Put simply, we will never find God and live free by just avoiding evil but rather through pursuing Christ.
Jesus explains that when an unclean spirit leaves its host, but the host remains empty, when the evil spirit returns it will fill the house with more evil than when it left (Matthew 12:43-45). By simply trying to avoid filling oneself with evil rather than seeking to be filled with Christ, you actually create an environment for more evil to take place.
God’s desire is not that we simply practice avoidance, trying to remain “empty, swept, and put in order” (Matthew 12:44). God’s desire for us is that we pursue good (Romans 12:21), that we pursue him (Jeremiah 29:13), and that we are filled with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18).
Active pursuit, not just active abstinence, is what will lead us to experience the freedom we have already been given in Christ when we first believed (Ephesians 1:13).
Avoiding Evil Serves Our Pursuit of Christ
Of course to pursue God we must reject and abstain from sin. For as 1 Timothy 6:11 explains, “But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.”
The fleeing, however, is not an end in itself. We are told to flee evil things so that we can “Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, and gentleness.”Pursuing holiness in Jesus is the reason we should abstain from sin. We must refrain from evil so that we can pursue Christ better.
Seeking Jesus So You Can Stop Sin Turns “Avoiding Evil” Into an Idol
Again, we must seek to avoid evil as an aid to our pursuit of Jesus. But we are not to pursue Christ so that we can refrain from evil. Pursuit of Jesus is the real end goal. When we seek Christ so that we can stop sinning, our avoidance of sin becomes an idol. Abstinence from sin should always support the greater goal of pleasure in Jesus above all.
Seeking Jesus with the hope of stopping your sin won’t fill your heart in the way for which you were made. But trying to stop sinning (as the old theologians put it, “mortification of sin”) does help your pursuit of Christ. Avoiding evil is crucial, but mainly because it helps us satisfy our God-given desire to pursue pleasure in God for which we were designed.
The best way to be healthy is not to avoid eating junk food but to pursue eating healthy food. One must pursue a healthy diet or the hunger caused by a lack of food will drive us to eat the quickest pleasure available, which is usually very unhealthy.
If our focus is only on what we can’t eat, the hunger will overwhelm us because our bodies are meant to eat, to pursue food, to take it in, not to abstain. We don’t grow healthy bodies by abstaining from unhealthy foods; we grow healthy by pursuing and eating healthy foods. We should avoid the junk only so we can eat the healthy. If we simply avoid the junk and forget to eat healthy, we are missing the point completely and our bodies will suffer the consequences.
Satan Tempts Us to Focus on What We Must Avoid. God Directs Us to Focus on What We Must Pursue
When Paul is instructing married people on how to overcome sexual temptation, he doesn’t just say avoid all sexual sin; instead he says, “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (1 Corinthians 7:5).
The Bible tells us not to simply avoid sexual sin but to pursue holy sex with your spouse and prayer with God. 1 Corinthians 7:5 is an example of the pattern throughout the whole Bible. Pursuing God, not abstaining from evil, is the thrust of God’s commands to us and desires for us.
When Satan seeks to destroy Adam and Eve, notice the angle he takes:
He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:1-5)
Through speaking with Satan, Eve started to dwell not on what she should be pursuing, but rather on what she should be abstaining from. Notice all the focus is on what they are to avoid, “not eat of any tree in the garden?” “not eat of the fruit that in the midst of the garden,” and “neither shall you touch it.” Satan sought to turn Eve’s focus to what she didn’t have rather than on what she did and could have in God. When God spoke to Adam and Eve, he did tell Adam what to avoid, but he makes sure to emphasize what they are to pursue:
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. (Genesis 1:28-29)
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die. (Genesis 2:16-17)
To know and love God, we must pursue what pleases him and in the process we will automatically avoid what displeases him. But when we only focus on avoiding what is wrong, we begin to lose focus of the point of our existence.
You’re Not Designed to Be an Empty Vessel. You Were Made to Be Full of Christ
God did not make us to be neutral, non-evil beings. He created us to be filled with good through Christ. He created us to love him and to be loved by him. Of course we must avoid evil to live out this purpose, but the purpose of the avoidance is pursuit of God, not avoidance itself.
God did not say, “You will seek me and find me when you avoid evil with all your heart.” What he did say was, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).
May we abstain from everything that hinders our pursuit of God (Hebrews 12:1). But may we never forget that joy in Christ and glorifying God ultimately hinge not upon abstinence of sin but on the pursuit of our Lord.