“Abstain from all appearance of evil.” 1 Thess. 5:22
If you said of me that I practice abstinence, you would be telling the truth, but it would only be a basic description and in reality, ambiguous, depending on what the word may mean to different people.
The word “abstinence” is not found in the Bible, but you will find “abstain” in five places. Two are in Acts 15:20 and 29, where the new Gentile Believers were given the only qualifications needed to prove their right to be considered bona fide followers of Jesus Christ. This included abstinence from eating animals used for idol worship in the Temple and engaging in fornication (vv. 19-20). Paul warns Titus about hypocritical heretics who preach a false asceticism that forbids marriage and commands people to “abstain from meats” (1 Tim. 4:1-3). Then in 1 Thessalonians 4:3, Paul reiterates the truth that fornication is never the will of God for any Believer, anywhere, anytime, under any circumstances and should always be on our “abstinence” list. Peter begs us in 1 Peter 2:11, as soldiers of the Cross living in foreign territory, to abstain from fleshly lusts, that war against the soul.”
Now to our verse in First Thessalonians five. Let me first say, there’s nothing unclear about the abstinence part. We all know it means to avoid something or someone, just walk away. However, it’s a different story with “evil,” which would seem to me includes different things to different people. Does it go past questionable, or even bad, to something more sinister? I’m not sure. I do know, in verse fifteen of the chapter, the “evil” is retaliation against another person who has wronged us. Just to give you some idea, you’ll find the word 613 times in the King James Bible. Good luck compiling a complete, definitive list!
The Bible is full of examples of people who were accused of offending others’ moral sensibilities. Our Lord was one of them. He was especially censured for keeping questionable company — harlots, publicans, and sinners, etc., and engaging in questionable practices, like breaking Sabbath rules and refusing to condemn a (repentant) adulterous woman. The fact is, I doubt any of us can claim to never having done anything that would cause anyone, anywhere, to question our dedication. Our goal should be to live our lives in the least offensive way possible, while, at the same time, maintain the integrity of our own God-centered conscience.
The point I’m hoping to drive home is something any of us who’ve tried to lose weight knows to be true: Abstinence is easier and quicker than moderation; but it’s shorter-lived; and, in the same way, it’s easier and takes far less Spiritual maturity to just follow someone else’s rules than to search the Scriptures, listen to the Spirit of God, and find our own. I agree with what Elisabeth Elliot has said in her highly helpful book, The Liberty of Obedience. “Had God given us a minute prescription for our behavior, no high development of individual character would have been necessary to meet it. He need not have mentioned discernment.” I have always been challenged by Paul’s admonition in Philippians 4:5. “Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.” I take from this that I should be known more for my moderation than for my abstinence, especially as I anticipate seeing the Lord. How about this for a working formula:
Abstinence is some things; moderation in all others