Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity. Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership. Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you. 1 Tim 4:12-16 (NKJV)
I think that this passage would be more easily understood if the Apostle Paul had written it more like this: "If you act mature in what you say, and in the way you live; and if you set an example for others to follow in love, in spirit, in faith and in purity; everyone will respect you even though you are young." In other words, Paul was telling Timothy to live in such a way as to command the respect of others.
It is true that disrespect is sometimes unearned. People disrespect or despise people for a myriad of reasons. They might not like another person's social economic background, or gender, or educational background, or culture, or race, or national heritage, or religion, or age...the list is really endless as well as nonsensical. You can challenge their preconceived prejudice by proving their assumptions wrong. By being an example in so many important areas of conduct, Timothy would not be giving any room to his critics to "despise his youth!"
Certainly, no one is perfect; however our progress needs to be evident to all. When I was a young man my grandfather told me, "Build your reputation by living right, this will make it more difficult for your enemies to turn people against you and it will also make it easier for your friends to defend you." It was great advice! I'm sure that we all have our critics, but by setting a Godly example and living Godly lives, we are literally taking away their ammunition and silencing the voice of the accuser.
Author's Note: Generally, when this portion of scripture is taught, the emphasis is focused on the issue of "being young." However, Paul is not simply addressing the problem of older people disrespecting younger people, he is giving young Timothy the solution to this very real problem. The solution? Be an example--live right--give no ammunition to those that would despise you on the basis of your age. While it is true that people tend to gain in wisdom as they grow older, it does not negate the fact that some young people make wise decisions, walk in maturity, and provide an example for others to follow. RJ