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Gaining from Godliness

Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment (1 Timothy 6:6)

“Now be a good boy…”—what kid hasn’t heard that a zillion times growing up?  We are all urged to be good, moral, godly people.  And indeed, the Bible calls us to live lives of godliness. 

But…Paul warns us that godliness, religious piety, alone is not enough.  There needs to be something else, something else present in a person’s life in order for us to gain from a life of godliness.  For those of you who once took biochemistry, godliness needs a cofactor.  But what? What is absolutely essential for us to personally gain from being godly?  Contentment.

Why is that?  Why contentment?  As a friend of mine recently told me, if he had been picking character qualities to pair up with godliness, contentment would not have been at the top of his list.

So what is it about contentment being necessary for godliness?  I think it has to do with desire.  All of us have desires, both for good things and bad.  But here’s the catch: desires sabotage godliness.  In our humanness, our attempts at godliness will fall prey to desire in one of two ways:

  1. Using godliness to obtain desire—this was the problem that Paul confronted in 1Timothy 6 when he blasted false teachers who were “depraved in mind and deprived of the truth” thinking that godliness was a means of gain.  We will always be tempted to use godliness as a tool to obtain what we want, which inevitably corrupts both it and us.
  2. Abandoning godliness to obtain desire—how often we see this played out—the “pillar of the church” that falls when their desire becomes greater than their commitment to godliness.

So, without contentment our human attempts at godliness are doomed to fail. So, where can I get some of this contentment stuff? For starters, I had to realize that contentment in the Greek carries an idea of sufficency within oneself, not needing anything external in the world.  This idea of “I don’t need anything to keep me happy” is very different than how I usually describe contentment, which roughly translates to “I have ENOUGH to keep me happy” in my mind.  Of course, the problem is that what I define as “enough” changes from minute to minute, and so contentment based on the concept of “enough” is elusive, transitory, unstable, and usually leads me away from God rather than to Him.

No, I definitely need the “I don’t need anything external, in the world, to keep me happy” type of contentment. Indeed, this is the kind that Paul said that he had learned in another letter:

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.  I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me. ( Phillipians 4:11-13 )

Now, how does someone “learn” contentment, learn “the secret of facing plenty and hunger”? How do you deal with desires for good things that go unfulfilled in this life?  I see three basic ways:

  1. Eliminate desire—you can be content if you don’t actually want anything.  This is the solution that Eastern religions propose and try to live.  The short answer: it doesn’t work.  Humans are wired to desire.
  2. Internalize desire—set all your desires on yourself, having satisfaction in your health, your moral uprightness, your intelligence, your body, your integrity.  Many moral teachers teach some variant of this path (Covey comes to mind). Ultimately, this doesn’t work either, because we either look honestly at ourselves and realize that we will always fall short in some way, or we will, like Narcissus, become so enamored with our beautiful reflection that it will warp us, or become consumed with trying to protect or keep up the image that we are deriving our pleasure from, knowing that disease and death are the inevitable spoilers of our contentment.
  3. Desire Christ—yes, this is what Paul learned, to set all his desire on Christ, and he found in Christ the contentment and strength to face any and every situation in his life. 

To desire Christ: to obtain the water that will forever satisfy our thirst, is the key to a life of both contentment and godliness.  This is Paul’s, and our, key to obtaining that “great gain from godliness.”

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