Last week, I wrote about how the Bible speaks positively of the gift and enjoyment of wine. Today, I want to reflect on the opposite: the many warnings the Bible gives us regarding the abuse of alcohol.
Why Does This Matter?
The Bible is pretty straightforward on the issue of drunkenness: don’t do it (Rom 13:13). There isn’t a great deal of ambiguity about the matter. In the history of the Church, no one has ever positively argued for Christians getting drunk. In fact, Christians of a previous generation tended to view the consumption of any alcohol whatsoever with deep suspicion. Fifty, sixty, seventy years ago, if I had written the article I wrote last week, I likely would have been removed from my pastorate in a Southern Baptist Church.
But that certainly isn’t the world we live in today. I came to drinking age at a time where–like the use of profanity–younger Christians saw the consumption of alcohol as an iconoclastic rite of passage, a way to sever ourselves from stuffy Christians of yesteryear. Cool, edgy pastors would subtly brag about their sophisticated palate for whiskey, or joke about grabbing a beer after church–sometimes from the pulpit–purposely thumbing their nose at teetotalers who they deemed to be legalistic and uptight.
I followed along in this current enthusiastically with all the arrogance and ignorance of a 21 year old, eager to enjoy my “Christian freedom” and prove that I was a bonafide Cool Guy™. But in my zeal, I lacked the balance that Scripture gives when considering alcohol, and, on several occasions, walked into outright sin. “If people who say drinking is bad are wrong,” I thought, “that must mean any restriction on drinking is wrong.” In an effort to avoid one ditch, I plunged into another. That’s what happens when you define yourself by what you’re not. There is no conviction actually guiding you, just a reaction.
So, for a few months I attempted to shrug off my guilty conscience about my behavior, told myself to stop being so “legalistic” (whatever that means), and kept plowing ahead, frequently drinking in excess. Through a series of terrifying and embarrassing events, the Lord mercifully intervened. I quickly realized that concern for drunkenness was not “legalistic,” it was just simple obedience. And drinking in excess wasn’t “Christian liberty,” it was just sin.
The Bible has much to say about the blessings of wine, but it also has much more to say about its abuses. Let’s look at three of the biggest: debauchery, danger, and destruction.
The first story of drunkenness in the Bible comes from Noah after the flood has subsided. Noah plants a vineyard, makes wine, and then consequently becomes drunk, passing out naked in front of his family (Gen 9:20-23). The next story of drunkenness comes from Lot becoming so inebriated that he commits incest with his daughters (Gen 19:30-38). Right out of the gate, the Bible portrays in grotesque colors the debauchery that comes from drunkenness.
Ephesians simply tells us: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit,” (Eph 5:18; cf. Rom 13:13). The word “debauchery” in Greek is asōtia (ἀσωτία), which etymologically comes from the word “salvation” (soteria) with a negative prefix (a-sotia). So, one dictionary simply defines it as “unsavedness”. In other words, a life of debauchery is a life of such prodigality and indulgence that you act like you aren’t saved, like Jesus isn’t your king. You are given over to reckless, foolish, carnal appetites instead of the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control–become largely absent, and the works of the flesh mark you (Gal 5:19-23). Your mouth becomes coarser, your temper hotter, your lusts larger. Your carnality and cravings dominate you, and you are given over to debauchery.
The book of Proverbs warns us of the “drunkard” who is a fool, quick to come to poverty (Prov 23:20-21), useless to employers (26:10), and unaware of his surroundings (26:9). But two passages in particular grab our imagination:
Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler,
and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.
– Prov 20:1
“Who has woe? Who has sorrow?
Who has strife? Who has complaining?
Who has wounds without cause?
Who has redness of eyes?
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.
In the end it bites like a serpent
and stings like an adder.
Your eyes will see strange things,
and your heart 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 must have another drink.”
– Prov 23:29-35
These two passages paint a sad story of drunkenness. It makes you belligerent, over-confident, and violent; it makes you a depressed, red-eyed loner hunched over a glass, staggering around the room like you’re on a boat; a perverted flirt craving what isn’t yours, and just as you start to wake up from your stupor, you think, “Where’s my next drink?”
Proverbs is vivid in its description: at the bottom of that sparkling glass of smooth wine, a serpent is coiled. Perhaps this is why Proverbs ends by warning kings to not drink at all (Prov 31:4-5). The danger is just too high.
Repeatedly, the Bible connects drunkenness with God’s wrath and punishment. Sometimes, it is a person’s drunkenness that causes them to receive God’s anger (Isa 5:11, 22;Amos 6:6-7). More often, though, drunkenness is used as an illustration of what it is like when someone experiences the fullness of God’s wrath. God tells Jeremiah, “Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it. They shall drink and stagger and be crazed because of the sword that I am sending among them,” (Jer 25:15-16). This is one of the most common motifs in the Bible to describe God’s judgment (Jer. 49:12; 51:7; Job 21:20; Ps. 60:3; 75:8; Isa. 51:17; Lam. 4:21; Hab. 2:16; Zech. 12:2-3; Rev. 14:10; 16:19; 18:6). When Jesus prays in Gethsemane for the Father to “take this cup from me” (Luke 22:42), this is what He is referring to.
Drinking in excess is a sin, and any sin we walk into without repentance will destroy us. And it should particularly sober us (no pun intended) that one of the most common word-pictures of what God’s wrath looks like is drunkenness itself. The staggering fool in Proverbs is a dim sketch of what the foaming wine of the wrath of God will do to sinners on the Last Day. So, why would we ever want to emulate that here and now?
I’ve lived long enough now to see the abuse of alcohol tear marriages apart, end people’s careers, and permanently ruin people’s reputations. I could share story after story of this, but I don’t really need to. You too know what this looks like. You’ve seen it.
As those who bear God’s name, who are filled with the Spirit, drunkenness should never be something we make peace with or make light of. We want to rightly enjoy God’s good gifts, feasting and celebrating with what Calvin called an “honest and moderate liberality.” But drunkenness perverts God’s good gift into debauchery, danger, and destruction.
But how can Christians wisely enjoy this gift? How do we know when we have crossed the line into drunkenness? And how can we prevent encouraging others into drunkenness? I’ll look at those questions next week.