The observant reader of the Word of God will note that the noun "godliness" is mentioned once in the Acts of the Apostles (3.12), where it is translated "holiness", in the epistles of Paul to Timothy and Titus, and in the second epistle of Peter. Both the writers of these epistles were elderly, Paul at freedom after his first imprisonment, shortly to be arrested again, at which time he would acknowledge that "the time of my departure is at hand" (2 Tim 4.6), and Peter who recognised that "shortly I must put off this my tabernacle" (2 Pet 1.14). Advancing years caused these two faithful servants of the Lord to value "godliness" and to understand how vital it is in seeking a close relationship with the Lord.
But what does it mean to be "godly". The word "denotes that piety which, characterised by a Godward attitude, does that which is well-pleasing to Him".1 It is being like God, just as being "manly" is being like a man, or "cowardly" is being like a coward. When Paul stated that "great is the mystery of godliness" (1 Tim 3.16) he was referring to the life of the Lord Jesus in which godliness was constantly seen. Before He came, no man had ever lived like that. Godliness was a "mystery", that which could not be known by human intellect but was fully revealed in Christ.
But the revelation of that mystery now places upon those who follow Him the responsibility of striving to be like Him. Godliness ought to be seen in all who profess to belong to Him. The Adversary is intent in smothering every attempt to be godly. Society today has as its goal the accumulation of money, and the possessions and entertainment that currency can buy. There is also a teaching being propagated that profession of faith in Christ brings material wealth. The warning in Scripture has to be heeded. We must never fall into the trap of believing that "gain is godliness" (1 Tim 6.5). God does make some rich, but the possession of wealth must never be the determined goal of the saints.
Paul points us to a higher attainment: "Godliness with contentment is great gain" (1 Tim 6.6), a gain far greater than anything the world can ever offer. But, how is this contentment to be arrived at in a world where discontent is seen all around? The word itself means "to be satisfied", or "to have a sufficiency of all that is needed". It comes from the teaching and practice of the Stoics that they should be independent of all circumstances, that they should be self-sufficient. Used in Scripture, however, it is not self-sufficiency that is in view, nor is it reliance upon ones own material resources. The contentment enjoyed by believers is based upon reliance on God. At all times and in all circumstances Christians can rely totally on, and be fully satisfied with, the God who saved them.
But how is this gained? Paul states when writing to the Philippians, "I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content" (Phil 4.11). He does not stop there but confirms that his state of contentment was not dependent on his circumstances; "I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound" (Phil 4.12). How did this come about? How did he handle changing circumstances? His answer is: "every where and in all things I am instructed to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need". "I am instructed" could be worded, "I am initiated into the secret". This condition is unknown to the unbeliever. It is a secret, a condition of heart and soul available to, and attained and enjoyed only by, believers.
So Paul had learned and been instructed. In his life devoted to Christ, in the sacrifices that he made, and in the service which he had carried out, he had been taught the secret of contentment. He had come to know how to rely on and place total, unreserved trust in his God. Doubtless, many readers have been taught in the same school of Christian life and have come to know this "great gain". Today we are instructed by Scripture how to live and serve to attain that goal. May we heed the instruction given, but also learn through experience what it is to enjoy that true contentment of which Paul wrote and which he confirmed was "great gain".
1 W E Vine: Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words.