Under the Influence

My best friend when I was very little lived right across the street from us; we were at each other’s houses all the time. I remember that in his garage, there was a beer keg on tap. One day, out of the blue as best as I can remember, my friend looked at that keg and told me that when he grew up, he would never drink alcohol because of the way it made his parents act. I don’t know why – maybe it was how suddenly serious and sad he seemed – but that memory stuck with me.

Our family moved to another state before my 8th birthday, and, as often happens with those early childhood friendships, my friend and I didn’t keep in touch. My mom kept in touch with his mom though. Mom would feed me updates about my friend from time to time: how he’d graduated high school; how he was off to college. I can’t say I had anything more than passing interest in these updates. One day though, my mom called to tell me the sad news that caught my full attention: my friend had overdosed on alcohol and died, choking on his own vomit.

How could he have done something he was so sure he wouldn’t do? And yet, that’s the effect that alcohol has on people. It has an incredibly powerful influence.

I know some Christians read Ephesians 5:18 and live their lives trying not to cross the magic line between a beer buzz and the drunken debauchery that they believe Paul had in mind, all while mocking other Christians who make grammatical arguments that “drunk” is a process that should never even begin. Some feel like they haven’t crossed that magic line; others find themselves caught in that whirlpool that eventually drowned my childhood friend as it has many others.

I don’t know that I can settle that debate for anyone, but maybe I can redirect the conversation. You see, I don’t really think we should spend all of our time focusing on the prohibition against drunkenness and its attendant debauchery. I think we should focus instead on the contrasting command, “but be filled with the Spirit.”

What does that mean, “be filled with the Spirit”? I have an idea that some Christians read that and kind of ignore it, assuming that, whatever it means, it’s something God does, not us. But the verse doesn’t say, “and you will be filled with the Spirit,” nor should it. It’s correctly translated, “but be filled with the Spirit.”

You can argue about the grammar of “drunk,” whether it describes the process or the end product, but you can’t argue about the nature of “be filled.” It’s an imperative command, and, though passive in structure (“be filled,” not “fill”), it’s clearly something over which we have a degree of control. If not, it wouldn’t be commanded.

The Holy Spirit desperately seeks to have an influence over men’s hearts. Wielding His living and active sword, the word of God (Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:15), He cuts through the joints and marrow and heads straight for the heart. Some never give the Spirit a chance; they despise God’s prophetic Word and quench any opportunity the Spirit has to influence their lives (1 Thessalonians 5:19-20). In some hearts though, the Spirit finds something truly tragic: though the heart might have otherwise been willing, it is under the influence of another.

There’s a reason Paul contrasts drinking wine with being filled with the Spirit. It’s not a question of magic lines between the safe drink and the sinful one. It’s a question of influence. Either alcohol wields influence, or the Spirit does. They can’t both at the same time.

Christian, whether you dabble in alcohol, defend those who do, or find yourself trapped in the despair of a life of drunken debauchery, it’s time to stop. Listen to Peter: “For we have spent enough of our past lifetime in doing the will of the Gentiles—when we walked in lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries” (1 Peter 4:3). It’s time to do no one’s will but God’s and be under the influence of no spirit but His.
-Patrick Swayne