Train Yourself In Godliness

My assignment this morning is to talk about developing talents.  I have chosen to extend my use of the word “talents” to include the virtues, so that I can talk about developing what the New Testament calls godliness.  To begin with, I should like to call your attention to First Timothy, chapter four, verses seven, eight, and nine:

Train yourself in godliness, 8 for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.  9 The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance.

Godliness is probably a central theme within the Pastoral Epistles, where it occurs six more times in First Timothy, then once each in Second Timothy and Titus.  Elsewhere in the New Testament, it occurs once in Acts and four times in Second Peter.

Let us begin with the last sentence, which tells us that Paul’s advice on godliness is “sure and worthy of full acceptance.”[1] First, this affirmation occurs only three times in First Timothy, each time associated with a major element of Paul’s advice.  Second, it marks what Paul says as important.  In its own context it carries the same weight as do the “verily, verily” sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John.  Third, it places what Paul says in opposition to the old wives tales and profane myths taught by the false teachers that Paul has earlier warned Timothy against.  Timothy and the rest of the faithful within his congregation can rely without hesitation on Paul’s advice to train in godliness, and perhaps we can, as well.

What, then, is godliness?  Here we come to a major challenge in our attempt to benefit from Paul’s sure and worthy advice, for virtues in general tend to be dependent on their historical and cultural context.  Godliness is no exception to this rule.  In many modern translation of the New Testament the Greek word behind godliness is translated as piety.  Modern definitions of piety suggest that we understand piety as a reverence for God and religious obligations.   In the Hellenistic world, however, godliness was a much more profound virtue.

Christian thinkers were neither the first nor the only authors to advocate godliness.  The Stoic philosopher Epictetus (Epik tee tus) described godliness as a combination of piety and correct behavior.  “In piety toward the gods,” he wrote, “I would have you know the chief element is this, to have the right opinions about them – as existing and as administering the universe well and justly—and to have set yourself to obey them and to submit to everything that happens, and to follow it voluntarily, in the belief that it is being fulfilled by the highest intelligence.”  Philo, writing from the perspective of a Hellenized Jew, held a similar but slightly different understanding.  To him, godliness was a function of both religion and justice, supporting a life lived in accordance with the traditions of the ancestors, in fidelity to God, and with appropriate behavior toward others.  In both cases, the bottom line is that the superior philosophy produces the superior life.

But will this sort of thing work for us?  As a twenty-first century American, my world view is considerably less confident than that of Epictetus.  I find myself informed more by that famous philosopher of engineering, CAPT Edward Murphy, who held that “if it can go wrong, it will.”  Further developments of this line of thinking are credited to Finagle, who noted that “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong, and at the worst possible time,” and finally there’s Flanagan, who held that Murphy and Finagle were both incurable optimists.  So I cannot say that I think that the universe is ticking along just fine, with liberty and justice for all.  And I do not think that much of anything that happens represents the outworkings of any intellectual activity, let alone the highest intelligence.  Therefore, I have no intention of acting as if the universe can just “perk” along without my constant attention.

I am not, however, the first Christian to hold that the world is not entirely what it ought to be, so what is needed is a Christian definition of godliness, and Philo probably points out the way with his nod toward “the ancestors.”  If we go back to Epictetus’ description of godliness as holding “right opinions” about the gods, then we can begin to define a Christian form of godliness.  For Paul, the core teaching on which Christian life was to be founded was the Easter story, that is, the triumph of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Hence, he writes in First Timothy chapter three, verse sixteen that “undeniably, great is the mystery of godliness: [He] who was manifest in the realm of the flesh, vindicated in the realm of the spirit,[2] seen by angels, proclaimed to the nations,[3] trusted throughout the world, and taken up in glory.”[4] Titus builds on this thought to conclude that a life lived “in Christ Jesus,” that is, a life that is centered on the mystical union between Christ and a believer that is initiated with baptism, is the basis of a godly life.  But we will continue to follow Timothy’s thoughts.

If the “right opinion” we should hold about God is centered in the great story of Easter, then we must further inquire about what this implies, for Epictetus is clear that right opinions about the gods are the wellspring of right behaviors.  What behaviors, then, does Paul think follow from right opinions about God?  Ancient philosophers were wont to answer questions such as the one I just posed with lists.  If they chose to present the positive side, they presented a list of virtues, while the negative side was conveyed by a vice list.  In this case, what Paul provides is the vice list of Second Timothy, chapter three, verses two, three, and four. In this passage, as he does many times throughout the Pastoral Epistles, Paul warns Timothy about those who do not hold right opinions about God, that is, who do not understand or teach the Easter story as it should be presented.  These are the false teachers, and the profane myths and old wives tales that they taught were incorrect opinions about God.

Describing those whom Timothy was to oppose with his right opinion about God, Paul wrote that they are “lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,  3 inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good,  4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, [and] lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.”  Because they do not hold right opinions about God, their false teachings “5 [hold] to the outward form of godliness” as they talk a good line about God but their behavior, Paul says, denies the transformative power, the power of godliness, that arises from right opinions about God.  Timothy is therefore instructed to avoid them!

Now the purpose of these lists, whether they be virtue lists or vice lists, is not really the individual elements of the list itself.  Instead, the desired effect is cumulative.  Since all reading was done aloud, the steady of stream of unwanted behaviors left no doubt in the mind of the audience that those who behaved in this fashion did not hold right opinions about God.  So what is the picture that builds as one listens to Paul’s description of the false teachers as “lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,  3 inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good,  4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, [and] lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God?”

I suggest that the central shortcoming in the behavior of the false teachers was that their relationships with other people were flawed, in the sense that they were skewed toward destructive self-interest. This coheres well with Paul’s idea of what composes a right opinion about God.  In Paul’s thought the Easter story, which is the key element of a right opinion about God, is concerned with the fact that through Christ’s death and resurrection God acted to place humankind in a right relationship with himself.  Paul thinks that those who understand and accept this offer of a right relationship with God have a transforming motivation to extend this experience of a right relationship from God to their relationships with other humans.  Thus, in Christian thought godliness is a right opinion about God, that is, a correct understanding of the Easter story as the event in which God placed humans in a right relationship with himself.  This right opinion about God transforms authentic Christians so that they wish to rectify the other relationships in which they participate.  The activities involved in restoring or rejuvenating failed relationships, and the maintenance of all relationships, is the right behavior that follows from a right opinion of God.  The mystery of godliness is the Easter story and the power of godliness is the transformative motivation that trust in the Easter story engenders.

If we return now to the passage from which we started, in which Paul instructs Timothy to train himself in godliness, we can continue to follow Paul’s reasoning about godliness.  First, the word “train” introduces the motif of athletic training – it is a word that comes originally from the world of the gym.  It is, however, also used of spiritual or mental training, for Paul’s world was a world that valued athletic excellence, and probably more than we do.  We may therefore expect that the development of godliness follows from the regular exercise of godliness, just like any other talent.

After making this analogy, which was quite natural for his earliest audiences, Paul does something unusual.  Most moralists of the time did not give reasons why those who heard them should respond favorably to their moral advice.  Paul, however, goes on to compare athletic training with training in godliness, saying, “for while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the world to come.”  As would be common at the time, Paul holds that athletic excellence is beneficial, but godliness, according to him, hold a greater promise because it has both a present and a future payoff.   This dualism, a contrast between the present age and the world to come follows from Paul’s exposure to Jewish apocalyptic thought.  The promise associated with life in the world to come is evident, or at least as evident as it’s going to be without more information on the nature of the world to come.  The more interesting question, then, is to ask what the promise of godliness in the present age might be.  For this, we turn to a third presentation of godliness in First Timothy.

In the sixth chapter Paul begins to wind up this first letter to Timothy by returning to the undesirable behaviors of the false teachers.  According to Paul, “whoever…does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness,  4 is conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words. From these comes envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, 5 and wrangling among those who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.”  Here Paul retains the idea that a lack of godliness produces what we might today think of as dysfunctional relationships, that is, relationships that are characterized by an unwholesome interest in stirring up trouble and starting fights with the intention of dominating and then destroying the other party.  The more pleasant life is characterized by godliness and contented self-sufficiency, for as Paul writes, “of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; 7 for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; 8 but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.”  Godliness, according to Paul, finds no need to create dissension where none exists and it does not prolong hot debate when no further creative purpose remains.  Right relationships are not characterized by the desire to control and ruin.

Godliness, then, is a virtue which can be developed much the way talents are, by constant practice.  Godliness has two components: a right opinion about God and the right behaviors that follow from this right opinion.  Right opinions about God lie within a correct understanding of the Easter story, that is, that through Christ Jesus God placed humans in a right relationship with himself.  The trust engendered by this knowledge of God’s gracious act is transforming, in that it motivates us to rectify all our relationships.  Behaviors that encourage and restore relationships are right behaviors.  These behaviors profit us because they lead us to a better world even as they improve our lives in the here and now by crafting peaceful associations and a contented, self-sufficient lifestyle.  They do not, however, come without constant mental discipline, for their acquisition is compared to the long, wearing, training of an athlete.  Nevertheless, the result is worth the effort.  Therefore, may we all begin to find our way toward that spiritual weight room where the exercise of our godliness may be perfected, so that we become together a peaceable and contented society based on a right understanding of the Easter story.

[1] I don’t think Paul wrote First Timothy but I have no intention of distracting anyone by making that point during a talk.

[2] The two realms of reality: the realm of the created order, and the realm of the Creator.  So Christ was seen by humans after his resurrection, and when he took his position on the right hand of God his life and teachings about God were declared righteous.

[3] Once again, the two realms.  At his enthronement, Christ was attended by angels, but he is also so proclaimed by his disciples here on earth.

[4] And finally, another earth/heaven dichotomy, but this time the focus has moved from proclamation to acclamation.  Christ is accepted by humans on earth and enthroned in glory in the heavenly court.


1 Response to “Train Yourself In Godliness”

  1. 1 Nancy
    February 17, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    I just stumbled upon your site yesterday, and I”m so glad! I love this analysis; it gives me much to think about. It reminded me of Joseph Smith’s statement that ‘friendship is the grand fundamental principle’ of Mormonism. (I may not have that quote just right, but I think it’s close.) We can be very busy doing all the things that our church traditions expect of us, but if we are not true friends to those around us, we have not discovered the mystery of godliness, nor can we call ourselves true Christians.

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Mormon Archipelago

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