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The Godly Life

October 31, 2011

“The Godly Life” Isaiah 32:1-8; 1 Timothy 3:14-4:10; Matthew 7:1-29 © 10/30/11 by Tom Cheatham @ First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

I’m a man on a mission this morning. I’m determined to rescue and recover for us a good and classic word and the practices that define it. It’s a term that’s been co-opted and corrupted for too long by fundamentalists, like other good words such as “saved,” “evangelism,” “born again,” “worship,” and even “Christian.” And I want it back for those of us who identify with a more measured, traditional, and open approach to faith.

The word is “godly.” If we check the dictionary, we’re told that “godly” means “pious,” “religious,” “holy” or “saintly.” But the suffix “-ly” means “having the qualities of,” so it’s better is to say that “godly” means “like God” or “acting as God does.”

So what is God like? That of course depends on your concept of God. Suppose your God is demanding, intolerant, strict, angry, and even cruel and abusive. If you worship such a deity and want to be godly, how would you act? Or let’s say you think of God as actually, rather than metaphorically, having gender. So you would automatically assume that either men or women, depending on the sex of your god, were more godly, and that the opposite gender should submit to you if you are the same gender as God. Or what if the outstanding divine qualities were grace, mercy, forgiveness, justice, creativity, and love? What would godliness look like for you then?

Fortunately, there is definitive guidance for us on what God is like. We can come up with a god from our own heads and hearts, and indeed plenty of people do that. But we believe that God has revealed what he is like in Jesus. So to discover what it means to be godly, we need to look at how Jesus lived and what Jesus taught. To be godly is to imitate and follow our Lord. The now-clichéd “What would Jesus do?” remains a good rule of thumb.

So notice first of all that Jesus was wise. For Matthew especially, he’s the sage without parallel, the wise man who confounds all others. He speaks with authority and not as the scribes, we’re told. That means his vision and his teaching arose from within himself; he doesn’t merely quote and interpret others, though he is certainly steeped in his tradition and honors it.

Our Lord invites us to be wise by hearing and acting on his words, which form a foundation in a world of chaos, the sinking sands of time. There’s plenty to keep us busy for a long time just in the portion of the Sermon on the Mount we heard. How many of us can truly say we do not judge others, instead tending to our own foibles and faults? Who of us has not wasted our energy on fruitless tasks, what Jesus called casting pearls before swine? Which of us has been persistent in asking, knocking, seeking, confident in the good purposes of God for us, true nourishment and not a snake or a stone? Do I do to others as I want them to do to me? Do you? Yet following all these teachings is the essence, Jesus says, of being “wise” and thus godly. Wisdom is not just knowing what to do when and how to do it. It sounds to me as if being wise is a kind of comprehensive description of the holy life.

One of the scriptures Jesus honored holds some clues for us about how we can be among the godly wise. In Isaiah, the prophet tells us what ungodliness is: “For fools speak folly, and their minds plot iniquity: to practice ungodliness, to utter error concerning the LORD, to leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied, and to deprive the thirsty of drink. The villainies of villains are evil; they devise wicked devices to ruin the poor with lying words, even when the plea of the needy is right.” Godliness, then, would consist in doing the opposite of what wicked, ungodly fools practice. Godly people speak wisdom. Their minds devise strategies for doing good. They try to discern and tell the truth about God’s purpose, including the words “I don’t know” rather often, I would think. And most of all, they care for the poor, providing food and drink, symbolic of all basic necessities, that satisfy and sustain. They raise their voices on behalf of those who are robbed of voice by circumstance, class, and despair. The godly discern when a cause is right, and lend their influence to make sure justice is done. Ungodliness is a practice, a way of life, that gets hold of your very soul. So must godliness be; it has be part and parcel of who you are and want to be. Doing justice, showing mercy, telling the truth are the habitual practices of the godly. As they walk humbly with God, they see what God is like, and imitate what God does, as he is known in Jesus.

So the godly practice justice and speak wisdom, like our Lord. Second, the godly are disciplined. Jesus calls us to “enter in by the narrow gate” that few take, instead of doing what everybody else does, choosing the easy way. Jesus himself followed a regular regimen of prayer. He attended synagogue weekly. He connected with his faith community in a way that both honored and challenged it. Our Lord recommended fasting, but as a joyful practice. He advised taking care with our attitude toward money, knowing that no one can serve both God and wealth. Be careful, he said, what we look at and with what attitude we look; take radical action to keep our eyes healthy, gazing on the world with integrity and holiness.

It’s no secret that left to our own devices, not many of us would be disciplined about much of anything. We would eat, drink, buy, watch and say whatever we wanted to. Isn’t it true that we need others to hold us accountable and to support us? A spouse. A friend. A sibling. A therapist or a spiritual director. Or how about a community of faith?

When you’re connected with other people in a common endeavor that you all regard as important, you have to learn some practices that keep the group together and focused. Like when to speak and when to listen. What to spend your energy on and what to let go. When to stand up for your singular viewpoint and when to bow to the wisdom of the tradition, whether local or historic. This is the discipline of connection, which sometimes gets thorny and difficult.

If we’re talking about an essential Reformed and Presbyterian discipline of godliness, it has to be connection. As I have both observed and practiced it, fundamentalism is divorced from the larger church. When I was growing up in a right wing Presbyterian congregation in south Georgia, I heard and knew nothing of the church year, a proper Eucharist or baptismal ritual or the historic four-fold order of worship. We did say the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, but they were disconnected from the flow of worship, stuck at the very beginning as preludes to the real purpose of getting together, which was the sermon. Until his dying day, my uncle Coley, a member of that same church, believed that the corporate confession of sin was a conspiracy by liberal national church bureaucrats to try to get him to admit doing something he didn’t do. It had not been a feature of the congregation’s worship until a pastor arrived who was trying to be faithful to the best tradition and practice of the Presbyterian Church. The irony is that Uncle Coley was a Presbyterian elder, which meant he was supposed to have an understanding of worship.

I suspect in many, if not most, places the attitude my uncle had is more the rule than the exception. There is little understanding or acceptance of how godliness is not just personal but communal. And community is at least in part expressed by our connection with and use of traditional, that is, ancient, liturgy. For too many, the practices they know go back no farther than maybe the nineteenth century, in America.

But to be godly means to be connected with the life of the church across the centuries and across the world. To sense that whenever we gather for worship we do so as a microcosm of the whole body of Christ. To consider ourselves heirs of and actors in the story of the people of God over time and in many places. I mean warts and all. When we confess sin, we do it as priests for the community and for the entire planet. When we affirm faith, we hear in our ears the echoes of the millions who have said similar words, sometimes at great cost to their livelihoods and very lives. When we come into God’s presence, we do so acknowledging that we encounter mystery there; we don’t have everything figured out. We lend our voices to those gathered in some ancient house church, which first affirmed the early Christian hymn from 1 Timothy we heard a bit ago.

So living a godly life like Jesus means we are wise. We are disciplined. Next it means we are imaginative. That’s first of all a temporal orientation. Think of the worldviews of Jesus and his religious opponents. He focused on the future, on the coming Kingdom of God. They wanted to preserve the traditions of the fathers. He insisted on transformation, which is repentance. They were threatened by change. He saw the mystery in everyday life as well as beyond our sense and sight. They were interested in matters of authority and keeping rules. He saw possibilities in everyone, whether a blind man or a tax collector or a prostitute or even a terrorist. They just lumped people into categories and gave up on them.

Imagination and creativity are essential qualities of God, who made all that we see and cannot see. And so those who seek to be godly need to nurture those aspects of themselves as well.

There’s a foundation on the Internet that helps Christians to do just that. It’s called “Godly Play” ( Maybe you’ve heard of it. Their website is pretty straightforward with its description, so let me just share with you what they say: “Godly Play teaches children the art of using Christian language—parable, sacred story, silence and liturgical action—helping them become more fully aware of the mystery of God’s presence in their lives.

“The goal of Godly Play is to show how to be open to the Holy Spirit, the Creator, and the Redeemer all at once and all the time in every place. To achieve this goal is to help children become deeply rooted as Christians and yet at the same time use this powerful language and community to be open and creative.

“Godly Play is a creative and imaginative approach to Christian nurture. [It’s] a non-coercive way to encourage people to move into larger dimensions of belief and faith through wondering questions and open-ended response time. Godly Play values process, openness and discovery.”

A much older resource links imagination and the godly life. John Calvin reminded us: “When we hear this word, mystery, let us remember two things; first, that we learn to keep under our senses, and flatter not ourselves that we have sufficient knowledge and ability to comprehend so vast a matter. In the second place, let us learn to climb up beyond ourselves, and reverence that majesty which passeth our understanding. We must not be sluggish nor drowsy; but think upon this doctrine, and endeavor to become instructed therein. When we have acquired some little knowledge thereof, we should strive to profit thereby, all the days of our life” (“The Mystery of Godliness”).

The godly life is about getting in touch with God and in so doing, with ourselves as we enter into his majesty and mystery. But finally, living the godly life that imitates Jesus is to be compassionate. We might think that goes without saying or as we put these days “duh!” But hold on. Don’t we know of plenty of politicians and preachers and corporate leaders and everyday people who claim to be godly but equate that with checking off some list of personal morality or having the so-called “correct” position on hot button social issues? How many can truly say they know what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, if not for a mile, then just a little way? That’s what compassion is: to “suffer with,” to identify with another’s plight. What is it like to have to make a choice between medical care and food? Or what sort of despair must there be in someone’s heart when day after day their hope for fair treatment and a chance to make it are denied by the system and circumstance? What about the caregiver who is exhausted and needs to take off work to care for her elderly parent, but her boss doesn’t understand? The teen or young adult who turns to drinking or drugs to deal with the pain of abandonment, the feeling that she or he can’t trust anybody? What does that feel like? When you and I can say we know what somebody else is going through, we will have experienced and practiced godly compassion. We will have joined our Lord, who had compassion on people because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36) who touched and healed the sick because he felt their pain (e.g. Matthew 14:14), fed the hungry, lest they collapse on the way (Matthew 15:32). He wept and sorrowed when his friends experienced loss, and even more than that, for the blight of death on the world (John 11). In that he joined the prophet Jeremiah, who said “Oh that…my eyes were a fountain of tears!” (Jeremiah 9:1) And his ultimate act of compassion, of suffering with, was to go to the cross for us. When we live the godly life, we take up our cross and follow Jesus wherever he may lead, embodying his love and care.

When I was a kid, if I learned a new word I tried to use it in a sentence as much as I could. I still remember, for example, when I learned “interesting,” which I pronounced “interesting.” I must have found things “interesting” ten times that day! Suppose we used the word “godly” in more of our sentences, and beyond that, what if we let the practices of godliness permeate our everyday lives, become part of us, like someone well-trained in a skill? What if were wise, disciplined, imaginative, and compassionate as a way of life? Could we not then recognize fake godliness, “the hypocrisy of liars”? And would we not then be truly fit and good servants of Christ?

Don’t let anybody steal this good word from you or me. Use it. Love it. Live it. “Godly.”


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