It was April 10, 2004 and I was living in Biloxi, Mississippi where I was training with the United States Air Force. It was also my twenty-first birthday. Of course, when my friends found out they planned a night of heavy drinking. Up to that point in my life I had never had a sip of alcohol. I was raised with the wrong idea that Christians don’t drink. But on that night, in my new found freedom, I cast aside all hesitation. My first round of drinks was from a bottle of seventy proof whiskey. That was soon followed by more drinks than I can now recall. Admittedly, the alcohol caught up with me and I spent the early morning hours bent over the porcelain throne covered in the stink and stench of my own vomit.
That’s not an amusing story. It’s pitiful. I was training in an environment that valued honor and commanded respect. But there’s absolutely nothing honorable or respectful about being drunk. Let’s be honest. No one wants engraved on their headstone: “Here lies a drunk.” I don't think anyone wants their enduring legacy to be centered on intoxication. And while it might make for a funny country song, no one is going to put on top of their résumé: “I’m pretty good at drinking beer.” Common sense seems to teach that drunkenness isn’t a virtue.
It would be saying too much to say that the Bible forbids or even condemns drinking alcohol. Unlike the religions of this world — Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc — biblical Christianity doesn’t teach that drinking alcohol is sinful. In fact, shocking as it might sound to some, the Bible recognizes the blessing and value of alcohol. The Psalmist sang: "You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man" (Psalm 104:14-15). When's the last time you sang something like that in church? Among other things, the Bible likens the abundance of wine with joy (Psalm 4:7), the relief it can give to those in distress (Proverbs 31:6), and its medicinal value (1 Timothy 5:23).
However, the Bible does clearly teach that drunkenness is sinful. Jesus said: “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life” (Luke 21:34). Paul wrote: “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy” (Romans 13:13). Peter taught: “For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry” (1 Peter 4:3). So serious is the sin of drunkenness that the Bible warns drunkards will not inherit the kingdom of heaven (1 Corinthians 6:10).
But why is drunkenness sinful? That’s a fair question. Sometimes, I think we view the commands of God like that cranky dad who barks out an order: “Just do as I say!” without any rhyme or reason. We need to remember, however, that the law of God is holy, righteous, and good (Romans 7:12). Did you catch that? The law is good! God isn't trying to be a killjoy in any of his commands. Rather, drunkenness is forbidden because it's for our good.
Biblically, one of the reasons drunkenness is a sin is because of the way it actually destroys our purpose in life. When Adam and Eve were created God gave to our first parents a purpose: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). The word “subdue” is a strong word. It means bringing something into bondage or service. Basically, God is saying that one of humanity’s purposes is to make use of this earth — all of its vast resources — for producing, researching, discovering, inventing, and advancing. Not as a mean tyrant but as a good steward who does all of these things for the glory of God. That includes using plants to bring forth wine to gladden the heart.
Drunkenness, however, turns that upside down. Rather than being a way of subduing the earth, drunkenness is being subdued by the earth — quite literally, it’s being brought under the influence and control of creation. That’s why, for instance, Paul cautions older women not to be “slaves to much wine” (Titus 2:3). Drunkenness isn’t exercising dominion over creation it’s being brought under its enslaving power. When you get drunk, alcohol is reigning as your master bending you to its influence.
Perhaps the best example of this is Noah. The name Noah means “rest,” and when he was born his dad had big expectations. Reflecting on the sweat and pain that sin brought, he said of his son: “Out of the ground that the LORD has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands” (Genesis 5:29). Did Noah do that — did he bring rest from the toil of the ground?
Well, after the flood when Noah and his family stepped on dry ground God reminded him that all of creation was given to him (Genesis 9:1-3). Noah was supposed to resume subduing the earth. So he did. We’re told he became a “man of the soil.” Tragically, one of the last things we read about Noah in Genesis is that he planted a vineyard and got drunk. The great Patriarch of the faith intoxicated, naked, and passed out in his tent. Is that a comical scene? No way! It's disgraceful that this man – so esteemed by God and others – was completely drunk. Instead of subduing the fruit of the earth he was subdued by it (see Genesis 9:20-21). Noah failed to live up to his name.
That’s a picture of what drunkenness really is — it’s dishonorable and foolish. But the gospel counters what sin does. Even as drunkenness enslaves us, Jesus Christ breaks the power of that dominion and brings us, by faith in his life and death, into a captive liberty to him: “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:17-18). Only then are we set free to do what we have been created to do: glorify God and enjoy him forever.