If there was ever a verse of scripture I would like to re-write, it would be the verse I want to discuss in today’s writing. I’m not talking about a verse I want to change because I don’t like the conviction it brings in my life — I have a few of those and I understand my need for them. I’m talking about a verse that often gets misused because of the way we read it as it is laid out in the English language. Perhaps you recognize it:
“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young.”
As one who has attended many youth events, seminars, workshops, and conferences where this verse (or I should say, this portion of the verse) was used as the cornerstone for teaching and challenging youth to stand up for who they are, I often wonder how many of those teaching even knew what comes next — the rest of the verse! When we look at the entire verse and the subsequent context, it should be obvious that the oft emphasized beginning is not really the main point Paul is trying to teach Timothy. Let’s look at the whole thing in context.
“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you. Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” 1 Timothy 4:12-16
To me, at least, that passage has an entirely different emphasis than the popular one often taught to young people — an arrogant attitude that says, “I can do what I want and God commands you not to look down on me for it!” That comes out of the way we often read scripture. We read until we find a line we like and then we adopt that as our life slogan — never mind what it means in context, who has time to read the whole thing anyhow? If you read through the entire passage, it should be clear that the emphasis is on your own actions, not on the attitude of others. I am not suggesting that we change scripture to make me happy, but listen to how I would word verse 12:
You must set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity so that no one has a reason to look down on you because of your youthfulness. 1 Timothy 4:12 – Tom’s Paraphrase
That is what Paul is getting at. It is not a command that you somehow force people to not look down on you. It is instruction on how to live so that no one has an excuse to look down on you. Those five areas — speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity — are often the main areas that a young person, and a not so young person, will stumble in. That stumbling does not grant a person the right to look down on you, but it does often give them the excuse to. When we commit to excelling in those areas, and any other area that exemplifies Christ, then the accusations, put-downs, and disdain have no merit and no reason to stick to us.
When you feel that people look down on you for whatever reason — it doesn’t have to be youthfulness — it is time for a self-examination. Are you contributing to their attitude about you? Are you setting an example that is visible in all areas of Christ-likeness? “Don’t let anyone look down on you” is a great statement if it is used for yourself as a challenge to be an example above reproach. For me, it is similar to the command, “as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” I think that instruction from Romans 12 and this verse from 1 Timothy are all about how we ought to live and respond to others, not a mandate on how I dictate the attitude they must have toward me.
I pray that your life and my life are lived as an example. An example that gives no one an excuse to look down on either of us.