Training for Godliness

Rigorous training is essential for athletic success. Hours of blood, sweat, and tears all for an athletic career that may span only a few short years. Is the juice worth the squeeze?

[This post is the fourth in the series. If you haven’t yet, it may be helpful to first read the introductory post that sets the stage for the discussion. Also, here’s the second and third posts.]

The Context

Timothy was a young leader given the task of pastoring the Ephesian church, a congregation in need of correction (1:3–7). In an effort to counteract the effects of false teaching that had seeped its way into the church, the Apostle Paul tells Timothy to pursue sound doctrine with intensity and intentionality.

The Text

Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come (1 Tim. 4:7–8).

Paul begins by forcefully instructing Timothy to have nothing to do with the worthless, gospel-contradicting myths or fables being peddled by the false teachers in their midst (4:7a). Instead, Paul admonishes the young leader to spend time in a more productive manner—training for godliness (4:7b)The word Paul uses here unavoidably carries along with it athletic imagery. 

Athlete preparation for competition involves focused, intentional, rigorous effort for the purpose of specific improvements. Elite athletes train in ways that best address the specific demands of their individual events. For example, a sprinter spends less time training her ability to jump high than to run fast. Obviously!

Timothy’s event is godliness and he must train accordingly. A focus on developing a consistently right attitude and response toward God exposes the fictitious nature of silly myths.

What were these false teachers actually teaching? Well, we don’t know for sure, but it appears that at least part of their pseudo-gospel was a form of asceticism, that is, separating the physical from the spiritual, and teaching that the body could be controlled via rigorous self-denial. While Paul concedes that the training of the body is not void of value, its temporal worth is eclipsed by the unlimited worth of spiritual training (4:8; see also Gal. 6:16–24).

As one author notes, “Spiritual ends can be achieved only by spiritual men who employ spiritual methods.” Stated otherwise, an effective ministry stems from an overflow of a godly life. In the midst of a hostile ministry, Paul wants Timothy to thoughtfully train himself to grow in an area of life that is eternal (godliness) rather than temporal (physical).

Athletes train to do things that are unnatural. Left to themselves, human beings are unable to run a 10-second 100-meter dash, throw a 100-mph fastball, and lift 500 pounds over their heads. However, with discipline, focus, and good coaching, they are accomplished all around the world on a daily basis. 

Similarly, godliness is not something that comes naturally to humanity (Not since the Fall, anyway!). However, with intentional training, discipline, and the Holy Spirit, Paul encourages believers that it can be accomplished for the glory of God.

The Principle

Rather than focusing on the lies of this world and striving for temporal success, believers must discipline themselves in the pursuit of godliness. It takes work!

The Application

Paul is not concerned with the nature of athletic competition beyond its use as a conduit for truth. In fact, his near-dismissal of the benefits of physical training compared to spiritual training intentionally minimizes athletics. Kept in perspective, the training of the body is minimally beneficial. 

Today, our culture is saturated with concern for the human body—training it, mastering it, using it, exploiting it, showcasing it, perfecting it. Proper perspective must be kept. Where is our effort being spent? Are we being more intentional with our physical training than we are our pursuit of godliness?