Monday, June 08, 2020

Anonymous Asks (96)

“How can I avoid the appearance of evil?”

Let me take a wild guess here: you read from the King James Version of the Bible.

Actually, it’s not really that wild a guess. If we use the very convenient BibleHub website to take a look at a broad spectrum of English translations of 1 Thessalonians 5:22 (which is where the phrase “the appearance of evil” originates), we find only six of the 28 versions listed there translate it that way, and three of those are King James variants. Of those six, the KJV is by far the most widely read, so this rendering of the verse is still very common today despite being more than a little misleading to modern readers.

Most other versions say something like “reject every kind of evil” (NIV), or “Abstain from every form of evil” (ESV, NASB). If we must have our verse in a more venerable English translation, Darby’s “hold aloof from every form of wickedness” may do the trick.

Every Form of Wickedness

Even the King James, properly understood, is not really telling its readers to fret about how other people respond to their actions. In their day, the KJV translators were saying the exact same thing that modern translations are saying with the words “form” and “kind”. They intended to convey something like “Avoid evil in every form it may manifest itself.” That is the sense in which they are using “appear”. Even the New King James reads, “Abstain from every form of evil.” When they retranslated the Textus Receptus in 1982, faithfulness to the source did not oblige them to continue to confuse us.

Evil manifests itself in many ways: in the things we say, see, hear and think; in the ambient culture around us; explicitly and implicitly. The Christian is to avoid evil when it presents itself bluntly and obviously, like in Game of Thrones, where rape, nudity, ultraviolence and hypersexualization (not to mention the complete absence of any redeeming storyline) were the order of the day. Run away from that sort of thing. But the Christian is also to avoid evil when it sneaks up on us and masquerades as goodness. A fine example of this technique of disguising Satan as an angel of light may be observed in Clint Eastwood’s 2004 film Million Dollar Baby, in which assisted suicide is sold to the viewer as a form of love with such hypnotic conviction that it is genuinely disturbing.

Tolerance is often thought noble, but it can be a very serious form of evil. A worldly perspective can be a form of evil, even when its impulses appear generous and loving.

Whatever form evil takes, whether it appeals to the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes or the pride of life, Christians are to resolutely avoid it. That is the actual meaning of 1 Thessalonians 5:22. It has nothing to do with how people perceive our actions at all.

On the One Hand ...

That said, is there a sense in which Christians need to be alert to how our actions affect others? Certainly there is. Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 both deal with the issue of the “weaker brother” or sister who may be stumbled by the things we do. Paul says, “If your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love ... do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God” and “Sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.” The idea is that there may be things I could do that are not wrong in themselves and which I feel free to do as a Christian, and that would never come between me and God, but could seriously damage the conscience of a fellow Christian who believes them to be wrong and begins to practice them only because he sees me engaging in them.

That would be a case of a genuine “appearance of evil”, where no wicked thing is actually being done, but an immature onlooker believes it is. Such things are certainly to be avoided out of love for others. Paul’s remedy is to pay attention to those around us. Take care who is watching, and govern yourself accordingly, even if it means not enjoying something you would normally feel fine doing. One way to do this is by really getting to know our brothers and sisters in Christ, so that we have a good sense of what kinds of conduct may be hurtful to them. If you know your dinner guest has a personal problem with alcohol, simply don’t serve it; or if you’re out at the restaurant together, don’t order it. You won’t expire from missing out on a glass of wine, but you might save a friendship.

... and On the Other ...

On the other hand, there are people who will use a twisted form of the appeal to conscience to try to manipulate Christians into doing what they want rather than what is right. Isaiah warns of people “who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” This sort of inversion is very common today. I have already mentioned tolerance, which can be a cover for self-righteousness, cowardice or compromise, but there are many ways this sort of evil can manifest itself, and all of them pretend to a sort of nobility. For example, the Pharisees in the first century encouraged giving money “to God” that should really have been used for the support of aging parents. The practice of corban had the appearance of goodness, but was actually a wicked dereliction of duty ... really, it was robbing one’s own parents. Then there are all the ways in which Christians who refuse to embrace the degraded morals of our present generation are called haters by the Pharisees of modernity, the very people from whom our societies are most at risk.

In cases like this, the Christian who frets that he will be called “prudish”, “uptight”, “exclusionary”, “unloving”, “behind the times” or — my very favorite — “un-Christlike” for being faithful to the word of God needs to recognize that sometimes getting a bad reaction from the masses is a very good thing indeed: “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.” Inversion is to be expected, and we ought not to surrender to it or be intimidated by it.

Interestingly, you may have noticed that the people who are quickest to call you un-Christlike are all-but-completely ignorant of what Christ was really like. One of the most common accusations against the Lord Jesus was that he had a demon. Needless to say, our Lord did not waste a lot of time apologizing for giving a bunch of upside-down thinkers the wrong impression! In fact, there was actually no way to please them. Jesus spoke about his critics and said, “John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ ”

A Good Conscience Before God

There is no good way to please such people. Don’t waste your time. They are fault-finders, naysayers and belligerents to the core. They are looking for an excuse not to listen to the truth, not offering any authentic concern about Christian conduct. Recognizing this, the believer needs to maintain a good conscience before God and not worry too much about whether following Christ happens to incite hatred or attract criticism.

At least that was the pattern established by the Lord Jesus and his apostles. We can do worse than to follow their lead.

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