1 Timothy 1:12-17
12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength because he considered me faithful. So he appointed me to ministry 13 even though I used to speak against him, attack his people, and I was proud. But I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and without faith. 14 Our Lord’s favor poured all over me along with the faithfulness and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I’m the biggest sinner of all. 16 But this is why I was shown mercy, so that Christ Jesus could show his endless patience to me first of all. So I’m an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life. 17 Now to the king of the ages, to the immortal, invisible, and only God, may honor and glory be given to him forever and always! Amen.
This letter from the Apostle Paul to his young protégé Timothy shows us that Paul, at this point in his ministry, had begun delegating tasks to various leaders in cities where Christian communities were forming. According to many scholars, Timothy was likely a younger man than many in his community.
I often wonder how Timothy felt. He’s probably in his twenties, and he is tasked with overseeing the Christian faith in Ephesus. How could anyone in their twenties have a clue on how to run a Christian community? In his twenties! He hasn’t done anything with his life yet to offer any advice to anyone! Imagine the ego on that guy…or the crippling anxiety he must have felt.
In all seriousness, I feel for Timothy. His assigned task is difficult. Being responsible for the right teaching of the faith is rough, especially as a young person. I feel for him, because in many ways, I am a lot like him. It’s hard being a keeper of the faith even today. It seems like everyone has a strong opinion of what Jesus would do and I don’t.
When I read these words in Paul’s letter, I hear voices of mentors who have helped cultivate my faith and who have offered me encouragement along the way. Paul knows Timothy feels anxious. Being responsible for the wellbeing of anything bigger than a goldfish is hard. How many of us are willing to admit having anxiety issues or know someone with anxiety issues? I’ve got them. [I found it interesting that in the Catholic faith, Timothy is actually the patron saint for people with stomach and intestinal issues, so that’s comforting. The one saint I feel most akin to is the patron saint of the irritable bowel.]
Paul knows the task ahead of Timothy is hard, and the key to succeeding in this life is to be honest and humble about who we are.
What makes this so wonderfully accessible is how open Paul is being with his young protégé about his own struggles. He writes about how prideful he used to be and openly admits to the terrible things he did in the name of the faith. That’s such a rare trait being honest with our faults, especially to those under our tutelage or age. My parents rarely ever admitted to their deepest faults with me. Not until I was an adult, anyway.
No one likes to admit when they mess up. On top of that, I have noticed when people do admit their faults, oftentimes it’s followed by little “but it’s part of who I am” commentary or something else to diminish our faults’ impact – like our faults aren’t actually faults, just quirks.
But Paul knows better. His pride and self-assurance in the law made him a vengeful person. He was famed in his early life for all the people whose lives he destroyed in the name of justice and purity of the faith. Then he met Christ and learned a whole new way of justice. Even with his decades of evangelism and spreading the faith and doing his best to keep the right message out there, not much changed outside him. I’m sure he still had to admit to his pride even after his conversion. We all still carry who we are after we are brought to faith. Hopefully we have more empathy with others’ problems.
We can be so proud of who we are and what we know that we often play the role of Saul more than we play the role of Paul. So as much as this letter is to Timothy, it’s really about Paul. And as much as it is about Paul, it is ultimately written for the guidance of all the Timothys of the world who want to be confident yet humble in their leadership.
I struggle knowing what is the right path some days, too. I question my steps almost everywhere I go because I want to do the right thing. Sometimes, that means having hard conversations about what is the right thing and what is the thing we want to do. As people in church struggle with following Jesus, others seem to have all the answers. The truth is, they may not. Following Christ correctly can lead us to places where there are no easy answers, or at least we need to listen and learn as if there aren’t any easy answers. We can’t be too
That’s the issue we face with Paul. Paul is telling Timothy that it is so easy to get bogged down, that we start letting our pride get the best of us. That means we get defensive or angry when someone asks us to do something or be something we don’t want to do or be. We get angry at the messenger who, honestly, may not even understand the message fully.
Look at Timothy. For him, the religion of Christianity is new which means not all the details of belief have been worked out. Lots of teachers were telling people what was right and wrong, and they had not discussed it with anyone else. Timothy is tasked with keeping the right belief among Christians, but he also must do it with mercy, Paul says, because Christ offered him mercy first.
Mercy is the lynchpin of right belief. Mercy is the opposite of pride. Pride demands rightness and wrongness. Pride is what makes us see things in terms of “better” and “worse.” We need a way of judging things correctly; however, how one does that work is far more important than being right or wrong. The mercy Paul speaks of is a total humility before God.
The line that really expresses this is one I think none believes or wants to believe: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I’m the biggest sinner of all.” I know I struggle with that. I know that I am a sinner, and I also know my sins aren’t nearly as bad as some other folks’, but trying to find myself on God’s holiness meter defeats the meaning of Christ all together. One sin is as all sins, but we surely don’t believe that.
And in some ways, I don’t believe we should believe that. White lies are nowhere near murder and violence, but who am I to argue with God? And that’s the lesson for today. We live in a world that seems so unlike Paul’s, but it really isn’t. People think they know the law pretty well and will get loud, angry, and vengeful against those who disagree. Or they’ll do their best to cut them down behind their backs. Look at current debates in the church around sexuality or conversations about how we spend our money. Not a lot of mercy extended on either side. Also not unlike the debates on the workings of how communion works or how divine Christ was. Isn’t the point of our faith what he said and did?
What if we truly believed that our sins are no better than anyone else’s? Wouldn’t it help us be humble? Isn’t that what Paul is telling Timothy to do? Even when Jesus was wrongfully accused and arrested, he told his disciples to put down their weapons. He even healed the ear of the one who came to arrest him who was cut off by Peter’s sword. He didn’t argue about the legitimacy of it all. He just knew that there was pain and answered that first. Are we ready to show that kind of patience and mercy?
How about in our relationships? How many of us treat our partners or friends with humility and mercy when we get angry? I find that, even when I’m rightfully mad about something, I still have to answer for when I cross over into unkind and unmerciful territory. Even when life gets hard, and we justifiably want to say, “No, dummy, you shouldn’t say that” or “you shouldn’t think that” or “do that,” are we living by Paul’s words? “I have been forgiven, and I am the greatest sinner of all.”
Pride is everywhere. Sometimes, it’s good. But mostly, before we are proud, we must stay humble. So let this lesson from Paul to Timothy offer you hope: things are hard, it’s ok to be anxious. Just remember Christ, for he will never lead you astray.
 Hmmm…I’m in my twenties. I wonder if there is a correlation here.