In all my reading at a Christian University in College and even now at Seminary (training for real life ministry) I’ve never come across a theologian who has seriously wrestled with the questions I will present in this brief post. Perhaps this just means that I’m not well read (let me know if there are any lengthy treatments on this issue that attempt to answer the relevant questions). Or perhaps it means that most writings on ethical questions are focused only on a handful of hot-button cultural/apologetical issues (such as whether there are moral absolutes, whether abortion is wrong, homosexuality, etc.).
The following is a summary of a real conversation I had with a friend of mine a while back. I walked into their apartment and they were smoking cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and drinking liquor. Now, I don’t think drinking alcohol is sinful in and of itself, and I also realize that eating junk food consistently can be just as damaging to one’s health as smoking, although the former is not as commonly recognized as sin. However, when I walked into this room and stumbled through a thick cloud of smoke to behold the scene, I was shocked. As I was able to compose myself, a conversation began.
ME: How do you justify smoking?
PERSON 1: I think God made it to enjoy.
ME: Then how do you justify the killing of your brain cells? You do know it rapidly kills your brain cells right?
PERSON 1: Yes, but so does alcohol, and we know that God does not forbid the drinking of alcohol.
ME: But my friend, it is because only a little alcohol does not kill brain cells, but God does condemn drunkenness, because excessive alcohol does indeed rapidly kill brain cells and distort the mind’s judgment.
PERSON 1: Right, so I drink only in modesty. God tells us it makes the heart merry, and I only get a buzz, but I do not drink until I am unable to control myself.
ME: The Scriptures teach us to be sober. Do you not think that a buzz alters the mind?
PERSON 1: No. It is possible to be slightly buzzed and still in a right frame of mind.
ME: Right, but you realize that you can justify drunkenness if you wish by calling it a buzz, as my brother does, getting drunk and kidding himself that he is only barely buzzing? Do you not see where this leads?
PERSON 1: Right, so much of it seems to be uncertain so as to what the scripture means when it says to be sober minded, and how much is too much. That’s when it becomes more relative, but so long as I feel I am not breaking the command, I will drink. [Later he and his friend admit to me that they had exceeded their limit and abused this freedom before]
PERSON 2: Do you not think that coffee alters the state of the mind?
ME: Well, I suppose you could say it does in a way. But you could also say one’s mind is altered when he first awakes in the morning, but this is not what the Bible means when is speaks of staying sober.
PERSON 1: I agree and therefore I maintain that it is O.K. to have a buzz, because though it alters the mind in a sense, it is not what the scripture forbids by telling us to say sober minded. Besides, it’s just like taking a PM pill to help go to sleep, no different.
ME: But it is different, for now you are speaking of medication.
PERSON 1: Right, medication to help you get too sleep right?
PERSON 1: So, if a swig of liquor gives the same effect, and is even cheaper, what is the difference?
Now the conversation was actually much more complex than that, but I’ve spared you all the details. I was caught off guard that evening. I was especially stumped by the argument of PERSON 1 that drinking a swig of whiskey to help with the Z’s was no different than taking a PM pill designed to aid sleep. Although I was not quite sure how to respond at the time, I couldn’t let them have the last word. Before I left the house that night, I warned everybody in that place that although they were right to differ with the legalists, they were playing with fire. I spoke from personal testimony (hard to argue with that) about how addictive alcohol is and how hard it is to control these habits once you begin to enjoy them. I just knew something wasn’t right about their attitude towards it all. But I’ll never forget that conversation. It forced me to think harder about how to ground arguments against those on the opposite extreme from the legalists who have clever arguments on how to justify basically drinking liquor and smoking cancer sticks every night before bed.
Some questions that emerge are: What exactly does the Bible mean when it tell us to be sober minded? Most Christians agree that drunkenness is condemned, but what about a buzz? If altering the state of mind is the basis for judging whether one is “sober” or not, how can one justify the drinking of caffeine filled coffee which also alters the state of mind (albeit in a different way than liquor)? How do we know when we have violated the principle contained in the commands against drunkenness and non-soberness? Is it OK to smoke a cigar on occasion (say, on the night before a wedding)? Should pastors confront the problem of smoking or overeating or eating unhealthily as a matter of church discipline or just address it generically in sermons and leave that kind of conviction up to the Holy Spirit? Is it OK to have a good time at a party where people are getting drunk? Is it OK to laugh at someone who does something funny because they are drunk?
CALLING ALL GOD-LOVERS
Of course, many other questions along these lines needs to be raised and dealth with by means of a consistent and well crafted paradigm that is sensitive to the biblical authors original intent. NOTE: I have come to several convictions about the above questions, and things not as black and white as some think, but I would love to get some feedback from some thoughtful God lovers.