Godly Is Defined By Neither
Tradition Nor Preference
It had been fifty years, give or take, since our Bible college days. Following college, our lives went in separate directions and only reconnected recently. The reunion had become somewhat strained.
At this meeting, we were sitting in a Starbucks sharing memories over coffee (and chocolate-coated coffee beans) and it was apparent that things were different. He was the same entertaining jovial guy and I was still me but the ground had definitely shifted.
We met in Bible college as young, gung-ho, charge-hell-with-a-water-pistol warriors intent on glorifying God which in real terms means rectifying all the wrongs in the world. We were fully committed to doing only right things and were focused on making sure everyone else did the same.
But after 50 years, the inevitable happened. We both shifted. The visions we’d entertained for a successful ministry hadn’t materialized exactly according to plan (they rarely ever do) and our life paths had taken turns we hadn’t anticipated; his for more practical endeavors: jobs, contracts, and paychecks. His devotion to church life had cooled but his conservative views had only hardened.
I had moved from a place of arrogant superiority. I no longer believed that my closest colleagues and I were absolutely right and everyone else was therefore wrong, and realized that maybe we are all a little wrong. I had also shed some of my early “thou shalt nots” so common to fundamentalist thinking, especially 50 years ago.
Jesus died for people who are wrong, not for people who are right and that includes everyone. No one holds the high ground absolutely.
Our thinking had diverged in several areas.
For my friend, Trump was the savior of US politics. I was the bad guy who didn’t vote for Trump and my disagreement was the talk of the brotherhood and a good reason to have less than enjoyable fellowship. Far less!
But there’s more.
This was the third time we’d met since the reunion and in the first couple of get-togethers, he became aware that I listened to rock music. The radio in my truck is always tuned to a classic rock station and it is always on so it was hard to miss.
And he was apparently concerned.
His concern, however, wasn’t expressed with a frontal attack and full-throated accusations (the normal fundamentalist way of handling differences of opinion). Instead, he politely and almost casually mentioned that he occasionally makes donations to a local radio station that plays only “godly” music.
This was his way of helping me get back to home ground. I was grateful he wasn’t holding a knife to my throat but, having been through similar situations manifold times, I knew this was the trickle before the damn broke.
Sadly, I expected this moment would eventually come and there it was. My friend wanted to remind me that there was a line between acceptably godly music and everything else. Rock music was on the everything-else side.
I loved him for trying but his efforts had no chance. You can’t undo a eureka moment (aka repentance from a misguided attitude) and that’s what had put me where I was.
For a little background, playing drums was my dream as a youngster. After seeing Buddy Rich thrash out a drum solo when I was just a young kid, I was hooked. I knew I would do that one day and sure enough, I did. It wasn’t easy. There was no direct path, but eventually I got there and one of the most exciting periods of my life was playing drums in a rock band my first year out of high school.
Of course, all that ended once religion showed up.
To be clear, I love Jesus. I really do and I consider the Bible the greatest book I’ve ever read. I believe every word completely. I don’t accept what everyone says about the Bible but I do believe it entirely. I don’t think I’ve arrived but it’s taken many years for me to get where I am and I’m no longer where I started.
I still accept the Bible entirely but I no longer believe fundamentalism has a corner on Bible interpretation.
In the early days, though, the only way I could demonstrate my commitment to Jesus was to connect with religion. It was the logical next step and that’s what I did. I became a committed member of a Baptist church and ended up serving in several during the course of my ministry years.
The problem was religion and rock music didn’t work together nicely. You couldn’t be in one and hold hands with the other. When I was told that, I was curious and wondered what the fuss was all about. I had an idea, of course, since the topic was featured in sermons often but in order to get a specific answer you had to ask a specific question.
Why is rock music so bad? What’s wrong with playing drums.
The answer was both dismissive and final. I was told with force and finality that “the rhythm of a drum beat stimulates a sexual response.” Therefore, you can’t do that.
At the time, I was young, inexperienced, untrained and very concerned about maintaining my acceptance in the group. I wasn’t sure what to think and I didn’t have an answer but I was in the zealot stage of my journey. Zealots don’t question, they act. Therefore, I complied with the teaching and put away my drums.
It wasn’t until many years later that it occurred to me that the one time in my life when I was sure to never think about sex was when I was playing drums.
Even when our band was organizing and playing gigs, I didn’t take drugs – that was another biggie – or become sexually active. And believe me, there were several opportunities.
The reality is I was having so much fun playing drums that I couldn’t be bothered with distractions.
What Does Godly Mean
Godly is usually defined in terms of what we can’t do and there are many thou shalt not’s in religion. Rock music is only one issue but closely associated with all the restrictions, whatever they may be, is the concept of godly. Avoiding all the don’t do’s is necessary if you want to be godly.
Any sensible person can see the rationale. You can’t be godly and ungodly simultaneously. You can only engage godly pursuits if you avoid the ungodly.
The problem with that approach is both simple and obvious. So much time is spent telling us the things we can’t do – some of the restrictions are hugely questionable – there’s little time left to focus on what we should do.
Which means, of course, after you’ve diligently avoided all the don’t do’s you still haven’t achieved godly. You’re in between godly and ungodly and that isn’t the goal.
So How Do We Define Godly
Godly is one of those terms we throw around in sermons, Bible studies, and counseling sessions and it’s usually accompanied with phrases like
You must be. . .”
Some thing “is or is not . . .”
It’s an easy term to use and quite frightening to an untrained thinker (no one wants to be told what they’re doing is ungodly), but not so easy to define. In the simplest terms, it’s an adjective and means to be like God. The godly person thinks like God, acts like God, and maybe even feels like God.
There are obvious limitations here. I’ll never be God. That’s clear. But regardless how hard I try or how much progress I make, I won’t even get close.
We are sinners. The presence of sin means we will never perfect godliness in our lives. None of us will ever be exactly like God. He’s absolute perfection. We are far from it.
Godly For Humans Will Always Be Imperfect
The very first idea we need to grasp is the fact that no one will ever attain Godliness perfectly.
I might think, act and emote in ways that reflect a desire to be like God. I might be considerate, gracious, and helpful. One person’s wisdom may be better than average but no one will ever be perfectly like God.
Since there is a big difference between humans and God, and even individual humans differ from one another considerably, we have to be judicious in coming up with firm definitions to apply to everyone.
The Amish believe their manner of worship, dress and lifestyle represents godly and they react sternly to anyone who deviates but can you imagine aboriginal tribal folks getting saved and adopting the Amish rule. It wouldn’t work.
If godly means being like God, then to define it we must identify every possible godlike quality and then strive to achieve each one in our lives. That’s not realistically doable. Neither you nor I will ever get there. We can be better and we should strive for that but only with the understanding that better will still fall far short of Godlike.
What Godly Is Not
Rather than develop a hard fast rule for what godly means, a better place to start is by defining what the term does not and cannot mean. That way we can remove much of the mystery.
Following are a few thoughts in that direction.
- Godly is not perfection.
I’ve already said that but let’s develop the idea a bit further.
Wanting to be a better person is one thing. Who doesn’t want that but you must regulate that desire carefully. There’s a limit to how much better a person can be. Striving to hard to achieve “better” may lead to a condition similar to anorexia. No matter how much better you become, you still only see bad in the mirror.
To arrive at the better you can achieve means you must be self-forgiving for the better you haven’t achieved.
Maybe godly is wanting and attempting to be better even though you’ll never be perfect. The desire itself is godly. It’s also godly to realize improvement will only be gradual and will come through layers of failure.
The idea is to be more like God, not replace Him.
- Godly is not limited to personal preferences.
Doing an autopsy on claims about what is or is not godly produces some interesting results. The things people consider godly are often the things they grew up with and to which they became accustomed.
Serving as missionaries we got a first hand glimpse of this. Churches in South Africa often ended their services with a closing hymn. Initially, we thought this was redundant but we learned quickly that it wasn’t something to tamper with. They didn’t refer to this as godly in so many terms but you could tell they considered it sacred.
I eventually learned where the tradition came from. It started in England a few hundred years before. At the time, there was no music in church of any kind. Music was considered ungodly and had no place in a worship service. After much debate, the hard-nosed relented to having only one song at the end of the service and only because Jesus and the disciples sung a hymn following the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 26:30).
There you have it and a rule was born.
It was a custom that became a preference and was, therefore, considered godly. One’s preferences are legitimate. If you like a thing, that is fair. If you don’t like a thing, that is also fair. But nothing is godly because you like it or ungodly because you don’t.
It’s also true that the things people consider ungodly may stem from personal experiences. If they grew up in a home where alcohol was abused, then tea-totaling is clearly godly.
- Godly is not induced.
Some ascribe good or bad qualities to activities based on the effect those activities have on people. If you do this, you’ll become that. There is some truth to the idea but you can’t take it too far. We are all different.
Let’s use music again. Some assign godly qualities to certain kinds of music because they believe music induces godlike or non-godlike affects on listeners. In other words if you listen to the right kind of music you’ll become the right kind of person, a godly person.
Wouldn’t that be nice. We could just pipe the right kind of music into our children’s rooms while they sleep at night and, bingo, they wake up acting like Jesus.
Neither music nor any other activity has that kind of power. We should encourage discipline, not abstinence. If the only thing you ever do is listen to music, whatever kind of music it is, you won’t get much else done. But when you do listen to music, it doesn’t matter what kind of music it is.
Here’s a truth for you. Whatever you are before listening to music, you’re encouraged to be after you listen to music. If you aren’t attempting to be more godly before you listen, music won’t change that.
- Godly is not external.
If godliness were defined by what you wear or how often you bath or the rules of etiquette, most of the world would be left out. Almost half of the global population (47%) lived on less than $6.85 a day in 2019. The groups representing this category are the least educated, the most undernourished, and the most desperate on the planet. When they sit down to eat, they aren’t concerned with how the dinner table is laid out. Eating utensils are rare and getting nutrition is more important than how you hold a knife and fork.
Can these people be godly. Absolutely! But they’ll probably offend your sense of hygiene in a worship service and your preferred etiquette at the potluck.
Godly Isn’t A Place Of Fear
Don’t be afraid. If you’re trying to move forward, you’re in the right place and God will honor that. There are many changes you can make in your life but don’t be bullied. Take each issue as it comes and don’t be pushed around by the loudest voices in the room.
This article represents only a few angles on the topic of godliness but hopefully it’s enough to shield you from the fear mongering that often accompanies discussions on what is and is not godly.