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Evil, or the Appearance Thereof

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Ronan has a fun post on Non-alcoholic beer over at BCC, and a comments thread that turns toward evil vs. the appearance of evil.

We're told to avoid the appearance of evil. I think it's even scriptoral.

A couple of commenters have shared stories about others being embarrassed or uptight about not drinking even non-alcoholic versions of beverages that usually contain alcohol -- because of the trace amounts, yes, but more importantly, because the appearance is evil.

Ronan suggests that the WoW is such a "very powerful, even defining symbol of our membership," and that's why we fret over maintaining it and appearing to maintain it so much.

And yet, I have to wonder: is drinking alcohol the most evil thing that we could be doing, that we're so circumspect in trying to avoid looking like we're doing it?

If it is, then I'm guilty of breaking that rule -- I refuse to drink any sort of root beer or ginger ale out of a can. I require a glass bottle. It tastes better that way. My Henry Weinhardt's or Capt'n Eli's root beer comes in brown; my Reed's ginger beer comes in a green that more-than-vaguely reminds one of a Heineken. And those drinks are strictly non-alcoholic.

When I went to parties in college, I'd carry along a bottle or two of my favorite appearance-of-evil drink so that I didn't look like a complete tool, avoiding drinking when everyone else was getting drunk. When we went to bars, I'd order a virgin something-or-other, and inevitably finish long before everyone else. I only bemoaned the fact that the only non-alcoholic thing you can order in a bar is beer or girly drinks; what I wouldn't have given for the appearance of hard liquor!

More seriously: it amuses (confuses?) me when people get so worked up over what we imbibe. Or worse, about what it looks like we're imbibing when we're actually in the clear.

Which leads to the question: why is it anyone else's business? The stories related in the comments of Ronan's post are not of the doer being embarrassed, but of someone else being embarrassed for them. It's another tool for judgment, is what it is. Another guilt factor to lay on the shoulders of those already trying to do their best as they strive, impossibly, to become even more perfect.

Within the social network of the Church, avoiding giving the appearance of evil can damage your reputation. Rumors such as "Oh, she spent a few hours alone at her boyfriend's apartment!" can perpetuate a rumor that both impinges on your reputation and contributes to the ward busy-bodies worrying about your salvation and situation instead of their own. Even if all you did was sit in separate chairs and watch the animated Book of Mormon movies. If that's all you did, then why worry about the appearance? How does it harm you if the busy-bodies think crazy things? Unless...unless!...the bishop will be more inclined to believe them than you when you answer "Yes, I keep the law of chastity" during that interview.

But that'd just be messed up.

So, help me out here: what's a more compelling circumstance for "avoiding the appearance of evil"? Is it avoiding holding a gun to someone's head without intending to shoot? Avoiding being in a car alone with a man who's not your husband? Avoiding spending the night at your boyfriend's house -- even if you sleep on the couch? Or is avoiding drinking beverages that look/smell/taste like beer but have no alcoholic content the be-all end-all?

Paul tells us we should do it. Is strengthening the faith of others in us, or serving as a pristine example, the best reason we have to do it? If so, I have to ask: what's in it for me?

24 Responses to “Evil, or the Appearance Thereof”

  1. Anonymous Kaimi 

    Appearance of hard liquor? Just order a tonic water. Sans the gin.

    I think at least part of the admonition springs from the fact that it is easier to avoid temptation if we think we're not alone in doing so. I.e., perhaps someone _else_ at that party doesn't want to drink, but also doesn't want to be the only one not drinking. If she sees you with your Coke, she'll be happy to join you in not drinking. Otherwise, she's going to drink. Thus, by not avoiding the appearance of evil, you're not lending moral support to people who are on the fence.

    I don't know how convincing this argument is, but I believe's it's a standard rationale.

  2. Anonymous Kaimi 


  3. Anonymous Kaimi 

    Weird - um, that last half-word comment should not be there. That's what I get for hitting refresh, I guess.

  4. Anonymous Katie 

    What is ironic about the whole "avoid the appearance of evil" advice, is that it is based on a misreading of Paul's verse. I had a New Testament class with Stephen E. Robinson and he basically said the whole don't drink sparkling cider in a wine glass because it gives the appearance of evil thing was crap. The Greek word that we translate "appearance" actually means "the arrival of." As in, "he made an appearance at the party." So Paul is saying to get away from sin before you even come close to it. "Appearance" does not mean "image."

    That being said, I don't think the practice is totally without rationale. As Kaimi pointed out, others who see you making a stand may be buoyed up by your decision. And the scriptures certainly advise us not to be stumbling blocks to others. It is not too far fetched to say that if a Morm saw another Morm they respected appearing to drink beer, and they were already sitting on the fence as to whether or drink or not themselves, they might give in.

    Yet as I read over the BCC thread it just seems to me that we obsess over it too much. Can I use wine in cooking? Can I eat green tea ice cream? How about coffee candy? Root beer? Grape juice? If I am not mistaken Christ came to bring a new law. Then why does it seem so often that we are following the old one?

  5. Anonymous Pris 

    Apple juice is a close approximation to whiskey, color-wise.

    I think you're right, that we should look out for yourself first and not worry about the others. Even if you do, shouldn't we ask, saying something like, "Hey, Arwyn, are you sure that's just tonic water?" ...and trust the answer. It's that last part that seems difficult for a lot of people.

    In another case of why I'd be a bad Mormon, if someone was being a "busy-body" about my appearance of evil, I'd try to appear more evil and start spreading rumors about myself. But that's just me.

  6. Anonymous D-Train 

    Well, I "avoid the appearance of evil" on a few things to be left alone by people. For example, I get about twice as many "are you doing OK?" responses when I'm wearing a red or blue shirt to church than when I wear white. So I just go with the cultural norm and wear the white, even though the silly standard ticks me off.

    Katie, you're right that we're so darn worried about the details. I guess it's good to be conscientious, but that's really not for me.

  7. Anonymous Ronan 

    Nice counter-post, Arwyn. I wish, oh how I wish, that we fretted more about the weightier issues of the law. Still, I do understand why the WoW is so central to our membership. Cheers!

  8. Anonymous D-Train 


  9. Anonymous Ben S. 

    I was going to second Katie on the KJV translation being completely inadequate here.

    On the other hand, I think there's another issue to consider. In 1Co. 8, Paul says in essence, "Look, there's nothing inherently wrong with eating meat tha has been sacrificed to an idol. But, what about those who are weak? What if they see you eating in the temple of the idol? So, although there's nothing wrong with it, I won't do it. ANd you shold be careful."

    I think that's interesting, and it reminds me of bookslinger's comment over on BCC right now. HE says something similar. My summary, "Nonalcoholic beer may be well and good, but don't drink it or serve it to a former alcoholic (ie. someone who's weak). It tastes and smells close enough that it will not help them out at all."

    I think Paul sums it up well in the middle of 1Co 8.

    1 Corinthians 8:9 But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

  10. Anonymous D-Train 

    Ben, thanks a bunch. That was quite enlightening.

    What "take care" means is, of course, a matter of personal interpretation. But Ben is obviously correct that we should do so.

  11. Anonymous Arwyn 

    Testing -- something funky with the comments here. New ones show up on the feed on the main page, but not here. Looking into it...

    ...or maybe Kaimi broke it. ;)

  12. Anonymous Arwyn 

    Thanks for your thoughtful responses, all. I especially like your interpretation of the scripture, Katie, and the scripture that Ben quotes.

    I guess my real struggle is in that balance of liberty: I know what I have the strength to do, and I know what I want to do, so why should I refrain from doing it if others happen to be weaker?

    Ultimately, the answer seems to be that, in this sense, I must be my brother's keeper. And as someone with a strong independent streak, that grates me.

    Still, when it comes to imbibing alcohol (or not, as the case may be), I still think we could spend more time avoiding the appearance of mean-spiritedness or the appearance of judgment, or other, more serious, more compelling, deeper ills.

  13. Anonymous Brett 

    Still, when it comes to imbibing alcohol (or not, as the case may be), I still think we could spend more time avoiding the appearance of mean-spiritedness or the appearance of judgment, or other, more serious, more compelling, deeper ills.

    I totally agree with you Arwyn. That's kind of my problem with the Word of Wisdom being a standard to measure righteousness. I still obey it because that's what we've been asked, but I really think we could spend our energy focusing on other more important things.
    Here's a story to explain why I sometimes don't understand the Word of Wisdom. My Grandpa has been a member his whole life. While he has been a member his entire life, he's struggled with the Word of Wisdom off and on. He was able to get his act together so he could go to the temple to be sealed to his family. A few years later, he relapsed. He's been in that relapse for quite some time. He drinks cofee every morning and enjoys a glass of wine everynight "he says its for his heart". He also has a beer every once in awhile. Because of this he hasn't been able to go to the temple for quite some time. The thing is, my grandpa is the most Christian person I know. He's always serving others in some way or other. He's ninty years old and he delivers meals on wheels to elderly shut ins. He's my example of living pure relegion: visiting the sick, the needy, and the widows. Yet still he's not worthy to be in the presence of the Lord.
    Contrast that with a mission companion I had. He was obedient in every aspect of missionary work. He was a nazi about the word of wisdom. He was worthy to go to the temple and be in the presence of the Lord. The thing was he was the biggest jerk I have ever met in my entire life. He made me feel like a big piece of poo. He criticized me constantly. Told me I was a horrible missionary. He said the way I knocked doors was bad! He yelled at me, the whole bit. He was very judgemental as well. He accused members of committing adultery and other missionaries of flirting with girls. I remember this one time we left a member's house, my companion told me the spirit told him that the brother was having an affair. What the freak?! Despite the fact this guy made my life and others' miserable, he was considered righteous according to our standards. Even the President didn't like this Elder because of the way he treated his companions.
    I just don't get it. Here's my grandpa living the higher law of chairity by helping the "least of these", but he's not worthy to be in the temple. Then we have my companion, a mean spirited Pharases, who is worthy to be in the temple. It just doesn't seem fair to me.

  14. Anonymous Starfoxy 

    "I still think we could spend more time avoiding the appearance of mean-spiritedness or the appearance of judgment, or other, more serious, more compelling, deeper ills."

    That's just it though. Those more serious, more hurtful and deeper ills are less visible. While you can see Jimbob sitting in a bar with his friends, you can't see the vindictive mean thoughts that the lady sitting next to you is having. Because the WoW is so physical it's very easy to tell who is doing it and who isn't. The serious commandments are the ones we know no-one will see, so it feels safer to break those.

  15. Anonymous D-Train 

    Brett, I'm totally on board. The thing that comforts me is that the temple recommend questions are administrative standards. I do wish bishops had more discretion to admit people like your grandfather, but I suspect they wouldn't use it if they did. The temple recommend questions are just there to establish some sort of baseline. They're not perfect and I do think that they're generally indicative of whether someone is committed to a gospel lifestyle. There are tons of exceptions, but if we want to have standards for the temple, we probably do have to establish these.

    I do think the WoW standard for temple recommends is a bit harsh, especially given the relative gravity of many of the other questions.

  16. Anonymous D-Train 

    Starfoxy, I forgot to mention that this is a great point. Stuff like the Word of Wisdom is just easier to teach than charity and so it will get emphasized more and in more absolute terms. Also, with those things, there are at least absolute standards. It's pretty easy to determine if someone's living the Word of Wisdom, but charity is a giant continuum.

  17. Anonymous Arwyn 

    Brett, I love the stories. Excellently illustrates my point.

    Starfoxy, you make an excellent point. After all, "the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7).

    Which just goes to show that we should withhold our judgment regardless -- that we can never really know what someone's real standing is, and leave it be and not get all worked up when we see someone appearing "evil" -- they may, after all, be Brett's grandfather.

  18. Anonymous Brett 

    My grandpa is great guy. I wish you all could meet him. He still goes to church, wears garments, and pays tithing. He's just a product of his time and enviornment. The guy's ninety years old and he's from rual Utah. He came from a time when the word of wisdom was in transition from becoming just counsel, to a commandment. He talks about how bishops would give sermons on the evils of coffee drinking, but then later go out and have a cup of coffee with his dad. So, I can understand why he doesn't see the big deal about the word of wisdom. He has tried a few times to kick his coffee and wine habbit so he could go to grandkids weddings, but in his own words "It's too damn hard."
    My grandpa is also living proof that the disobeying the word of wisdom will not cut your life short or leave you unprotected from the destroying angel. He's an active ninety year old and shows no sign of stopping. He even drove from New Mexico to Oklahoma for my wedding... by himself. Then when he gets there, he proceeds to hit on Kate's grandma. My grandpa... what a guy.

  19. Anonymous D-Train 

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  20. Anonymous Kleermaker 

    "the temple recommend questions . . . are not perfect" (#15).

    Good point D-Train although, given Brett's example, I would call this a masterpiece of understatement. Which of the two following criteria are more indicative of real Christianity (or the lack therof):

    a) drinking coffee

    b) loving and serving our fellow beings

    Any approach that elevates the former over the latter is not just imperfect, its a failure.

  21. Anonymous D-Train 


    Thanks for your comment. I hope you visit often.

    I agree that the coffee isn't nearly as important. But it's a lot more measurable. Assuming we are going to develop common temple standards (which is a debatable assumption), they need to be reasonably objective.

    I'm undecided on whether the common standards are a good idea.

  22. Anonymous Starfoxy 

    "[Temple recommend questions are] not perfect and I do think that they're generally indicative of whether someone is committed to a gospel lifestyle."

    Assuming, of course, that they aren't lying. If everyone in the Temple were really worthy to be there, do you think there would really be locks on the lockers?

  23. Anonymous D-Train 

    Yeah, there's no way to control for lying unless the bishop has some hard evidence. I see no way to get around this problem.

  24. Anonymous Ben S. 

    "If everyone in the Temple were really worthy to be there, do you think there would really be locks on the lockers?"

    Yes, for the ex and anti's who sneak in (I've read the stories.)

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