I’ve worked for the same company long enough that I have watched a number of respected colleagues retire, take jobs elsewhere, or move into other parts of the organization. No one remains in the same job forever, and passing a legacy from one generation to the next is a bit of an art. Often, these colleagues take many years of unique knowledge, expertise, and skills with them when they go. However, one day when I was lamenting the departure of someone from the company, a wise associate of mine reminded me that this had happened before, and that the company had survived!
As the saying goes, it can be difficult to fill someone else’s shoes. Sometimes, we are called upon to pick up the mantle (so to speak) from another servant of God. When that person’s work has been powerfully blessed by God, this can be intimidating. Somewhere inside us, we may either fear that we cannot live up to that example, or feel compelled to imitate our predecessor in each facet of his or her behavior.
However, God doesn’t call His people to be cookie-cutter copies of each other. If He wanted everyone to be the same, He could have easily created us as “clones” or made us from a limited set of molds, so that it was clear who was supposed to do what. Instead, though, each person has a unique combination of experience, abilities, and perspective; along with a specific place in history.
So, when following God’s leading, filling a role that has been previously held by another follower of Jesus doesn’t mean we have to be an exact copy, nor that we can’t make changes. It only means that we are the next person who God has selected for His work in a particular field.
Elisha asked for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit (2 Kings 2:1-14), and went on to powerfully judge the Israelite people in his own time. (By the way, I used to get these two prophets confused, until I realized that they served in alphabetical order.)
Paul came across a potential protege named Timothy, full of faith and potential. Paul coached Timothy to take care of God’s people, ministering to those who Paul could not be with, and multiplying the message of Jesus that Paul sought to share.
Note that one thing these successors had in common (see 1 Kings 19:19; Acts 16:1-3): the incumbent spent time with his replacement. While it is not always possible to manage a transition like this, Paul and Elijah were able to identify those who they could train, and had time to invest in them. This also gave Timothy and Elisha opportunities to observe their mentors – not just to become carbon-copies, but to learn what really made them successful. I suspect that both learned that listening to God for direction was far more important than a specific preaching style, a special way to dress (although Elisha did inherit Elijah’s mantle), or a single method of outreach.
In our lives today, opportunities to learn from others – especially those who are wiser and more attuned to God’s will – are invaluable chances to learn and grow. This doesn’t mean that we need to measure ourselves against them (any more than they measure themselves against anyone else except Jesus), but we can learn what it looks like to follow God. And, with their experience, we may learn from them what did not work, saving us from going through the same pain and potential harm to others.
Another similarity between these situations is that the important things did not change when passed down from one to another, even if the situations and specific actions by each person were unique. Elijah and Elisha both prophesied for the same God, and generally to the same people groups. They were different people, but Elisha succeeded Elijah; he didn’t just copy his predecessor word for word. While both of these men served in similar roles, God had different specific goals for Elisha: different people to speak to, different events to explain, and different miracles to perform.
Regardless of our calling, the truth is the truth. God will not ask us to compromise His message or our commitment to Him. However, in God’s Kingdom – one that is rich with many roles for its members, as well as so many different ministries in which they can serve – every person’s path is different.
So, don’t try to be just like another Christian, but copy the elements of Jesus’ nature that you see reflected in them, and learn from their habits that glorify God.
Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.
1 Corinthians 11:1 NASB
Strive to be the unique creation that God made you, perfectly positioned in history with just the right skills (and support). Step fearlessly into roles where He calls you, and seek to copy only Him. It may not look like what has happened in the past, but it will honor those who have gone before and prepared the way for what God will do next through you.