Striving For Godliness
I Timothy 4:1-8
There is a huge amount of energy expended, these days, on improvement. Television is bombarding us with one show after another dedicated to improvement. “What Not To Wear,” “Home Makeover,” “While You Were Out” and a multitude of other shows dealing with cars, diets, exercise and whatever else people can think of. Sometimes the improvement is desperately needed. On “Extreme Makeover Home Edition,” I recently, watched one show in which a family of 8 lived in a house which was too small for them. There were problems with mould and it desperately needed repair and paint. The crew totally demolished the house and a mansion was put in its place. What a great change and what a blessing for the family whose house it was!
Somehow I suspect that we aren’t going to see a show any time soon called “Soul Makeover,” but what is desperately needed more than to have our fashion reorganized or our homes repaired is the renewal of our souls. Of course, church each week is a place for “Soul Makeover” and so this morning, we want to talk about what it means to strive for godliness. I Timothy 4:1-8 talks about training ourselves to be godly. Let us read the passage.
The passage begins by telling us that in the “later times” something is going to happen. Since the “later times” the text is speaking of are described as happening at the time of writing, we understand that from that time and to the present we are in those “later times.” So what is spoken of here, is for us today.
What is it that is going to happen? Verse 1 says that some will “abandon the faith” and also that there will be false teachers.
In Timothy, these warnings are a major theme. In this passage alone, we notice how much attention is paid to this warning. Verse 1 speaks about those who abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Verse 2 warns that such teachings come through hypocritical liars whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. Then in verse 7 there is a warning about godless myths and old wives’ tales.
How can people wander away? How can they deceive others? The text says that their “consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.” We have usually understood that to mean that they are so calloused to the truth that they no longer hear it. That would explain why they teach these things and deceive others and wander away. There is another interpretation, however, which gives us a different perspective. The other day we were at a public event and we noticed how many people are wearing tattoos these days. They mark their bodies, for reasons of fashion, with a tattoo. Then a few days later, I learned that some people are even marking their bodies by branding them – all as a fashion statement. One of the interpretations of “consciences seared,” in verse 2, is that it indicates a brand. At the time when this was written, slaves were branded to show that they were owned by someone. In a similar way, this text can be translated “their consciences are branded,” meaning that these people are branded as belonging to Satan. As such, they follow the dictates of the one who owns them. They are human teachers who are under the influence of Satan. No wonder Paul warns us of the terrible danger we are in.
The potential of destruction, the danger of losing what we have in Christ raises the desperate need to make sure that we are not deceived by such false teachers and that we are not among those who abandon the faith. The critical question then becomes, “How will we make sure?” How can we avoid the danger? The answer to this question is found in verse 7 where we are told that it is important to “train ourselves to be godly.” But how do we do that?
II. False Discipline of Asceticism 4:1-5
One answer which has often been given to this question is to be rigorous in establishing a set of rules which must then be followed.
A. Living By Rules
There is a very strong temptation for us as Christians to make ours a religion of “don’t.” What is interesting is that Paul identifies such a practice with something that the false teachers were promoting. Verse 3 says, “they forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods.”
It is not exactly clear what the reason for such actions was. It is possible that they were following principles they had learned from a strict sect of the Jews. We know that there were Jewish Christians who wanted to follow all the laws of the Old Testament and who insisted that even Gentiles follow these laws before they became Christians.
Another source of this false teaching was something which arose some time later called “gnosticism.” It is possible that the roots of that teaching were already present at this time. The word “gnosticism” comes from the Greek word for knowledge. One writer says, “The “knowledge” they offered had to do only with spells, celestial passwords, and disciplines of mysticism and detachment.” They had “a strong prejudice against physical matter as the cause of evil.” What gnosticism taught was that matter, the physical, including the body, was evil and so in order to be spiritual, they taught that a person should avoid all contact with physical things. Thus they forbade marriage and eating certain kinds of food.
As Christians today, it is still possible for us to fall into the same kind of errors. When our faith life becomes a life of rules and we judge ourselves and our faithfulness to God by whether or not we obey those rules, we have fallen into the same trap, which Paul identifies as a false teaching. When we identify a Christian as someone who wears certain clothing, or doesn’t have a radio in their car or rubber tires on their tractor, we fall into the same kind of legalism. When we judge whether another person is a Christian or not by whether they attend an evangelical church or not, we fall into the same trap. When we think that someone can’t be a Christian because they go to a bar or dance or any other rule we want to judge them by, we are doing the same thing as Paul identifies in verse 3. When we chastise ourselves for failing to have devotions one day and wonder if God still loves us if we forget to pray, we are in the same kind of danger.
There was a group of people at one time in church history who were called ascetics. Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines asceticism as “practicing strict self-denial as a measure of personal and especially spiritual discipline…” These people would abstain from food, sit on poles, not bath for months on end because they thought that by such works they could be made pleasing to God. Paul tells us quite clearly that asceticism and legalism are false teaching and are not what is meant by training ourselves to be godly.
B. Why It Doesn’t Work
Why does such a rigorous approach to spirituality not work? Paul begins to answer that question in verses 3-5.
1. Goes against the creative order
First of all, such a practice of forbidding goes against the creative order. If the reason you are forbidding things is because you think that they were created evil, then you are denying what God says about creation. Here in Timothy, Paul says that God has created these things. In Genesis 1, after God created everything, he pronounced it good. Whatever God has created is not spiritually harmful to us. There are of course substances that are physically harmful to us, but that is not the issue here. The issue is that these things should be avoided because they are spiritually harmful to us. Food and marriage are good gifts of God and avoiding them as if they are bad and harm us spiritually is denying what God said when he declared His creation good.
2. Goes against the blessing intention of God.
A second reason why such ascetic perspectives do not work is because they go against what God intends them for. God has given us the things He has created as a blessing from His hand. Marriage and food and so on were given to us, by God. They are to be received as something that comes from His hand, as a blessing to us. We sometimes look at the physical relationship in marriage as something dirty. Outside of marriage and publicly displayed it is not appropriate, but within the marriage relationship, it is a blessing, a gift of God. We sometimes chastise ourselves for what we eat and, of course we need to live healthy lives, but food itself is not a bad thing, it is a blessing from God that He has given us for our benefit.
3. Robs us of an opportunity to thank God and recognize His blessings.
The third reason that asceticism does not work is that it causes us to curse what God has declared good instead of blessing Him for His good gifts. When we receive the gifts of God with thanksgiving, it allows us an opportunity to worship God and to thank Him for what He has given. If we are restrictive and ascetic, then we rob ourselves of an opportunity to bring blessing and honour to God.
An interesting aside is to note that when we receive these blessings from God and we ask God’s blessing on them based on the promise in the Word that they are from God, then they are consecrated to us. We are familiar with this concept because it is what we do when we say grace before meals, but what about asking God’s blessing and consecrating our activities, our recreation, our vacation, our work. Our family once went on a day canoe trip with a friend and his family. When we were ready to go, he suggested that we pray. At first, I thought that this was a little strange, but then as I thought about it, I realized that he was consecrating a pleasurable activity and setting it in the context of our relationship with God and giving thanks to God for the blessing of water and pleasure and family.
So as we contemplate what it means to “train ourselves to be godly” we can quickly dismiss asceticism and legalism as the means to do that. It is not what God intends and is, in fact, part of the false teaching that leads away from God.
III. Spiritual Discipline 4:7b, 8b
So the question remains. How do we train ourselves to be godly?
A. Physical Training 4:8a
The word for “train” in verse 7 is a word that comes from the idea of physical training for athletic events and so, as a comparison, Paul says “physical training has some value.”
It is a comparison which is worthy of brief reflection. Paul affirms the value of physical training. A person who engages in exercise to keep a healthy body, who practices in order to play his game better, who has a healthy diet, does a good thing. Physical training has value.
B. Spiritual Training
But, you also notice that the value has limits and this is where we have created a problem for ourselves. We invest huge amounts of energy on the kind of training that will make us healthy and fit physically, but rather small amounts of energy in training for godliness. The great point of this passage is that training for godliness is much more valuable than physical training. How many of us are being diligent in that training? Let us think about this a little more.
1. What Is Godliness
The text speaks of training in “godliness” and so it is important for us to know what godliness means. Godliness speaks of a relationship with God in which we are devoted to Him and in which we obey Him. One writer says that godliness is, “an active obedience to his revealed will and a personal devotion that surpasses lip-service, mere trepidation, or bare admiration.” Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, “Virtue is that by which man seeks continuously for his Maker and when he finds him, adheres to him with all his might.”
2. The Value Of Training For Godliness
What is so great about training for godliness? Notice that verse 8 says it has “value for all things.” Exercise and diet trains our body and has value for creating a healthy body. Education trains our mind and has great value to give us what we need for clear thinking and understanding, but training in godliness is valuable for all things. When we train for godliness, we are not limited to dealing with a healthy body or a well ordered mind. Nor are we limited to dealing with our spirits only. Training in godliness has value for body, mind and spirit.
Furthermore, we notice that it has value for this life and the life to come. If a person is engaged in physical training, they can remain healthy and may even prolong their life, but the value of physical training ends at death. If a person continues to engage their mind they will be a more interesting conversationalist, have tools to understand the world in which we live and may even be able to stave off the effects of senility. But when we die, the value of training our mind ends. On the other hand, spiritual training is relevant long beyond the grave. If we are building a relationship with God, that relationship does not stop at death because we have been accepted by God through faith in Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, what is important for us to realize is that the value of training in godliness is not only for the life to come, but also for this life. Knowing God and growing in that knowledge has great value to help us live a life that is full and abundant now.
3. What Training For Godliness Involves
So “how do we train ourselves in godliness?” We have already noted what it is not. It is not asceticism. It is not saying “no” to all kinds of things. If it is not that, what is it? This text does not answer the question, but we do need to think about it.
One writer says, “Knowledge of self leads the believer to a fear of God — and knowledge of the God who is feared leads to the love of God wherein the believer moves forward toward perfection.” The Bible reveals that this is the true training that helps us become more godly.
It begins with a recognition that we are loved by God. There are so many verses that talk about this that it is surprising that we have sometimes missed the importance of knowing that we are loved. What a huge difference it will make in our lives when we know that we are loved by God. We become confident that no matter what happens in our lives, no matter how deep the tragedy or difficulty, we are still loved by God. We become people who can live in the midst of the whirlwind at peace. If we are serious about training ourselves in godliness, I believe that every day, we ought to bring to conscious remembrance the love God has for us.
When we know that we are loved and the knowledge of the love of God goes deeply into our hearts, we will begin to desire more than anything to want to respond to the love of God by loving God. Once again, we come upon a theme that is constant in Scripture. Godliness means loving God. But how do we love God?
First of all, love for God is manifested in obedience. We do what God wants not as a way of gaining favor with God, we already have that. Rather, obedience is a love response, an understanding that because God has given so much to us, we desire to give Him our best. It is also a trust response, the recognition that His way is best and we will follow it because of that. If we are interested in training ourselves for godliness, we ought to allow our love for God to cause us to respond to God with a life of love for Him by putting our hope in Him, calling upon Him and trusting Him.
Love for God is also manifested most clearly as we love others, specifically the last, the lost and the least, as someone has said. We are to love the last because Jesus says the last will be first. We are to love the lost because Jesus came to seek and to save that which was lost and we are to love the least because as we do it unto the least of these, we do it unto Him. As we love others in every relationship and ask what it means to love others, we will be actively engaged in training ourselves for godliness.
Many athletes discuss in some depth what exercises help them perform better, what stretches will help them be loose and have quick responses. They also discuss the results of their practices and of their games.
Have we as Christians discussed what helps us grow in godliness? Have we talked to others about the love God has for us? Are we talking about what it means to love God and to love others? Such discussions would encourage and motivate us to continue to be diligent in training ourselves for godliness.
I want to encourage each one of us to make training ourselves in godliness a high priority in life. When summer comes and our church programs are slowing down and we are not gathering each week in Sunday School, there may be a temptation to forget about training in godliness. Sometimes when we are out of routine our habits of Bible reading and prayer are neglected. But as we change pace in the summer, let us continue to focus on training for godliness by meditating on the love of God and responding to His love. When we do so, we will be well prepared to meet any challenges to our faith, any false teaching we may encounter as well as any temptation to abandon the faith.