Training for Godliness

  • Nathan Schneider
Man playing piano

If you were to ask my parents what they thought of having a pianist for a son, you’d undoubtedly hear the standard boilerplate response. They both love the fact that I’m a musician and they loved having a house filled constantly filled with piano music. But dig down a little deeper and you’d discover from them that what comes with serious music study—music as an actual discipline—is not just a “house full of beautiful music.” In fact, more often than not, the house was not filled with beautiful music but rather short snippets of music—a few measures here, a measure there, even just half a measure at times—played over and over and over and over and over and over again… I think you get the point.

The reality is that to learn any piece of music requires an extraordinary amount of time, dedication, and self-discipline. My piano professor once said that there are no “fast pieces” or “slow pieces.” Instead, fast music is just slow music played fast. If you want to get your fingers to be able to accurately play a passage at the rip-roaring tempo the composer requires, you have to start slow. Very slow. You drill each measure. You set your metronome to a horribly slow tempo. You play just that first measure, perhaps even half the measure if it’s really complex. You play it perfectly. You don’t allow yourself a single mistake. If you find yourself hitting a wrong note over several attempts, you slow the metronome down even more. You drill it until you can play it perfectly. Then you increase the tempo, but just by a simple click. Just a couple beats-per-measure faster than the previous tempo. Enough to slowly get faster as you train your brain to control your fingers.

What’s really happening when you learn a new piece of music—this applies to piano as well as any other instrument, from violin to guitar to drums to french horn—you are engaging in a mind-muscle exercise. You’re actually creating new neural pathways in the brain, making connections between your brain and your muscles by teaching your brain to control your muscles in a way it hasn’t had to do before. It’s a new sequence of movements. And you do this through tireless, intentional, SLOW repetition. The process takes hours. It’s grueling. It’s extremely boring. And for other people who have to share the same house, it’s enough to drive you crazy. You’re literally hearing the same series of notes played over and over and over again, extremely slow, only to speed up by just a fraction.

What do you do when you get the passage up to the final tempo? Why, you move onto the next passage, of course! And then after that, what do you do? Why, you drill those two passages together. And that keeps going until you’ve learned the entire piece of music.

The critical element in this process is the demand for perfection. In practice, there’s no room for mistakes. In fact, mistakes are deadly in practice. I’m not saying that you can’t make a mistake in a performance. Ask any of the great pianists and they’ll admit to a host of mistakes throughout their career. No pianist will play perfect. There will always be wrong notes played in a concert.

But not in practice.

The thing is, if you allow for mistakes while you drill a passage. If you falter on a note but nail everything else and then say, “Awe, it was just one note! I’ll move the metronome up a click and keep going,” what you’ve just done is practiced a mistake. You’ve just engaged in teaching your brain to play a wrong note. Keep doing that enough, and when you play that wrong note in a concert it’s not because you made a mistake. It’s because you practiced that mistake and your brain is doing exactly what you trained it to do—play a wrong note.

I was sitting on the couch the other day casually listening to my son play guitar using an iPad app. The app was having him play a simple line while the app played a backing track. The app will listen to see if he plays the notes right and if he makes too many mistakes, then the music stops and makes him start over. I noticed that he kept messing up at one point and kept having to repeat the song again. This went on for several minutes before I finaly stopped him and said, “Do you understand why you keep messing up?” He said, “Because it’s hard.” I told him, “That’s not the reason. The reason you keep messing up is because you’re trying to play this song faster than your fingers and your brain can do it. And every time you start over and play it again at the same tempo as before, you’re not doing yourself any favors. You’re just learning mistakes, and the app isn’t helping you. You need to turn the app off and play it very, very slowly. Don’t worry about speed, just try to be as accurate as you can.”

After he slowed down and gave up the fast tempo, he started to get it, but the temptation to speed is always there. There’s a constant desire in any musician to circumvent this slow, boring process. We selected an exciting piece of music because we want to be able to play it and perform it and enjoy it. That’s the goal. But getting there isn’t always easy and we’re constantly tempted to push too hard, too fast. It’s a hard thing to admit, but there’s no fast, easy road to becoming an excellent pianist. There’s no easy path to get there. It’s a lot of hard work. It takes scales and arpeggios. It takes drilling passages until you can’t stand it anymore. It takes playing a lot of pieces you’d rather NOT play so you can get your technique and musical maturity to a place where you can play the pieces your WANT to play.

In a word, it takes a lot of discipline.

This is the reality of life. And it doesn’t just apply to music or sports. Discipline is a key component of the Christian life. Growing as a believer will always involve the process of discipline. And this is put a couple of different ways in the Bible. On the one hand, we can think of spiritual discipline the same way we think of musical discipline. Just as the pianist trains his fingers to do exactly what they have to do, the Christian must train himself for godliness. That’s the words Paul used in his letter to Timothy. He told Timothy that to do his job well as a shepherd, a pastor, and a kind of “special forces” operative placed in Ephesus to deal with the false teachers in the church, he had to be careful to avoid engaging in the pointless squabbles and controversies the false teachers were engaged in. “Don’t get sucked in,” Paul says. How will Timothy avoid that? Through discipline and training.

Having nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths,” Paul wrote. “Rather, train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7). The word “train” is the Greek word gumnazo, which is where we get our English word for gymnasium. It was a word that described the kind of training athletes would undergo to prepare for competitions. Training is about disciplining the body, about teaching it and shaping it to perfect exactly what it needs to perform in order to win. But Paul is saying that the training Timothy needed was not for physical skills or function, but for spiritual skills. He needed to train himself for godliness. He needed to teach himself how to live the way he was supposed to live.

Paul went on to describe this spiritual training, in contrast to the physical training of athletes. He wrote, “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” (4:8). Now, Paul’s not mocking physical training. He’s not saying there’s no point in keeping yourself fit, going on that run, swimming some laps, lifting some weights, or doing burpies until you hurl. That’s not his point. He just wants Timothy to remember that the physical isn’t the be all, end all of life. There’s something more important than physical training, something that has greater and more enduring value than physical discipline. The physical training will help you, but only in this life. Spiritual training—being spiritually “fit”—will not only help you in this life, but for eternity.

What does this training look like? What does it mean to “train for godliness?” Well, for one, it’s not a fast process. The analogy with physical training is so very apt, no wonder Paul liked to use it. If you had to run a marathon tomorrow, would you be able to do it? Well, in my case, the answer would be an emphatic NO! I haven’t trained for it. My body isn’t ready. I’d have to start running multiple times a week, working my way up from short runs to longer runs, conditioning myself for endurance, teaching my body how to utilize oxygen more efficiently so I don’t get over-winded at the beginning of the race.

Spiritual fitness is the same way. It requires training. It requires repetition and focus and intentionality in order to live godly lives in a culture that is compounding in ungodliness. New temptations are around every corner. The realities of a cursed world swirl about, from hurricanes to job loss to cancer to divorce. These are each individual marathons that require training before the race begins, not after the gun is fired. It starts by making good decisions now, while things are at rest. It involves training your body and your spirit to do good, to flee evil. It means teaching yourself to feed off of God’s Word through consistent, daily nourishment. It means relying on God through prayer and submission. The disciplines of the Christian life are called disciplines for that very reason. They’re the training program for the soul. They’re the metronome of the Christian life clicking in tempo until you get that passage down and move on to the next one, constantly challenging the mind and the heart to grow in order to face greater and greater challenges. The trained believer is the one who can rejoice in any circumstance without anxiety, relying on the Lord through prayer and thanksgiving (Phil. 4:4–6). The trained believer knows how to live with little or with plenty because he’s “learned” contentment (Phil. 4:11). The trained believer knows how to run the race to win because he’s brought his body completely under his control (1 Cor. 9:27).

Now, all of this sounds like work and effort and graceless, human activity. That can’t be what the Christian life is. That can’t be the whole of sanctification. Well, it’s not. Behind all of this, the trained Christian—the one who brings his body and mind and heart until control for the purpose of godliness is doing all of this under the control of the Holy Spirit. The immature Christian and the supposed Christian use rules, regulations, and fleshly human means of attaining Christian maturity. Paul describes this kind of thinking to the Colossians as “philosophy,” “empty deception,” and “human tradition.” It’s submission to external rules like “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” (Col. 2:8, 21). “These things,” Paul writes, “indeed have an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (2:23). Legalism and rule-keeping, in other words, looks like the path to spiritual health but carries no real power to stop the flesh. The trained believer knows and can recognize true spiritual training and discipline as opposed to legalism and human efforts to achieve sanctification apart from the Holy Spirit. The secret sauce of spiritual training is walking in the Spirit of God, who produces fruit in our lives as we submit under his control. Being led by the Spirit means we’re relying God and not ourselves. Walking in the Spirit reminds us that there’s still a part we have to play. The Spirit leads. We walk and follow. And as we do, we grow. We grow in grace. We grow in knowledge. We grow in discipline and self-control. This is the Christian life.

There’s a humility necessary to spiritual training that undergirds all of this.