Contempt As Opportunity (1 Timothy 4:12)
Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. —1 Timothy 4:12
Have you ever felt slighted by someone? Felt like you didn’t get the respect you deserved?
Whether by a work colleague, a family member, or someone who cuts me off in traffic, when I feel slighted or disrespected, I feel the righteous indignation levels rise astronomically. Sometimes I even feel the effect physiologically: white-hot indignation.
In 1 Timothy 4, Paul offers personal advice to his disciple Timothy, as he navigates a very difficult pastoral task where he is experiencing opposition, even outright contempt. Timothy was relatively young, serving in a leadership role at the church in Ephesus where the Apostle Paul himself had spent a great deal of time (recall his tearful farewell to the elders in Acts 20). He is likely being called upon to lead church members who are a generation older (or more) than he is, who were likely evangelized by the apostle himself.
Paul offers a negative and a positive imperative that make up this week’s Fighter Verse. In the negative he says, “let no one despise you.” And in our culture, that part’s easy. We hate contempt. We chafe against it. That white-hot indignation I describe is almost as American as apple pie!
But Paul’s positive prescription is profoundly counter-cultural. Don’t respond to the contempt in anger or with vengeance on your mind, rather, “set the believers an example.” Notice who has shifted from the center of that equation. When we encounter contempt (or even perceived slights) our indignation finds our rights and our hurts right in the center. We want things made right and we won’t stop until we force that outcome, no matter the cost.
And while Paul urges Timothy to seek the good of the believers, it’s important to realize he is not arguing only for an “others-centered” approach. He’s urging a God-centered approach. Timothy is to “set the believers an example” in the same sense that Peter urges elders to be “examples for the flock.” Paul is showing Timothy that the health of Christ’s church is at stake in how he responds to the contempt shown to him by his Christian brothers and sisters. He must serve as a model of how other believers should live. His actions should be guided by the question, "what if 20 other members of the church responded to hurt like me?" If we respond to contempt by trying to reassert our rights we harm the cause of Christ and the unity of the Church. If leaders respond in that way, we multiply that harm.
So what does it look like to set an example for the believers? Paul urges him to do it publicly (“in speech, in conduct”) and in his private walk (“in love, in faith, in purity”). Timothy should live and preach in front of the members of his church and society in a way that demonstrates that Christian character—and not age— is the defining feature of Christian leadership. And that example will only ever be set if it comes as an overflow of private devotion to the Lord.
It’s important that we see the other side of Paul’s exhortation to Timothy: he is implicitly condemning those who are despising Timothy for his youth. Paul is not saying that age doesn’t matter, just a few verses later he urges Timothy to engage differently with older and younger men (1 Timothy 5:1). So it wasn’t wrong that some in the church considered Timothy’s youth, it was wrong when they made it the only consideration and showed contempt for their Christian brother.
This is another powerful counter-cultural exhortation. We must look beyond the age of a brother or sister in Christ and look to how the Lord is working in them and can use them to build His Church. We live in an age-segregated culture where it’s not uncommon to go through a week without interacting with someone who is more than 10 years older or younger than we are. The church can—and must—be an exception to this cultural rule. If our community is a place where the college student learns from the senior citizen and the Baby Boomer honors the Millennial, we will hold out the unifying power of the gospel to a world that desperately needs less contempt.
Reflect on recent slights you have felt. How have you responded? Have you sought to set an example for the believers or have you only felt the indignation that your rights were violated?
How might you have shown contempt to others? How could you take steps to reconcile with that person?
Spend some time praying for members of your church and family that are at least 10 years older or younger than you. Ask God to give you wisdom to build relationship across the generations.
Read Isaiah 53 and reflect on how Jesus responded to being despised and rejected (Isaiah 53:3).