Train yourself in godliness.
I Timothy 4:7
I am sometimes asked why I, as a Protestant minister, observe Lent, and write daily devotions for the Lenten season. My answer is that countless Christians through the centuries have experienced the blessings of training for godly living through the disciplined practices of Lent.
The idea of going into training during Lent, or being more disciplined, has percolated in my mind the past few days as I have been with my son Rhett. In addition to being a husband, father, therapist and writer, Rhett has gone into training for a 50-mile marathon in October. He has run several marathons and one ultra-marathon, but wants to stretch himself further. While living a “normal” life Rhett disciplines himself in how he eats, sleeps, cares for body and soul, and runs long distances four days a week.
Watching Rhett in training makes me think of Lent and the difference between trying and training. I might try to run a long distance race, and try very sincerely, but I would fail. But I could train for a long distance run and I could succeed. It’s the training that makes the difference. And Lent is a time each year when Christians have gone into training in order to live more godly lives. It is no accident that the word disciple comes from the same root word for discipline. There is no following Jesus or being His disciple without discipline.
In today’s Scripture text the apostle Paul coaches Timothy, his son in the faith, nudging him, “Train yourself in godliness.” He isn’t telling Timothy to try to be godly, he knows the futility of only trying. He’s telling him to train. The Greek word translated “Train yourself” is the word gumnazo, from which we get our word “gymnasium”. It speaks of athletes training, working out, disciplining for the Greek games. It’s a word denoting purposefulness, seriousness of intent in the Christian life. Paul understands that Timothy can be timid and fearful at times (II Timothy 1:7; I Timothy 4:12) and so urges him to train for godliness. He will find no short cuts to going the long distance, no formulas, no easy methods, but disciplined, daily training.
One of our generation’s great spiritual coaches and teachers, Dallas Willard, reminds: “The path of spiritual growth in the riches of Christ is not a passive one. Grace is not opposed to effort. It is opposed to earning. Effort is action. Earning is attitude.”
So the reason I celebrate Lent and encourage others to consider it, is because it a focused time for training, for stretching ourselves to go the long distance with Jesus.
Like most good things in life Lent can be misunderstood and misused. Sometimes legalistic notions and practices have grown up around Lent, along with foolish ideas of good works meriting God’s unmerited grace. But that does not take away from the many lives blessed by training to live more disciplined, godly lives. It’s not being legalistic to celebrate Lent, it’s simply being disciplined for running the race before us (Hebrews 12:1). I don’t have to celebrate Lent; I get to celebrate it!
It was through observing Lent that I began learning spiritual practices that have changed my life: practices like the Daily God Hunt, the Examen Prayer, Praying Scriptures, silence, fasting from the media, caring for the needy, et al. I am always struck by the realization that long before Christians ever celebrated Christmas, they celebrated the days of Lent. That’s how important it is.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday (February 18 this year), a day on which many will hear the momentous words: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Thus, we begin Lent with the reminder that we are mortal and our days are numbered. This means that it’s time for us to make every effort to follow Jesus more faithfully.
I like to approach the days of Lent with the following two questions that you might find helpful as well:
- What ONE THING IF I STOPPED DOING IT would help make me a more faithful follower of Jesus?
- What ONE THING IF I STARTED DOING IT would help make me a more faithful follower or Jesus?
Lent is not about earning God’s love, or meriting his favor, but about becoming Jesus’ disciplined disciples and training to follow after Him. It’s the training that makes all the difference!
Grace and peace,
photo by Giovanni