I originally wrote this post, “Sobriety” in August of 2020. Little did I know that less than a year later I would be working as a substance use disorder counselor. I’ve never specialized in the recovery field, and I’m learning much about what is clinically helpful for those in recovery and what is not. But as always, my chief calling and purpose in life is to keep my thinking and practice rooted in Scripture, and to share how Scripture comes to life in every experience, if we are awake to it. So I’m re-sharing some of the Bible’s teaching on this very timely topic.
“Sobriety” is a word so beautiful when spoken by recovering alcoholics or addicts celebrating freedom from controlling addictions. My big brother is one of them. He calls me now and then and reports to me, “I’m still sober,” and I give joyful thanks and praise to God every time I hear it.
If you ask those who have gotten sober, they will tell you that there is a lot more to it than merely abstaining from a particular mind-and-body-altering substance or behavior. Sobriety encompasses a comprehensive life change–in thinking, behavior, emotional regulation, relationship, purpose, and value system.
The founders of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous understood this well. Though AA has been adapted to be applicable to a diversity of worldviews, its founders were Christians, and the Steps started and ended with God, their “higher power.”
The program starts with confessing helplessness to manage our own lives and surrendering our unmanageable lives to God. We ask him to restore us to sanity. We accept conviction over our harmful behavior, seek to make amends, and commit to following a more honest, morally clean life. The pièce de résistance is Step 12:
“Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”
Sobriety turns out to be a spiritual awakening, to be shared with others who long to be awakened. It sounds a lot like repentance to me, and receiving one of the fruits of repentance, a sober mind. A sober mind allows us to live a principled, righteous life. A sober mind gives us a capacity to overcome self-obsession and begin serving others.
Did you know that the Bible speaks in many places about the need to be sober, or sober-minded? It is one of the benefits of the new birth, as well as a characteristic of a maturing disciple. One of the most familiar passages is this:
“Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).
Sobriety means we aren’t asleep at the switch, or under the influence of any worldly power. If we are to avoid the plans the enemy has for us, we must be sober and watchful.
The same writer, Peter, also tells us that when our minds are “alert and fully sober,” they become more hopeful also, joyfully watching for the return of Jesus Christ. We are empowered not to conform to our former desires, but to live in obedience to God, continual prayer, and a love for others that “covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 1:13-14; 4:7-8). Don’t we want to grab onto that way of living and not let go?
The Apostle Paul, after exhorting disciples to become living sacrifices, as their “reasonable service,” admonishes them,
“Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you” (Rom. 12:1-3).
This expresses another important aspect of having a sober, sound mind–that we have a realistic, honest appraisal of our own strengths and weaknesses. In my encounters with recovering addicts, this is one of the most refreshing aspects of their awakening. They are able to admit their faults, and at the same time, discover the ways that God has gifted them with strengths and talents. They—and all of us—need to understand how God wants to use us, even in our weaknesses, as he has uniquely fashioned us.
Some passages in the New Testament are more literal in their use of the two Greek words translated “sober.” In the Pastoral Epistles to Timothy and Titus, sober mindedness is a way of life expected of elders, deacons, older men, older women, young men, and young women. No one is left out. We are all responsible for the way we represent the name of Christ in the world.
This doesn’t just mean that we aren’t to be drunk and disorderly. Other words used in connection to this picture of sobriety are discipline, dignity, self-control, faith, love, patient endurance, solid faith, purity, love, devotion, hospitality, nobility, integrity, wholesomeness (Titus 2:1-7, TPT). As I said, comprehensive life transformation comes with a sound mind. It’s a whole package.
There is a sense in which every compulsive, sinful behavior can be characterized as lust—an inordinate, illicit craving for something to satisfy our fleshly desires. When we begin to live our lives in God, the flesh still lusts against the Spirit. But the good news is that the Spirit fights back. If we commit our time, energy, attention, and wills into the keeping of the Holy Spirit, he will help us. He will show us the way to keep our hearts and minds pure.
I’ll finish with Paul’s wonderful exhortation to the Thessalonians. It applies to all who put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, and want to please him in every way:
You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet (1 Thess. 5:5-8).
We don’t need alcohol, drugs, or any other life-controlling compulsion if we can embrace this joyful path of sobriety in the Lord. Let us put on the mighty armor he has provided and live as those who belong to the light.