Self-Control Says Yes and No When It Wants To
It seems that alcohol is a very popular topic of conversation. Some months ago, I did a series on Christianity and alcohol (here, here, and here). Because people seem to keep finding those posts on Push of Pikes, I thought that I would revisit the subject after more mature consideration. Although the original post was nominally about “gray areas,” I really wanted to talk about alcohol and so I will jump straight to the point.
I know that the issue is serious. I knew a kid who was paralyzed from the waist down because his family was on the business end of a DUI. I lived up the street from a family that had to send the mother in for rehab. Before we even address issues of holiness, righteousness, and good witness, we find that practical realities disturb dispassionate discourse, and I want to acknowledge this before I make my case.
To lay my cards on the table, I will state that I am a moderationist. It is clear from the Bible that Christians should not get drunk. Even if you don’t care what the Bible says, continual drunkenness is pragmatically disadvantageous. Assuming self-control, I take the position that alcohol is not a bad thing—it is even a good thing when taken, as all things, in moderation.
This is my position, though Christians take a broad range of stances toward alcohol. I grew up in a ministry family, so my parents stayed away from alcohol to visibly demonstrate upright lives—if you do not drink at all, you will certainly not struggle with drunkenness. Presently, I work with people who take beer as an option for what to drink with dinner right alongside soda, tea, and juice. In America, it is illegal in most states to sell alcohol to people under age twenty-one, so youth groups may rely upon the law as a reason for teenagers not to drink, should they fail to think of any other good reasons (though I can think up a new reason every fifteen minutes or so where driving is concerned).
While we have our discussions, the question of whether to drink or abstain fits in the broader scheme of what it means to live in view of Romans 12 and the mercy that God has given us. Concretely, we battle with the appropriateness of drinking, and in in abstract theological realms we grapple with the reality of living under the mercy of God. Although abstract agreement about theological principles restrains some conflict, we have to figure out how to live in real life.
Between the inarguable truths we see written in the heavens and the concrete realities we see on the ground, we have ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that determine the courses of conversations before they even begin. I did a post about going too far to the left or to the right and then going overboard—if you take an extreme, you take a nonsensical position in a conversation that has left you behind. No matter whether you are a teetotaler or drink moderately, you have to keep real life moving as you hold a firm opinion.
Here I want to emphasize the nature of freedom that Christians have. When you have true freedom, you will see people take a variety of choices, and “mind your own business” applies to a certain extent. Freedom implies permission. Be that as it may, those who abstain from drinking raise excellent points about freedom that we receive from Christ.
“Liberty is not license,” they may say. But as I said, does it not bear an element of permission? Freedom is not simply the permission to deny ourselves what is given to us, and under freedom, someone somewhere will exercise their freedom to do what others prefer not to do. “And I suppose you are the one to do it?” they may ask. Indeed, I have already laid my cards on the table. However you take that, the way you approach it may result in you going overboard one way or the other.
In the end, we have to have control of ourselves—although I firmly believe that subversion of freedom is an “overboard” position, drunkenness and addiction is the “overboard” position directly opposite to overbearing control. We should not be so intent upon controlling one another that we lose control of ourselves, just like we do when we are drunk.
There remains the matter of care for the consciences of others—this is a theme I often see when I survey other Christian opinions on whether it is right to drink alcohol. I see variations on, “If my drinking would ever cause someone to stumble, I won’t drink!” Although I understand the concern behind such a statement, I raise this question: are you secure enough in yourself to not feel bad about drinking or not drinking in a given situation? If you are sensitive to every gust of moralization, your own conscience is weak; if you get angry when someone merely asks you about what you do, your conscience is seared, not strong. If your conscience is weak, you must strengthen it for your own sake. Whether you drink or abstain, you have to be clear minded for God, free of chemical or self-intoxication in whatever form. Clear mindedness is a result of personal discipline, not sensitive treatment from others.
In the crowded bus of life, we have to be able to say “sorry” and “excuse me” without always stopping to check whether our fellow travelers thought we were sincere. Right now I live in Asia, and in the country I live in, people do not say “excuse me” on the bus, and commuters treat “jostle” as an active verb. One time I was hanging onto a plastic handhold tethered to the ceiling, and the tether broke. I slapped a lady in the face with the plastic handle and fervently apologized as soon as I could make sense of things. While no one has slapped me in the face with a chunk of plastic, I have to deal with my share of inconveniently placed knees, elbows, and oblong packages with little in the way of an apology. I have to assume that the others on the bus do not mean to bother me, and if they do, it was probably unintentional—you cannot assess the sincerity of an elbow on a crowded bus.
If you and I share a crowded bus for a time, I can give you my seat if you need it. If you dive onto the bus shortly before it leaves, I can handle a head butt. However, if the bus is mostly empty, I will have little understanding if you insist upon making me change seats.