Teachers strive to set a godly example for students. We want to say, with Paul, “Follow me like I follow Christ!” (1 Cor 11:1). However, we often (always) fall short of the standard. When Jesus teaches, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” we realize that this is a ladder with the lowest rung infinitely out of our reach (Matt 5:48). And this is not an obscure idea that we have misinterpreted, but a central theme that runs throughout the whole text of the Bible. Here it is fleshed out with more detail:
As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Pet 1:14-16).
Be perfect. Be holy. And do it for, and like, the all-perfect God. This standard is too high for us. The ladder is out of reach. But thankfully, it is not out of reach for Christ. His ability to meet this standard and to raise us up to it should motivate us to praise Him:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. (Eph 1:3-4).
He chose us to be holy. It is his plan. I can’t do it, but He can. And He will:
In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Phil 1:4-6).
How does this work? How can I do this impossible thing (be perfect and holy)? How will God finish this work in us?
Augustine offers clarity in a prayer which says, “Grant what Thou commandest, and command what Thou dost desire,” or “Father, command what you will and grant what you command.” God tells us to be godly and then, through his power, he gives us the ability to be godly. He grows us. He lifts us up. He polishes us. He refines us. His means, methods, and timing might not always appear linear or logical to us, but they are good and they are for our good.
So what kind of example can we offer our students? Not perfection in ourselves, but someone who is being perfected. We are testimonies of his power in our weakness. We are pictures of progress through his caring might.
We are evidence. Evidence that He is alive because He is alive in us. Evidence that He is powerful because He is powerful to change us. Evidence that He is kind and forgiving because we celebrate his kindness and forgiveness toward us.
We are saved by grace. It is his work. And we are sanctified by grace. It is his work.
There are many helpful apologetics for God’s existence, goodness, activity, and power. But we must not neglect this one: our students can see Him working in us. Here are some starting point activities that might help you showing them how He is working in you:
- Apologize to your students when you have messed up. Humble apologies without self-justification are so rare. Why? Because true humility is a gift from God.
- Share some of your storyline. Tell students about a struggle (in an appropriate way) and tell them about your journey toward holiness. You can share even if you are not there yet.
- Ask students to pray for you in the midst of a struggle or challenge. Let them know and see that you need the power of God in your life.
- Discipline in a way that leads to “seek and trust God,” more than “be good boys and girls.” Growth over laws. Repentance over box-checking.
- Share your goals: “I really want to become more gentle and meek so that I can represent Christ better,” or “I am praying that God will help me to listen more,” or “I am actively seeking to be thankful every day.”
Why might activities like this make an impact on our students? Because they teach that He will supply what He commands. And He will get all the glory. As Augustine said:
You he crowns with compassion and mercy; and even if your merits have preceded you, God says to you, “Have a good look at your merits, sort them out carefully, and you will see that they are my gifts” … When you depart from here you will receive according to what you deserve, and you will rise again to receive what you have achieved. Then God will set the crown, not so much on your merits as on his gifts. Whatever he has given you, if you have kept and preserved it, he will recognize.
So we can tell students, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” What we are saying is, “Follow me in growth, in progress, in sanctification. And He gets the glory.”