1 Timothy 4:7b-10
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
October 23, 2016
“Train yourself in godliness,” the Apostle Paul urged Timothy, a young man who wanted to help people know Christ’s love and grace.
“Train yourself in godliness,” the Spirit urges us now if we want to help people know Christ’s love and grace.
What is godliness? It is an attentiveness and adherence to God’s wishes, a committed disposition of the heart to listen for God’s leading and to follow it.
Godliness is an attitude of the soul that no one just falls into having. You can only develop it by persistent practice over a long haul. But there is a payoff to all that practice. For godliness, this scripture tells us, holds “promise for both the present life and the life to come”.
“Train yourself in godliness.” As athletes train themselves in, say, pitching well by throwing a ball over and over again, we train ourselves in godliness by over and over again exercising ourselves in those disciplines that instill godliness: practices such as reading the word, sharing in worship, praying, tithing, serving others, and the like. Persist long enough in such practices, and godliness becomes almost second nature, a nearly unconscious conditioned reflex, and a firmly engrained habit of conduct.
Any excellence in life we want to attain requires training and practice. For, while each of us begins with certain gifts and abilities, none of them is at the start fully developed. Even the exceptionally talented can make the most of their potential only if they practice their employment of their talents.
I think of the prodigiously talented jazz great, John Coltrane, who – along with Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis – define jazz. Coltrane’s musical magnificence, including his breath-taking improvisational abilities, didn’t just happen; it came about by his engaging in a long process of practice and sharpening of skill.
“From the time he was a young teenager,” Steven Guthrie in his book Creator Spirit says, “Coltrane maintained an intense practice regimen, playing for hours each day; and, when neighbors complained, silently fingering the keys of his saxophone late into the night.”
Coltrane not only repeatedly practiced his scales and patterns and took classes at various music institutes and conservatories; he also joined the bands of older musical greats like Thelonious Monk, as a supporting and learning musician, in order to internalize over time what of their genius he could. He’d play their music over and over again until the greatness of it imprinted itself upon the fabric of his soul and inspired in him his own unique musical voice. In other words, he strove over a long stretch to inhabit the best of jazz, until the best of jazz inhabited his soul and brought forth from his depths a unique, creative excellence.
If we want to serve the Lord at our full potential, we have to pursue godliness – and we pursue it by practicing it. That involves our doing often what we have already done many times before, and our doing often what, at the time we do it, feels boring and tedious. Yet, such perseverance brings a big payoff. For example, if we keep reading and studying even those scriptures we’ve gone over a million times before, we will internalize them and be inspired by them; we will inhabit them until they inhabit us, imprint themselves upon the fabric of our soul, and call forth from us the music of the Gospel in our own unique voice.
The more we learn to do this, the more likely others will catch the tune of the Gospel from us – even when pain and difficulties are striking discordant notes in our lives that hurt ear and heart.
Life does have a way of challenging us with trials and tests, of surprising us with pop quizzes that reveal what we’ve learned and how we’ve developed. If we have kept in training for godliness, we will have within us the wherewithal to stay on key and to continue to sound out the sweet music of God even in bitter circumstances.
The great Chinese tactician Sun-Tzu observed, “Every battle is won or lost before it is fought.” Preparation is everything, and there is no preparation without practice. When the pressure is on, when our emotions have rendered us a mess, and when challenges crowd upon us too fast to allow us to think, we will only do well if we have, through persistent repetition, so ingrained godliness into our soul that we make the right response almost automatically without thinking. We will just have the instinct and the feel for what to do.
I have been comparing training in godliness to making music. Let me return to the world of athletics that Paul had in mind. If you want, say, to become the best baseball shortstop you can, you can help yourself by watching videos, listening to your coaches, and studying the game of the best players; but nothing takes place of doing the drills. By fielding ground ball after ground ball, you develop the right habits and by instinct know how to anticipate the path of a hit ball or how to play it on the short hop.
As we practice the disciplines of the Christian faith, we develop godliness, and gain an instinctual feel for following Jesus. We become attuned to his signals and amenable to His game plans. We acquire the skills to play at the top of our game.
So let us persevere in doing our drills, whether we feel like it or not, because repeated practice has its payoffs. Let us keep reading the word, saying our prayers, worshipping and fellowshipping with the rest of the team, and blessing people by our giving and serving. Thereby we will train ourselves in godliness, the godliness that holds “promise for the present life and the life to come”. Let us pray.