What young men will be, in all probability, depends on what they are now. Young men seem to forget this.
I am a pastor, and my occupational duty requires me to read. So for the past 35 years, I have acquired literally tons of books. My office, my house, and even my bedroom are all inundated with books. Some I remember buying, and some I remember receiving as gifts. I don’t remember whether I received or bought J.C. Ryle’s Thoughts for Young Men, but I do know this: God used it to permanently change me.
I have read and reread this book over and over and over again. I have shared it over and over and over again. I love the whole book, but particularly a section titled “How Young Men Turn Out Depends Largely on What They are Now.” As a twentysomething who passionately desired to know and please God, what I read changed me.
Another reason I want to encourage you is this: what young men will be, in all probability, depends on what they are now. Young men seem to forget this. . . . Why do I say all this? I say it because habits are hard to break. . . . Habits have long roots. If sin is allowed to make its home in your heart, it will not be evicted at your command. Habit becomes second nature; and its chains are like “a threefold cord (which) is not quickly broken.” . . . Habits, like trees, are strengthened by age. A child can bend an oak when it is still a young sapling; but a hundred men cannot root it up when it is a full-grown tree. . . . Habits of good or habits of evil are growing stronger in your heart each day. Every day you are either getting nearer to God, or further away. Every year that you continue to be unrepentant, the wall of division between you and heaven becomes higher and thicker; the gulf to be crossed becomes deeper and broader. Be afraid of the hardening effect of lingering in sin day after day! Now is the time to do something about it. (Thoughts for Young Men, 15, 17–18)
Through Ryle’s pen, God inflamed two desires in me that grew into holy habits in my Christian walk — one desire was for a healthy fear of my sin, and the other was a longing to please God.
Flee Sinful Habits
Life is directional, and walking the wrong way leads to deeper and deeper entanglements into sin. Like a child fearful of getting lost, I feared yanking my hand away from my Father’s and drifting away from him into sin. God motivated me through Ryle’s admonition to develop the habits of shunning folly and seeking wisdom, which come from fearing God.
“Holy habits are means of grace that fan the flame of your love for God and keep his love for you before your eyes.”
By the grace of God, I developed real transparent relationships and friendships where accountability was expected and practiced. God stirred my heart to flee from my former sinful habits rather than to compromise with them. He led me to seek, find, and listen to counsel from older and wise believers.
If you are an older man or woman reading this, I encourage you to seek out young men and women and teach them this truth. The eternal well-being of our souls depends on fighting sin by God’s grace rather than yielding to it and assuming that with God there is sin-permitting grace (Romans 6:1–2; 1 Thessalonians 4:1–8). Satan hisses his lie in every young believer’s ear that God’s laws are too harsh and sin is too delightful to reject. Tell them the truth! Sin enslaves and leads to death, but knowing God through Christ will immeasurably satisfy us more than any worldly gain can (Philippians 3:8). Therefore, no one can be too radical in putting to death habits that lead to sin (Matthew 5:29–30; Colossians 3:5).
Build Holy Habits
God also used Ryle to teach me the sanctifying power of holy habits. We experience this dynamic in all our relationships. We grow closer to someone or move further away from them depending on the habits we practice. Holy habits are means of grace that fan the flame of your love for God and keep his love for you before your eyes. Simply put, God gave me a passionate desire to experience him through his sanctifying means of grace.
I developed a habit of praying as soon as I woke up each morning. I committed to reading the Bible no matter how busy my schedule became. So when big school projects were due, midterms came around, and finals arrived, you’d still find me in the library at lunchtime, reading my Bible. As weeks turned into months, and months into years, and now years into decades, my commitments turned into lifelong habits. Those holy habits enabled me, through God’s grace, to grow in the knowledge of my God and his love for me.
“I marvel at how easily Christians neglect making fellowship a pillar habit in their lives.”
In addition to Sunday-morning worship, I also committed to attending Sunday school and a midweek Bible study. There I learned how to study my Bible. I learned theology. I learned key books of the Bible. I learned practical theologies, like how to share the gospel and how to disciple or lead a small group. I marvel at how easily Christians neglect making fellowship a pillar habit in their lives.
Consider 2 Timothy 2:22: “Flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace.” On the one hand, Paul commands Timothy as a young man to flee youthful passion and to pursue godly virtues. And then he encourages him not to do that alone, but to do so “along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” You see the point. To fail to make fellowship with godly believers an uncompromising habit is to forfeit a powerful means of grace that will help you fight against sin and pursue godliness. Young readers, I pray that you will be wise and listen as I add my testimony to Ryle’s exhortation.
Learn from a Dead Man
What I am saying about these habits isn’t a profound insight. Why would we expect the means of grace that sanctify us to be too complicated for a babe in Christ to understand and apply? God deals with us as his children and feeds us accordingly so that we can grow. What Ryle encourages his young readers to do is what the Scripture says the earliest believers did, devoting “themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
When I first read his life-changing book, it had already been well over a hundred years since Ryle had gone to be with the Lord. That didn’t hinder God from using his keenly crafted words to disciple this newly saved urban kid sitting in secular classrooms at UCLA. If Christ tarries another hundred years, I’m sure there will be countless more young Bobby Scotts out there who, as young believers, need to be confronted and exhorted. I pray that you and I will be faithful to join him in calling young men to these holy habits.