If it wasn't for J.C. Ryle's straightforward advice in 'Thoughts for Young Men,' I might have made some big mistakes.
When I was a young man, I was blessed to have a few godly mentors and leaders who showed me how to take my faith seriously. They challenged me to get into God's Word, to serve others and to grow up in the faith. One of the things I noticed about all of these men was that they were readers. They regularly mentioned things they were learning or had learned from good books. By the grace of God, I slowly began to catch their hunger for learning and began to read some of those same books. I'd seen the way these books had shaped them and wanted it for myself. I owe them each a huge debt of gratitude for showing me where to find so much wisdom.
Two of the books that shaped me most were Holiness and Thoughts for Young Men by J.C. Ryle. During his life, Ryle had been a great leader, great preacher and great writer. Three days after his death, one familiar with his life said publicly, "Few men in the nineteenth century did as much for God, for truth, and for righteousness, among the English speaking race, and in the world, as our late Bishop." Reading Ryle was like pouring gasoline on my little spark of faith. I still read and re-read him to this day.
Ryle's short book Thoughts for Young Men significantly challenged me at a particularly vulnerable time in my life. At first, his frank, blunt style was tougher than I preferred, but by the end, he'd won me over. Through warnings and challenges, I realized he was actually caring for my soul. He was protecting me from pain and leading me toward greater happiness in God.
Ryle began his book for young men describing the dangers many young men in his day faced. The first time I read this list, I wrote in the margin, "Over 100 years and as relevant as ever…" Straightforward, stern and so accurate, Ryle clearly understood young men. Here are four of the five dangers he outlines in his book.
Ryle first warned me against the danger of pride, or thinking I was good enough on my own. As Ryle wrote, "Pride makes us rest satisfied with ourselves, thinking we are good enough as we are, and stops our ears against advice." Like many teenagers, I remember thinking my parents were crazy, but Ryle reminded me, "Age gives experience, and therefore deserves respect." Even though some of their rules seemed unfair, Ryle opened me to the idea that I should respect them as wiser than myself.
I remember asking God to help me see the wisdom of my parents. A few weeks later, I wanted to use the car for something but wasn't allowed. As they braced for another argument, I said, "I don't agree, but I believe you are wiser than me, so I will accept this." They were shocked. From then on, the tone — and result — of future conversations were shaped by this moment of maturity.
2. Loving Pleasure
Ryle next warns young men against the love of pleasure. There are many ways that pleasure can lead young men to sin, but Ryle drilled in specifically on sensual pleasure. He reminded me that the Christian life is often described in the Scriptures as a battle: "Abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul" (1 Peter 2:11). Ryle explained, "Youth is the time when our passions are strongest, and like unruly children, cry most loudly for indulgence." This description of the fight led me to join an accountability group with other guys. We got together every week and prayed for the strength against temptations we were facing. We locked arms and learned to fight sin together.
Ryle also warned against the danger of not thinking deeply about the important issues of life. He warned that young men can too often be silly and light-hearted, struggling to think about and discuss serious issues. He reminded that the Word of God often calls us to "consider our ways" and think carefully about the way we live and the outcome of our way of life.
Ryle offers a sobering caution here:
Not thinking is one simple reason why thousands of souls are thrown away forever into the Lake of Fire. Men will not consider, will not look ahead, will not look around them, will not reflect on the end of their present course, and the sure consequences of their present days, and wake up to find they are damned for a lack of thinking. Young men, none are in more danger of this than yourselves. You know little of the perils around you, and so you are careless how you walk. You hate the trouble of serious, quiet thinking, and so you make wrong decisions and bring upon yourselves much sorrow.
I believe it was Ryle who first gave me permission to be serious about deeper issues in life. The Christian life includes many sobering truths, and it can be easy for young men to ignore these and live for the next fun experience and good time. But Ryle taught me to include moments of sober reflections and challenge others to do the same. I will never know how many mistakes I didn't make because I learned to think soberly and seriously about their consequences.
4. Fearing Man's Opinion
Lastly, Ryle warns young men to think for themselves. He observed that too many young men go with the flow and never resist the beliefs of the crowd. He taught young men to learn to think for themselves and not be afraid to disagree with those who are wrong. Ryle warns, "It is terrible to observe the power which the fear of man has over most minds, and especially over the minds of the young. Few seem to have any opinions of their own, or to think for themselves. Like dead fish, they go with the stream and tide."
I kept Ryle's words close to me as an editor of my high school's weekly newspaper. I occasionally wrote about my faith and was sometimes criticized for using the paper to push my views on the student body. But as Ryle taught, I tried to walk the line between compromising the truth and graciously disagreeing with others. Real men think deeply about what they believe and are not afraid to represent their views, even when others might not agree or even disapprove.
Avoiding the Dangers
Ryle also offers wise guidance to those who would keep themselves from these dangers.
1. Become Mighty in the Scriptures
Ryle describes the Bible as a merciful provision, a map for life and all that we need to make us peaceful, holy and happy. Most young men are satisfied with a relatively small knowledge of the Scriptures and, therefore, enjoy very little of the benefits it could bring into their lives. They have not learned to feed their souls on the Word of God. Ryle encourages young men to read the Bible first and most.
Young men, have you made a habit of reading God's Word?
2. Become Mighty in Prayer
Prayer is the means through which God gives many of His precious gifts. Through prayer, saints obtain renewal, purification, sanctification, strength, happiness, encouragement, enlightenment, instruction, direction and guidance. Ryle says it well, "Young men, be sure no time is so well spent as that which a man spends on his knees." In our day of televisions, iPhones and the Internet, nothing is more important than carving out regular, intentional time for prayer. In neglecting prayer, we deprive ourselves of great blessings God has for us.
Young men, have you made a regular habit of prayer?
3. Become Mighty in Community
Ryle stresses the importance of cultivating relationships with other faithful Christians. He warned that it is often harmful to associate with those who have no regard for God's commands. He gives these tests for good friends:
Good friends love the Bible.
Good friends keep us from evil.
Good friends speak an appropriate word at the right time.
Good friends incline our thoughts to God.
Good friends pray for us.
Good friends encourage us.
Ryle instructs young men to think carefully about who they choose as friends. While it's important to be courteous to all, we should be careful who we open our hearts to, namely, only those who pursue godliness.
Young men, have you made a habit of building relationships with others faithful Christians?
4. Become Mighty in Jesus
Lastly, and most importantly, Ryle encourages young men to grow in their knowledge of Jesus Christ. We must increasingly know Jesus Christ, His mercy, His grace, His power, His majesty, His wisdom, His love, His severity, His wrath and His jealousy. Ryle calls Christ "the cornerstone of Christianity," without which our religion is as useless as a watch that does not keep time. Ryle encouraged young men to enjoy Jesus Christ as their peace, strength, life, consolation, physician, shepherd, savior and God.
Young men, have you made a habit of growing in your relationship with Jesus?
I recommend studying J.C. Ryle's work Thoughts for Young Men in its entirety and giving copies to the young men in your life. It's almost too good to condense. Ryle offers young men the caring advice, stern warning and godly perspective we should all look for from our spiritual mentors. His words – while intended for young men – can be beneficial to all. It's one of the books I regularly reread.
Ryle encourages me to slow down and think carefully about my life. He has often kept me from sin, kept me in my Bible, kept me on my knees and kept me pursuing my relationship with Jesus. May he do the same for you.
Copyright 2012 Andrew Hess. All rights reserved.