As an adult who works with young people, I am still surprised when I get the opportunity to witness the character of the teens when they don’t know I’m watching. Recently I watched a group of young people respond to their friend when she received a phone call telling her that her grandmother had been admitted to the hospital. They gathered around her and prayed. No leader was there telling them to do it. They just did it. It made me delight in what young people are capable of by God’s grace. It also made me think of the malleability of young hearts and minds and how much influence their elders can have on them—good and bad.
When I was in middle school, I was one of three boys in our small town who rode skateboards. One day at our town’s annual fair I lost control of my skateboard. It glided across the sidewalk—to my horror—directly into the ankle bone of an elderly woman who was being helped out of a car by her middle-aged son. The woman’s son cursed at me calling me a “punk kid.” I was so sorry, yet so hopelessly unable to offer any kind of meaningful apology or help. As my penance I took to heart his words and ascribed them to myself for the next 10 years, regarding myself as a “punk kid.”
A few years after the accident, as Christ in His mercy sought after my heart and found me, I read for the first time the words Paul wrote to Timothy in 1 Tim. 4:12; “Do not let anyone look down on you because you are young.” It was difficult for me to reconcile Paul’s words to Timothy with my view of myself. I assumed my problem was that I was young. I deserved to be looked down upon. I blamed the skateboard incident and other such foibles on my age rather than my carelessness.
As with most things in life, I projected my own estimations of myself on to God’s regard for me. I assumed God regarded me in my youth as a punk. He saw me lose control of my skateboard. I drew all kinds of conclusions from this and countless other mistakes about how God regards young people. Youth was an uphill time to make it through. If only I could shake the moniker of “Kid,” perhaps then I could do the same with “punk.”
What are the estimations God has for young people? Our culture has plenty of sayings: “Youth is wasted on the young.” “Boys will be boys.” “For kids, nothing good happens after midnight.” I´ve heard all these. But in Paul´s words to Timothy, we are given a better perspective of God´s take on youth. Paul offers Timothy both warnings and charges. In them, canonized in the Holy Word of God, we see the traits God assumes youth are capable of —the estimations of God for an underestimated generation.
Youth is not reason enough to look down on someone. I spent years overlooking the latter half of 1 Timothy 4:12. Paul says, “Do not 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.” In this verse comes a charge to Timothy to set an example for believers in the deepest parts of his character. Since God does not give us more than we can bear, it must be understood that Paul was assuming Timothy was capable of doing this with God´s help. In fact, setting an example in speech, life, love, faith and purity was Paul´s antidote for judgments that might be leveled against Timothy on account of his age. Paul was assuming young Timothy, by God´s grace, could do this.
God´s estimation of youth is that young people are capable of deep character—even character that silences elder critics by its integrity. He does not assume young people must wait to grow up into adults to be people of character. But there is another side to this coin, and we see it in Paul´s second letter to Timothy. “Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with all those who call on the Lord” (2 Timothy 2:22).
Youth has its share of evil desires. Agreed? So here we have another estimation—that youth contains particular temptations and desires that can so easily snare a young man, and we are to flee these things. But we must be quick to recognize at the same time that Paul assumes young people, while perhaps prone to certain evil desires, are not bound for them. They can, by God´s grace, flee. Paul shows us that youth cannot only flee evil, but they can also pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace—along with all those who call on the Lord.
Young people are capable of deep character and integrity. They are capable of fleeing evil and pursuing righteousness, by the grace of God. But they cannot do any of this apart from the grace of Christ. Neither can any of us for that matter. We are all prone to wander. We are all capable, by God´s help in Christ, to flee evil and pursue righteousness. Youth is not the problem.
Youth is a creation from God. When we think of it mostly in terms of a time to get through so we can take our lumps and begin the responsible life of adults, we sell short a wonderful part of God´s design. God made us all as infants first, then as children—all knees and elbows during those confusing junior high years. He made us with hearts that fell in love in an instant when that captivating special someone so much as looked at us from across the social studies classroom. He made us to disappear into make-believe worlds. He gave us days where every tree was meant for climbing and every knee was made for scrapes. He gave us youth—lots of it.
The point is simply this; youth is not a roadblock to character development or theological understanding. While both young people and old may often tend to make this assumption, God does not. This liberates us to reach out to our young people now—to affirm their capabilities and dependence as people under the gaze of God!
I made a careless mistake with my skateboard. But I made a worse mistake when I took to heart the words that followed. I believed I was a punk. Sometimes I still do. My biggest mistake was thinking my youth was the problem. Youth is not the problem—it is a precious gift. The problem is assuming youth is the problem—that I will grow out of carelessness merely through the passage of time.
The potential of our young people is far greater than we know. God made it that way. Our responsibility is to look for their potential in the Word of God; to cultivate them, nurture them, love them, exhort them, rebuke them and go after them as God directs. We help to preserve the life of the poet in their hearts by not selling them short, but by esteeming them as God does.
Russ Ramsey is the Assistant Pastor of Oak Hills Presbyterian, Kansas City, Kansas
This article originally appeared in Covenant, the magazine of Covenant Theological Seminary and is
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