“Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
~ 2 Timothy 3:12
Why are godly men so hard to find?
I didn’t say that it’s hard to find a person who claims to be a Christian. As I am writing this article on a Sunday evening, millions in our country are attending a church service of some kind. Even with the growing theological liberalism and hostility toward traditional Christian values, over sixty percent of Americans today still identify as Christian.
But even in a solid, Bible-believing and Bible-preaching church, true godliness can be a rarity. I can think of two common reasons why this is the case. The first is that godliness requires a level of personal discipline (1 Tim 4:7) that many professing Christians are unmotivated to implement. But the second and perhaps more important reason is that godliness comes at a cost, and paying this cost grates against the very heart of the American dream. The American dream involves comfort, freedom, and liberty. It involves justice and equality. It involves education. It involves opportunity.
It does not involve persecution. But the pursuit of godliness does.
Godliness Leads to Persecution
I’m not being hyperbolic for rhetorical purposes. For Paul, converting from being a Christ-hater to a Christ-follower brought about persecution that would last throughout his entire life and ministry and eventually lead to his execution death (tradition says that he was beheaded). Paul’s protege Timothy thought that the Law of Averages would exempt him from experiencing persecution, so the seasoned apostle needed to remind him otherwise:
Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.2 Tim 3:12
First, the word “…all….” The Greek word for “all” means, well, all. This speaks of the scope of the group being addressed. Not a single person of the group left out.
Second, the phrase “…who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus…” speaks of the demographic of the group. Paul is specifically referring to all those who live by convictions and exhibit the kind of conduct that is consistent with the person and work of Jesus Christ. That is, every person who sincerely and uncompromisingly disciplines himself through the power of the Holy Spirit to walk as Christ walked (1 John 2:6), to teach as Christ taught (Matt 5:19b), and to serve as Christ commissioned (1 Cor 15:58).
Third, “…will be persecuted.” This phrase refers to the outcome and its certainty. Paul does not say “could be” or “might be” or even “could very well be,” but simply “will be.” The outcome is not a probability; it is a promise of what will occur in the future. Every single person who pursues godliness will find themselves a target of persecution from Satan, the world, or both.
Every person, then, has two options in life: pursue Christlikeness and be persecuted for it, or avoid persecution at the expense of Christlikeness. There is no third option. Thus, the logic follows: If you’ve been a Christian for a fair duration of time, and you haven’t been experiencing any kind of persecution, then you aren’t pursuing godliness. If your life is characteristically marked by worldly comforts and there isn’t a hint of persecution, then biblical reasoning says that you aren’t living a godly life.
Three clarifications are needed here.
First, not all suffering is persecution. Because we live in a cursed world, all people will experience some form of suffering. But not all people will be persecuted. The word translated “persecuted” means that the person experiencing the persecution is being pursued by someone else who intends to inflict harm. But persecution may or may not include actual human beings pursuing you explicitly for your faith. For example, when Satan targeted Job in perhaps the most severe Satanic attack ever experienced by a human being, it came in the form of theft, natural disasters, and physiological diseases, forms of suffering that all people experience. Job, however, suffered due to his faith in God and his righteous life.
Paul describes the breadth of his persecution that validated his apostolic ministry in 2 Corinthians 11:23-38, which included the following: imprisonments, flogging, stoning, shipwrecks, frequent journeying, dangers from nature, danger from robbers, dangers from both Jews and Gentiles, dangers from the wilderness, dangers from sea, dangers from false apostles, hardship in labor, sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, famine, cold and exposure, and pressure from churches. Paul’s persecution was delivered by the hands of men and the work of Satan, both of whom hated Paul’s gospel ministry and commitment to Christ.
Second, not all persecution is the result of one’s godliness. While all the godly will be persecuted, not all the persecuted are godly. When he addressed the suffering diaspora Christians in Rome, Peter reminded them, “Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or a thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler” (1 Pet 4:15). It’s not uncommon for people in the church to cry persecution and claim to be suffering for the sake of Christ because accusations they received from individuals, only for further inquiry to reveal that their suffering was a result of their own misconduct.
Third, the Bible never says that a godly man will continuously and unceasingly experience persecution every hour of his life from every person he knows. In the same letter, Peter reminded his readers, “Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good?” (1 Pet 3:13). Generally speaking, those who live godly lives will gain the favor of and be at peace with the majority of people with whom they interact (Prov 3:4). Some individuals try to use the myriad of broken or breached relationships in their lives as evidence of their godliness, when in fact the opposite is true; the fact that there are so many who are not at peace with them is evidence that their ways are not pleasing to the Lord (Prov 16:7). It’s for this reason that elders in the church ought to be those who have a good reputation with those outside the church (1 Tim 3:7). And of course, the Lord Jesus himself was one who for the majority of his life found favor with those around him (Luke 2:52).
No Persecution? No Godliness
So what does 2 Timothy 3:12 mean? We must simply let the Word speak for itself. It means that persecution of some kind is an inevitable experience for everyone who truly follows Jesus Christ. Period. The implication of this could not be more pointed. If your life is free of any kind of persecution as the Bible describes, then by implication you aren’t living a godly life. You may be a nice person and a good citizen who does noble things for people, but you’ve neglected the pursuit of Christ. A life that is wholly free from persecution is a life that has sidestepped from following Jesus at some point and in some way.
And Christ himself could not be more clear. He reminded his disciples in John 15:19, “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.” No disciple is above his teacher, and no slave is above his master. If our Lord encountered persecution, why would we expect anything different for us as his ambassadors? Is not a part of living out our salvation not only finding our righteousness in Christ’s person and work apart from our own, but also finding fellowship in his suffering at the expense of the world (Phil 3:10-11)?
So why, then, are truly godly men so hard to find, even in the church in America? It’s because the majority of people—yes, even those who call themselves Christians and who are committed to the church—consider having a persecution-free life as their greatest priority. Observe those around you, and you’ll realize that it’s not rocket science. Godliness comes at a cost, and most are unwilling to pay it.
The question is, are you?