Sometimes an individual in a church is described as being a very godly individual. But what does that mean? This post was sparked by a comment at a recent gathering of Christian leaders where one of the speakers stated that godliness is a “steady growth in reverence for God.”
On one level there is a lot of merit to this remark. After all, if a human is to reflect the character of God, then it will only genuinely come from a response model. That is, while we can manufacture behavior, demeanour, and even apparent godliness in the form of a mask, we can never genuinely achieve the real thing by our own efforts. So it has to be in response to God’s work in our lives that His character is reflected in us.
But the remark does make me nervous. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the point being made, but it does feel like godliness is being measured by goodliness. That is, it is about being overwhelmed by God’s holiness. Often that is the focus when someone is referred to as a godly individual. It seems to say a lot about piety and morality and personal holiness.
Don’t get me wrong, these are critically important. How can we hope to represent a holy God if our lives aren’t exhibiting an increasing personal holiness. What I am questioning is whether that should be seen as the extent of godliness. I think not.
When Paul writes about a life that is lived under the influence of God’s Spirit in Galatians, what does he point to? After listing the fruit of the flesh in terms of gross unholiness, then he comes to the fruit of the Spirit, which is holiness. Actually, what does he list? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.
That is where the godliness and goodliness kind of thinking seems to fall so far short. After all, I’ve heard of people being called godly who are certainly unstained by worldliness, but seem to be lacking in this kind of spirituality. Sometimes there is a lack of love, and joy, and peace, etc.
So what if true godliness is a growing clarity of the reflection of God’s character? That will equate to a hatred for sin and personal piety. It will also mean an overflowing love, a deep abundant joy, a calm assurance in complex times, a gracious willingness to wait for others to grow, a giving nature, a tender handling of others, a dogged loyalty, and an absence of “that’s just me” excuses.
I suppose if true godliness is a growing clarity of the reflection of God’s character, then the key issue has to be what kind of God we are reflecting. Is the God of the Bible really a God of pursed lips, but never of laughter, of smile, of delight? Is the God of the Bible really a God of the clenched fist, but never the open hand, the tender touch, the loving embrace? Is the God of the Bible really a God of cold distance, but never a warm friend of sinners?