Godliness Matters

by | 25 May, 2017

Ed Shaw is the pastor of Emmanuel City Centre in Bristol and part of the editorial team at Living Out. He loves his family and friends, church and city, gin and tonic, music and books. 

Get hold of a Bible, and before you read this article, read 1 Timothy 3:1–7, Titus 1:5–9, and 1 Peter 5:1–4.

Still thinking about being set-aside for paid Gospel ministry? Then you need to be godly. And not just in your public life – but in your private life too. So really godly!

How? How can we work at godliness now – and keep working at it in the future too? For it will never be ticked off the To Do List. It will be a daily challenge until Jesus calls us home, or returns. It is perhaps the greatest challenge we’ll ever face. Statistically many of us will fail it – a lack of godliness is what most consistently wrecks ministries. And so damages God’s precious Church.

My advice: read. Really?! Yes – that’s what’s helped me most: reading books by other Christians that encourage and enable godliness. I started planning this article by piling up the books that have helped me most – my intention was to distil their combined wisdom in a couple of thousand words. But what would be far better? To get you reading those books for yourselves! So below are my top 12 (just couldn’t get it down to 10) books on godliness – in the rough order I read them. All have been used by God to make me more godly. All are readable. All are short. All are in print. All are re-read by me regularly (or are about to be – having written this article). Please read, and re-read, them too for 12 reasons:

1. None of us will ever be more godly – unless we begin to grasp God’s Grace (Ephesians 2:8-10)

The best of news that: ‘Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.’ Jerry Bridges’ The Disciplines of Grace (NavPress) shows how this truth is rooted in Scripture, and how it can be rooted in our daily lives too. Coming from a Christian home, grace is a concept I have consistently struggled to get my head around – this book has helped most of all. And those who’ve grasped grace are godly.

2. None of us will ever be more godly – unless we begin to see the depth of our sin (Mark 7:20-23)

‘How would you like to fight an enemy who, just when you had him on the ropes, could duck into a cave or tunnel where you couldn’t follow? An enemy who could hide just out of reach, letting you rest long enough to think he was gone for good, then drop from nowhere onto your back? This is the advantage of indwelling sin – it lurks in an unsearchable and deceitful fortress, where you can’t find him.’ In Kris Lungaard’s The Enemy Within (Presbyterian & Reformed) the insights of Puritan John Owen are explained and applied in a contemporary way. Complacency is a trap I’ve fall into far too often – this book banishes it wonderfully.

3. None of us will ever be more godly – unless we begin to understand how change takes place (James 1:1-15)

Any time we find ourselves in difficulty or trial, it is easy to think we have been forgotten or rejected by God. This is because we do not understand the present process. God is not working for our comfort and ease: he is working on our growth. At the very moment we are tempted to question his faithfulness he is fulfilling his redemptive promises to us. After all, it’s not like there are only some people that need to change. Change is the norm for everyone, and God is always at work to complete this process in us.’ Timothy S Lane and Paul David Tripp’s How People Change (New Growth Press) is the best book to read on the process of change in the life of a Christian. I found it incredibly helpful to see all the various ways in which God is seeking to change me.

4. None of us will ever be more godly – unless we begin to grasp the Cross of Christ (Galatians 2:20)

‘Never let the cross slide into second or third place in your life. Never lay it aside. Never move on.’ CJ Mahaney’s The Cross Centred Life (Multnomah) stops us moving on from the cross of Jesus and checks that we’re both understanding and applying it to our daily lives as we should. I know what happened on and through the cross, but I need all the help I can get to connect that with my everyday life and struggles to be godly.

5. None of us will ever be more godly – unless we begin to see our true motives (1 Peter 1:17)

‘Fear of man is such a part of our human fabric that we should check for a pulse if someone denies it.’ Edward T Welch’s When People Are Big and God Is Small (Presbyterian & Reformed) points out how our attitudes and actions are often driven most by what the people around us think. We no longer fear God as we should – and the results are disastrous. So much of my sin is driven by who I want to please most in life – this book exposed who they are, who it should be, and how my focus can now be on Him.

6. None of us will ever be more godly – unless we begin to understand the love of Jesus (John 13:1)

‘…to each one of his sheep he says, “I know you. When you were being formed in your mother’s womb, I knew you. When you took your first steps, my eyes were on you. I remember your first days at school. When your parents split up, I was there. When your father died, I was there with you. In your teenage years, when nobody else understood what you were going through, I know just how much it hurt. I know your sorrows and your joys. I know how much you like to climb mountains and surf. I know how much music means to you. And I know how they treat you at work – I have heard what they say. I know your hopes and your dreams. I know who you really are.”’ Mike Cain’s Real Life Jesus (IVP) is a wonderful way of refreshing your view of Jesus, as you follow his actions and words in John’s Gospel. I return to it whenever I’m forgetful of Jesus’ love for me.

7. None of us will ever be more godly – unless we begin to grasp the spiritual cancer of self-righteousness (Luke 15:29-30)

If we haven’t read Luke 15 and discovered ‘…Jesus’ radical redefinition of what is wrong with us. Nearly everyone defines sin as breaking a list of rules. Jesus, though, shows us that a man who has violated virtually nothing on the list of moral misbehaviours can be every bit as spiritually lost as the most profligate, immoral person. Why? Because sin is not just breaking the rules, it is putting yourself in the place of God as Saviour, Lord and Judge just as each son sought to displace the authority of the father in his own life.’ Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God (Hodder) exposes the danger of an appearance of godliness, while underneath resentment rules the waves. I now know I am a Pharasaic elder brother who desperately needs to drink the medicine of this part of God’s Word as often as I can.

8. None of us will ever be more godly – unless we begin to see the idols we worship (1 John 5:21)

‘The Bible uses the picture of idolatry as a way of describing anything that takes the place of the true God in our lives. Not depictions of the Greek goddess of love Aphrodite, but mental images of naked bodies. Not literal temples where we go to worship real statues, but inner urges for more and more. Not stone altars to sacrifice on, but bragging about the money in the bank and the turnover of the market stall. It’s all idolatry: putting something else in God’s place.’ Julian Hardyman’s Idols (IVP) is the best introduction to this massive biblical theme and is so practically focused on bringing about change. Becoming aware of my particular idols has been one of my most major steps forward in becoming more and more like Jesus.

9. None of us will ever be more godly – unless we begin to understand how our minds form habits (Philippians 4:8-9)

For instance, ‘Because of the way that the male brain is wired, it is prone to pick up on sexually relevant cues. These cues trigger arousal and a series of neurological hormonal and neurochemical events are set in motion. Memories about how to respond to these cues are set off and the psychological, emotional and behavioural response begins. As the pattern of arousal and response continues, it deepens the neurological pathway, making a trough.’ William M Struther’s Wired for Intimacy (IVP – USA) scarily sets out how pornography hijacks the male brain as ungodly habits quickly become more and more entrenched parts of our neurological wiring. I’ve found this book to be the most helpful analysis of both the power of pornography – and how to break that power.

10. None of us will ever be more godly – unless we begin to grasp the devil’s cunning (1 Peter 5:8)

‘Sin gives Satan a power over us, and an advantage to accuse us and to lay claim to us, as those that wear his badge; it is of a very bewitching nature; it bewitches the soul, where it is upon the throne, that the soul cannot leave it, though it perish eternally by it. Sin so bewitches the soul, that it makes the soul call evil good, and good evil; bitter sweet and sweet bitter, light darkness and darkness light…’ If I was forced to choose one book out of all I’m recommending it would be Thomas Brooks’ Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices (Banner of Truth). Why such an old book, written in a slightly quaint style? Because Brooks has clearly fought the same battles that we do, and knows how to fight back with the Gospel in ways that we struggle to. I was nearly blown off course recently by ungodliness – what got me back on track? The gospel-soaked wisdom of this book.

11. None of us will ever be more godly – unless we see we need help from God (Matthew 6:9-13)

‘I’m actually managing my life through my daily prayer time. I’m shaping my heart, my work, my family – in fact everything that is dear to me – through prayer in fellowship with my heavenly Father. I’m doing that because I don’t have control over my heart and life or the hearts and lives of those around me. But God does.’ Paul E Miller’s A Praying Life (NavPress) is a refreshingly honest book on prayer that breeds dependence on our Father in heaven. I don’t think I’ve read a book on prayer that has convinced me of my need to pray more.

12. None of us will ever be more godly – unless we understand that we need help from others (Hebrews 10:24)

‘Are there fellow Christians in your life who you are confident, and rightly so, that they are aware of the major areas of spiritual difficulty and temptation in your life, and you are willing to discuss these areas with them in ways that are open and helpful? After more than two decades in ministry, I have to say with sadness that unless you are part of a very small minority among Christians in this culture, your honest answer is probably no. Could the fact that you are still hiding explain why there are struggles you can’t seem to get consistently under control? Are you still holding onto the belief that you really do know yourself better than anyone else? Are you still imagining that you are wiser, more sanctified, and spiritually stronger than you actually are? It’s time to face the fact that your walk with God is a community project. It is time to come out of hiding. The Christians around you struggle just like you, and the God who is your hope is not surprised by your struggle or theirs. He knows every challenge and temptation of your heart. That’s why he sent his Son to live, die, and rise again. Step out of where you are hiding and into the kind of community that Scripture says you need. Where will you find that intentionally intrusive, Christ-centred, grace-driven, redemptive community? You’re not designed to live without it. Life in this broken-down house really is a community project.’ Paul David Tripp’s Broken-Down House (Shepherd Press) covers so many bases well – but most of all makes the point that change is a community project. My own personal experience would testify to this time and time again – I only wish I’d been given this advice a decade ago.

So read those 12 books. But don’t read them all by yourself. Get friends to read them too, and then meet up and discuss what you’ve read. Form a reading group at your church. Check the authors have handled the Bible correctly. Share what was helpful and why. Pray that in. Confess your sins to each other and ask for their prayerful and practical support as you seek to change. Set-up accountability groups off the back of those reading groups. Make sure there are people who know the worst about you and are committed to you becoming more like Jesus – long-term. Encourage each other when you can. Give each other a hard time when necessary. And once you’ve read all 12? Start again. I’m going to.

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