Expositor's Bible Commentary
Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils;
But refuse profane and old wives' fables, and exercise thyself rather unto godliness.Chapter 13
THE COMPARATIVE VALUE OF BODILY EXERCISE AND OF GODLINESS. - 1 Timothy 4:7-8.
IT is almost impossible to decide what St. Paul here means by "bodily exercise." Not that either the phrase or the passage in which it occurs is either difficult or obscure. But the phrase may mean either of two things, both of which make excellent sense in themselves, and both of which fit the context.
At the beginning of this chapter the Apostle warns Timothy against apostates who shall "give heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils forbidding to marry and commanding to abstain from meats." St. Paul has in his mind those moral teachers who made bodily mortifications the road, not to self-discipline, but to self-effacement; and who taught that such things were necessary, not because our bodies are prone to evil, but because they exist at all. To have a body, they held, was a degradation: and such a possession was a curse, a burden, and a shame. Instead of believing, as every Christian must, that a human body is a very sacred thing, to be jealously guarded from all that may harm or pollute it, these philosophers held that it was worse than worthless, fit for nothing but to be trampled upon and abused. That it may be sanctified here and be glorified hereafter, that it may be the temple of God’s Holy Spirit now and be admitted to share the blessedness of Christ’s ascended humanity in the world to come, - they could not and would not believe. It must be made to feel its own vileness. It must be checked, and thwarted, and tormented into subjection, until the blessed time should come when death should release the unhappy soul that was linked to it from its loathsome and intolerable companion.
It cannot, of course, for a moment be supposed that St. Paul would admit that "bodily exercise" of this suicidal kind was "profitable" even "for a little." On the contrary, as we have seen already, he condemns the whole system in the very strongest terms. It is a blasphemy against God’s goodness and a libel on human nature. But some persons have thought that the Apostle may be alluding to practices which, externally at any rate, had much resemblance to the practices which he so emphatically condemns. He may have in his mind those fasts, and vigils, and other forms of bodily mortification, which within prudent limits and when sanctified by humility and prayer, are a useful, if not a necessary discipline for most of us. And it has been thought that Timothy himself may have been going to unwise lengths in such ascetic practices: for in this very letter we find his affectionate master charging him, "Be no longer a drinker of water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities."
This, then, is one possible meaning of the Apostle’s words in the passage before us. Discipline of the body by means of a severe rule of life is profitable for something: but it is not everything. It is not even the chief thing, or anything approaching to the chief thing. The chief thing is godliness. To the value of bodily exercise of this kind there are limits, and rather narrow limits: it "is profitable for a little." To the value of godliness there are no limits: it is "profitable for all things." Mortifications of the body may preserve us from sins of the flesh: but they are no certain protection even against these. They are no protection at all-sometimes they are the very reverse of protection-against sins of self-complacency and spiritual pride. Asceticism may exist without godliness; and godliness may exist without asceticism. Bodily mortifications may be useful; but they may also be harmful to both soul and body. Godliness must always be useful to both; can never be harmful to either.
But it is quite possible to understand the expression "bodily-exercise," in the sense in which the phrase is most commonly used in ordinary conversation among ourselves. In the text which we are considering it may mean that exercise of the body which we are accustomed to take, some of us of necessity, because the work by which we earn our daily bread involves a great deal of physical exertion; some of us for health’s sake, because our work involves a great deal of sitting still; some of us for pleasure, because bodily exercise of various kinds is delightful to us. This interpretation of the Apostle’s statement, like the other interpretation, makes good sense of itself, and fits the context. And whereas that was in harmony with the opening words of the chapter, this fits the immediate context.
St. Paul has just said "Exercise thyself unto godliness." In using the expression "Exercise thyself" (γυμναζε σεαυτον) he was of course borrowing, as he so constantly does borrow, from the language which was used respecting gymnastic contests in the public games. The Christian is an athlete, who must train himself and exercise himself for a lifelong contest. He has to wrestle and fight with the powers of evil, that he may win a crown of glory that fadeth not away. How natural, then, that the Apostle, having just spoken of spiritual exercise for the attainment of godliness, should go on to glance at bodily exercise, in order to point out the superiority of the one over the other. The figurative would easily suggest the literal sense; and it is therefore quite lawful to take the words "bodily exercise" in their most literal sense. Perhaps we may go further and say, that this is just one of those cases in which, because the literal meaning makes excellent sense, the literal meaning is to be preferred. Let us then take St. Paul’s words quite literally and see what meaning they will yield.
"Bodily exercise is profitable for a little." It is by no means a useless thing. In its proper place it has a real value. Taken in moderation it tends to preserve health and increase strength. It may sometimes be the means of gaining for ourselves and for the circle to which we belong praise and distinction. It makes us more capable of aiding ourselves and others in times of physical danger. It may even be the means of enabling us to save life. By taking us out of ourselves and turning our thoughts into new channels, it is an instrument of mental refreshment, and enables us to return to the main business of our lives with increased intellectual vigor. And beyond all this, if kept within bounds, it has a real moral value. It sometimes keeps us out of mischief by giving us innocent instead of harmful recreation. And bodily training and practice, if loyally carried out, involve moral gains of another kind. Dangerous appetites have to be kept in check, personal wishes have to be sacrificed, good temper has to be cultivated, if success is to be secured for ourselves or the side to which we belong. All this is "profitable" in a very real degree. But the limits to all these good results are evident; and they are somewhat narrow. They are confined to this life, and for the most part to the lower side of it; and they are by no means certain. Only indirectly does bodily exercise yield help to the intellectual and spiritual parts of our nature; and as regards both of them it may easily do more harm than good. Like excessive meat and drink, it may brutalize instead of invigorating. Have we not all of us seen men whose extravagant devotion to bodily exercise has extinguished almost all intellectual interests, and apparently all spiritual interests also?
But there are no such drawbacks to the exercise of godliness. "Godliness is profitable for all things, having promise" not only "of the life which now is, but of that which is to come." Its value is not confined to the things of this world, although it enriches and glorifies them all. And, unlike bodily exercise, its good results are certain. There is no possibility of excess. We may be unwise in our pursuit of godliness, as in our pursuit of bodily strength and activity; but we cannot have too much exercise in godliness, as we easily can in athletics. Indeed, we cannot with any safety lay aside the one, as we not only can, but must, frequently lay aside the other. And we need to bear this simple truth in mind. Most of us are willing to admit that godliness is an excellent thing for attaining to a peaceful death; but we show little evidence that we are convinced of its being necessary for spending a happy life. We look upon it as a very suitable thing for the weak, the poor, the sickly, the sorrowful, and perhaps also for sentimental persons who have plenty of leisure time at their disposal. We fail to see that there is much need for it, or indeed much room for it, in the lives of busy, capable, energetic, and practical men of the world. In other words, we are not at all convinced of the truth of the Apostle’s words, that "Godliness is profitable for all things," and we do not act as if they had very much interest for us. They express a truth which is only too likely to be crowded out of sight and out of mind in this bustling age. Let us be as practical as our dispositions lead us and our surroundings require us to be; but let us not forget that godliness is really the most practical of all things. It lays hold on a man’s whole nature. It purifies his body, it illumines and sanctifies his intellect; it braces his will. It penetrates into every department of life, whether business or amusement, social intercourse or private meditation. Ask the physicians, ask employers of labor, ask teachers in schools and universities, ask statesmen and philosophers, what their experience teaches them respecting the average merits of the virtuous and the vicious. They will tell you that the godly person has the healthiest body, is the most faithful servant, the most painstaking student, the best citizen, the happiest man. A man who is formed, reformed, and informed by religion will do far more effectual work in the world than the same man without religion. He works with less friction, because his care is cast upon his heavenly Father; and with more confidence, because his trust is placed on One much more sure than himself. Moreover, in the long run he is trusted and respected. Even those who not only abjure religion in themselves, but ridicule it in others, cannot get rid of their own experience. They find that the godly man can be depended upon, where the merely clever man cannot; and they act in accordance with this experience. Nor does the profitableness of godliness end with the possession of blessings so inestimable as these. It holds out rich promises respecting future happiness, and it gives an earnest and guarantee for it. It gives a man the blessing of a good conscience, which is one of our chief foretastes of the blessedness which awaits us in the world to come.
Let us once for all get rid of the common, but false notion that there is anything unpractical, anything weak or unmanly, in the life of holiness to which Christ has called us, and of which He has given us an example: and by the lives which we lead let us prove to others that this vulgar notion is a false one. Nothing has done more harm to the cause of Christianity than the misconceptions which the world has formed as to what Christianity is and what it involves. And these misconceptions are largely caused by the unworthy lives which professing Christians lead. And this unworthiness is of two kinds. There is first the utter worldliness, and often the downright wickedness, of many who are not only baptized Christians, but who habitually keep up some of the external marks of an ordinary Christian life, such as going to church, having family prayers, attending religious meetings, and the like. And perhaps the worst form of this is that in which religion is made a trade, and an appearance of godliness is assumed in order to make money out of a reputation for sanctity. Secondly, there is the seriously mistaken way in which many earnest persons set to work in order to attain to true godliness. By their own course of life they lead people to suppose that a religious life, the life of an earnest Christian, is a dismal thing and an unpractical thing. They wear a depressed and joyless look; they not only abstain from, but leave it to be supposed that they condemn, many things which give zest and brightness to life, and which the Gospel does not condemn. In their eagerness to show their conviction as to the transcendent importance of spiritual matters, they exhibit a carelessness and slovenliness in reference to the affairs of this life, which is exceedingly trying to all those who have to work with them. Thus they stand forward before the world as conspicuous evidence that godliness is not "profitable for all things." The world is only too ready to take ‘note of evidence which points to a conclusion so in harmony with its own predilections. It is, and has been from the beginning, prejudiced against religion; and its adherents are quick to seize upon, and make the most of, anything which appears to justify these prejudices. "In a world such as this," they say, "so full of care and suffering, we cannot afford to part with anything which gives brightness and refreshment to life. A religion which tells us to abjure all these things, and live perpetually as if we were at the point of death or face to face with the Day of Judgment, may be all very well for monks and nuns, but is no religion for the mass of mankind. Moreover, this is a busy age. Most of us have much to do; and, if we are to live at all, what we have to do must be done quickly and thoroughly. That means that we must give our minds to it; and a religion which tells us that we must not give our minds to our business, but to other things which it says are of far greater importance, is no religion for people who have to make their way in the world and keep themselves and their children from penury. We flatly refuse to accept a gospel which is so manifestly out of harmony with the conditions of average human life."
This charge against Christianity is a very old one: we find it taken up and answered in some of the earliest defenses of the gospel which have come down to us. The unhappy thing is, not that such charges should be made, but that the lives of Christian men and women should prove that there is at least a prima facie case for bringing such accusations. The early Christians had to confront the charge that they were joyless, useless members of society and unpatriotic citizens. They maintained that, on the contrary, they were the happiest and most contented of men, devoted to the well-being of others, and ready to die for their country. They kept aloof from. many things in which the heathen indulged, not because they were pleasures, but because they were sinful. And there were certain services which they could not, without grievous sin, render to the State. In all lawful matters no men were more ready than they were to be loyal and law-abiding citizens. In this, as in any other matter of moral conduct, they were quite willing to be compared with their accusers or any other class of men. On which side were to be found those who were bright and peaceful in their lives, who cherished their kindred, who took care of the stranger, who succored their enemies, who shrank not from death?
A practical appeal of this kind is found to be in the long run far more telling than exposition and argument. It may be impossible to get men to listen to, or take interest in, statements as to the principles and requirements of the Christian religion. You may fail to convince them that its precepts and demands are neither superstitious nor unreasonable. But you can always show them what a life of godliness really is; that it is full of joyousness, and that its joys are neither fitful nor uncertain; that it is no foe to what is bright and beautiful, and is neither morose in itself nor apt to frown at lightheartedness in others; that it does not interfere with the most strenuous attention to business and the most capable dispatch of it. Men refuse to listen to or to be moved by words; but they cannot help noticing and being influenced by facts which are all round them in their daily lives. So far as man can judge, the number of vicious, mean, and unworthy lives is far in excess of those which are pure and lofty. Each one of us can do something towards throwing the balance the other way. We can prove to all the world that godliness is not an unreality, and does not make those who strive after it unreal; that it is hostile neither to joyousness nor to capable activity; that, on the contrary, it enhances the brightness of all that is really beautiful in life, while it raises to a higher power all natural gifts and abilities; that the Apostle was saying no more than the simple truth when he declared that it is "profitable for all things."