It was during the summer of ’89 when every minute of my 13 years on earth suddenly produced profound wisdom in assisting me to choose my ‘life verse’. I was part way through a six-week mission experience which, among other disciplines, included the memorization of 40 passages of Scripture — word perfect — in the KJV. This was a program aimed primarily at those in their teen years, so of course, included in my Scripture pack was 1 Timothy 4:12.
Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.
These words became the anthem of my early years, the battle cry of my zeal, and eventually, the flavor of my regrets. That’s what happens when you elevate one part of Scripture over another. My mistake, and the mistake of countless others, is to think we will get away with un-hitching the Scripture from itself. I could recite the entire verse, but my mind only grasped at the opening clause, “Let no man despise thy youth.” These words, divorced from those that followed, only served to fuel my youthful entitlement, emblazoning my character with the unmistakable aroma of arrogance. Religious arrogance formed a particularly heinous variety of pride that took me years to relinquish at the foot of the cross of Christ, and even today still carry the scars where it’s hooks clung deep.
Jumping forward 30 years, and accounting for a shift in translation, what counsel would I give a younger ‘me’?
Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. (ESV)
Be careful what type of ‘youthfulness’ you embrace.
There is a type of youthfulness that is easy to despise. Prideful entitlement will always trend toward isolation. As I’ve grown older, and can no longer legitimately call myself one of the ‘young guns’, I’ve discovered that there is a certain breed of youthfulness in the church that can easily lead me to be dismissive. There is a clear connection between arrogance and eye-rolling. And I’m fairly certain this is what Paul was warning Timothy about, and what I’d love to have whispered in my own ear all those years ago. “Don’t give people more ammunition than they already have. Don’t feed the stereotype. Be careful what type of ‘youthfulness’ you embrace.”
Pursue ‘character’, not a ‘platform’.
I would tell myself of the danger of un-hitching Scripture from itself. I would point out what is so clearly self-evident. Here, like everywhere, the Scripture self authenticates when it contrasts the type of despising that can rise from arrogant youthfulness, with the type of godly example that can be set through proven character. My younger self wanted a voice, wanted a platform but was unwilling to invest in the character required by the gospel. And even today, when my immaturity bubbles to the surface, this is what I still want. But if the years have taught us anything in this public age, it is that platforms given to men of doubtful character eventually crumble, and that they will not be the only ones pierced by the splinters that fall. “Young man, let your character — your speech, your conduct, your love, your faith, your purity — let your character come first. Arrogant men who clamour for a voice and climb over others to claim a platform will only produce despair in those who could otherwise be a mentor and guide for fruitful ministry ahead. Pursue character, not a platform.”
You cannot ‘set an example’ without accountability.
What didn’t exist in 1989 was the the type of culture that has been produced by our enamoured pursuit of social media recognition. Rightfully so, this phenomenon has produced a needed correction by some against the dangers of a celebrity culture that exists within particularly the Western church. But it should be noted that Paul expected Timothy to allow his character to be seen, otherwise to whom was he setting an example to. Of course, I’m not defending social media campaigns and marketing strategies for the ‘elite’ among us (and those who aspire to this type of recognition), but I am advocating for a deliberately public faith. ”Young ‘me’, don’t cut yourself off from those who can speak into your life. Don’t shun accountability and call it negativity. Embrace the pain that sometimes comes through truth delivered in love. Step out of the shadows of your own counsel and pursue the vulnerability of a public faith. You cannot ‘set an example’ without accountability.”
The gospel is enough. Grace is enough. Jesus is enough.
I would tell the younger version of me all these things because I am painfully aware of the damage wrought when they are ignored. But I would also add this: “You’re going to fail, and when you do, it will be spectacular. But Jesus is enough. Grace is enough. The gospel is enough.” I would want to prepare myself for the subtle drift of my own soul toward self-reliance and self-righteousness, even as I pursue what would one day be called a lifestyle of gospel-centrality. I regret a lot of things in my life, but I don’t regret learning that verse 30 years ago. I’m older now — hopefully a little wiser — and I no longer claim a ‘life verse’, but these truths are still significant to me. They apply just as much now as they did then. Then, Lord willing, if I reach 70, I may look back and whisper words of counsel for a ‘middle-aged’ me, and I pray that my anthem then will be, ”Jesus is enough. Grace is enough. The gospel is enough.”