“Train yourself for a holy life! While physical training has some value, training in holy living is useful for everything. It has promise for this life now and the life to come.”
1 Timothy 4:7b, 8 (Common English Bible)
Thoreau said, “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams…he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”i Advancement in a chosen direction is intentional movement, not simply a longing or a dream. One is aspirational; the other is a determined pursuit. One person may aspire to learn the Italian language; another enrolls in language class. Therefore, we need to ask ourselves, “Have I determined a pathway for realizing my dreams? Am I now pursuing that path?” Success, says Thoreau, belongs to those who begin to move in the direction that is right for them. That is when things start to go our way.
In this letter to Timothy, Paul uses an athletic metaphor to describe, “Advancing confidently in the direction of a holy life.” He urges the reader to “Train yourself,” that is, to advance intentionally and confidently in the direction for living as Christ. The Greek word Paul uses for “train” is the word from which we get “gymnasium.” It would be odd for anyone to go to a gym simply to watch others train. Gyms have value, not as “observation posts” for people who dream of better health, but as an “action center” for advancing toward better health. When Paul speaks about training in holy living, he is talking about activities that engage us – activities that make a demand upon us.
It is good for us to reassess our priorities from time to time. Often we speak of our aspirations: an aspiration to learn a musical instrument, an aspiration to travel, or an aspiration to return to school. Yet, without “advancing confidently in the direction of our dreams,” they remain aspirations. Absent is a commitment and plan to advance toward them. Someone once observed that our priorities are transparent for the world to see – they see our priorities in what we do each day. The mature person understands that what is important receives time, energy, and intentionality. If consistently arriving to work on time is important for job security, we arrive to work on time.
Thomas Long writes that if the holy life is our aim, we go to the theological gym to do curls, crunches, and run laps to train, not to run a marathon but in order to be people of love.ii Naturally, observes Tom Long, it does not take much training to love the lovable. However, when Christ calls us to love those who are difficult to love – or to love our enemies – then, that takes practice. That takes time in the theological gym. “Train yourself for a holy life!” writes Paul. The great Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung said that the supreme goal of men and women is to fulfil themselves – to honor their unique calling in life. The apostle Paul is asking that we now honor our baptismal vows – to become like Christ.
i Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Norwalk, Connecticut: The Easton Press, 1981), 326.
ii Thomas G. Long, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 131.