“Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God.” (3 John 1:11)
An anechoic chamber is the quietest place on earth. Acoustically isolated from the outside world and fitted with irregular foam shapes on the inside walls, all sound generated from within is absorbed. The word anechoic literally means “without echo,” which accurately describes the function of the specially constructed walls. Scientists use these rooms to conduct acoustic tests, such as determining the noise level of various consumer products. Some years ago I had an opportunity to spend a few minutes inside an anechoic chamber. When I stepped into the room and the door closed behind me, I spoke a few words but did not recognize my own voice. The walls literally absorbed all of the sound, and the normal echoes one takes for granted simply ceased to exist. If I had screamed at the top of my lungs, it would have made no difference for all noise would still be absorbed by the non-reflective walls. There is an otherworldliness feeling to anechoic chambers, and I can understand why NASA uses them to help astronauts get accustomed to the silence of outer space.
Fortunately, God did not design an anechoic world. Just the opposite, because echoes add an amazing richness and timbre to our lives. For example, the Lord has made great canyons where the splashing of rushing torrents echoes in splendid cacophony. A place where “deep calls to deep in the roar of [his] waterfalls.” (Psalm 42:7) Each day starts anew with the waking sounds of creation greeting him. “Awake my soul, arise with me, awake O harp and strings; together we will wake the dawn as all creation sings.” (Psalm 57:8) He created old growth forests where bird songs like that of the Wood Thrush reverberate with a flute-like trill. For there, “the birds of the sky nest by the waters; they sing among the branches.” (Psalm 104:12) And great cathedrals built to honor the Lord uniquely resonate as sacred music and hymns of praise echo off of vaulted ceilings. “For God is King of all the earth so sing Him songs that please; sing psalms and hymns and spirituals with sweetest melodies.” (Psalm 47:7)
But it is not simply a matter of aesthetics that God designed sound to be reflective. Functionally, the echo of sound waves bouncing off of our surroundings helps give us our bearings. We intuitively sense the position of objects by the direction and speed of sound that is reflected from their surfaces. And with the two ears God has given us, we can judge direction and distances even in the dark. Truly, the echoes of sound in the natural world are a wonderful gift from the Lord.
When it comes to our spiritual life we have a tendency to echo whatever we observe in others. If those around us embody that which is good and decent, we are encouraged to do the same. Contrariwise, if those around embody that which is evil, we are tempted to follow. God, of course, does not intend for us to echo the latter, but the former. “Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good.” (3 John 1:11a) Rather than echoing the evil we see and hear, the Lord would have us absorb it like the walls of an anechoic chamber absorb sound. Yet this is hard for us to do. For when evil is experienced by us, we are tempted to retaliate. And even when evil is only observed by us, we can be tempted to imitate.
We echo evil when retaliation is our response to someone who is treating us unjustly. Paul tells us “do not overcome evil with evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21) A common way we retaliate is by anger. Anger is like a wildfire – once it is lit it can quickly consume all those in its path. But even though anger may automatically rise up in us as a response to the unjust and evil actions of others, we don’t have to yield to it, and can choose to absorb it like the walls of an anechoic chamber. In the words of Dallas Willard, “While anger arises spontaneously, we can choose whether [or not] to receive it and indulge it.” (The Divine Conspiracy) Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matthew 5:38-39)
Still, there is a far more subtle way that we echo evil, which is when we imitate those around us who disregard God’s moral law. I am not referring to the pagan culture in which we live because most of us Christians are aware of the dangers inherent to the spirit of our age. Rather, it is the danger of our relationship with those who claim to be Christians – be they our friends or public figures – who act in ungodly ways. For even when we know the difference between right and wrong, there is a temptation to disregard moral restraints when we observe other Christians doing so. I don’t completely understand the psychology behind this, yet we all know it is true. Somehow when we see others who claim to be Christians acting in an ungodly manner, we can be tempted to believe that it must be okay for us to act in the same way. In some cases we may trust their judgments more than our own, or perhaps we feel social pressure to conform our behavior. It’s almost like we are hearing the words of the serpent, “Did God really say that you must not eat from any tree in the garden?” (Genesis 3:1)
For example, if a Christian we know and respect slanders someone, we may question whether slander is really so bad. Like masters of illusion, we tell ourselves that it is really not slander or that it is somehow justified. The Apostle Paul recognized the danger, which is why he tells us to have nothing to do with those claiming to be Christians but not acting accordingly. “But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.” (1 Corinthians 5:11)
Paul’s counsel can present us with a dilemma when the person acting immorally is a personal friend. For example, if they are having an affair, should we drop them as a friend? Or what if they have an addiction or are pursuing some other idol in their life? There are Biblical principles about loving and caring for those in need, so simply not associating with them may not be the right thing to do. And frankly we all fall at times, and our critique of the sins of others can quickly lead us down a path of graceless judgments and self-righteousness. At the same time, I believe we can underestimate the danger of being around those who habitually sin because of the temptation to echo their behavior and similarly fall. Paul’s word to the Galatians reflects this dilemma, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:1-2)
The matter is somewhat different when the Christian who is acting immorally is in the public arena, such as the church, sports, politics, media, or entertainment. For when they act immorally, it is not just us who are in danger of echoing their behavior, but all who see them. Given that our ability to influence a public figure is usually minimal, our best course of action is to move beyond the sphere of his or her influence. We hear a lot these days about the need for role models because of how those in authority can influence others for good or ill. Jesus paid particular attention to this when he warned against causing people to go astray, and the particular punishment for those who do. “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!” (Matthew 18:6-7)
Jesus, of course, never echoed evil. He never repaid evil for evil – never! Even on the cross, he did not revile his persecutors. In this he showed us the way. “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” (1 Peter 2:21-23) Jesus is our model – we are not to echo evil and injustice, but we are to absorb it like the walls of an anechoic chamber soaks up sound. As we do this in increasing measure, we anticipate our destiny, which is “to become conformed to the image of his son.” (Romans 8:29)