A Form of Godliness

Once again, a blog entry has languished on my laptop without being posted. This one refers to events that happened a few weeks ago.

Summer has arrived with a vengeance here in Western Washington. As usual, the weather during camp week was spectacular, with only one brief rainshower on Friday morning. We tore ourselves away from the Duckabush late Saturday and arrived home after midnight. I had consumed a liter of Diet Coke late in the evening and so had no trouble, but Kathy was really struggling to stay awake as she followed me in the van.

On Sunday we skipped Sunday School (except Joshua, who wheedled his Mom into dropping him off for his class) and enjoyed a leisurely morning before attending the second service. Our pastor preached on 2 Timothy chapter 3, verses 1-9, which is a bit of a discouraging passage:

“But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God … having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.” II Timothy 3:1-5

I was reminded (again) of the movie Groundhog Day in which the arrogant protagonist asks his female colleague for her definition of the perfect man. As she lists a number of glowing virtues, he keeps a running commentary: “Me … me again … me also … I am REALLY close on this one … “, pretending that he fulfills each of the characteristics she enumerates. As I look at the list of sins in the first verses of II Timothy 3, I think about how many of them apply to me. If I were to prosecute myself according to these ‘crimes’ I think I could probably secure a conviction on every one except ‘treacherous’ and (perhaps) ‘not lovers of the good’.

Kathy and I talked about this at some length, because I was a little disturbed by it. The pastor was careful to point out that the passage seems to be referring to people inside the church and that Christians are not to associate with other so-called believers who meet these criteria. But as I thought about it, it seems there is something missing. Let’s face it: if I followed nearly any Christian around with a video camera and did a careful audit of their life, I would find significant evidence of many of these sins in remarkably short order. From a literal perspective, if I was to ‘have nothing to do with’ Christians who match the description given, I would not be able to fellowship with anyone (or they with me).

In the Growing Kids God’s Way parenting curriculum which has largely influenced our parenting philosophy, a distinction is made between a child’s occasional sin and a child who is ‘characterized’ by a pattern of behavior. A parent may extend grace to one child and crack down on another depending on previous offenses of the same nature, much in the same way that a judge may properly consider past offenses when sentencing, if not when determining guilt. One of my children may be characterized by an argumentative, wise-in-his-own-eyes attitude, while another might be characterized by cheerful obedience … in such a case, I’ll tolerate an appeal from the obedient child while I will reject the same appeal from the child who is characterized by disobedience.

Perhaps the same kind of interpretation can be placed on these verses. Clearly any Christian will, from time to time, be guilty of one or more of these offenses, yet they may be characterized by a love for God and a desire to please Him more than by these sins.

Alternatively, we can look at the following verses in the same passage:
” … always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth.” (vs. 7)

“Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so also these men oppose the truth … men of depraved minds who, as far as the faith is concerned, are rejected.”

These verses seem to indicate a deeply-rooted deception and active opposition to the Gospel and to the Church … people who pretend to be pursuing godliness but are actually witting or unwitting double agents within the Body of Christ.

Introducing this passage, the pastor said, “And some of these people are here today.” I fought down a strong temptation to crane my neck around suspiciously in a theatrical manner, not wanting to make light of his observation that, indeed, the people described in this passage would likely be faithful churchgoers and not outwardly distinguishable from those who were seeking God with a pure and contrite heart.

I guess the phrase that really leaped out at me from this whole passage was in verse 5: “… having a form of godliness but denying its power.” This seems to sum up many Christians today; we partition our lives so carefully that we neutralize the power of God from having any real impact in our lives or in the lives of those around us.

And when you think about it, it is really very sad. How pathetic it is to have access to something really wonderful yet never take advantage of it, out of fear or laziness or ignorance. Many pastors have repeatedly chided their flock for the spiritual equivalent of having a Ferrari in the driveway but never driving it, only washing, waxing and polishing it on Sundays, maybe backing it up and down the driveway on special occasions.

As Paul writes in I Timothy 4:8:

“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.”

Historically I’ve taken that verse out of context to explain why I don’t do pushups and situps. In all seriousness, though, it makes me wonder what promise I am giving up when I deny the power of godliness in my life? What is, after all, the power of godliness?

Jesus was very hard on the Pharisees throughout His ministry, frequently criticizing them for outward ‘righteousness’ which did not translate to a right heart before God. It seems that, in order to really enjoy the power of godliness, I must be conducting myself in a godly manner out of a pure and contrite heart, rather than out of any other motives. It seems to tie in rather nicely with what the Lord has been teaching me about humility and forgiveness and contentment and all the other lessons that I am learning, whether I like it or not.

These past two years have been difficult for me, as I have been gently (and in some cases, not so gently) taught the difference between faith and counterfeit faith, humility and false humility, forgiveness on my terms and forgiveness on God’s terms. I was talking with Kathy the other night, marveling at all the changes that God has brought about in my life, and how He has upended and stirred-up the patterns of ‘righteousness’ I have cherished over the years. She asked me, “If you had the choice, would you voluntarily sign up for all the lessons you’ve learned in the past two years, knowing the trouble that would come with those lessons?”

Truthfully, no. I am lazy enough and self-righteous enough that, even in hindsight, I would probably not value the pursuit of godliness enough to experience the hardship; and I am optimistic enough to think that somehow I could learn the needed lessons without having to experience the trouble.

How great is our God, that He doesn’t ask or require us to make that choice, but rather disciplines us as sons, teaching us the lessons He wills for us without needing to consult us. I think I’d rather leave those kind of things in His capable hands, and just take each day with its renewed mercies, as it comes.

Share or follow

Related posts: