Upon encountering the New Testament vision for the normal Christian life, a reader with even the tiniest dose of sensitivity is soon aware that the gospel is radically out of step with the rhythms and values of modern life. Yet I think few biblical exhortations are more jarring to us today than the frequent appeal for Christians to be “sober” in all they think and do (Romans 12:3, I Thessalonians 5:6-8, I Timothy 3:2, I Timothy 3:11, II Timothy 4:5, Titus 2:2, I Peter 1:13, I Peter 4:7, I Peter 5:8). We are a culture increasingly marked by our obessessions with the trivial, by our relentless silliness, and by our almost absolute refusal to take anything seriously in the moral dimensions of life. When was the last time you heard “sober” applied positively as an adjective to a figure in the public square?
As is so often the case with biblical interpretation, the most important questions we can ask of these texts are also the most basic. What does “sober” mean in these contexts, and why is it the preferred route of action in this world we find ourselves in? The what is actually a bit tricky, because I fear we tend to associate “sobriety” mostly with moroseness and with somber, miserable killjoys, which is self-evidently not what the apostles were themselves, nor what they tried to produce in their fledgling churches. Being “sober” in the New Testament sense of the word has little to do–directly–with the degree of joyfulness one possesses or lacks. Instead, I think a good paraphrase would be to render it something like this: “Live in accordance with reality, as it has been made known in Jesus, in every moment and every situation of your existence. Bring all of your thinking and feeling and doing in line with the perspective of the gospel, and do not ever descend back into the make-believe fantasy realm you once inhabited, where in your dark spiritual stupor the Lord was horribly marginalized and you were fast becoming less genuinely human. Now that you have been redeemed from such nightmares, stay awake constantly.”
Whatever else we are as sinful human beings, we each “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” in our own unique and creative ways (Romans 1:18-32). That is, for the most part we each recognize the way things actually are in the universe that God has created–lack of knowledge or intelligence is not the main problem for anyone, hence we are “without excuse”. Yet given our profound distaste for this God-centered construal of the drama of existence, we choose to ignore it and live in fantasies of our own choosing, fantasies much more in keeping with our vanity and selfishness. In this sense, fallen sinners are ethically intoxicated, morally drunk, and therefore in need of a total realignment. Like the child who prevents an inflatable ball from rising to the surface of the water (as it naturally tends to on its own) in the backyard swimming pool, we have an inbuilt propensity to hold down the actual contours of reality under the layers of our seared consciousness when we find them to be uncomfortable or ill-suited to our desires. What else do you think is really going on in every relationship where both parties are consistently convinced after every argument that they alone are right and justified and the other person is solely at fault? It takes a heavy dose of unreality to be that daft. Being “sober” means, above all else, rejecting this entire anti-God state of affairs that we have created and continue daily to maintain with unbelievable committment. It means engaging with reality, ruthlessly and unapologetically, in the light of all that God has shown us in Christ about ourselves and our world and Him.
This still leaves the why question, though. Why ought we always and in every situation to strive for this kind of spiritual sobriety? To be frank, isn’t this kind of moral earnestness a bit overdone, not to mention impossible? Can’t Christians just coast on auto pilot during some days or even seasons of life? Where is the harm in that, as long as we are mostly serious about our faith the rest of the time?
I am sure that there must be dozens of important and legitimate reasons for habitual moral alertness that could be persuasively made, but I find C. S. Lewis’ rationale in the quotes below to be cause enough for me to sober up and live according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh:
“Does it not make a great difference whether I am, so to speak, the landlord of my own mind and body, or only a tenant, responsible to the real landlord? If somebody else made me, for his own purposes, then I shall have a lot of duties which I should not have if I simply belonged to myself. Again, Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live forever, and this must be either true or false. Now there are a good many things which would not be worth bothering about if I were going to live only seventy years, but which I had better bother about very seriously if I am going to live forever. Perhaps my bad temper or my jealousy are gradually getting worse–so gradually that the increase in seventy years will not be very noticeable. But it might be absolute hell in a million years: in fact, if Christianity is true, Hell is the precisely correct technical term for what it would be.” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 74)
“People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, ‘If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.’ I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other. That explains what always used to puzzle me about Christian writers; they seem to be so very strict at one moment and so very free and easy at another. They talk about mere sins of thought as if they were immensely important: and then they talk about the most frightful murders and treacheries as if you had only got to repent and all would be forgiven. But I have come to see that they are right. What they are always thinking of is the mark which the action leaves on that tiny central self which no one sees in this life but which each of us will have to endure–or enjoy–forever. One man may be so placed that his anger sheds the blood of thousands, and another so placed that however angry he gets he will only be laughed at. But the little mark on the soul may be much the same in both. Each has done something to himself which, unless he repents, will make it harder for him to keep out of the rage next time he is tempted, and will make the rage worse when he does fall into it. Each of them, if he seriously turns to God, can have that twist in the central man straightened out again: each is, in the long run, doomed if he will not. The bigness of smallness of the thing, seen from the outside, is not what really matters.” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pp. 92-93)
“Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridghead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 132)
“Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”” (I Peter 1:13-16)