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1 Timothy 4:12: scattered thoughts on being young and setting an example.

“Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this verse lately.

When I was younger, I read it as a vindication, something I could use to beat old people on the head with (not literally, of course) when they patronized me for being young and ignorant. The NIV translation is even more effective for this sort of thing; it reads: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young…” and that “Don’t let” feels forceful, powerful, defiant in the hands of an angry teenager who thinks that grown-ups just don’t understand.

I’m twenty-five now, and while in some ways, I’m still that angry teenager–I think they call it “moody artist” now that I’m closer to thirty than my teenage years–I’d like to think I have a better grasp of what that verse is supposed to mean, one that’s made me less likely to use it as an immediate and violent comeback, and more as a call to–forgive my choice in words–play the long game.

At a meeting I was in last week, someone said something that stuck with me. They said, and I paraphrase: “If you aren’t married, with children, in debt, and struggling to keep a business afloat, you have no right to complain.

The angry teenager in me couldn’t help herself: I retorted with, “Try living with a mental illness.” This sparked a mini-argument where I, the lone twenty-something notorious for being emotionally unstable, was pitted against a table full of “adults” who were, by most standards, further along in life and life experience than I was. Most of them chose not to engage with either me or the original speaker, but enough was said that I left the meeting angry.

That I am, to be honest, still fighting that anger, even now.

In the initial rush of “righteous indignation” after that exchange, 1 Timothy 4:12 popped into my head, and I was tempted to wield the initial half of it as a weapon against that old enemy: grown-ups who just don’t understand. But before I could march over to the person and “rebuke” them, I suddenly remembered the second half: “…but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”

Timothy was a young leader in charge of shepherding a multi-generational church in a culture that placed the old above the young in status. In this situation, Paul does not ask Timothy to use his calling or his position to exert his authority. Instead, he asks Timothy to set an example.

A friend and I had a conversation recently about the things he didn’t like in the music industry, one that boiled down to me encouraging him to make the change by being everything he felt the indie scene should be. We see posts about this on the internet all the time–be the change you wish to see in the world, and all that–but lately it’s hit home that the best way to fight things you don’t like is not to rant or shout them down: it’s to just be different.

I don’t often feel like a good example of what is like to be a Christian or a leader. Actually, scratch that: I never feel like a good example of either of those things. I will be the first to admit that I can be impulsive, stubborn, arrogant, and self-righteous: things that lately I’m becoming more aware of. Heck, I know that my initial violent reaction was, for all of my good intentions, colored with self-righteousness. And yet the charge is clear: to ensure that no one “despises me for my youth,” I need to overcome all these things and set that example in speech (good luck), in conduct (for real?!), in love (oh boy), in faith (you’re kidding, right?), and in purity (does a ring count?).

Funny, though, that this realization feels less like a rebuke and more like an encouragement. I know what I am, and what I’m not, but lately that knowledge has stung less. When God points out my self-righteousness, my anger, or my pride, I don’t feel like he’s condemning me at all. Instead, it’s like dance class, when the teacher tells me my back isn’t straight yet or I need to watch my turns: an implicit acknowledgment that we will get there, together, eventually.

I got angry at what that person said in my meeting last week, because it felt like someone was invalidating my struggles, telling me my problems were not “real” in comparison to more grown-up concerns like taking care of kids or working on one’s marriage. But looking back, how many times have I invalidated someone else’s problems because they weren’t to the scale of my own? How often have I worn my own issues–child of a broken family, bullied throughout grade-school and highschool, rejected by relatives and peers alike, struggling with mental unwellness–as badges of honor, as marks of experience that somehow make my opinions and perspectives and issues “more valid?”

I’m still sorting out my anger. That’s probably why I wrote this, to be honest: because I don’t think it’s right to say that if you’re not married, with kids, in debt, and running a business then you have no right to have your problems be seen as real problems. But I will be the first to say my way of handling the issue–picking a fight in front of a bunch of other people, turning it into me vs. the grown-ups who don’t understand–did not help things. I recently finished reading Wikichurch by Pastor Steve Murrell, and in it he emphasizes how generations need to labor together, but it’s hard to when one side is saying, “You’re inexperienced, ignorant, whiny babies who have had everything handed to you because of our hard work,” while the other is all, “You’re obsolete dinosaurs who ruined everything, and now we have to fix it.”

Picking fights won’t help. Beating people on the head with the first half of 1 Timothy 4:12 won’t help. Instead, the calling is to be better, even when the truth is you are an inexperienced, ignorant twenty-five year old with a truckload of issues and bitterness and character flaws.

But hey, as Paul says in another letter, “And I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

Here’s to, hopefully, learning to set better examples.