Two weeks ago today, Wes Autrey and I decided to hold each other accountable for eating better and losing some pounds. The daily check in that accompanies this requires me to pay attention to how much and what I eat and pushes me to make sure I go work out. The single most difficult element of this challenge is the discipline.
It’s interesting that the word translated “discipline” in 1 Timothy 4:7-8 literally means “to train.” The Greek word is the one from which we get our English word “gymnasium.” The adjective form is translated “naked,” the figurative sense meaning “manifest” or “unconcealed” (Kittel-Bromiley 133). While the Greeks would exercise naked, the verb form came to mean “to concentrate” (ibid.). So when Paul says, “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (4:7), he is calling for utmost concentration and conscious training in order to achieve godliness. Louw-Nida remind us that godliness refers to “appropriate beliefs and devout practice of obligations relating to supernatural persons and powers” (530). It is driven by a profound respect for God because of who He is and what He deserves.
The motivation Paul gives the Christian for exercising godliness is the unsurpassed value it gives us. He contrasts the value of godliness with bodily exercise. I do not believe Paul is saying it’s a total waste of time to exercise. After all, it does do “a little good.” It helps us function and feel better for a good while in these bodies God gave us. But by comparison, godliness is far superlative. People can look at our lives and see the fruit of it while we live on this earth, but it also leads us to eternal life.
Godliness is the goal, the motivation. Discipline is the means to that end. In context, Paul calls for discipline to be built through proper diet (“being nourished on the words of faith and of…sound doctrine,” 4:6), proper exercise (“labor and strive,” 4:10), proper focus (“we have fixed our hope,” 4:10), and consistency (“show yourself an example,” 4:12; “give attention,” 4:13; etc.).
Wes and I hope that the results of our herculean efforts “will be evident to all” (cf. 4:15). It will require us to “take pains” and to “be absorbed” in our goal (cf. 4:15). Certainly, it means paying close attention to ourselves (4:16). Much more than that, you and I must direct our attention to the proper beliefs and practices that will get us to heaven and influence those who are around us (4:16). Remember that discipline is about training, a process that must be repeated, perfected, and continued. But, the payoffs cannot be matched! How’s your discipline?