Respectable Drunkenness

Subtle Ways to Numb a Soul

Drunkenness is an unusually seeable sin. People can drink in secret, of course, but if they’re drunk around others (especially those who know them well), it’s generally not hard to tell. The bloodshot eyes, the flushed face, the inability to focus, the slurred speech, the slowed processing speed, the loud talking, the difficulty walking in a straight line, the erratic laughter. Unlike many others, drunk people wear their sin on their sleeve. And pants. And sometimes on the person next to them.

My freshman year at college was my jarring introduction to drunkenness. One night an especially inebriated rugby player ripped the drinking fountain off the dorm wall. Another night, a different guy (unknowingly) relieved himself in a friend’s dresser drawer. Drunkenness is a loud and ugly sin. We can probably all remember (unwanted) encounters we’ve had with it.

The more I’ve considered what excessive alcohol does to a person, though, the more I wonder if drunkenness isn’t something of a parable for a whole host of subtler abuses. What if God allowed rugby players to make a fool of themselves to warn us about more respectable and prevalent forms of drunkenness, all the socially acceptable ways we try to distract and numb ourselves?

Five Dangers of Abusing Anything

Alcohol, remember, was invented by God, not man, as a gift, not a curse — “to gladden the heart of man” (Psalm 104:15). Like so many gifts, however, it can (quickly) become a curse when it’s enjoyed carelessly or indulgently. In a previous article, I reflected on a wise father’s warnings to his son about drunkenness in Proverbs 23:29–35 (which I’ll rehearse below). Meditating on these dangers over months now, though, had me wondering if we might experience the same kinds of symptoms or consequences in other, more subtle patterns of sin. I think we do.

The first danger is confusion, or blurry eyes. “Your eyes will see strange things” (Proverbs 23:33). Abusing alcohol will rob you of the ability to perceive actual reality. You will see things that are not there, or you’ll see things that are there but not as they are.

The second danger is perversion, or a dull conscience. “Your heart [will] utter perverse things” (Proverbs 23:33). Under the influence of excessive alcohol, you’ll be more likely to sin, more vulnerable to temptation. Drunkenness makes a deadly pit look like a well (verse 27).

The third danger is instability, or unreliable hands. “[The drunk man] will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea, like one who lies on the top of a mast” (Proverbs 23:34). Alcohol leaves a man asleep in grave peril, in situations where his alertness really matters (like while sailing or driving). When he’s needed most, he’s unavailable.

The fourth danger is a kind of paralysis, or a numb soul: “‘They struck me,’ you will say, ‘but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it’” (Proverbs 23:35). The drunk man’s senses have been so dulled that he cannot even feel when someone beats him. Spiritually speaking, he becomes numb to temptation and sin, to worship and holiness. Alcohol slowly paralyzes his most important abilities.

The final danger is futility, or an empty, restless heart. “When shall I awake?” the drunk man asks. “I must have another drink” (Proverbs 23:35). The drunk person desperately looks for satisfaction, searching and searching, drinking and drinking, but he never finds the bottom. Drunkenness is a well without water, a marathon without a finish line.

It’s not hard to see that excessive alcohol does these kinds of things to a person. The symptoms are loud and disruptive. It may not be much harder, though, to see how other, subtler indulgences can do the same.

Drunk Without Drinking

Can you think of anything you like to do that sometimes causes one of these symptoms? An inability to discern or feel spiritual reality. A greater vulnerability to temptation. A laziness or distractedness that makes you unavailable when needed. A numbness to spiritual things. A restless sense of dissatisfaction or frustration.

Doesn’t overeating do this to us? Doesn’t laziness do this to us? Doesn’t obsession with sports, or news, or social media? What about shopping, always hunting for the next deal? What about binge-watching that series for hours at a time? Don’t our phones hold this kind of numbing, distracting power?

Of course, in the right time and measure, the pleasures we experience in these moments are not bad. All of them can be blessings from God, like alcohol, given to help us enjoy him. And yet all become dangerous when they gain a measure of control over us.

Why might God allow alcohol to undo people like it so often does? That’s a weighty, sensitive question, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers to it. But might God ordain drunkenness, at least in part, as a kind of drama to awaken us to the consequences of abusing any of his gifts? These other abuses don’t often manifest themselves like drunkenness — they’re not as loud and ugly — but they can be every bit as dangerous to our souls.

The apostle Paul sounds a broader warning for us: “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). Not just alcohol, but anything. So, what in your life has the potential to dominate you? Another way to ask that question would be to ask questions like these:

  • What erodes your ability to discern truth from lies and good from evil, your ability to see the world, yourself, and God accurately?
  • What makes it easier for you to fall into temptation? What makes sin more appealing to you?
  • What compromises your ability to meet the needs of those around you, especially those who depend on you?
  • What numbs you to reality, especially spiritual reality — to God, to his word, to his will for your life?
  • What consistently leaves you feeling empty and restless?

Under a Better Influence

Then, having discerned your specific areas of weakness or temptation (and shared them with a brother or sister in Christ), you might also ask what does the opposite in you.

  • What in your life brings spiritual reality into clarity and focus? What makes Christ seem more real, trustworthy, and satisfying?
  • What makes temptation seem pathetic and unappealing and dangerous?
  • What stabilizes your soul through conflict and hardship?
  • What heightens your awareness and sensitivity to the needs around you?
  • What quenches your deepest thirsts and satisfies your deepest longings?

You could summarize questions like these by saying,

Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit. (Ephesians 5:18)

This was another light-bulb moment for me. What if God allows the pitiful misery and destructiveness of drunkenness, at least in part, so that he can turn to his children and say, “Do not get drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit”? Do you see how captive that man is to alcohol? Be that captive to God. Live so that someone might look at your life and say, “He’s been captured by something — by someone. He’s not his own anymore.”

Habits of Clarity and Joy

If you want to begin drinking at those wells, to be slowly arrested and transformed by the Spirit, I encourage you to read a book like Habits of Grace. The three core habits — the word of God, prayer, and fellowship — have liberated countless hearts from darkness (including mine) and filled them with light and life and joy. And they’re all the more effective when we intentionally enjoy them together, with other believers.

“Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Avoid whatever, like drunkenness, undermines the work of the Spirit inside of you, whatever dulls and distracts your heart. Periodically audit the habits you’ve developed, the ones you’ve chosen and the ones you’ve fallen into, and consider how you might cut back (or out) whatever tends to weaken your soul. And then pursue, with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, whatever increases and refines your love for Christ — whatever helps you run hard after him.