“Flee from the midst of Babylon [representing sin], and every one save his life! Do not be cut off in her iniquity” (Jer. 51:6)
Our society seems to tell us that running away from something is cowardice, or maybe the act of a victim—that it’s better to face things head-on. And while that might be true for some things, the bible tells a different story when it comes to how we must react in the fact of temptation. That, we’re told, we must flee.
What comes to mind when you think of the word “flee”? It’s a word that isn’t used as often in today’s world, but shows up pretty frequently in the bible. The main word translated “flee” in the New Testament is pheugo, which means to run away or escape—pretty straightforward. But its underlying meaning has a greater urgency, a “run for your life to avoid getting caught” aspect that’s critical to understanding the command. This isn’t just “run”. I run because I’m in a hurry, for health, sometimes even for fun. Instead, this is a dead sprint because you are under attack, and you might not survive.
It’s interesting to look at what we’re told to flee in the bible, and more importantly, why God commands this. But God gives us something to move toward, beyond just running away, and that’s just as important to understand.
Fleeing our own human nature—the danger of “what if?”
What are some of the things we’re explicitly told to flee in the bible?
- Sexual immorality (I Cor. 6:18)
- Idolatry (I Cor. 10:14)
- Greediness and the love of money (I Tim. 6:11)
- Youthful lusts (II Tim. 2:22)
Now, this is by no means an exhaustive list of sins, or even some of the “worst” ones (as we define them). But there’s a common thread to them—they’re sins that start as temptation. You may think that’s splitting hairs, but it’s actually an important distinction. Temptation is not sin in and of itself, but it leads to it. We are told to flee when we’re tempted before it becomes a problem. Not to flee is to leave the door open just a crack, and that’s all Satan needs to begin working with our own human nature to widen that crack and ultimately fracture our relationship with God. God and Satan both understand well that the chief competitor for your heart is your own desires; Satan wants to use them, and God wants to help us prevail over them.
“But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (James 1:14).
Joseph was a man that understood this well. We’re told that he literally ran away when Potiphar’s wife kept propositioning him (Gen. 39:12). King David, on the other hand, didn’t turn away when he saw Bathsheba bathing, but kept looking. He let that temptation in for just a little bit, thinking he had it under control, and that led him down the path to adultery and murder. David is called a man after God’s own heart, and would never have believed himself capable of something like that. It’s not like he woke up one day and decided to fling himself headlong into sin. But he didn’t walk away immediately when he was tempted. Then he looked a little longer, then thought “what if?”, and on and on, and that was his downfall.
We think we can get close to it, flit around the edges and not get burned. That’s the nature of man. The truth is, if we try to resist temptation using our own strength, we will fail. That’s not meant to be discouraging, just an acknowledgment of fact. We don’t have it in us to resist Satan and ourselves by ourselves.
We can never forget that Satan was able to even convince one-third of the angels, who had experienced God’s presence and the joy of His way from the time they were created, to follow him. He was able to deceive Adam and Eve, who had direct contact with God on a daily basis. Satan is VERY persuasive. We are easily persuadable where our own desires are concerned. And he loves it when we minimize or forget that, because it gives him an opening. This is why we’re told, “Let him who stands take heeds lest he fall” (I Cor. 10:12). If we don’t believe something is dangerous, that we’ll be fine, then we won’t be on guard against temptation.
Seek and you shall find…
So we’ve established that we must flee from temptation and sin in order to survive. But we are also told to run toward something. Pursue something. It’s not a matter of just blindly running away from a particular sin, arms flailing, into the darkness. That’s how you run off a cliff. That’s how you end up in the other ditch. Instead, we are to flee certain things by pursuing the right kinds of things. Paul notes that we run in a race in order to receive a prize. We aren’t just running without a purpose—there’s a goal we’re moving toward, a collective finish line.
This is made abundantly clear because the “flee” statements in scripture often come with an accompanying “pursue” command, like a matched set. Paul tells Timothy to “flee also youthful lusts; but pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (II Tim. 2:22). In an earlier letter he talks about the desire to be rich as a snare and the love of money as the root of many evils, then states, “But you, O man of God, flee these things and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, and gentleness” (I Tim. 6:9-11).
If the meaning of “flee” implied running as though your life depends on it, pursue’s tone is just as urgent: craving something so deeply that it’s foundational to life. The word used throughout the New Testament, ekzeteo (also epiziteo) means to seek, crave, and demand something. There are several words used in the Old Testament, but they share a similar theme—to follow, strive after, search out.
Among other things, we’re told to pursue…
- God, His face, His strength (Ps. 105:4, II Chron. 7:14, Deut. 4:29)
- The kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matt. 6:33)
- God’s precepts and teachings (Ps. 119:45)
- Justice (Is. 1:17)
- Peace (Ps. 34:14, I Pet. 3:11)
- Righteousness, faith, love, peace, godliness, patience, gentleness (II Tim. 2:22, I Tim. 6:9-11)
- The things that are above (Col. 3:1)
Remember that the definition of this word is all about action. This is not simply avoiding wrongdoing, or liking or believing in God’s way. Those are passive; this is very much a living, active verb, requiring us to DO something. When applied to the list above, this means we must be searching out God’s teachings, craving peace, striving after righteousness, demanding justice.
Sure, that sounds great in theory, but what does that look like in real life? As an example, Psalms 34:14 tells us to “seek peace and pursue it”. Many people would read this and simply interpret it as “avoid confrontation”—which, again, is passive. But that’s not really what it says. First of all, peace can be between people but also within your own mind and spirit, and just avoiding confrontation often brings the opposite of peace to our minds. This is where we have to study deeper into God’s intentions, and constantly ask for His guidance. In fact, pursuing peace will sometimes bring you to directly confront a situation one-on-one with someone to find out what’s wrong rather than avoiding it. It’s uncomfortable at the time, but can heal a relationship or keep a wound from festering. Other times seeking peace is the opposite—ignoring a slight and assuming someone is merely having a bad day when they snap at you, to keep it from affecting your mood. Both of these examples can be actively pursuing peace, depending on the situation, and it takes discernment and God’s spirit to recognize what course to take.
“Seek God and you shall find Him…” (Deut. 4:29)
Fleeing temptation demands that we turn our backs on it and run as fast and as far as we can to avoid the allure of sin. Unlike Lot’s wife, we cannot be tempted to glance back over our shoulder, or slow down and wonder “what if?”. Instead, we must focus our eyes forward and doggedly seek after God’s wisdom and character.
“If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (II Chron. 7:14)
By pairing together commands of what to turn away from and what to pursue, He reinforces the fact that when we’re focused on the right things in life, we won’t be distracted by the wrong ones.