If our discipling of young men consists merely of encouraging spiritual disciplines and checking sexual temptation, why would we be surprised when our men are spiritually immature, and our churches are deprived of leadership?
Since before I could drive, I have watched men’s discipleship groups struggle to rise above accountability for Bible reading and pornography. We talked about other issues, even important issues, but the real agenda was to make sure we had read our Bibles and hadn’t looked at porn. The unintentional message over time was that this was spiritual maturity: consistent devotions and sexual purity. By setting such a low bar for men, though, we inevitably train men to be lazy, selfish, insecure, and ambitionless. We raise a generation of men to check spiritual boxes and then live for Xbox.
But men are capable of so much more in Christ than Bible reading and self-control (not to diminish either). God has wired and redeemed us with energy to lead, to risk, to serve, to initiate, to work hard, to sacrifice — to love like Christ loved. To put our backs and shoulders into something eternal, into caring for others and drawing them to Jesus.
Men Can Do More
What would such men look like? Well, they might look more like Abel, who sacrificed the first and best of his hard work for God (Hebrews 11:4). They might look more like Noah, who feared God and obeyed with reverence (Hebrews 11:7). They might look more like Abraham, who lived by faith that God’s promises would come true, even when God directed him to leave the comfort and security of home (Hebrews 11:8–10).
They might look more like Joseph (Hebrews 11:22), who suffered horribly and unjustly without grumbling, because he lived and suffered with God. They might look more like Moses, who refused “the fleeting pleasures of sin,” preferring to be hated and hunted with the people of God than to enjoy luxury in the wealthy world he’d always known (Hebrews 11:25–26). Or they might look like Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, or David and Samuel and the prophets
who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. (Hebrews 11:32–34)
Maybe we have such small expectations of men (and of ourselves) because we have lost sight of just how much God can do through a weak, broken, often-failing, but faithful and available man. So how do we become more effective, more fruitful men of God like these great men?
Good Guide for God’s Men
Where would you look in the Bible to build a stronger, fuller vision for Christian men?
First Timothy 4:12 is a familiar, yet strangely overlooked, map for men. The apostle Paul writes to his spiritual son, Timothy, a young man (not child) and elder in the church,
Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.
Over the years, many of us have heard this verse used in youth ministry to encourage teenagers to lay aside low expectations and strive instead to be model disciples of Jesus (and not just for their peers, but also for adults). While Timothy was a young man, however, he was not a boy. As the rest of these two letters reveal, however old he was (likely in his twenties or thirties), he was shouldering remarkable responsibility in the church. He was already a full-grown “man of God,” and his spiritual father was exhorting him to act accordingly.
Men of God (old and young), are we setting an example for other believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity? Let’s explore each briefly, and ask what faithfulness might look like.
1. What do we say (or not say)?
First, what does it mean to set a godly example in speech? We may immediately think of things men ought not to say. After all, Paul himself says, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place . . .” (Ephesians 5:4). Christian men ought to be noticeably, audibly different from men in the world — strangely and powerfully free from filthiness, foolishness, coarseness, and corruption (Ephesians 4:29). We are not, however, to settle for being known by what we will not say but also by what we do say.
Again, Paul writes, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:4). Not just the absence of profanity, vulgarity, and cruelty, but the startling sound of masculine thanksgiving. Of encouragement (1 Thessalonians 5:11). Of wisdom and honesty (1 Corinthians 12:8; 2 Corinthians 6:7). Of gospel hope (Ephesians 6:19). Of sound teaching — in the church and in the home. In summary, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6).
When we consider our conversations, calls, texts, tweets, emails, are we setting an example for other men to imitate?
2. How do we spend our lives?
What does it mean to set a godly example in conduct? Paul often pairs these first two — speech and conduct, word and works — in his letters (see Romans 15:18; Colossians 3:17). We might understand what Paul is getting at by asking: What does the way you live your life, especially how you spend your time, your money, your attention, say about Jesus?
First, does it say anything about Jesus? What kinds of conclusions would people draw about your God after watching you closely for a week, a month, a year? If we profess Christ and our lives still look like everyone else’s, Christianity will seem like just another vaguely spiritual, bland, and ineffective option among many.
“Since all these things are thus to be dissolved,” the apostle Peter writes, “what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness?” (2 Peter 3:11). “In lives of holiness” literally is translated “in holy conduct,” same word. In light of who Jesus really is, and the reality that he is coming again, what sort of men should we be? Have we been passing the brief existence God has given us here on earth as worthy examples in our choices and priorities?
3. What good are we to others?
What does it mean to set a godly example in love? One effective way to evaluate how we spend our time, money, and attention is to ask what tangible good it’s doing for others. A man whose hard work only serves himself is a man to be pitied, not imitated. We can say all the right things, but if we have not love, we are nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1). We can do all kinds of good works, but if we have not love, we are nothing (1 Corinthians 13:3). Men of God must be men of great love, men deeply committed to taking initiative (often at great expense) for the good of others, especially their eternal good.
“Be watchful, stand firm in the faith,” Paul writes to the leaders in Corinth, “act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:13–14). Love is vital to manhood. And it is vital to strength. “Love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). Love unifies (Colossians 2:2). Love does not prioritize its own cravings and desires, but seeks to serve the needs of others (Galatians 5:13). Love works, really labors, for the good of others (1 Thessalonians 1:3).
So, who are we loving — a spouse, our children, our church family, our roommates, neighbors, and coworkers, the lost — and how, specifically and tangibly, are we loving them? Would we want a younger man to imitate us?
4. Is our faith stagnant or passionate?
What does it mean to set a godly example in faith? Again, love and faith are often married in Paul’s letters (see Ephesians 1:15; 6:23; 1 Thessalonians 3:6). While we think of love as something seeable and feelable, we often think of faith as something private and invisible. How can we set an example in something others cannot see?
They may not be able to see our faith in the same way they hear our words and observe our good works, but they can see us fighting for faith. In the same letter, Paul writes, “Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Timothy 6:12). What does it mean to fight the good fight of faith?
Fighting the good fight of faith means being prepared to fight. It means expecting obstacles and even opposition (1 Peter 5:8). It means bearing trials, hardships, and disappointments with hope and joy (2 Corinthians 6:10). It means making time to meet with God even when it’s not convenient, even when we’re tired, even when work is demanding and the kids are difficult, because “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). It means meditating on the word day and night (Psalm 1:1–2). It means praying without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). It means committing to a fellowship of faith, a local church, and serving faithfully there (Hebrews 10:24–25).
So, does our life of faith look like a fight for faith? Would we want a younger man to fight like us?
5. Do you control yourself in holiness and honor?
Lastly, what does it mean to set a godly example in purity? We know the purity Paul had in mind here was at least sexual purity. He says to young men later in the same letter, “[Encourage] older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:2).
This kind of respect and self-control will set a young man apart in our world — a world filled with men looking to satisfy their sexual lusts, scrolling through apps to hook up with someone new, and moving from one to another without a second thought. Men who relate to women in all purity will not be like most men, who, because they do not know God, live according to their lusts (1 Thessalonians 4:3–5).
This purity involves more than just sexual purity, though. Worldliness — overt or subtle devotion to pop culture, sports, movies, shopping, social media, or whatever lures you most — can be every bit as spiritually polluting as sexual temptation (James 1:27). Each can be a gift from God leading us to more of God, and each can become a false god quietly drawing us away from him. Are our minds and hearts marked with purity — with a singleness of devotion and affection toward God? Are we training our whole self — heart, soul, mind, and strength — to love him more than anything? Would we want a younger man to imitate our purity?
Men Are Made for More
None of this larger vision and call diminishes the importance of men reading the Bible and resisting pornography. In fact, men who pursue godliness in these areas — in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity — will be all the more zealous to meditate on the word of God, and all the more jealous for purity, online and otherwise. No man becomes a man of God without daily feasting on the word of God. And no man becomes a man of God without putting his selfish, sinful lusts to death.
As we disciple men, let’s not overlook pornography — surely one of the greatest, most widespread, most available threats to their souls. And let’s never downplay the Bible — the single greatest armory of truth, courage, holiness, and joy we have. But let’s also call men to more — to bless others with their words, to not waste their lives on endless screen time, to lay down their schedules, energy, and strength in love, to go hard after God day in and day out, and to control and use their bodies with honor and holiness.
In short, may we be and raise up men of God, saved and humbled by the grace of God, to the do the hard work of God, in ways that reveal and prove the glory of his Son.