"Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." (Ephesians 5:1-2)
The phrase "be imitators of God" can mean different things to different people. It begs the questions, "which God?" "Who is God?" "What is God like?" And without clarification it can have a very polarizing effect. A.W. Tozer said, "What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us." For some, when they think of God, they might have some very positive feelings and emotions. Images of a loving, comforting, and healing presence may come to mind. For some, the image might be far less positive. Images of a destructive, judgmental, violent, and vengeful God may come to mind. It all depends on how we interpret the world and our experience. What makes these images so important is that, like it or not, we are created in God's image and we are created to offer a picture, to tell a story with our lives, of what God is like. So subtly, with or without our knowledge, our lives are always telling a story of who God is, whether it be an accurate or inaccurate one.
The two contrasting images of God are offered in the lives of people every day. Some people are telling a story of a dark and broken God. As they selfishly seek their own comfort and neglect the needs of the people around them, they offer a picture of a God who gives in to the powers of sin and death. They offer an interpretation of the world which says that the things are essentially dark and that death has the last word. Others, however, by living a life of love and by living a life for the healing of the world and for the benefit of others, are offering a picture of a God who has defeated the power of death--a God who loves us, seeks us, and refuses to give up on us. A life of sacrifice, a life that imitates the God revealed in Jesus--who lived for the sake of healing the world, who lived for others and not for his own sake--is hard to explain if the gospel is not true and yet it offers an image of a good God, a loving God, a relentlessly forgiving God.
Dorothy Day said, “we should live in such a way that our lives wouldn’t make sense if the gospel were not true.” A life of love, in the way of Jesus, does not make sense unless the gospel is true. A life of peace and sacrifice, a life filled with the violence of love looks like utter foolishness to a world which can only interpret itself as perishing. That has to be what Paul meant when he wrote, "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Corinthians 1:18). To walk toward death in order to gain victory is ridiculous to a world which believes that death gets the last word. The only way such a life can make any sense is if God is actually good, if death is actually defeated, if the gospel is actually true. The gospel can actually serve as the explanation for the lives of people who may not even identify themselves as Christians. When we live lives of love, we offer an image of a God of love, we tell the story of Jesus' death and resurrection with our bodies.
On another note, if what the research shows is true--specifically that which has been done among adolescents--and moralistic therapeutic deism, a view of a distant God who wants us to do good things and who makes us feel better when we're down, describes the dominant view of God in our culture, then the command to imitate God is radical in our context. It means that God is not the deus ex machina nor a tool for our personal comfort. Our relationship to God does not stop at what God does for us or wants for us, we are actually meant to be for others as God has been for us. It doesn't stop at God's action but compels us to action as well, even action outside our preserved boundaries. The lethargic faith of our dominant culture, which offers a picture of a fairly tame and domesticated God, is challenged to awaken to the reality of a relentless and perusing God--the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
We are always imitating somebody's god. Our lives are always offering a picture of what God is like, even if it's a very inaccurate one. So the question is, what does your life say about God and about the world? Is it offering a picture of a passionate and perusing God--of the God revealed in Jesus? Or does it say something else about God?