The book of 1 Timothy was written by an experienced evangelist named Paul, to a young pastor named Timothy. Among the direction that Paul provides to Timothy is the following:
The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.
1 Timothy 4:1-5 NIV
Now, the various books of the Bible were generally written to specific audiences at a specific time for a specific purpose. As a result, we should understand them in their original context, but God wasn’t cavalier about inspiring His Word, and often intended for us to learn from messages written for others, as well.
So, to see if this passage might apply to you and me today, let’s ask ourselves: Do we see evidence of people abandoning faith in Jesus and following other teachings today? That is, does it appear that we are in these “later times”? If you’re pretty sure that this is not a problem (i.e., if you believe that the world is pretty much universally following Jesus Christ), you can stop reading this article. If you do so, though, I invite you to bookmark this page and then come back to it after you watch an hour or two of news!
If you agree that people around the world are falling for lies from evil forces (and perhaps spreading them to others), let’s step back a little bit. If you were to imagine an effective strategy for evil forces to keep people away from God (just a hypothetical scenario, here – I hope that this is not your goal), what sorts of teachings would have the most impact? (If you haven’t read “The Screwtape Letters”, by C.S. Lewis, I invite you to to do so. This describes C.S. Lewis’s insight into what evil forces might be thinking as they try to pull in a potential victim.)
Brainstorming on my own, I think that a message used to pull people away from the truth about Jesus might include the following elements:
- Something that sounds good to its hearers.
- Something that lets them do what they want.
- Something that gives them a more significant role in their own salvation.
- Something that makes them feel like they are the most important beings in the universe (our at least their corner of it).
- Something that implies they can overcome the most significant problems in this world by themselves.
And, maybe you can add to this list with your own ideas about what false concepts would appeal to people.
So, continuing on from the passage from 1 Timothy above, what do some modern beliefs tell people that they shouldn’t do one thing or another, even where God has made these good things for us?
- Don’t eat meat (even though Jesus did)
- Don’t eat gluten (even if you don’t have celiac or some other related condition)
- Don’t get married (although this is sometimes replaced with un-Biblical choices, rather than holy singleness)
- Don’t create carbon dioxide (just hold your breath, I guess…of course I’m kidding here)
- Don’t listen to points of view other than <fill in the blank>
- Don’t buy from people who are different from you, or who make socially unpopular choices, or who you just don’t like (better yet, try to “cancel” them)
Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that these are all evil principles. My use of these somewhat tongue-in-cheek examples is just to illustrate modern-day beliefs that try to make people feel better about themselves by giving up something that God would like for them to enjoy. In reality, some followers of Jesus may be called – by the Holy Spirit – to make personal choices that align with one or more of these “pseudo-doctrinal don’ts”, whether for health reasons, out of consideration for others, or for other legitimate purposes. When asceticism is in direct violation of God’s freedom, though, we must look out for the presence of false teachers.
However, God still has principles of right and wrong, so how do we decide when we should abstain, and when we should accept His gifts? Consider the following cases where we might be called to give something up, despite having the liberty to accept it:
- When we might cause a fellow believer to stumble.
- When a lack of moderation would likely harm our testimony to others.
- When indulgence would harm our ability to serve in God’s kingdom (perhaps through our health).
- When we are teaching others to make good choices, and need to consider the situation of our students (which may differ from our own).
- When we are mismanaging things (including the earth) that are under our stewardship from God.
The right answer to a specific situation isn’t always something that we can find printed in the Bible, but with some practice, we can listen to God’s instructions for each circumstance.
In the end, though, how should we receive all of God’s gifts? According to the passage above, “with thanksgiving”. For instance, while we generally pray before meals as a family in my household, there are times when this is impractical or just doesn’t work out. In those cases, I try to emphasize the importance of being thankful, rather than having to say a memorized prayer. That same concept can also apply to being grateful for all of the blessings that God has provided to us; that is, thankfulness doesn’t have to be a formal “saying grace” for them, but we can have an attitude of appreciation and offer regular words of praise to God.
So, the next time someone tells you that you shouldn’t do something, take a moment to evaluate it. Is this a gift from God that an ascetic is telling you to give up, or it is something that God commanded us to avoid? The answer to these questions might also start to tell you whether the rest of a teacher’s messages are consistent with God’s Word, too.
Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.