Bacchus Baptized: How Can Christians Drink Wisely?

In a portion of C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian, Aslan awakens the Ancient Greek god of wine and feasting, Bacchus (Dionysius, to the Romans). There is a great romp and feast of the finest grapes, leaving all with “sticky and stained fingers…and, though mouths were full, the laughter never ceased.” After all are satiated and satisfied, Susan turns to her sister Lucy and explains:

“I shouldn’t have felt safe with Bacchus…if we’d met [him] without Aslan.”

“I should think not”, said Lucy.

C.S. Lewis includes this seemingly odd scene into his story because he was concerned that his rather stoical British countrymen were in need of more joviality; more laughter, less moping; more Jupiter, less Saturn. And Lewis, who loved ancient mythology, decides that the god of wine might be just the figure they need. Yet, Lewis was not naive about the dangers of revelry apart from Christ. Bacchus isn’t safe if we meet him apart from Aslan. The holy laughter of friends over a drink can devolve into the unholy debauchery of drunkenness with just a few drinks more.

So how can Christians responsibly enjoy God’s good gift of alcohol without slipping into the deadly danger of drunkenness ourselves, or encouraging it in others?

Here are five questions we can ask ourselves to wisely enjoy God’s good and dangerous gift of wine:

  1. Is the fruit of the Spirit evident while I drink?
  2. Am I able to thank God and worship Him as I drink?
  3. Does my conscience tell me this is wrong?
  4. Am I encouraging others to sin?
  5. Can I stop?

    1. Is the fruit of the Spirit evident while I drink?

    The Bible is unequivocally clear: drunkenness is a sin. But how do we determine whether we are drunk? Some may rely on the typical blood alcohol limit (0.08) used by police to determine whether one is driving under the influence. If that is where your conscience has taken you, then I would strongly encourage you to abide by that (see point 3). But this can be difficult to determine unless one carries around an accurate breathalyzer at all times. Further, it is debatable whether fitness to operate an automobile is the standard the Bible had in mind when it condemns drunkenness (though you should by no means ever drive under the influence).

    I think a better criterion comes from Ephesians 5:18, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.” It is interesting that Paul assumes that these two are mutually exclusive: drunk with wine or filled with the Spirit. A reflection on the marks of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians, therefore, is a helpful diagnostic when considering where the line of sobriety and drunkenness is. When you drink, is the fruit of the Spirit evident in your life? Would others around you look at how you, talk, act, and treat others, and see “the fruit of the Spirit…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23a)? Or the works of the flesh (Gal 5:19-21)? Read back through that list and reflect on what characterizes you while drinking.

    Further, notice how Paul uses the singular “fruit” but then describes plural characteristics. It is the “fruit of the Spirit,” not the “fruits of the Spirit.” Jonathan Edwards, in his classic Charity and Its Fruits, explains that the various effects of the Spirit are all connected, “…all the graces of Christianity are concatenated and linked together, so as to be mutually connected and mutually dependent.” Meaning, the fruit of the Spirit are all linked together like a chain (what “concatenated” means). They come as a unity, not in pieces. So joy that comes at the expense of self-control is not Christian joy, and peace that comes at the expense of faithfulness is not Christian peace.

    Some people get angry when they are drunk, some people sad, and some people really happy. But we shouldn’t confuse a “happy drunk” or “quiet drunk” with a sober-minded, Christian enjoyment of wine if it comes at the expense of self-control and goodness. Failing to make a fool of yourself is not evidence of the Spirit.
     
    Further questions to ask yourself:
  • Does my drinking lead to or hinder a deeper love of God and others?
  • Do I have a sense of self-control while drinking? When I start drinking, am I able to stop when I should stop?
  • Am I led to a posture of faithfulness when I drink? Do I become flirtatious with people who aren’t my spouse? Do I keep my word/commitments?
  • Am I only joyful or free of anxiety when drinking? Would others sense Christian joy when I drink, or worldly “drink your problems away” joy?
  • When I drink, do I become aggressive, assertive, or argumentative? Am I easily provoked?
  • When I drink, am I able to still clearly speak about the goodness of God to others? Or do I become coarse, profane, and inappropriate in my speech? Do I make sexually lurid jokes?

2. Am I able to thank God and worship Him as I drink?

Paul warns of false-teachers who “require abstinence” from the good gifts of God’s creation (1 Tim 4:1-3) before explaining, “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer,” (1 Tim 4:4-5). Elsewhere, Paul explains, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God,” (1 Cor 10:31).

Together, these two passages tell us that whatever we are doing, we should be partaking with hearts of thanksgiving and hearts of worship. If we cannot enjoy the Lord through the gift of wine, beer, and strong drink, then we are misusing them. As we sip, our minds should have a natural feedback loop established that leads us to say: Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Our hearts should be led to gratitude for the gift which reveals the heart of the Giver. Silent, frequent prayers of thanks ought to litter our mind. This is how we are to enjoy all of creation, not just wine.

But wine presents a unique temptation to abuse in this regard. Many people can turn to a glass of wine or glass of hard liquor at the end of the day to shut down their mind. Exhausted from the office or wrangling children, a drink to “take the edge off” can easily morph into a dangerous form of self-medication that results in the dulling of our mind and numbing of our soul. But this is precisely the opposite direction Christians are to take when enjoying God’s gifts. If our drinking comes at the expense of mindful worship and gratitude, it is no longer being used as God intended. God gives “wine to gladden,” not deaden, “the heart of man,” (Ps 104:15).

3. Does my conscience tell me this is wrong?
 
Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14 is clear: if our conscience tells us something is wrong, we should err on the side of listening to our conscience, even if our conscience is overly sensitive. In both these chapters, Paul discusses divisions in the church between the “strong” and “weak” on disputable matters regarding food, drink, and holy days. Paul believes that the “strong” brothers are correct in their practice, while the “weak” brother is wrong. But Paul doesn’t tell the “weak” to start acting like the “strong.” Instead, he advises the “strong” to change their behavior so as to keep the “weak” from doing what their conscience tells them is wrong. The lesson? Don’t do what your conscience tells you is wrong.
 
God has given you your conscience to serve as a kind of alarm system to warn you when you are breaking His law. Our conscience is imperfect and needs to be calibrated by God’s Word, but, in the famous words of Martin Luther, “to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” If we violate our conscience–even on matters where our conscience is simply overreacting–we run the risk of searing our conscience entirely, of unplugging the alarm system, and plunging into more sin.
 
So, does your conscience tell you that your current habit of drinking is wrong? Do you wake up the morning afterwards with a haze of guilt for how many drinks you had? If so, then heed your conscience. Perhaps it is overly sensitive, but you must first be “fully convinced in your own mind” (Rom 14:5) before partaking, otherwise you are in sin, full-stop (Rom 14:23). So, study the issue more thoroughly, seek godly counsel, pray, and think more about it as you seek to align your conscience with God’s Word. But do not imbibe if your conscience continues to tell you: this is wrong. No drink is worth sinning against a holy God. No glass is worth the danger of deadened conscience.

4. Am I encouraging others to sin?
 
Speaking of Romans 14, consider, “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble,” (Rom 14:21). Maybe your conscience is settled that this isn’t wrong, maybe you have a heart of gratitude, and the fruit of the Spirit is evident while you drink. You are confident that you are not drinking to drunkenness but are responsibly enjoying the good gift of wine that God has given. Praise God!
 
But what happens if at your next dinner party there is someone there who isn’t as mature as you are? What if there is a couple whose marriage has been blown apart by alcohol? Or, what if there is a weak brother whose conscience has simply told them it is wrong to drink? Will they feel pressured to join in and drink? Are you confident that you aren’t laying a stumbling block in front of them? If not, then you must abstain (1 Cor 8:11-12). In regard to the issue of eating meat, Paul explains, “if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble,” (1 Cor 8:13). Paul exhorts us to be prudent about our Christian liberty: “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God,” (Rom 14:22).

Knowing what the right setting is to enjoy a drink is not always easy to discern and depends on what you know about the people around you. There may be individuals who strongly believe it would be wrong for them to drink, but do not feel any temptation to drink when around others who are. Frank conversations should take place where relationships allow, but erring on the side of caution seems to be the path of wisdom.
 
5. Can I stop?
 
Do you have to drink? Can you enjoy a social event without a glass? Is the merlot an essential part of your nightly ritual? Maybe you aren’t drinking to the point of drunkenness, but you can still become addicted to alcohol without it impairing your judgment. Paul explains, “I will not be dominated by anything,” (1 Cor 6:12) and Peter exhorts: “People are slaves to whatever has mastered them,” (2 Pet 2:19, NIV). Has alcohol become a Lord over you? Are you free to abstain? If you take the drink away, do you find yourself becoming irritable? Depressed? Anxious? Do you need a drink? If so, you have become mastered by something other than Christ. 

If you find yourself in a pattern of drinking consistently, take this simple test: stop for a while. Maybe a couple of weeks, maybe a month, maybe more, and see how you respond. You may find that abstaining is no problem, or you may discover that you are more enslaved than you realized. Not being able to stop is a sure sign of an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.

God’s good gift of wine is a blessing. The Church should be a model of godly, appropriate, worshipful use of wine, beer, and strong drink. But it is also a dangerous blessing. Much like sex, money, influence, food, and much more, it can be abused. And so, we should know ourselves thoroughly and exercise great caution. Drunkenness is not a “ha-ha” moment that we shrug off, like an off-color joke. It is destruction. So, the Church should also be a model of willingly abstaining when we need to.

In Closing
 
Bacchus may not be safe to meet apart from Aslan, but the whole party is thrown in the presence of Aslan–in fact, Aslan is the very one who summoned Bacchus! After the great feast and romp, we are told:

“…all of a sudden everyone felt at the same moment that the game (whatever it was), and the feast, ought to be over, and everyone flopped down breathless on the ground and turned their faces to Aslan to hear what he would say next.”

This is a perfect picture of delighting soberly in God’s good gift of wine.  There is play, laughter, and joy mingled with the self-control and presence of mind to know when to stop, to know when to set the glasses down, and look to Aslan and listen. 

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