Nicotine, Amphetamines, and Holy Concentration
New week, new day, new mercies. Welcome back to the podcast on this Monday. We are going to start the week talking about nicotine — pipe smoking, specifically. But I think this topic, and this question, is likely to open up a much broader conversation about other stimulants — caffeine, sugar, amphetamines, cannabis, and THC for some — substances that provoke the central nervous system.
The question is from a listener named Robert in Goldwater, Mississippi. “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for this podcast! Eighteen months ago, in APJ 1702, you published an episode titled ‘On Cigarettes, Vaping, and Nicotine.’ It proved helpful to me. But I have a follow-up question for you. Many years ago, when I chewed smokeless tobacco, I discovered that my concentration for reading was improved. Apparently, the nicotine did something to my mind and body to increase my focus. Today I am considering taking up pipe smoking, something like C.S. Lewis did. I would continue this only if it improved my concentration. Pastor John, would you address the use of nicotine for the purpose of improved concentration?”
Well, I come into a question like this basically in the same category as everybody else. I am simply not an expert in all the possible effects — medically, socially, psychologically — that nicotine or other drugs might have on the human person. I have to do my simple research online just like everybody else does. That’s how I get ready for this podcast. I do what everybody else can do. I look for definitions and I go to Wikipedia. I go to medical websites and I try to get up to speed. So don’t put me on any kind of pedestal here like I’ve got some authority on how to answer a question like this. I’ve got my Bible; you’ve got your Bible. I’ve got Wikipedia; you’ve got Wikipedia. Here we go.
But here’s what I can do. What I can do is highlight some possible outcomes — just like anybody else can — of the use of various drugs, and I can point to some biblical guidelines and then pray that God’s people, myself included, would have great wisdom, and great self-control, and great passion for holiness and purity, and great love for others as we make our way through these days when more and more natural and artificial stimulants are available.
As I think about this question that he’s asking — about nicotine in particular — I’m going to broaden it out, because here in Minnesota a far more urgent question concerns cannabis (the constituent of marijuana) and the relatively recent upsurge of cannabis-infused drinks on sale for anybody wherever they have them. And they’re increasingly available, with all different percentages of cannabis.
The marijuana-like substance that goes into these drinks is called THC, which is short for an unpronounceable, long scientific word, which you can see in Wikipedia. That’s the psychoactive constituent of cannabis, and that’s what’s getting infused into all kinds of drinks and foods. If you read about the effects of THC, what you read is that there is a wide range of possible effects, from heightened sensory perception — I think that’s what Robert’s talking about — to relaxation, sleepiness, dizziness, dry mouth, euphoria, depersonalization, derealization, hallucination, paranoia, decreased or increased anxiety.
Now, the difference between smoking marijuana and drinking THC-infused drinks is that, when the drug is inhaled into the lungs, it passes quickly into the bloodstream, peaking in about ten minutes and wearing off in a couple of hours, while cannabis-infused foods and drinks may take hours to digest, and their effects may peak after two or three hours and persist for up to six hours. So says Wikipedia. You think I know things — I don’t know anything. This is just all learned for this podcast.
Of course, cannabis and nicotine are just two of many psychoactive stimulants, including sugar, caffeine, alcohol, opioids, betel nut, and not to mention the hard drugs that are illegal. Now, Robert says he used to use chewing tobacco as a way of getting better concentration, and he’s thinking about taking up pipe smoking if it works for the same reason. And what’s surprising in his question to me is that he didn’t raise any of the downsides of tobacco.
I mean, if you go to the Health and Social Services website online and just ask about that, here’s what you read:
Chewing tobacco can cause many types of cancer, including cancer of the mouth, tongue, gums, stomach, esophagus, and bladder. Heavy users might also notice that their teeth can start to get worn down and stained by the chewing tobacco, which can also cause the gums to recede. Regular chewing-tobacco use is linked to higher heart attack risks too, since it is known to raise blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
And there are similar warnings for pipe smoking. So, for example, “Cigar and pipe smokers are more likely to develop heart disease, stroke, and lung diseases than those who do not smoke.” So you can do your own simple research, just like I do on sugar (I mean, how serious is that?) or caffeine or alcohol or various preservatives in drugs and foods — all kinds of things that worry people these days.
Eight New Testament Guidelines
The New Testament does not solve these ethical problems of what we should eat, what we should drink — how much or not at all — by giving us a list of foods and drinks that are lawful. It couldn’t. It didn’t even foresee what was coming down the pike. The New Testament writers weren’t given that kind of prescience.
It addresses these things much more profoundly than by giving us a list of foods that we should avoid or drinks that we should avoid. It deals with the nature of what goes into the body or comes out of the body, the nature of who we are as Christians, the nature of our body and our soul, the nature of our calling as Christians and what life in the body is for, and how we personally relate to other people in regard to what we eat or drink.
“It isn’t foods that defile. It’s the motives and aims that come out of the heart.”
So here’s my summary of biblical realities in the form of eight guidelines. Now, I’ve never listed them like this before; this was all fresh for me as I thought about getting ready for this particular question, and I found breaking them out like this was helpful for me. I hope it will be for others. I’ll state it simply and give you the place that I get it from the Bible.
Foods or drink, material things that go into the body, are not in themselves spiritually contaminating. It is the motives and the aims and the effects that make food and drink become morally significant.
Jesus said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him.” (Mark 7:18–20)
That’s principle number 1. It isn’t foods that defile. It’s the motives and aims that come out of the heart.
Therefore, food and drink are God’s good creation and are meant to be enjoyed as an occasion of thanksgiving to God.
[False teachers] require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 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 Timothy 4:3–5)
The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. We should let that have a very profound effect on us. Keep the temple holy because it’s inhabited by the Holy Spirit. Keep the body properly set apart for God’s habitation. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:19).
Your body is a member of Christ. Our bodies are part of Christ’s body. So we not only are inhabited by the Holy Spirit; we’re part of Christ. We bring him into every habit we form with our bodies. “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 6:15).
Christians don’t use their freedom just because they have it; they ask about what is helpful for their faith and the faith of others. “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful” (1 Corinthians 6:12).
Christians don’t just use their freedom because they have it; they seek to avoid freely walking into a habit that enslaves. That happens. People really do use their freedom to get enslaved. Don’t do that. “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be [enslaved] by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12).
Your body does not belong to you. God bought it with the blood of Christ. God owns your body — it’s his. His purpose is that you make your choices about your body in order to make God look valuable, beautiful, satisfying. “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20).
Christians don’t make food and drink and stimulant decisions in isolation. They walk in love and take into account how their habits will help or hurt others. “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13).
By the Spirit, Not Lists
So this is the way God wants us to live: not by lists, but by the Spirit. Paul put it like this in Romans 7:6: “Now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” And the new way of the Spirit is to let these passages inspired by the Spirit shape the way we see God, the way we see Christ, the way we see the Holy Spirit, the way we see our bodies, the way we see food and drugs, the way we see freedom, and the way we see love and the good of other people. The new way of the Spirit is a whole new conception of God and Christ and Spirit and life and body and love, and that’s how Christians live.
So may the Lord take Robert and me and all of us deep into his word and Spirit, and may he be your teacher so that you and I and we would all walk in freedom, in joy, in holiness, for the glory of God.