If you’re reading this article, then you have probably heard something that refers to 1 Thessalonians 5:22. Depending on the translation, it instructs to us to abstain from the “appearance of evil” (KJV), “every kind of evil” (NIV and NLT), or “every form of evil” (NRSV, NKJV, and ESV). You may notice that we’ve got the difference between “appearance” and “every form/kind” of evil. Both translations are fine, but practically speaking, these translations may make a difference in how we apply this verse to our lives.
“Avoid every form/kind of evil.” (NRSV, NKJV, ESV/ NIV, NLT) That seems pretty self-explanatory, right? We want to avoid evil—pretty straightforward. Christians are called to run away from sin and the temptation to sin (1 Corinthians 6:18; 2 Timothy 2:22). Doing that helps us to stay holy and focused on giving God glory in our lives.
“Abstain from all appearance of evil.” (KJV) “Appearance” implies that we should not only stay away from evil, but even to the point of avoiding the appearance of evil. For example, if you were to hang out with the circle of kids smoking behind the school, even if you weren’t smoking, someone might see you and think that you’re smoking too.
Which is the correct meaning?
Well, there’s a lot of debate on the “real” meaning of 1 Thessalonians 5:22 actually. The Greek word originally used for “appearance,” “form,” or “kind” can mean any of these things. In fact, the same word is used in 2 Corinthians 5:7, but it is usually translated there as the word “sight.”
The problem with using the word “appearance” is that we become slaves to worrying about what other people are thinking. Since we can’t control what other people do in their own thoughts, this can get to be very stressful very quickly! How can we possibly control our behavior enough that no one will ever think that we are doing wrong—ever? How can we always make sure that people take our words for what we really mean and not think otherwise?
Simply put, we can’t. Misunderstandings are a part of life, and sometimes it happens even when we are doing the most innocent of things. It happens when people travel to other cultures all the time! One gesture or saying gets misinterpreted, and before you know it, you’ve offended somebody.
You can’t please everybody.
If we look at the whole context of this verse, which would include 1 Thessalonians 5:12-21, then we’ll find Paul’s basic rundown of how the Thessalonian Christians should be living “in a manner worthy of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:12). What does that mean?
Since we can’t control what others think, we really shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about what it is they’re thinking. ☺ Our focus should instead be on getting to know God, serving Him, and living righteously for Him. That’s a manner worthy of God!
In that very same letter about avoiding evil, Paul said, “Just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts” (1 Thessalonians 2:4). In the end, God is the one who is going to judge your works (Ecclesiastes 12:14)—not the people who want to judge you on earth.
You are free to avoid evil.
We do have lots of freedoms to do various things as guided by the Holy Spirit. Still, as believers, we are also told that while we can do a lot of things, not everything is good for us (1 Corinthians 10:23). And when we do enjoy our freedoms, we can’t allow them to hurt another believer’s faith (1 Corinthians 8:9). When it comes to non-Christians, we should be salt and light to them (Matthew 5:13-16) because we have been set apart from the world by God (2 Corinthians 6:17). We should be a good example of a follower of Christ in our outward words and actions.
There’s no need to get all legalistic about what someone else may or may not think is evil or wrong. Likewise, we have to judge our own hearts and motives (Matthew 7:1-5) before we try to judge someone else. We do still need to be aware that the world is watching and that we should be supportive of other believers (Ephesians 5:11). But we shouldn’t flirt with temptations that could cause us to sin (Romans 13:14).
Basically, if you’re living your life in God’s light, by the power of the Holy Spirit, then you’re doing everything right; it doesn’t matter what everybody else thinks. ☺