In my previous post, I discussed how patience (along with the closely-related virtues of endurance and perseverance) is one of the most valuable Christian virtues in connection to Christian maturity. However, there is another virtue of the Christian life which, when duly exercised, will contribute substantially to our well-being as individual Christians and as a church body. If we are to pursue genuine Christian maturity, we must heed the exhortation towards sobriety.
I think that most Christians would think of sobriety primarily in terms of restraint from alcohol or other addictive substances. However, the scriptures give a fuller meaning of this virtue.
Sobriety and Wisdom
Within the OT, sobriety is often depicted in terms of levelheadedness in judgment. For example, during Job's period of severe trial, Job sought to find and keep the proper balance between hope and despair, while his unwise friends gave exaggerated and lopsided explanations of Job's sorrows and of God's purposes. For this, the Lord chastises Job's friends (cf. Job 42:7), even as Job is commended for his level-headed judgment. In this sense, sobriety was a form of true wisdom. The book of Proverbs illustrates that OT saints were made well-aware of the importance and value of a mind and heart that maintained a sober and well-balanced view which was in harmony with the God's law and yet avoided extremes of judgment of action. This explains why impulsiveness, carelessness, and exaggeration in emotion are considered traits of folly (cf. Proverbs 14:5; 18:2; 29:11).
The apostles build upon this OT background to define sobriety as freedom from every form of mental and spiritual drunkenness, which includes freedom from excess, inordinate passions, rashness, and confusion (cf. 1 Peter 1:13; 5:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:6). Therefore, the call to sobriety is a call to a well-balanced and self-controlled life and this call extends to all Christians and all stages of life. However, note that the apostles do not content themselves with the general call to sobriety, but address themselves in the matter to individuals and groups, listing Christians according to their calling with the specific application to their several needs. Consider the call of sobriety in our appraisal of gifts and character (cf. Romans 12:3), towards elders (cf. 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7-8), towards aged women (cf. Titus 2:4; 1 Timothy 2:9), towards young women (cf. Titus 2:5), towards aged men (cf. Titus 2:2), and towards young men (cf. Titus 2:2). Thus, sobriety is a necessary ingredient of every phase of our sanctified life and the very life of our church is conditioned by its influence.
Fundamentally, the gospel itself makes sobriety an imperative (cf. Titus 2:12), which also explain why Christians are exhorted towards sobriety in light of the imminent return of the Lord Jesus (cf. 1 Peter 4:7). However, of what sort is this spirit of sobriety? Consider the excellent statement from renowned Greek classicist G. Murray in regards to the NT word commonly used to express sobriety:
"There is a way of thinking which destroys and a way that saves. The man or woman who is sophron walks among the beauties and perils of the world, feeling the love; joy, anger, and the rest; and through it all he has that in his mind which saves. Whom does it save; Not him, but as we should say, the whole situation. It saves the imminent evil from coming to be."
Christ: The Standard of Sobriety
How can we apply the above statement to Christian sobriety? We must first recognize that we are children of God by faith in Christ Jesus and thus, we are called to be imitators of Him. Our Savior's mind was a sober mind; a mind dedicated to and centered upon the one purpose of His life - namely to save His people from the dreadful course of their lives which must end in eternal death. Christ was truly man, and thus He was affected by hunger, thirst, pain, hostility, human emotion, and earthly needs. He stood against Satan and world, but He stood always for His people, whose substitute He had become in His Person. Because He was absolutely determined to saving us, every word and deed was intentional deliberate. He assessed every event, every act of others, every word and occasion from this posture. He did not swing wildly in His responsibilities, His feelings, and His expressions.
Never did Christ compromise or ignore one jot or tittle of the Scriptures, yet consider how he varied His approach to men and situations. When a father implores Him in behalf of a demon-possessed son, Jesus meets the need immediately (cf. Matthew 17:14-23); however, when the Canaanite woman pleads for her daughter who is vexed by a devil, He deliberately delays (cf. Matthew 15:21-28). When the two sons of Zebedee approach Him with their strange request for seats of honor in His kingdom, the Savior chides them gently (cf. Matthew 20:20-24). However, when Simon Peter attempts to dissuade Jesus from the cross, the Lord rebukes him (cf. Matthew 16:21-23). The Lord could attack the profaning of the Temple by money-changers with controlled indignation (cf. Mark 11:15-19) and admonish the Simon the Pharisee with measured patience (cf. Luke 7:36-49). In each and every case, we can readily see that the Lord's words and actions were carefully tailored to the saving approach which each circumstance dictated.
Jesus is the pre-eminent example of sobriety, which has in itself the virtue of seeing in each case how Gospel truth, spirit and power will best be employed to promote a truly salutary result. Although we cannot hope to equal His performance, we can learn from it. For those of us who are Americans, we live in a society that is lives for the weekend and is oriented around entertainment and recreation. Our society is generally characterized by silliness, banality, and aimless hedonism, rather than the appropriate seriousness that comes from a saving understanding of the gospel. We must be especially careful not to allow this world to mold us into its likeness and to allow the lullaby of this world to cause us to fall asleep. As Christians, we are exhorted to take a sober stance at all times, in all our relationships with people, with events that confront us in our lives. This requires a circumspect, judicious mind which can properly evaluate the elements in a situation and respond to it in a sound and helpful manner.
We must also be aware of the counterfeit of this virtue. The people of the world know of something similar to Christian sobriety, but the resemblance is no more than superficial. The world speaks of tact, of diplomacy, of being circumspect, of adapting oneself to situations, of the art of compromise. However, these traits are often done from a self-serving and self-seeking heart, which is the very opposite of Christian sobriety. True sobriety is intentionally directed towards love of God and love of man; it searches out and finds the point at which the converging lines of full and explicit obedience to the Gospel and of the true need of men meet, and there takes proper action in love.
In light of the grace of God that has come to us, let us pursue maturity by living sober and godly lives in this present age as we wait for our blessed hope.
Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is Associate Professor of Atmospheric Physics at the College of Charleston, and writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.
A Small Book about A BIG Problem by Ed Welch