Paul wrote to Timothy, "Let no one despise your youth." What does that mean for the young Christian today?
Is there anything more wonderful than being young, full of energy and strength, experiencing the excitement of first discoveries? “Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth,” we read in Ecclesiastes 11:9. What a beautiful image that is to think of: a young man or woman, enjoying life to the fullest, with nothing but optimism and excitement for the future.
It’s no wonder that youth, with its glow of vitality, is often revered as a time set aside for having fun and testing our limits before we’re tied down with the responsibilities of marriage and families of our own. But God didn’t intend for there to be disposable time in our lives, even though Satan does try his best to convince us that youth was made for wasting. Are we in God’s Church swayed by the prevailing winds of self-entitlement and self-indulgence that sweep through our culture? We need to know where we stand, because the stakes are actually quite high. Many of the choices we make at 12, 16 and 25 can have a negative or positiveimpact on us and those we love for the rest of our lives.
A Letter to Timothy—and to Us
Paul told Timothy, “Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).
It seems at first to be an odd thing to say, since we don’t have control over what others might think about us. It seems at first that Timothy is a victim of age discrimination, but what Paul was saying is that Timothy should behave in such a way that no one could reasonably despise his youth. He was to act with greater maturity, with greater wisdom, actively exercising the Holy Spirit he had received through the laying on of hands. He was to be a teacher. As such, it was unacceptable for him to use his youth as a time to spend focused on seeking his own pleasures. It was unacceptable for him to be willingly ignorant of God’s expectations of him, love for him, and his job of ministering to God’s people.
Being young is not a license to act stupidly or experiment with destructive behaviors. Nor to be foolish, though Satan certainly uses popular culture to imply otherwise. All of us make bad choices and decisions—spiritually mature adults included. But often when we’re young, our spiritual inexperience and desire to be accepted by our peers makes us more vulnerable. The world around us shows youth and beauty as a license for hedonism, where nothing is to be denied. It affects us physically through the food and drink we consume to excess, financially through credit we can’t manage, sexually and emotionally in relationships focused on pleasure instead of God the Father.
Responsibility is something we learn through practice. Using youth as an excuse for poor judgment (as a way of life) or poor character is also learned through practice. Both will accumulate over time, and both are also reinforced every day by our thoughts and actions.
Although God may or may not choose to preserve us from the consequences we earn by making poor decisions, we and maybe others around us may carry mental, emotional, or physical scars for the rest of our lives.
Paul’s letter to Timothy continued: “Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership. Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all” (1 Timothy 4:14-15).
Like Timothy, we also are to be an example of godliness within our sphere of influence, which is at the very least our local congregations, our families andour circle of friends. What a tall order! To walk against the tide of society to be an example in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, and in purity—not easy stuff. Consider Paul’s letter to Timothy and how it applies to us today. We are to to be aware of how we speak to others and represent God with our words. We should be good examples in our actions and behavior, reflecting the love of our Father in outgoing concern for others.
And we are to be actively working with the Holy Spirit we are given at baptism and growing our faith by doing good works. And we are to be pure—which in a world such as this certainly requires God’s help (2 Timothy 2:22).
Is this completely overwhelming? Does it seem impossible to achieve? Well, yes, it can seem that way, especially if some bad habits have already woven themselves into the fiber of our character. But it can be done . The impossible is absolutely possible with God (Philippians 4:13). Most people in God’s Church don’t talk openly about the wretched and miserable character traits they have overcome or are still overcoming. But everyone has to overcome, and we are all in this together. The apostle Paul himself was guilty of persecuting the brethren, and played an active role in the death of several Christians. But God opened his eyes, and led him to repent and preach the gospel (Acts 7:58-59, 1 Timothy 1:12-16, Romans 7:24-25).
We hear great stories about miracles where God protected the life or property of Church members in some very dramatic way—and these stories are inspiring and wonderful! But we don’t as often have opportunity to celebrate the many, many stories of God miraculously saving spiritual lives. God can work amazing miracles in our hearts and minds if we will accept His help and guidance. The greatest miracle happens in the secret places of the heart (Acts 3:19, 26).
Family and Friendship: A Light in a Dark Place
We need each other. God didn’t tell us to assemble together with other brethren each week on a whim. Our church congregations should become like families—a support system where the members love each other despite our differences in personality. And like family, we should all be working together at our responsibilities. We should have fellowship together often, not just at church, but time spent in each others’ homes to build our relationships to the point that we can actually share the important things that we face as Christians. We need to surround ourselves with those who are excited about God’s way of life.
Our choice of friends can be especially important when we’re young, as we experience more independence from our families at school and work. Our group of friends can have a tremendous influence on us, and we them. But we always have to be conscious of the direction and weight of that influence and make decisions, however difficult, according to where we are headed and where we want to be. If wisdom comes from God (it does—Proverbs 2:6), then we’d better be asking very earnestly for that gift and preparing to use it to walk (or run) in the right direction. Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived, but even he was completely led in a wrong direction by the company he chose to keep (1 Kings 11:1-10).
In the book of Daniel, we see an encouraging example of four young men who did what was right without their parents, grandparents or elders there to influence them. They had positive reinforcement only from each other as captives in pagan Babylon, but because they obeyed God without consideration for their lives, God blessed them with remarkable skills and gifts. When the king tested them, they performed ten times better than those around them (Daniel 1:17-20).
Could God have plucked them out of Babylon? Yes, certainly, but He did not. Instead, they had to prove themselves there, surrounded by an extremely pagan society, to love God more than their own lives. He then gave them what they needed for success within the confines of their captivity. In the world—but not of it. The difference is huge, and it’s one that we also must make in our lives every day. There is no vacation from being in the world, even at Sabbath services, the Feast of Tabernacles or a Church camp. Even then, we make decisions about the company we keep and the attitudes and behaviors that ultimately make up our character.
The Wake-Up Call
Here’s some honesty for you: When it comes to youth and responsibility, I don’t think I’ve been a Timothy, or a Daniel, though I admire them very much. When I was busy being busy, I was despising my youth. Thinking back, I have often felt like an utter failure, having wasted many years of greater spiritual growth because I let the world distract me.
At some level I may have even wanted distraction because I didn’t have the guts to change—yet. I was fearful, letting my cowardice block the way between me and God. I didn’t realize the gravity that cowardice or of being guilty of lying to myself (see Revelation 21:8). But deep down, every second (or third or later) generation Christian knows enough to know when God will be pleased or not by our choices. That “yet” is a good indicator that we are willfully ignoring God’s Holy Spirit working with us. If we’re honest, we need to ask ourselves some tough questions.
How is our relationship with God to be impacted by partying, drinking or spending time in nightclubs, even when accompanied by Church friends? If we choose to fill our minds with justifications, excuses, or avoid the issue by filling our time with video games, TV or other entertainment, then we probably won’t have time to think about literally what we could do—right now—to express love to God with more than just an emotion.
As sometimes happens to those who profess Christianity and who are hitting the cruise control, I got a wake-up call. Though different for all of us, when we are faced with circumstances completely beyond our control, we can turn inward and bottle up our pain, we can take our frustration out on others and try to solve the unsolvable, or we can turn to God our Father, and give it and ourselves fully into His care.
When my beloved church congregation was forcibly ripped apart a couple of years ago, I was certainly fired to greater consciousness. I wouldn’t wish the circumstances on anyone, but I know many who have experienced something similar.
That pain caused results that were ultimately worth something, though, because who can truly understand what we are feeling but God? Through sleepless nights and hours of weeping, I opened my heart fully to God. I prayed through the hurt and the anger and the human need for some kind of justice where none could be found. I had lost so much, but through that pain and grief, I found something much greater: the first love (Mark 12:30, Romans 8:37-39).
Learning the Hard Way
I confess that before my wake-up call (see sidebar), the first love had always seemed just out of reach. I didn’t quite understand how second generation Christians could have quite the same level of passion as first. After all, we hadn’t come out of another religion or some other way of life that’s different from God’s truth.
I was so wrong. It’s there for all whomGod calls, if we aren’t too busy with the cares of this life to seek God in earnest. Timothy was a second generation believer, also. He learned about God’s way of life from his mother and grandmother (1 Timothy 1:5). As a young man, he answered the same call that you are perhaps being offered even now (Acts 2:38-40).
The second part of Ecclesiastes 11:9 is this: “Walk in the ways of your heart, and in the sight of your eyes; but know that for all these God will bring you into judgment.” We are held accountable for the choices we make as a young man or woman, whether wise or foolish.
Some people tend to learn from the mistakes of others and receive good teaching early on, like Timothy and Daniel and his friends did. But some of us seem to need to learn by bitter experience and much planting of our faces in the dirt. But either way, the point is to learn something .
If I could go back and say something to a younger me, it would be: “Tell God every secret of your heart. Honesty with yourself means honesty with God. And that is the beginning of everything wonderful in your life. Everything is clearer after inviting His light to shine in.”
Be a Timothy, or a Daniel, if you can. But if it’s too late for that, then be like the prodigal son, or King David, who after making huge mistakes turned to God for forgiveness instead of justifying them further! (See Luke 15:10-19; 2 Samuel 12).
Just don’t despise your own valuable youth by wasting it on so many things that can lead you away from what you know is right.
If you haven’t already, learn to appreciate this as a time when you can learn how to communicate openly with God and learn to put your trust in Him throughout your life (Psalm 71:5). He loves you more than you can even comprehend, and wants very much to hear what you have to say! (1 John 4:19).
At the start of this article, I asked a question: Is there anything more wonderful than being young? Well, yes, there is. Much more wonderful is to be young and pouring that energy, strength, and love of life into the most important relationship we can ever have, with our Father in heaven. It is the most blessed choice we can possibly make.