The Godliness Workout
Years ago when I was in my early thirties and the busy, flabby mother of four, a friend and I made up our minds to get in shape and exercise a little physical discipline. We donned ratty old tennis shoes and weatherbeaten T-shirts and shorts and set out to run around the block. To our dismay, we made it only as far as the first corner, nearly fainting with that much exertion. But we didn’t give up. Every morning we tried again. The day we made it to the half-mile marker, we were so happy we celebrated with donuts! That morning workout eventually lengthened to three miles, then to five—always ending with the prize, a donut! We got fit, but we didn’t take it too seriously. We understood that some disciplines are more important than others.
The apostle Paul links this idea of necessary training or discipline with the spiritual life. First Timothy 4:7 says, “Train yourself to be godly.” That word train is derived from the very ancient Greek word from which we get the English word gymnasium. By New Testament times it referred to exercise and training in general. In a sense, Paul is saying, “Gymnasticize yourself for the purpose of godliness.” He’s calling for a spiritual workout.
It’s this spiritual workout that Paul deems so much more important than a morning jog around town. He goes on to say, “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:8).
I’m nearly sixty now—a soft grandmother of sixteen youngsters. I don’t jog anymore, though I regularly make the most of my occasional bursts of energy by using the few pieces of high-tech exercise equipment stashed in our basement. The older I get, the more I understand Paul’s exercise priorities: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16).
Like the Greek athletes who lay aside even their clothing to avoid encumbrances, we Christian women need to get rid of every association, habit, and tendency that impedes godliness. The writer of Hebrews talks about this shedding of hindrances: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Heb.12:1).
There have been habits and pastimes I’ve had to shed over the years. For example, I used to be unable to begin my day before I read the morning news. I finally noticed that I consistently headed for the front porch for the newspaper before I reached for God’s word. It seems like a simple thing, a newspaper, but I found I had to cancel my subscription in order to pursue a better habit. I have also had wrong ideas that have had to be altered or replaced by truth based in God’s word and in his character. I’ve had to dump lots of dead weight.
What is weighing you down today? Those things will have to go. Once you’ve removed obstacles and hindrances, your call to training also demands that you direct your energy toward godliness. “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified,” writes Paul (1 Cor. 9:27 NKJV). Remember Paul’s instruction to “train” for godliness? Just a few sentences later he comments on this command, saying, “for this we labor and strive” (1 Tim. 4:9). In the Greek, labor means “strenuous toil,” and strive is the word that gives us “agonize” in English.
In other words, Paul isn’t promising us a cushy, low-impact workout. Spiritual disciplines call for serious commitment and “no-pain, no-gain” effort. Athletes in serious training willingly undergo hours of discipline and pain—in order to meet the goal, to win the prize. Many women will understand this easily in physical terms, having already made a commitment to train their bodies, spending long hours at the gym for the outward prize of a trim figure. But even those women may be neglecting to bring that same discipline to a flabby soul.
Do We Have To?
Why should we Christian women turn our attention to the disciplines that will train us for godliness? First of all, because in today’s world and in today’s church, disciplined Christian lives are the exception, not the rule. Some people might like to find an excuse by saying, Oh, but that’s always been true. Actually, it hasn’t. Many periods of church history have been characterized by the amazing discipline of believers. We can come up with plenty of reasons why Christians today avoid the disciplines that lead to godliness. Maybe teaching has been poor. Maybe it’s the laziness of individual believers. But one reason that stands out in our current culture is fear of legalism.
True discipline is a far cry from legalism—thank God! The difference lies in motivation: legalism is self-centered; discipline is God-centered.
Let’s face it: many of us think of spiritual discipline in terms of “living the letter of the Law” or as a series of draconian rules that no one could possibly live up to. Such legalism seems to us a path to frustration and spiritual death.
But true discipline is a far cry from legalism—thank God! The difference lies in motivation: legalism is self-centered; discipline is God-centered. The legalistic heart says, I will do this thing to gain merit with God. The disciplined heart says, I will do this because I love God and want to please Him. The true heart of discipline is relationship—a relationship with God. John Wesley’s words express this relationship beautifully:
O God, fill my soul with so entire a love of Thee that I may love nothing but for Thy sake and in subordination to Thy love. Give me grace to study Thy knowledge daily that the more I know Thee, the more I may love Thee. Create in me a zealous obedience to all Thy commands, a cheerful patience under all Thy chastisements, and a thankful resignation to all Thy disposals. Let it be the one business of my life to glorify Thee by every word of my tongue, by every work of my hand, by professing Thy truth, and by engaging all men, so far as in me lies, to glorify and love Thee.1
Paul knew the difference between the motivations of legalism and discipline, and he fought the legalists all the way across Asia Minor, never giving an inch. Now he shouts to us, Train yourselves to be godly!
What’s another reason why Christian women need to turn their attention to the disciplines? Because we need to embrace a concept that is key to living a godly life authentically—a concept we stumble over and stumble hard. A Christian’s life is about bringing the will under submission to God’s will, and submission is an idea that has fallen on hard times. Confusion abounds about rights and boundaries, roles and authority. This confusion muddies our thinking about God and creates roadblocks to our spiritual growth. The only cure is a proper theology about God in order to bring every area of our lives under submission to His will.
- John Wesley, quoted in Garden of Prayer (Santa Ana, Calif.: Vision House, 1976), p. 45.
This article is adapted from Disciplines of a Godly Woman by Barbara Hughes.
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