This is the time of year for joining the gym. January is the most popular month for people to join a gym. This can be for a few different reasons. It could be because we start to plan for the new year and think about what we want to be different about ourselves, and being fitter or stronger or better looking tends to be high on the list. It could be because we have just overindulged in rich food and snacked on chocolate all through late December, and our guilt is driving us to compensate in the other direction.

This is not a blog post telling you not to join a gym or get fitter. For most of us, myself included, increased fitness is a good idea. But I want you to consider a brief passage from 1 Timothy with me which has some interesting things to say about priorities for believers:

7 Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; 8 for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. 9 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. 10 For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. (1Ti 4:7-10 ESV)

1 Timothy is one of the pastoral epistles, letters directed to individuals rather than to churches. They are more personal, and full of practical wisdom. Timothy was a close friend of Paul’s and an elder in the church in Ephesus, and late in his life Paul was passing on important lessons to his protégé.

Look at the passage above again. It was well known even in the first century before scientific studies and modern physiology that “bodily training has some value”. The human form was celebrated in art and the Olympic Games. Paul is not telling Timothy to be a couch potato! But he is telling him that physical training is of far less value than training in godliness. Godliness, a character which reflects the character of God, is worth more “in every way” for it has benefits in this life and in eternity.

And note that this is what Paul and his co-workers “toil and strive” towards. They work at godliness. This is important. Often Christians just assume godliness kind of happens to them. We will work at learning a new skill, studying a new course, learning a sport, or going to the gym. But here Paul is encouraging Timothy to toil and strive for godliness. What might this look like? It must include increasing in knowledge, knowing our Bibles and our God better. It must include prayer, where we express our “hope set on the living God”. It must include thankfulness being cultivated, thankfulness for our Saviour. It must include the means of grace God has given to us, including the local church and sacraments, which are important to our growth. It must include other people, intentional encouragement and hospitality. Working hard at these things will develop character. Godly character. Godliness.

None of this is new for most Christians. It is not rocket science. But we forget as sinful people, and we strive for physical fitness, for career development, for wealth creation, but we forget to strive for godliness. We let the basic patterns and habits of deep, genuine Christian life slip too easily. Resolve today to work on these things, to toil after them.

A problem with working on our godliness is that you cannot easily see the results yourself. Going to the gym will, after a while (I am told), result in less fat, better defined muscles and the rest. But regular Bible reading, prayer and Christian fellowship is a slow process; others will see the change more than you will. But Christianity has always been a marathon and not a sprint, and worthwhile character growth takes time.

Work at your godliness in 2015. It will bear eternal fruit, not just temporary muscles.