Humans would like to believe they think independently and remain above the fray of fads and influences. In truth we all are profoundly shaped by our environment and the people around us. We may be in a position to influence others, but others also influence us, both perceptibly and imperceptibly.
From the beginning humans have followed after negative influences. Eve, in the Garden of Eden, was deceived by the serpent (Genesis 3:1-8, 1 Timothy 2:11-15). We do not say a person has been deceived into following good or positive things, and for good reason: deception is almost universally a negative thing.
Humanity has been beset by the deceptive nature of sin and darkness ever since (Romans 5:12-21, Hebrews 3:13). God manifest great concern for His people Israel lest they would be deceived into following other gods and to abandon their covenant and heritage in Him, even to the point of commanding summary execution of any Israelite, even a spouse or child, who would attempt to induce other Israelites into serving other gods (Deuteronomy 13:6-11). This command extended to the destruction by sword and fire of any town in Israel which has gone after other gods (Deuteronomy 13:12-18)!
We may find such commandments hard to fathom; these are the commandments to which many people today point to indict God for being bloodthirsty and barbaric. And yet God is testifying to the power of influence to lead people astray. Israel was a chosen people, one who would be distinct on their belief not just in the One True God but to serve Him without any graven images (cf. Exodus 20:1-10). They were surrounded by, and lived in the midst of, people who served many different gods, and did so with graven images that they believed represented those gods. The power of their influence would be very great. How much stronger, then, would be the influence of one’s own wife, or children, if they encouraged service to other gods? Furthermore, many trends and major changes in any society begin when a few people begin a different practice, encourage others to do likewise, and suffer little in terms of consequences.
Israel did not prove obedient to God’s commands in Deuteronomy 13:1-18. Within a few generations of Moses saying these words, Israelites would prove indignant with Gideon when he destroyed an altar for Baal and an Asherah, and desire to kill him for it (Judges 6:28-31), the inverse of God’s commandment! If anything, they all should be executed for serving other gods. And so it goes with negative influences: it proves easier to give up one’s distinctiveness in God and follow the ways of the nations than it is to reflect God’s love, righteousness, and truth among the nations.
We are under a new covenant enacted under better promises with a better witness (Hebrews 8:6). We are not to overcome evil with evil (Romans 12:21), and strive to do good to all men, even those who are our enemies (Galatians 6:10, Luke 6:32-35). If there are Christians in our midst who go after the world and no longer serve God, we are to disassociate from them, but by no means kill them (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:1-13). Nevertheless, God is still concerned about the power of negative influence, manifest in 1 Corinthians 15:33:
Be not deceived: Evil companionships corrupt good morals.
When encouraging teenagers to uphold the good and right way we often warn about the dangers of “peer pressure.” We know that many young men and women fall prey to the temptation of falling into the wrong crowd, changing their behaviors, and participate in all kinds of immorality and ungodliness which would have been unimaginable beforehand. Yet, as we can learn from Genesis 3:1-8 and Deuteronomy 13:1-18, we never grow out of the dangers of peer pressure. We are constantly under the pressure to conform to this world and its ways and beset with temptations to sin and abandon our heritage in Jesus (Romans 12:1, Hebrews 12:1-2). Furthermore, negative influence does not come only from those “out there”: we may have beloved family members or fellow Christians who might tempt us away from what is good, right, and holy in the Lord Jesus. We can never equivocate God’s will, even if our wives or our children would try to get us to do so. Such is why Paul warned the Corinthian and Galatian Christians how a little leaven leavens the whole lump: accepting or justifying people in the midst of the people of God who persistently teach false doctrine or who sin without repentance will allow the influence of false doctrine and immorality to spread to others, and therefore those involved must be disciplined by disassociation (1 Corinthians 5:1-13, Galatians 5:7-9).
We must be on guard for the temptation to worship “other gods” whom we have not known. We must recognize that we, like Israel before us, are a chosen people, and peculiar (1 Peter 2:9). While we are no longer in the midst of people who go about and serve gods represented by graven images, we live in no less of an idolatrous society. People all around us worship money, celebrity, America, individualism, naturalism, sports, sex, comfort, happiness, and all sorts of similar idols. People, perhaps even within our own family, even those who might be supposed children of God, may not understand our devotion to the LORD of Hosts and why we strive to serve Him in all matters (Matthew 6:33, Colossians 3:17). Just like Israel of old, when God’s people who believed in YHWH also served other gods because others around them were doing so, so many Christians today try to serve both God and these other idols, and they fail miserably (Matthew 6:24). It is always easier to justify their divided loyalties when others are doing the same.
We should not automatically ascribe evil motives to such people, but it is part of the conscious and unconscious aspects of the power of negative influence. Focusing on the will of God as the greatest priority in life requires constant diligence, and those who would do so must be continually on guard against the powers of negative influence from the “nations among us” and even unfortunately our own brethren at times (2 Timothy 2:15).
We should never discount the power of negative influence. None of us prove as strong and impregnable against the influences of the world and its people as we imagine ourselves to be. We often prove doubly deceived by the Evil One: deceived into following worldly influences while deceived into thinking we have risen above those influences! God knows this and has established commandments and warnings in both the old and new covenants so that we would be on guard against negative influences and to take appropriate measures in Christ to stand against them. We do well to consider who among us might tempt us to serve “other gods whom we do not know,” those in the world and perhaps even some among our own family and friends. We must also be on guard lest the people of God are brought down because some “worthless fellows” have brought in “other gods.”
We never outgrow the danger of negative influence. May we seek after God in Christ, serving Him wholeheartedly, and on guard against the temptations to conform to the ways of the Evil One!
Ethan R. Longhenry