Abstinence has long been associated with religious asceticism. This practice of strict self-denial as a measure of spiritual discipline conjures up the picture of plainly clad monks or nuns refraining from all pleasures of life as they sanctimoniously perform religious duties. Although the monastic lifestyle is not as "popular" as in the past, certain religious orders and individuals still retreat to remote places to pare their lives to the bare minimum.
Most societies for millennia have scowled at the very mention of refraining from various human desires. In fact, asceticism is far more often an exception in man's behavior. Human nature tends to go to extremes, but a person is more likely to overindulge than deny himself.
This raises questions for a Christian. Is a person worldly if he does not abstain from pleasure with monk-like dedication? Is asceticism right or wrong? Should a Christian abstain from more than acts of sin?
The Roman world had its various ascetic movements, and Paul and the other apostles had to deal with converts who came from them. The Bible has a significant amount to say on the subject of abstinence.
Ensign magazine published an article by Robert Layton about an ordeal he experienced at a school meeting. The article, "What About Abstinence?" quoted below, has since circulated on the Internet among advocates of teaching abstinence in public schools:
I was holding a notice from my 13-year-old son's school announcing a meeting to preview the new course in sexuality. Parents could examine the curriculum and take part in an actual lesson presented exactly as it would be given to the students. When I arrived at the school, I was surprised to discover only about a dozen parents there. As we waited for the presentation, I thumbed through page after page of instructions in the prevention of pregnancy or disease. I found abstinence mentioned only in passing.
When the teacher arrived with the school nurse, she asked if there were any questions. I asked why abstinence did not play a noticeable part in the material. What happened next was shocking. There was a great deal of laughter, and someone suggested that if I thought abstinence had any merit, I should go back to burying my head in the sand.
The teacher and the nurse said nothing as I drowned in a sea of embarrassment. My mind had gone blank, and I could think of nothing to say. The teacher explained to me that the job of the school was to teach "facts," and the home was responsible for moral training. I sat in silence for the next 20 minutes as the course was explained.
The other parents seemed to give their unqualified support to the materials. "Donuts at the back," announced the teacher during the break.
"I'd like you to put on the name tags we have prepared—they're right by the donuts—and mingle with the other parents." Everyone moved to the back of the room.
As I watched them affixing their name tags and shaking hands, I sat deep in thought. I was ashamed that I had not been able to convince them to include a serious discussion of abstinence in the materials. I uttered a silent prayer for guidance. My thoughts were interrupted by the teacher's hand on my shoulder. "Won't you join the others, Mr. Layton?" The nurse smiled sweetly at me. "The donuts are good." "Thank you, no," I replied.
"Well, then, how about a name tag? I'm sure the others would like to meet you." "Somehow I doubt that," I replied. "Won't you please join them?" she coaxed. Then I heard a still, small voice whisper, "Don't go." The instruction was unmistakable. "I'll just wait here," I said.
When the class was called back to order, the teacher looked around the long table and thanked everyone for putting on name tags. She ignored me. Then she said, "Now we're going to give you the same lesson we'll be giving your children. Everyone please peel off your name tags." I watched in silence as the tags came off. "Now, then, on the back of one of the tags, I drew a tiny flower. Who has it, please?"
The gentleman across from me held it up. "Here it is!" "All right," she said. "The flower represents disease. Do you recall with whom you shook hands?" He pointed to a couple of people. "Very good," she replied. "The handshake in this case represents intimacy. So the two people you had contact with now have the disease." There was laughter and joking among the parents.
The teacher continued, "And whom did the two of you shake hands with?" The point was well taken, and she explained how this lesson would show students how quickly disease is spread. "Since we all shook hands, we all have the disease."
It was then that I heard the still, small voice again. "Speak now," it said, "but be humble." I noted wryly the latter admonition, then rose from my chair. I apologized for any upset I might have caused earlier, congratulated the teacher on an excellent lesson that would impress the youths, and concluded by saying I had only one small point I wished to make.
"Not all of us were infected," I said. "One of us . . . abstained."
We can learn several lessons from this example. The most obvious one, of course, is that Mr. Layton's ordeal showed the benefit of abstinence in sexual matters and disease. This becomes especially significant when, as in American schools, more than half of teen- and college-age students are sexually active.
What It Is To Abstain
Abstain means to refrain deliberately and often with an effort of self-denial from an action or practice. We know that God specifically commands humankind to abstain from idolatry, sexual immorality, drunkenness and other sins. Acts 15:20, 29 instructs the Gentiles to abstain from idolatry, sexual immorality, consuming strangled things and blood. I Peter 2:11 minces no words in telling us that we are to "abstain from fleshly lusts." These sins of the flesh, familiar to the unconverted person, should not be found among the practices of a Christian.
I Timothy 4:3 warns us that, in the latter times, Satan will try to influence people to abstain from everything from marriage to foods. In a broad sense we certainly see this today. Fad diets are big business and starvation diets offer a quick but damaging solution to obesity. Some diets may work well for a short time, but can have damaging effects if followed over a longer period. Everybody seems to have an opinion about which diet is best. Repeatedly, a balanced nutritional diet using biblical principles and God's dietary laws proves to be best. However, man "knows better" and develops innumerable books, articles and advertisements to promote the "one" diet that allows a person to eat anything and as much of it as he wants—or that allows him to eat little or nothing. This doctor competing against that doctor recommends a whole spectrum of diets. Sometimes, the promoters of these fad diets remove only the weight of money from their participants waiting for results.
Theological commentators overwhelmingly and narrowly comment on abstaining from alcohol while neglecting the abstinence from other sins. Many, being conservative Protestants, see alcoholism as one of the most obvious and detrimental sins since it is difficult to hide and noticeably destructive. To some people, drinking any amount of alcohol—no matter how little—gives an evil appearance. Those who have lived with alcoholics know firsthand of the destructive force and misery that comes with over-drinking.
On the other hand, the Bible supports temperance, the drinking of alcohol in moderation. There is no biblical injunction against the use of alcoholic beverages in manageable quantities, although there are many that condemn overindulgence. Paul even instructs Timothy, "No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for your stomach's sake and your frequent infirmities" (I Timothy 5:23). Judges 9:13 says "wine . . . cheers both God and men." God wants us to learn to use self-control in what He allows us to enjoy (Galatians 5:23), but if we cannot, it is better for us to abstain.
The Appearance of Evil
God requires abstinence not only from sexual immorality, drunkenness and gluttony, but also from the appearance of evil. In I Thessalonians 5:22, the apostle Paul emphatically advises us to "abstain from every form of evil." This verse lends itself to varying interpretations. The Greek word eidous, translated as "form," is in keeping with its predominant New Testament meaning, "appearance." In addition, in accord with the obvious contrast between this and verse 21—"Test all things; hold fast what is good"—it may mean "kind" or "species."
Verse 22 may be translated, "Abstain from every appearance or kind of evil." On this verse, Matthew Henry comments, "He who is shy of the appearances of sin will not long abstain from the actual commission of sin." Adam Clarke remarks:
Sin not, and avoid even the appearance of it. Do not drive your morality so near the bounds of evil as to lead even weak persons to believe that you actually touch, taste, or handle it. Let not the "form" of it appear with or among you, much less the substance.
An important part of avoiding the appearance of evil is seen in this curious Chinese proverb: "In a cucumber field do not stop to tie your shoe, and under a plum tree do not stop to settle your cap on your head." The inference is that, if a person does either of these things, someone may think he is stealing the cucumbers or the plums.
As Christians, we abstain not only from the sinful action itself, but from that which even seems to be wrong. We know of many behaviors and thoughts that are wrong because God's law positively forbids them, yet there are also many things that God does not specifically forbid. God expects us to apply the wisdom of spiritual principles, which help us to decide what our behavior should be in cases where He has not specifically spoken. Avoiding the appearance of evil is one of these areas.
Some actions in themselves may not appear to us to be wrong, but others consider them as sinful. For us to do them is improper because they would make a poor witness of God's way of life. In God's church and in the world, there are critics who are poised to pounce on us for what they judge as wrong. Their judgment, influenced by appearance, is not righteous judgment. Jesus specifically warns us not to judge by this criterion: "Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment" (John 7:24).
The same conduct can be viewed as sinful by one segment of society but not by others. For example, some religious groups label dancing and card-playing as sin, although no scripture forbids them. In contrast, many hypocrites will accuse Christians of a great variety of sins, but they themselves do them on a regular basis. Depending on a person's background, he might accuse another of wearing wrong attire, enjoying certain entertainments or improperly transacting business. Some of these behaviors cannot be scripturally proven to be wrong or forbidden, but are perceived by some as such. Nevertheless, if a behavior is perceived to be wrong, a Christian should probably avoid it, and certainly in the presence of someone it offends.
Safe and proper behavior is to lean always to the side of virtue. In these instances, it may be certain that we will commit no sin by abstaining, but we will if we indulge ourselves. When uncertain about whether our conduct has the appearance of evil, we will be wise to remember the saying, "When in doubt, don't!" Others have advised, "Stay away from the edge of the cliff!"
Romans 14:16-21 describes the way of love and balance in avoiding the appearance of evil:
Therefore do not let your good be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who serves Christ in these things is acceptable to God and approved by men. Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are pure, but it is evil for the man who eats with offense. It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak.
An action may be legal, but if it causes someone else to sin, a Christian should refrain from it unless his restraint interferes with his obedience and worship of God. Something may be lawful according to God's law but cause physical or spiritual harm to someone else. Nevertheless, a Christian must live righteously at all times, regardless of whether it offends others. For instance, we should not refrain from keeping the Sabbath because it may offend people in the world. Part of our Christian lives is growing in spiritual perception to know when to act and when to abstain.
A servant of God has the help of the Holy Spirit to enable him to abstain from sin. Abstaining from the appearance of evil requires that we make an extra effort to avoid offending others but at the same time being a faithful and true witness to God's way of life.
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