READ : Proverbs 23:35
“They struck me,” you will say, “but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it. When shall I awake? I will seek another drink.”
Proverbs 23:35, RSV
In every culture, people seem to find the antics of drunkards amusing. Nothing can so regale a crowd as to see some inebriated person stumbling about, gesturing wildly, shouting nonsense. Think for a moment about how many jokes you have heard which centered on someone who had too much to drink.
There’s no doubting that drunken people do strange, sometimes comical things. Listen to these graphic words from the Old Testament, in warning to those who tarry long over wine. They’re from Proverbs, chapter 23:
Your eyes will see strange things, and your mind utter perverse things. You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea, like one who lies on the top of a mast. “They struck me,” you will say, “but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it. When shall I awake? I will seek another drink.”
Here’s a person so befuddled as to see weird fantasies and to mumble gibberish. He stretches out and reclines on a most precarious perch. Amid all kinds of buffetings, he, as we say, is feeling no pain. Behold, the ridiculous clown, the tipsy one, the town drunk!
Very often the experience of drunkenness seems funny also to the person involved. Never does he or she laugh so loudly, speak so expansively, enjoy such riotous merriment as when “under the influence,” as we say. Cares are forgotten, heavy responsibilities laid aside. After a few drinks, some persons can become amazingly genial. Everything now to them is vastly humorous. Perhaps in part that’s what makes warnings against strong drink seem to many so shrill, negative and joyless. “Tee-totalers are against fun,” people think. “The temperance crusaders are all prim and prudish.” It seems that the bright side of life, on that view, is for those who let themselves go and drink up.
But there’s another side to that, isn’t there, something about alcoholism that isn’t funny at all? Here’s more of that passage from Proverbs:
Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes?
This is the answer given: “Those who tarry long over wine, those who go to try mixed wine. Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. At the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like an adder.”
That’s quite a different view, isn’t it? Those for whom wine and strong drink become a major focus of attention find as a result not joy but misery. They inherit trouble. They taste of sorrow. They feel wounds.
Part of that is what happens to them physically. We’ve learned more about that in the last two decades than people have ever known before. We’ve learned about how alcohol affects the heart, the blood pressure, the liver and a number of other organs. We’ve come to understand that this supposedly joy-producing drink is a kind of poison with destructive effects to all our bodily systems. The distress and discomfort of a hangover is simply a passing pointer to the permanent damage which alcohol may be doing to us.
But that’s only part of the picture. The passage speaks also of strife, discord with other people. Much of the suffering caused by alcoholism is inflicted upon loved ones and friends. Perhaps it’s the violence and brutality which drunkenness brings on in some. Perhaps it’s the crushing disappointment that comes to family members when the alcoholic loved one cannot keep a job or carry even the simplest responsibilities. Perhaps it’s the loss of relationship when the addicted person is so frequently in another world, out of touch with reality. Perhaps it’s the sheer weight of shame that falls upon people when they see someone dear to them, someone who bears their name, acting disgracefully. Always it’s the stabbing pain of wounded love. Relatives look on with helpless dismay. “How can he do this to himself and to us?” “How can she make a mess of her own life and break our hearts too?”
No one thinks much about this who isn’t personally touched by it. Few people talk about it in polite company. No one can begin to calculate the multiplied sufferings caused by alcoholism, but many act as though the problem did not exist.
And we’ve only begun to chronicle it. We’ve said nothing yet about the deadly danger which alcoholic people constitute to a larger society. We’ve read in our time about railroad engineers drunk with wine or high on drugs who send their trains hurtling through safety switches, slamming into parked railway cars with killing force. And what of the carnage on the highways? Have you read lately about the staggering percentage of accidents on the road in which the use of alcohol has been involved? And only God knows how many violent crimes and unspeakable degradations have been committed by people in the grip of strong drink. And still we look the other way, blindly pretending that things are not so bad.
The American Psychiatric Association offers these statistics about the use of alcohol: 13 million Americans now suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence. That’s more than one out of 20 in this nation. Many would argue that the percentage of those who suffer or cause suffering because of alcohol is far higher. Few are the communities where this is not a major problem. Few are the households which are not in some way touched by it. The financial costs of all this, as we are often told, are huge, the human costs simply incalculable.
THE CHRISTIAN’S PART
How ought we to view this situation, a veritable scourge not only in America but in many other countries? How should Christians, whose faith is anchored in biblical revelation, look at the issue of alcohol consumption? We’re all familiar with the fact that the Bible cannot be shown to teach total abstinence. The use of wine is frequently mentioned in the Scriptures as a part of the Hebrew culture. It’s not always viewed unfavorably, either. Our Lord once turned water into wine for a wedding feast. At the Lord’s Supper He used wine, as far as we know, as a sign of His poured out life. And in a well-known passage, the apostle Paul could counsel young Timothy to “use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Tim. 5:23).
At the same time, the Scriptures warn us consistently and with great severity against drunkenness. They speak stringently also against becoming addicted to anything. Christian liberty is a shining reality to the apostle Paul, for example, but it has its limits. “All things are lawful to me,” he says, “but I will not be enslaved by anything” (1 Cor. 6:12b). We have one master, Christ, and we are to jealously guard our liberty against any other kind of domination, whether human or chemical.
If there was a case against drunkenness and addiction in New Testament time, there must be a far more compelling one now. We know so much more in our time about the destructive effects of alcohol. In our mechanized society, drunken people on the move become deadly missiles. An inebriated man in ancient times might fall off his camel. Someone in the same condition today can plow through a crowd of bystanders in a high powered car, killing and maiming as he goes. We have seen in our modern nations alcoholism become a dreadful blight and many of us are in close touch with those whose lives have been blasted by it. How ought all this to affect our outlook?
Many in the church who take an occasional drink plead their liberty in Christ as full justification for it. I do not quarrel with them. I cannot judge them, of course. Christ alone is Lord of the conscience. But let me reason with them. Let me think out loud about the issues here. Just how important is this particular expression of Christian liberty in a time like ours? How important is it for you parents to have alcohol in your homes, merely as an expression of the fact that you are free to sample it? How important, that is, when you remember that many, many persons, and perhaps your own children are among them, begin to show the symptoms of alcoholism after only a few drinks?
I see a strand in Scripture teaching that reminds us of some things more important than our personal freedoms. One of them is love. Paul says, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things build up; not all things are helpful” (1 Cor. 6:12a). And he goes on to say, “If food is a cause of my brother’s falling, I will never eat meat” (1 Cor. 8:13). I wonder if all who name the name of Christ are ready to say something like that today. “If alcohol makes my brother or sister to stumble, I’ll never taste of it”?
What would be lost by that kind of resolve, I wonder? The distilleries would lose. The brewers would lose. The bars and liquor stores would feel the pinch. And some of us might lose one particular aspect of our freedom as Christian men and women.
On the other hand, what would we gain? We would probably gain the lives of some who die now in tragic automobile accidents. We might preserve the marriages of some who ruin their homes by drink. We might keep back someone very close to us from broken health, scarred relationships and inner shame.
Every Christian has to decide about this for himself or herself. In the light of the Scriptures, in the light of the Spirit’s leading, in the light of our present situation in history, in the light of the love of Christ, how ought I, how ought you, to deal with this issue? I’ll simply say that for me, abstinence seems the best way. What do you think?
A GREAT ALTERNATIVE
But I don’t want to end on that note. That’s not where the Christian faith ends, with a negative, with a prohibition. Listen to the apostle Paul, great defender of Christian liberty, bold preacher of the gospel of Christ. Here’s the best word in the New Testament about this subject:
Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess, profligacy, but be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18).
There’s no place in the Christian outlook for an attitude of condemnation toward those who drink or even who become drunken. That usually calls not for censure but for profound compassion. As we’ve seen, it isn’t funny; at the deepest levels, it is tragic. The abuse of alcohol is sinful, certainly, but no more so than many common behaviors and attitudes. We’ve learned more and more in our time that drug abuse of all kinds is also a sickness. People who struggle with this problem don’t need scorn. They don’t need advice. They need help. They need healing. They need deliverance.
Thank God for ministries like Alcoholics Anonymous, and others like it, that help to open the way, at least, for these things in the lives of multitudes. Right at the heart of AA’s program is the acknowledgement on the part of an alcoholic person that he or she is in the grip of something too big, too strong for them, and that they need the help of a higher power. What the Christian does is to identify the source of that power, to give a name to that saving help. The name is the name of the triune God. The Savior is Jesus Christ our Lord, crucified and risen for us.
Let’s point people with this addiction, and every other, to the One who forgives, who cleanses, who heals, who liberates. Let’s tell people that what they are vainly seeking for in drink and in drugs is freely and wonderfully offered them in a new relationship with God through Christ. Here is “another drink” of a glorious sort. Let’s tell them about a great alternative to being drunk with wine, that is, that they should be filled with the life-giving, joy-bringing Spirit of God.
PRAYER: About this enormous problem in our time, Lord, give us the mind of Christ, and let each of us know what it is not to be drunk with wine, wherein is excess, but to be filled with the Spirit. Through Jesus Christ. Amen.