The Law of Spiritual Growth
William Bacon Stevens
"Exercise yourself unto godliness." 1 Timothy 4:7
In the text Paul sets before us a great aim--godliness;
the means by which it can be obtained, by exercise;
and our personal duty to strive for it, by the exhortation, "Exercise yourself unto godliness."
The man who is content to pass along with an aimless existence; or, only seeking daily supplies for daily needs, never looking hopefully into the future, and never seeking to excel--does injustice to his higher nature, and grovels on a plane but little elevated above the demands of animal existence.
No aim can so call out all the powers of the human mind, and soul--as the aim after Godlikeness. For what is godliness? Is it not God-likeness? a seeking to be like God? Yet the question at once arises, How can man be like God?
God is infinite--man is finite.
God fills immensity--man stands on a few feet of a little world.
God inhabits eternity--man has his breath in his nostrils, flourishing like the grass today, and tomorrow cut down and withered.
Yet with all this disparity, the Bible exhorts us to set the Lord always before us, and to grow up into His likeness. What may be termed the physical attributes of God, those which pertain to Him as Maker of all things--Ruler over suns and systems, the Upholder of the universe; these, man can neither comprehend nor copy, they are beyond his reach, and of them it is, that the Bible asks, "Who by searching can find out God?"
It is God's moral qualities that we are to copy and emulate. These are revealed to us in His holy Word; and though these, like the other attributes of God, are infinite--yet they are held up before us as patterns for us to admire and copy.
All of God's moral attributes, are comprised in His holiness. For holiness is moral perfection. As applied to God, holiness means that wholeness and completeness of the divine nature, from which nothing can be taken, to which nothing can be added. It includes, therefore, truth, love, mercy, goodness, and the like; because the absence of either would mar the wholeness and completeness of the divine character. The presence of every virtue is needed to make complete the full circle of holiness, and they are all found in perfect fullness in God.
When God then directs us in the Bible, "Be holy, for I am holy"; when we are exhorted to "follow holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord"; when we are expressly told "God has not called us unto uncleanness--but unto holiness"--we are to know that by these words, God calls us unto godliness, or God-likeness, to be like God in all those moral qualities wherein we can walk in His ways, and copy His acts, and manifest His spirit. In the language of the Psalmist, it is setting the Lord always before us, just as the artist always sets his model before him; and, day by day, with slow and careful process, works up his painting, or his statue, to the form and spirit of the great original.
The man, then, who sets before himself the aim to be God-like, places above him the grandest aim that a created mind can reach after. He can never, indeed, fully attain unto it; yet, like the apostle Paul, "forgetting the things that are behind, and reaching forth unto those that are before," he presses toward the mark of his high calling. The higher the aim--the higher the aspiration. The purer the object of the heart's ambition--the purer becomes the heart that seeks it. Hence the importance of holy aims, of exercising one's self unto godliness.
Godliness, then, as spoken of in the text, is only another name for holiness in action, that is, Practical Piety. And, indeed, in one place in the Acts of the Apostles, the word is translated holiness.
Godliness, then, or holiness--is that for which each human being should seek after, and strive for. In its purity--it outranks all human aims, for it alone is perfectly holy. In its elevating power over thought and heart--it surpasses all calls of earthly ambition. In the greatness of the blessings which result from seeking after it--it outstrips all that the world can offer to its most unwearied votaries. In the duration of the blessedness which it imparts--it goes as far beyond what earth can offer, as eternity itself outstretches the limits of time.
But you may say this holiness, or godliness, is not attainable. It is not, to the full extent of the original which you are told to copy, because there are two elements in God's holiness which can never exist in man so long as he tabernacles in the flesh--the complete absence of sin, and the full perfection of every virtue. Not so with man; he is ever a victim of sin, and never presents a complete assemblage of virtues. Some one or more virtues are always lacking, even in the most perfect human characters. Some one or more virtues are always out of proportion, or imperfectly developed, so that the circle is not complete in all its parts, nor harmonious in all its operations. And so man can never be like God.
Yet there is a sense, and a most important one, in which we can be like God. Were it not so, the exhortation of the text would be a mockery. That sense is, that taking the elements of God's moral character as we find them set forth in the Bible--His truth, His love, His purity, His mercy, His goodness, His long-suffering, etc.--we are to strive to make them the guiding principles of our lives.
The very contemplation of these attributes of God, makes sin appear exceeding sinful; because it throws the pure light of God's holiness into the sin-filled chambers of the heart, and reveals their horrors and their shame! While the attempt to imitate these excellencies, strengthens every moral sense, gives tone and vigor to each putting forth of spiritual power, and makes the once weak and puny soul that sunk down before each trial, rise up and fight manfully in a strength not its own, and thus win victories where hitherto it had found only defeats. This gives a man a godly character, and eventually crowns him with godliness. This is what all can strive after, and secure.
Paul exhorts Timothy to "follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness." Peter tells us to "give all diligence to add to our faith virtue; and to virtue, knowledge; and to knowledge, temperance; and to temperance, patience; and to patience, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly-kindness; and to brotherly-kindness, charity." In the Old Testament, by the mouth of the prophet, God says of man, "I have formed him for my glory." In the New Testament, the apostle says, "Glorify God, therefore, in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's." And Jesus Christ declares, "Herein is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit."
Spiritual fruit-bearing, the bringing forth the fruits of righteousness, the fruits of the Spirit, the showing of love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, goodness, faith, temperance--it is in the bringing forth of these things, that we manifest our godliness, and glorify God. These are aims which we can attain unto; heights indeed--but heights which can be scaled and reached . . .
by the eye which looks to Jesus,
by the foot which presses itself into the cleft of the Rock,
and by the hand of faith, which never lets go its grasp of the Crucified.
The result of this godliness will manifest itself in a variety of ways.
It will give a man the victory over himself. Self-conquest is the hardest of all conquests. This arises from the fact that we can never really know ourselves, because our hearts are "deceitful above all things." Hence the golden sentence, "Know yourself," inscribed in the temple at Delphi, was said to be the foundation of all human wisdom. No man can ever know himself as a moral being, so long as he measures himself by the standard of his own unenlightened conscience; or compares himself with his fellow-men; or sets aside the law of God. But the man who exercises himself unto godliness, looks at his character in the light of God's word, measures himself by the standard of God's holy law--and seeing what are his defects, and learning how only they can be remedied--he seeks to the divine Agent, through whose power alone we can achieve any goodness, for that strength and grace, which enables him to master himself, and guide himself, so that he walks uprightly and surely in the way of the Lord.
The cultivation of this holiness will enable a man to overcome the world. Not in the sense of human conquerors--overcoming armies, nations, territory, and setting up thrones, and swaying scepters, and lording it over the subjugated people. Such conquests, those so eagerly sought after, and bought with such toil, and courage, and sacrifice, and talent--are not what the godly man seeks after.
His victories over the world are moral--over its snares, its allurements, its temptations, its varied influences for evil, which beset him on every side; and persist in their attacks with an untiring energy that knows no weariness or relaxation. He looks at the world in the light of God's countenance. He measures its honors by the measuring line of God's law. He weighs its riches in the balances of the sanctuary. He surveys it, not as seen in the garish lights and false reflectors which the Prince of this world sets up in order to attract and deceive; but in the calm, clear survey of a mind filled with high and holy thoughts, conscious of its future glory, and knowing that the world and all that is therein will soon be burned up in the final conflagration.
Thus faith in Jesus Christ, the great root principle of all godliness, enables him to overcome the world. He finds in very deed the truth of Paul's words, that "godliness has the promise of the life that now is, as well as of that which is to come."
This godliness, so grand in itself, and in its results, can be secured, only by exercising ourselves to attain it. It does not come . . .
nor by retired meditation,
nor by earnest prayer,
nor by diligent reading of God's word.
All these things are aids and adjuncts--but none of them, nor all combined, will give us godliness. It is the result of moral principles put into active exercise--and demands the full bent, and strenuous exertion of the mind.
There is much meaning in the original word which the apostle here uses, and which is translated "exercise." The literal rendering is--Be gymnasts in godliness. It is a word from which the terms gymnastic, gymnasium, are drawn. According to Plato, gymnastics, or the mere exercise and cultivation of muscular power, constituted a third part of Grecian education. There was, probably, no Greek town which had not its gymnasium; and no healthy Greek boy, who was not disciplined in its severe exercise. The culmination of this discipline found its exponent in the national festivals of Greece, the Isthmian games near Corinth, and the more celebrated contests of Olympia.
Paul, during his abode in Corinth, had been brought in close contact with these scenes, and he saw with his own eyes, how much toil, and drill, and sacrifice, men would endure for the sake of gaining the notoriety of being a conqueror at the Isthmus, or at Olympia. Day after day, and week after week, and month after month--these aspirants for honor would devote themselves to wrestling, boxing, running, leaping, and all other gymnastic exercise, with patience, amidst privations; with no complaint of its severity of discipline; with no hesitation to endure its hardness; in the hope that the herald would one day shout their names as victors to the assembled multitudes, and link their names to the Olympiad in which they were conquerors.
The idea, then, of the apostle is, that in order to attain unto godliness--we must be moral gymnasts, willing to use as severe discipline; willing to undergo as painful privations; willing to bear as torturing an exercise of flesh and blood; as the gymnast did, who trained himself to win the wreath of ivy at the Isthmian festival, or the garland of wild olives which crowned the conqueror at Olympia.
And why should we not? The aims are infinitely higher, and the rewards are infinitely greater. The arena in which we are to perform this exercise, is in the Church of God. The methods by which we are to do it are as various as our various temperaments, tastes, positions, talents, and opportunities. There is no one who cannot do something; and upon all is laid the duty of living to the glory of God.
Thus true religion is a very personal and practical thing. Personal--because it is yourself that is to do the exercise; it is an individual act, and no amount of exercise done by those around you in the same family, the same church; can avail to your benefit. It is yourself who must be the moral gymnast in this spiritual conflict.
And it is practical-- because the things in which we are to exercise ourselves unto godliness are all around our daily life. We are to exercise ourselves in restraining a quick temper, in checking impatience, in bridling the tongue, in ruling the spirit, in rooting out personal defects of mind and heart; in overcoming temptations to lust, and pride, and envy, and hatred, and strife; in bearing with the infirmities of others, in being meek under reproach, in not rendering railing for railing, in not murmuring at God's dispensations, in subduing indwelling sin.
And to this repressive work, which demands constant exercise, there is to be added an aggressive work--a watching of opportunities for good, a going out into the field of active Christian exertion, a giving up of some portion of time to works of Christian love and duty, a readiness to give liberally, to teach lovingly, to sacrifice cheerfully of our comforts--that we may do good to the poor, the base, the ignorant, the outcast, the prisoner, the sick, the afflicted. And if we can do no more, we can give a cup of cold water to some one of Christ's sorrowing ones, and that "shall not lose its reward."
Moral powers, like the muscles of the body, are developed by exercise.
The unused arm shrivels up;
the unused hand loses its cunning;
the unused brain loses its force.
The law of physical growth and strength, is exercise.
The law of spiritual growth and strength, is spiritual exercises--doing with our might what our hands find to do, laboring with all diligence to make our calling and election sure, working while it is day, and giving our bodies to be "living sacrifices, holy, acceptable unto God."
Our moral character is a thing of growth, and of slow growth; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full grain in the ear. Character is principle put into practice, and developed under trial. This wrestling with difficulties, with temptations, with disappointments--develops the strength and brawn of the mind; and makes strong and firm, the affections of the heart. It is a succession of . . .
little daily victories over little daily trials;
little daily resistings of little temptations;
little daily puttings forth of earnest, truthful efforts for good
--which go to make up a well-developed character.
The sculptor, in the vividness of his imagination, mentally depicts the figure which he will chisel out of the marble block before him; but before his ideal becomes a reality, before his hand fashions what his fancy portrayed--how many weeks and months must he "exercise himself" in his art, with patient hammer, with skillful chisel, with cautious hand--before the marble breathes with the artist's life, and the stone speaks out the sculptor's thoughts.
So it is with the production of godliness. It is not the product of a day, the work of a few mental resolves. It is the result of strenuous exercise--the quiet, earnest, persistent, unyielding, daily toil of the heart yearning after the glory of God, struggling to become like God.
The drill of the soldier which fits him for the fight, is a precise and daily exercise of evolutions and handling of arms, each by itself, of the most trivial character. The soldier's battles are few--but his drill is every day. It is this daily drill in little points, which fits him for battle; and he could never be prepared for war--but for this daily discipline in the manual of arms, and the tactics of the field.
Just so with the Christian life. It has few great epochs, and when these occur, they can never be met with success, unless there has been a daily exercising of one's self unto godliness. It is not much, perhaps, that he can do any one day; but it is the patient doing of many little things which multiply day by day, into the great and the influential.
How much of this kind of exercising of one's self, is demanded by the exhortation, "bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." What self-exercises are involved here, to bear each other's burden of poverty, of affliction, of sickness, of disappointment! In each of these to a suffering brother, prove yourself to be a brother, with a brother's warm heart, and a brother's strong hand.
Exercise yourselves in helping each other spiritually. Helping
the sinner, out of his sinfulness;
the seeker after Christ, to find Christ;
the penitent, to the great Giver of pardon;
the conscience-troubled, to the Comforter.
Help your brother . . .
out of his doubts and unbelief;
out of his backslidings and remissness of duty;
out of his lukewarmness and indifference.
Help him . . .
to walk in the path of duty,
to learn his Master's will,
to conquer his evil propensities,
to lop off wrong habits,
to curb his tongue,
to rule his spirit.
Help him . . .
in good works,
in cultivating the graces of the Spirit.
Take up one end of all his burdens, and help him to bear them for Jesus' sake.
Exercise yourselves . . .
in strict self-examination,
in conscientious alms-giving,
in diligent reading of God's Word,
in personal labors for the salvation of souls.
Exercise yourself in daily ministrations to the poor, the sick, and the afflicted.
Exercise yourself in copying line by line, and feature by feature, the lineaments of Jesus, who went about doing good, so that . . .
His life may shape your life,
His spirit guide your spirit,
His words mold your minds,
His deeds stimulate your acts;
and thus, like an earthly mirror held to the noonday sun--you may reflect from the surface of your grace-polished heart, the light and the glory, reduced indeed in size and in strength--but still the reflected light and glory of the Sun of righteousness.
Thus exercising yourself unto godliness, you become more and more fit for the inheritance of the saints in light; and will before long, enter into that world of light where all is pure, and true, and good, because it is the dwelling place of a Holy God!