We will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations.
—1 Samuel 8:19–20
Throughout the Scriptures, no impulse is more deadly than the urge to be like someone else. Whether it’s the desire to be like God in the Garden of Eden, to be like the Egyptians and worship a golden calf, or to be like other nations and have an earthly king, it never seems to end well. In wanting to be like someone else, we set ourselves against who we are and, more fundamentally, who God has chosen us to be. In choosing us for Himself, God sets us apart, and this is not always a comfortable position. We sometimes wish that God had not chosen us, or that being chosen were an easier task.
The story of Joseph (Gn 37–50) can teach us something here. His father’s favorite son, Joseph at first lords his privileged status over his eleven brothers. They resent him and, instead of killing him, decide to sell him into slavery. This suffering and hardship, it turns out, is exactly what’s necessary for God’s purpose to be achieved through Joseph. Being sold into slavery, being accused of rape, being imprisoned, and, ultimately, being raised up to the highest position in Egypt after Pharaoh—all of this was the path of holiness for Joseph and the means of salvation for all those suffering from famine, including Joseph’s own family. Joseph’s position as chosen or favored son was not for his own exaltation, but for the good of all.
God consecrates a specific people to Himself, so that all may be blessed through them. This process began with the promise to Abraham and, in the fullness of time, came to full expression in God’s own Son, Jesus Christ. God chose Christ “that he might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Rm 8:29). In seeking to follow Christ, we are granted the gift of becoming those brethren, but not on our own terms. We do not dictate to God how we can best be like Him. God makes us like Himself according to His will. He has given us the Law of the Spirit for our way of life, He has given us His Word for our education and salvation, and He has given us His Church through which we receive sacramental graces and in which we are made one Body.
Our misguided desire to be like others is an offense to God, but we can only see this after realizing what God has chosen us to be—His children. As children of God, members of a chosen people, we often find ourselves opposed to a world that fails to see the goodness of what God has done, and continues to do, on its behalf. When Israel asks to be like the other nations and to have a king, they are telling God that they do not want Him as their sole ruler. Likewise, when we are hesitant to defend certain difficult truths—the sanctity of all life, the creative power of God, the sanctity of marriage, the divinity of Christ, etc.—we are stepping away from the very task that will sanctify both us and the world. The world does not see that God acts through his chosen people for the world’s own salvation.
St. Ambrose of Milan, whose feast we celebrate today, understood the Christian’s role in the world as one of love and sanctification. He recognized that charity sometimes requires correcting the world. Because we love the world and desire its salvation, we speak out against its self-destructive behavior. For St. Ambrose, this meant standing up to a heretical emperor who wanted to confiscate Church property and ultimately do away with orthodox Christianity through executive power. He and the faithful of Milan protested with “sit-ins” at the Cathedral of Milan, where they kept up their spirits by singing hymns—many of which were composed by St. Ambrose himself. Facing reprisal from the imperial soldiers, they nevertheless stood and denounced the actions of the emperor, all the while praying for his conversion. St. Ambrose, then, is a model for those of us who are tempted to become what the world demands rather than what God asks us to be.
The temptation to be like everyone else takes many forms. We don’t want to stand out; we don’t want to cause a disturbance; we don’t want to offend; we want to be inviting to all; we want people to think well of us; we pretend we are humble when we are really frightened, etc. It is tempting to ignore the particularity of our calling in order to keep the “peace,” but this is not Christ’s peace; it is not who we are. We were not created to be afraid. We were not created to be mediocre. We were made to shine: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid” (Mt. 5:14). We shine when we become like God in the way the Father has revealed to us through His Son, in the Church, and in the Scriptures. We shine when we act with the grace God gives us. We shine when we live according to the Spirit who dwells within us.