I’ve worked for enough years in Christian ministry to have a few decades of perspective. I have watched things change, some for the better, and some for the worse. Other things, sadly, have just stayed on the negative side. My thoughts here concern, not so much the what, or even the how, but rather the who. Who are the ones that lead us into trouble, and what kind of people are they? Generally, they are the ungodly. Not only should we recognize and reject their influence in our lives, we should also seek to become godly and influence others. So what is and what isn’t godly?
We generally use, or should, the words “godly” or “Christ-like” to identify people who live as God wants. We speak of becoming “holy as he is holy” although I fear many of us don’t quite understand what holiness is. I also suspect that far too many of us have distorted ideas of what God might approve, given that so many do things quite obviously not holy, not godly, and not Christ-like! So what I would like to discuss here is what “godly” isn’t, so we might appreciate what godly is!
Godly isn’t nasty! Paul explained it well, here, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Ungodly people “grieve” God’s spirit when they ignore these guidelines, since he “sealed us” in unity to function as one, loving each other, and extending love outside the body. How much it must break his heart when we divide and splinter the body with our nastiness that is neither holy nor godly.
Godly isn’t nice either. As with Aslan, the lion who is Christ in the Narnia stories, Jesus isn’t tame, and his disciples aren’t tame either. I’m rather pleased with myself for the time I upset a church with a message on love, although I’d have preferred they took it to heart. I wasn’t being nice; I was teaching hard things like love, which may be the hardest thing of all. Nice people may seem harmless and unoffensive, but they accomplish little and often allow others to do bad things. I was grateful to see a “nice” man in my congregation get a little angry with a quiver in his voice and a steely look in his eye; he had decided not to stand by while one of the usual troublemakers started making waves again. I wonder if the Laodiceans, in Revelation 3, were nice?
Love isn’t unkind. Note above that Paul tells believers to be “kind and compassionate.” This is far more than the compassion of sympathy when there is a death or tragedy. This the the compassion of sinners who understand the pervasive allure of sin by their own experience and forgive readily when others stumble, just as readily as God has forgiven them. Judgmentalism and a critical spirit lose love and compassion in a sea of smug condescension. Perhaps they don’t always hate the ones they judge, though often they do, but they don’t care about or for their adversaries. Furthermore, they care little for many who are simply anonymously in need, neighbors suffering from poverty, hunger, homelessness, sickness, or mere loneliness. Where is our godly kindness and compassion for them? The parable of the sheep and the goats ought to terrify some of us!
Godly isn’t pious. I’m talking about the pious person who thinks he or she “loves” God but despises their fellow man. Truly drawing closer to God and experiencing his character both humbles and inspires; God loves his fallen children, and one who really comes close to God will love as he loves. Humans are quite adept at performing holy rituals, which is why Jesus warns of “vain repetitions!” Vain means empty or pointless, and it doesn’t matter if the words are old-fashioned, modern, or sung repeatedly. It’s a danger in both liturgy or contemporary worship. Going to church or acting “churchy” doesn’t make a person godly. Praying publicly while angry or unforgiving isn’t godly if you believe Paul: “Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing.” Arrogant condescension in prayer is just as bad; a true heart for God is even more revealing outside than inside a church, not in its pious pronouncements or condescending righteousness but in its humble selflessness.
Godly isn’t trouble-making. For more reasons than I can name, number, or explain, some people just love to stir up trouble. To get attention, to show their power, to make a name for themselves, or to prove their superiority, trouble-makers prevent ministries from doing their work. When there is trouble, churches don’t grow, but they may die. More often than not, discord and strife prevent the best ideas from accomplishing their purpose. A true prophet is a godly person who “speaks truth to power,” whether that power is the “one” who leads or the “many” who may hold the real power; he just better be speaking truth and in a loving manner! Sadly, many ungodly people cannot distinguish truth from opinion and imagine that “hard truth” must be delivered harshly, with neither love nor patience. “What if you’re wrong?” I might ask. “I’m not wrong!” is the answer. Right. I am grateful for the comparative few who, when they finally see that they were wrong, confess and seek forgiveness.
Godly isn’t anti-intellectual. Two types of Christianity live at opposite and equally unspiritual extremes. One despises education and continued learning and remains ignorant; their other worships education and ends believing flowery untruths. Since the two have so distanced themselves from each other, they can neither correct nor even communicate with the other. I have more experience with the more evangelical or fundamental variety that glorify ignorance. God might have chosen to speak directly to us all, but instead he spoke through his written Word. It’s not a simply or easy book because God is not simple. If a person would be godly, then he’d better study for God’s approval. A godly person never scorns education, neither his own life-time of study nor the learning choices of others. My friend was criticized for not going to a Bible college; people complained because I sometimes speak with words of more than two syllables. None of those critics were being godly. I’ve also heard my share of grossly unnecessary intellectualism, read books that were nearly incomprehensible because they didn’t really say anything, and seen dry-as-dust academics put out a great deal of spiritual fire…not godly either!
Godly isn’t worldly. Worldly isn’t about dancing or wearing make-up (Was it Vernon McGee who said sometimes an old barn needed a good coat of paint?). It’s not a list of certain forbidden things. Worldly is caring more about this world than the next. Jesus’ measure was “in the world, but not of the world.” Paul urged us not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed. A godly person may adapt to the culture, somewhat, to fit into it; but he must not adjust to its beliefs and ways. While it isn’t godly to be strange or weird, neither is it godly to be indistinguishable from the world around us. Frankly, the strangest, most unique characteristic of believers is, or should be, love; people who truly and openly love as Jesus loves will be unusual but compellingly attractive. This world knows little of such love, and godly lovers will grow to seem less and less of this world.
Godly is unique. A godly person has only one model, a model so different we cannot be tempted to copy. Just as Jesus is unique, so also should a godly person be an original. God made each one of us unique. Children of the same parents differ from both parents and each other; even identical twins are not identical. Such is the miraculous truth of God’s creation called DNA. Yet nearly every philosophy, religion, and ideology tries to get originals to be like some master copy. Christian teachers and organizations do it, too, even knowing, that in addition to our “natural gifts” (also given by god), God has blessed each of us with unique spiritual gifts. How could anyone possibly think he wanted us all to be the same. Our egos demand it. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then how much more will many imitators stroke the ego. In this realm, people admire and copy celebrities, heroes, and leaders; in God’s realm we copy only Jesus who appearance, style of dress, mode of speech, and other unique personal qualities are unknown to us, the better to allow us to become the individual child of God he desires..
I’m surprised how few have figured this out. Perhaps the most common complaint, certainly among young people, is boredom. I suspect that the years just wear the edges off into dull complacency and hopelessness. I think this may be one of the most horrendous tragedies among humans, to attempt to make us all into clones and drones. No one I admire is a suitable model for my unique mix of gifts, interests, skills, and abilities. I’ve learned things from some, but I doubt they’d recognize their influence on me if they saw me preach, sing, teach, or direct a choir. Some things are beyond my abilities and limitations; in other areas, I may well outdo the ones I admire. In the end, God created me, an individual, to be an individual to achieve a purpose that is uniquely mine. To be godly is to never stop working to achieve that unique calling and purpose.
The beginning of the quest for godliness is when a person comes to Jesus. Why do they come? In some fashion, it should be to seek God’s forgiveness based on the sacrificial death of the perfect Christ; they come for a clean slate, a new beginning, and chance to scrap the false, sin-filled copying of the world. Part of the message should be an invitation through Christ to become your true self, the one God designed and gifted you to be. We fall to the boring message of the world when we try to make the godly life only about negatives–not doing bad things. We fail, too, if we add a few good deeds that anyone could do. Our mission of godliness is to do the great things that only each individual is uniquely called and individually gifted to do. They may not even look religious, but if they’re genuine, then they will be godly.