Genuine or affected godliness

10 February 2023

As we enter the time of the Triodio, a period of contrition, the Church loses no time in reminding us of the clear distinction between genuine and affected godliness. At the start of the spiritual struggle, which will soon be intensified as we begin Great Lent, it points out the danger of straying into hypocrisy, which risks the nullification of all our efforts to cultivate the virtues. And it’s not only the Gospel reading, with the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, which so graphically decries this danger. The Epistle reading adopts the same tone and transmits the same message: the need for vigilance so that we avoid falling into false piety.

A pharisee with the outlook of a publican

A little earlier in the same (third) chapter of his second epistle to Timothy, Saint Paul refers to those who present the outward from of godliness but deny its real power. In harsh language he says that they’re ‘of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith’. He therefore advises Timothy to avoid them.

As a counter-balance to these so-called ‘pious’ Christians, Saint Paul, of necessity, refers to himself, though without a trace of any pharisaical self-promotion. In another of his epistles, of course, Saint Paul isn’t shy about confessing that he was a pharisee under the law and, indeed, blameless as regards the righteousness of the law. But everything that he once considered gain he now counted as damage, because of his faith in Jesus Christ.  (Phil. 3, 5). It would therefore be unfair to attribute Pharisaism to the holy apostle, who was more humble than the tax collector in the parable. He even called himself ‘abnormally born’ and ‘first among sinners’. Therefore, in the certainty that Timothy won’t misunderstand this reference to his labors, Paul reminds him of their common efforts so far.

The criteria for genuine godliness

These efforts constituted a rich experience of the common, apostolic life, in the course of which Timothy had every opportunity to discern whether Paul’s godliness was genuine or affected. He was replete with Paul’s unadulterated teaching, observed his shining example, experienced his burning faith, felt his good intentions, tasted his equanimity and genuine love and, finally, marveled at his inexhaustible patience. He knew of the persecutions Paul endured in Antioch in Pisidia, where the Jews fomented trouble and had the local authorities expel the apostles, Paul and Barnabas, from their territory. He remembered that in Iconium there had been a plan to stone Paul, something which, in the end, he couldn’t avoid in Lystra, where he was dragged out of the town and left for dead.

So it was quite clear to Timothy that, according to Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Paul was ‘neither vainglorious nor ambitious. He lists all this not to show off but to comfort and support his child’. In any case, how could the unwholesome delight and boasting of the pharisee be reconciled with the sincere joy of the apostle at being mistreated for the sake of Christ. Chrysostom, who expands Saint Paul’s words in a genuine manner, renders the message of the spiritual father to his child in the most lucid terms: ‘From what I suffered you can learn that it’s not possible for those who fight against evil to avoid experiencing sorrows. For someone who’s really striving, it’s inconceivable to live amid luxury and comforts. Now’s not the time for ease. Now’s the time for struggles, sorrows and trials’. But through this sweat and pain will come genuine progress in patience, faith, love and all the true virtues.

Unwavering adherence to the precepts of genuine teachers

Meanwhile, the wicked and the hypocrites will make their own ‘progress’, in that they’ll go from bad to worse. And what’s worse than to deceive not only other people but your own self? It may be that the invidious and the enticers will also prosper numerically, since stoking the passions- especially those of conceit and pride- charms and seduces a lot of people. Saint Paul points this out in the continuation of his letter to Timothy. He warns him that the time will come when  people won’t be able to bear sound teaching, but will, instead, listen to deluded teachers- of whom there are many- who will flatter to deceive them, and will pander to their passionate desires.

Despite this, a true laborer for the Gospel shouldn’t be dismayed. He says: ‘You, Timothy, stand firm in the things you’ve learned; and you’ve been confirmed in the truth by personal experience, because you know well the teacher from whom you learned it’. He reminds him, of course, that he’d been fed the milk of the faith even from an early age, since his mother and grandmother were the most god-fearing Eunice and Loida. But the teacher who had the greatest influence of Timothy was Saint Paul. He was the ideal teacher, who didn’t only combine the practice of the works of a blameless pharisee with the humble outlook of the publican, but also combined suffering ‘beyond that of others’ with perfect love. This was love which made him wish- were this even possible- to be cut off from Christ and lose his soul if it meant the salvation of his people, the Israelites (Rom. 9, 3).