? Humbled by grace, he looked at those who were where he had once been and lovingly said, “Imitate me.” To say anything else would have been the height of pride; it would have been to deny all that the Lord had done. Jared Wilson says it well: “Pride can look like arrogant self-confidence, or it can look like timid self-pity. Real humility is courageous un-self-consciousness.” It was this profound un-self-consciousness that allowed Paul to plead with the people he loved, even to hold up himself as an example to them.
When you consider who you once were, when you consider all the grace that the Lord has lavished on you, when you consider people who are still in spiritual infancy, will you have the courage, will you have the strength, will you have the humility to say, “Imitate me?”