1 Thessalonians 5:22
Abstain from all appearance of evil.
1. The "appearance" of material things does not depend entirely upon their form, but largely upon the medium through which, the light in which, and the eye by which they are seen. Some men are colour blind. Some men have the jaundice. Thoughts and feelings are still more liable to be misapprehended, because they must be addressed by one soul to another through the senses — the eye, the ear, the touch, by the pressure of the hand, by speech, by gesture, by writing. A thought or emotion, therefore, suffers a double refraction in passing from one mind to another. And thus it comes to pass that even in communities composed of most serene and wise intellects and loving hearts, the appearance does not always match and represent the ideal.
2. The difficulty of the rule as it stands in our version is this, that there is nothing so good but it may appear evil. To the evil all things seem evil, and you cannot help that. Was there ever a virtue that did not seem a vice to a man's enemy? Does not his liberality appear prodigality, his economy parsimony, his cheerfulness levity, his conscientiousness puritanism, his temperance asceticism, his courage foolhardiness, his devotion hypocrisy? How is it possible to avoid such judgments as these unless a man could have the whole world for his friends? Can the heavenly Father demand more of you than that you really be true and faithful and pure? Must you also fritter your strength away in striving to make your good life seem good in the eyes of perverse men?
3. The attempt to gain the favourable verdict of all men is not only impracticable, but it is demoralizing. It occupies a man with appearances, and not realities; with his reputation, and not with his character. There can be devised no shorter cut to hypocrisy than a constant effort to "abstain from all appearance of evil."
4. What, then, did the apostle mean? The difficulties of the text are removed by the translation "abstain from evil of every form." The lesson is total abstinence from what is really evil. The complementary thought is that evil can never be good by a mere change of appearance. Let us look at some of the ways in which we may follow what is really evil because its appearance is good, and show how Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.
I. UNITY AND UNIFORMITY. The most important thing about any man is his faith. A thorough belief in a real truth is life: it will reproduce itself in the outward action. How easy it is here to find real evil that is apparently good. To strive to compel men to uniformity seems a goud, whereas it is really an evil. One may even quote Scripture in justification. "One faith." A man may forget that the essential principle may be one, while the phenomenal presentation may be manifold. All compulsory uniformity is mischievous. The inquisition produced cruelties among good men, and hypocrisies among bad. In its essence truth has always unity, in its development seldom uniformity. Some think it would be delightful for all men to see truth at the same angle; but if there were but two men who should profess to do it, it would be either a mistake, or a falsehood. Give over the effort to secure ecclesiastical uniformity. Let grace be natural, and nature gracious. Give room for God in man, and in the Church as you do in nature.
II. LIBERTY AND LICENTIOUSNESS. There is something very captivating in "liberty." The very word sounds open and breezy. Liberty has been made a queen and a goddess. More money has been spent for her, and more blood shed for her, than for any other. When one recollects the history of the race, one is not surprised that when Madame Roland was going to her doom, she should have saluted the statue of Liberty with the bitter exclamation, "O Liberty, what outrages are perpetrated in thy name!" It is exceedingly difficult to draw the line between licentiousness and liberty, and hence the danger is greater. True freedom of intellect and heart and life consists in voluntary and exact obedience to the law of God. A compulsory obedience is mere hypocrisy. An inexact obedience is a perpetual weakness. Every step taken in the statutes of the Lord with a free will is a step of freedom. David perceived this when he said, "I will walk at liberty, for I seek Thy precepts." But, the moment a man lifts his foot from the law of the Lord, and sets it down outside, he places it in the nets of evil, and is ensnared. But the modern and atheistic idea of liberty is the absence of all moral law, or the refusal to be controlled by law. In other words, it is licentiousness. Avoid it, no matter what its appearance. How vast are the hull and rigging of the largest vessel on the ocean, and how small is the helm; and yet that little helm turns that great bulk whithersoever the helmsman listeth. Suppose the great vessel should say, "I will not endure this impertinent interference, this incessant control," and should throw the helmsman overboard, and unship both helm and rudder. She would be free then, would she not? Yes, but a free prey to all winds and waves. Is that the freedom to be desired? And yet that is the idea of this age. The State, the Church, the family are to be overthrown, for men must be free! It is pitiful and painful to see human beings struggling to be free, to be hated, to starve, to die, to be damned. Avoid this evil. Remember that no splendour of dress can make a leper clean, and no brilliancy of appearance can make an evil good.
III. JUSTICE AND INTOLERANCE. The dogma of infallibility is not a mere ecclesiastical development. Its seed is in every heart. If we are unconscious of it, who does not act upon it? We pronounce judgment as if there could be no appeal, and act upon such sentences as final. Nay, more. There is a disposition on the part of many to go beyond, and keep surveillance of society, making themselves general detectives. They are often heresy hunters, self-constituted health boards, enforcing social sanitary regulations of their own. The plain fact is, they are censorious. The reason they did not "abstain from" this "evil" is, because it has the "appearance" of good. It seems to evince a high moral sense. It looks like loyalty to truth, and unselfish. The man is not seeking to be popular! He is a martyr to his sense of right? It is good and grand! He applauds himself. He feels that others ought to applaud him. He undertakes to execute his own sentences. The condemned is treated like a leper, like a lost man. All that is done that the purity of the judge shall be evinced. Men and women seem to think that kindness to a sinner is endorsement of, and participation in his sin. Hence the evil of social ostracism. A man that has fallen has so few helps to rise, and a woman who has fallen has no aids but what God gives. "Abstain from this evil" of censoriousness, whatever appearance it may have. It is very easy to get up the requisite amount of virtuous indignation, but it is difficult to keep indignation virtuous. While burning the sins I ought to hate, it will soon begin to burn the sinner whom I ought to love.
IV. GENEROSITY AND PRODIGALITY. The latter is an evil under any name and in every guise. It leads men to be careless and lazy about their expenditures. Because there are so many easy givers, there are so many easy beggars. It is injurious to give to the undeserving as it is injurious to withhold from those who deserve. The man who walks through the streets talking or thinking, and pulls something out of his pocket for every beggar without looking the applicant in the face, or recollecting him ten minutes after, is not charitable. He is a thriftless prodigal. True charity, and true liberality, and true generosity know how much, and to whom, and why, they gave; not in remembrance of self-complaisance, but that they may see how much more they can do. Abstain from the evil of prodigality which has the appearance of liberality.
V. ECONOMY AND STINGINESS. The grip of selfishness on money is the vice that makes a man feel that it is better ninety-nine worthy cases suffer than that one unworthy case be helped. It is a stone-blind vice. Men know when they are liars, thieves, murderers, but they do not know when they are covetous. Every sin committed by man against man has been admitted by some one who was guilty, except two; and one of them is covetousness. It puts on so good an "appearance!" It is called among men prudence, economy, thrift, any word which glosses over the inner viciousness. It was so in the time of David, who said, "Men will praise thee when thou doest well to thyself." But "abstain" from this "evil" of doing so well for yourself that you can do nothing for others, and remember that the Lord will praise thee when they doest well to another.
VI. INDEPENDENCE AND CONTEMPT FOR APPEARANCES. We are not to do a thing that is wrong because it has the appearance of right in the eyes of many, and we are bound to do good, however it may seem to others; but we are also to see to it that our "good be not evil spoken of." There is in some men a swaggering boastfulness of independence of the opinion of others, of determination to do just what they think right, and of regardlessness of the feelings of others. They think it looks well. There is an appearance of stern virtue in all this; of character; of independence. Any voluntary hazarding of the appearance of evil is most foolish, if not criminal. No man has a right on any pretence to "give a just offence to the moral sentiments" of the community.
(C. F. Deems, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Abstain from all appearance of evil.