“Abstain from all appearances of evil.”
Stay away from what is bad
It can only make you frustrated and sad.
Hold on to all that is virtuous
To earn the privilege of being one of God’s righteous.
As a child, I was fascinated with rocks and rock formations. I longed to become a geologist one day. Wherever my family went, I was always on a quest for unusual rocks: from the hills of Maracas in the north to the mangroves of Galfa Bay in Cedros, south west Trinidad.
My father was the third of fourteen children born to the Sinanan clan from a tiny fishing village in Bonasse, Cedros. This meant that many of our vacations took us to the beaches there. My least favourite beach was Galfa Bay; this bay was also the most fascinating from a geological point of view.
I considered Galfa, as it is familiarly called, to be my least favorite beach for several reasons: the beach was situated at the end of a long, poorly developed and poorly maintained road; the road passed through a forested area and a coconut plantation; and the entire area including the beach was usually desolate.
The beach at that time was untouched; there was no sign of development. There was not even a car park; there were no concessionary stands; no washroom facilities; and no lifeguard. The water tended to be rough, with many waves. In retrospect it may have actually been quite pristine- a good place to relax and enjoy the serenity!
My fascination with Galfa was not the water but the beach and all it contained. There were outcrops of rocks, evidence of severe coastal erosion, miles of mangrove, many inland pools at low tide, a fresh water river flowing into the sea and lots of driftwood, sea shells and “chip chip”. Despite the uninviting appearance of the water itself, Galfa Beach was a most appealing place to my childish imagination.
Here I could pretend to be the only inhabitant on a lost island – the beach rarely had other visitors. Alternatively I could be an explorer on the ‘cliffs’ or in the mangroves. I could be a miner or rock collector or collect shells and driftwood. I could be anything I wanted; anybody I imagined.
Perhaps my most frequent fantasy was the one in which I was a gold miner. I would walk along the rocky parts of the coast, by myself, collecting grey rocks which were embedded with shiny, yellow nuggets. I loved to pretend that I had struck gold! The very first time I saw the rock I really did think it was precious metal but I was told by my father that it was “fool’s gold”. That information however, did not deter me from my pretense. I searched fervently for these rocks as if I were on a serious mission.
Fool’s gold is actually an ore of iron called iron sulphide. The chemical formula for it is FeS and the common name is iron pyrites. While the ore actually is used in a variety of ways, including being used to manufacture sulphuric acid at one time, it is in no way related to gold; it does not have as high a value as the real thing.
Collecting the fool’s gold was fun and exciting for me, but that was all I could do with the “gold”. I was not allowed to take it home with me. My mother considered it to be junk, worthy only to be thrown away. There was no value or worth attached to it so I was not allowed to keep it. It would be equivalent to opening someone’s garbage and bringing it home.
Upon reflection, I realize that what we are being instructed to do in 1Thessalonians 5: 22 could be compared to my mother’s instructions about the fool’s gold. It appears to be gold but it is not and so I needed to discard it. God reminds us in this passage that we are to refrain from what is not good. Some theologians interpret it to mean that we must stay away from actions that may not seem wrong but which could appear to be wrong to other persons. Others interpret it to mean stay away from all forms of evil. There is a difference.
Abstaining from the appearance of evil could mean that we stay away from things that are not morally incorrect but if we are associated with such things it could seem as though we are approving or endorsing such actions. For example if you consider the consumption of alcohol to be unacceptable, you will not partake in drinking it.
This interpretation of the passage takes it a step further; it suggests that not only should you not drink it but you should not be in attendance where it is being served nor should you be in the company of others who are drinking it. To the casual onlooker it could seem as though you are either also drinking alcohol or that you approve of other persons drinking it. A seed of doubt or confusion is planted in the onlooker’s mind.
1 Corinthians 8:9 clears up any misconceptions: “But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to them that are weak.” If your faith is strong and you are aware of what is wrong or right, then you have an obligation to others who may not be as strong in the faith as you are; the obligation is to disassociate completely with what is a contentious issue. By so doing you remove any illusion of right that could be interpreted by your actions and which could cause another to commit an actual sin.
To make it clearer in 1 Corinthians 8, reference is made to the eating of food offered to idols. Christians are instructed to have only one God, to worship no other god but Him. Eating food offered in other religious practices is not prohibited. However even though you may be aware of this and eat without indulging in the worship , a brother or sister observing you may not understand this.
They may not know that eating food thus offered is not acceptable. They may believe that you ate the food in approval of such worship and this could lead them to break God’s commandment of not worshiping idols. To prevent such a situation it is better to abstain from eating in such an instance.
This interpretation is quite radical and very demanding. If it were possible to clearly distinguish what is right and wrong then it could be easier to follow. However it has been used to condemn many acts that are accepted by one group but rejected by another. If it is followed without cogitation one would live with blinders on.
There is another interpretation which reads as “abstain from all forms of evil”. No evil is acceptable. This is easier to understand and easier to apply, but is it better? The preceding passage, 1 Thessalonians 5: 21 perhaps helps to shed some light: “Hold fast to what is good.” I think that the most sensible reflection about this passage I have come across suggests that we abstain from all evil and, in the event of doubt we err on the side of virtue.
As an educator for over twenty years, repeatedly I have found that the so-called troublemakers tend to find themselves in a common predicament. The years change, the names and faces change but the predicament remains constant. Those who have developed a reputation for either instigating or participating in mischief eventually find themselves in a situation where a transgression occurred which was not part of their repertoire. They are usually outraged that the blame is directed at them before anyone else. No amount of explanations or tears of frustration are sufficient to convince those in authority that they are innocent this time.
The consequence of having been previously associated with wrongdoing is that it makes it so much more convincing to believe any other suspicion of ill intent. Naturally this creates a vicious cycle: the accused was trying to turn over a new leaf; the authorities lay blame for a new situation not caused by the accused; and this caused the accused to become frustrated with the efforts to be good. The point is that staying away from all forms of evil as well as not being around while evil is being committed lends credibility to a defense – hold fast only to what is good.
We are called as Christians to lead by example. Our lives must reflect goodness, mercy, humility and gentleness. We live in an imperfect world so that conflict and immorality are unavoidable; how we respond to such situations depends upon our level of commitment, our fear of the Lord and our awareness of what is right and wrong. 1 Corinthians 8 makes it abundantly explicit that those who are more evolved as Christians have a duty to set the tone for those who are less evolved.
For example as a teacher in a secondary school, it would be wrong for me to observe a child wearing the incorrect uniform and do nothing about it. By ignoring the breach in the school’s rule, I convey the impression that it is acceptable to bend the rules. Had I not been a teacher, which automatically puts me in a position of knowing the rules, then my inaction could possibly have been due to ignorance of the rule. My higher awareness demands that I take positive action.
Similarly those who are aware of God’s word and His instructions have a divine obligation to follow His commands. His word tells us that one who is ignorant of His commands and sins may still be forgiven once they repent. The one who knows what ought to be done but deliberately does not do it will not have that privilege. It is better to not know than to know and not keep His word.
The devout Christian ought to be discernible through his actions – all his actions. This means from as simple as: style of dress, manner of speaking and conduct; to being regular and punctual at work or school; remaining where we are supposed to be and not taking advantage of any privilege afforded as a result of our status; and our acts of service and worship.
Let us therefore continually strive to acquire knowledge of what God requires of us. Let us be living examples of His grace. Let us try within our human limitations to abstain from all appearances of evil and hold fast to what is good.