We are all familiar with the sight of a jogger running down the road. Isn’t that such a wonderful sight? The guy is sweating and panting. Maybe his tongue is even hanging out. Perhaps some of you have been that jogger. I have occasionally been that guy myself. I do not want to offend anybody, but that tired jogger makes a good illustration for this article.
People get up early to go jogging, or stay up late to work out at the gym, or pedal their bikes up ridiculous hills. What are those people trying to accomplish? They are trying to get in shape, or stay in shape, or train for something. But what is the point?
Paul had something to say about physical training in 1 Timothy 4:7-8, which says “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” (ESV).
These days there is a significant emphasis placed on keeping physically fit. Paul does not say that physical training has no value, but he does seem to be aware of the temporary aspect of physical fitness. These verses prompt me to think about Olympic athletes. An Olympic athlete might train for years just to be able to compete in a single event. They might win a gold medal, but quite likely they will not. Many athletes will only have one shot at a gold medal.
Even if they do win a medal or a trophy, what is the point? They will get their name written down in the record book and the trophy will then proceed to collect dust. In this passage Paul argues from the lesser to the greater by acknowledging that although there is some benefit in bodily exercise, there is more benefit in godliness. Athletes disciplined themselves through careful diet and energetic exercise to prepare for the Greek races. Even if the athlete won the race, the benefit was temporary.
In contrast, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. Though bodily exercise may benefit the athlete a little today, godliness has a lasting benefit for life in the present and also in the age to come. Paul is not saying that physical exercise should be neglected, but he is stressing to Timothy the importance of spiritual exercise. We need to keep in mind that godliness is of benefit in both this life and the life to come. Some of the benefits of godliness in this life include the peace and joy that a relationship with God brings.
The eternal benefits of godliness should be obvious – the opportunity to spend eternity with our Savior Jesus Christ. Paul told Timothy to train for godliness like an athlete trains for his sport. Serious athletes work on their game every day. Do we have that level of commitment to spiritual training? Just as athletes have to refuse certain things, eat the right food, and do the right exercises, so a Christian should practice “spiritual exercise.” If a Christian puts as much energy and discipline into his spiritual life as an athlete does into his game, he will reap the benefits of growing in godliness.
Godliness is a comprehensive word for obedience to the Gospel in all areas of life. Spiritual training must be daily. It has been said that the problem with life is that it is so daily. To accomplish any form of training you must make the right choices every day. Like physical exercise, holy living requires daily discipline; the believer must commit himself to a regular workout in God’s gym. Spiritual training is a workout – it does require effort. Ignatius of Loyola understood that point; his classic devotional manual is entitled Spiritual Exercises.
What are the spiritual exercises we must do to grow in godliness? Prayer, fasting, Bible study, meditation, self-examination, fellowship, service, sacrifice, submission to the will of God, witness—all of these can assist us, through the Spirit, in becoming more godly people.
I see three reasons why spiritual training is superior to physical training. First, spiritual training has eternal benefits. Second, spiritual training guarantees a gold medal (a life of faithfulness to God will allow you to enter Heaven). And third, you never pass your spiritual prime. All athletes reach their prime. It is during that time that they can jump the highest, run the fastest, hit the farthest, or whatever. After that point they decline. As Christians, we do not need to decline spiritually. There is a limit to the extent a person can grow in physical strength, but there is no limit to how much you can grow in spiritual strength. An eighty-five year old may be getting physically weaker every day, but they can continue to grow spiritually.
In summary, we have seen that bodily exercise is limited to this world. However, godliness has to do with the essence of faith and one’s response to the living God, and therefore godliness affects both the present and future life. Growing in godliness is hard work, but a commitment to spiritual growth is the only way to ensure your spiritual survival.