Under the Influence
By David Feddes
I awoke to the sound of someone pounding on the door. It was 4 o’clock in the morning. I was a college student at the time, living with several other guys. The banging at our door continued until someone finally got up and opened it. A voice spoke in urgent tones. There had been a terrible car accident. Three young men had been killed. College officials found out that my roommate had once been the resident assistant in their dorm and knew them. Since their families lived far away, could he please be the one to go and identify the bodies for law enforcement officials? My roommate did his grim duty. It turned out that the three victims had been out drinking at a nearby bar. The young man who was driving had been under the influence of alcohol.
That was one of my first brushes with the deadly power of alcohol, but it wasn’t the last. Someone I knew was arrested for armed robbery. He did it while he was drunk. Another person I knew was charged with raping his best friend’s girlfriend. The rape charge didn’t stick because the jury was not convinced beyond reasonable doubt that the young woman was unwilling. But it was beyond reasonable doubt that sexual sin had occurred and that the man and woman were both drunk at the time.
After I became a pastor, I got to know many more people and got to know many more problems. I have listened to many people weeping over marriages that dissolved because of drinking or drugs. I have listened to desperate parents mourning what their kids have become because of addictions. I have seen the struggles of children who have alcoholic parents.
But you don’t need me to tell you this. You could tell stories of your own about relatives or friends who died or got in trouble with the law or ruined their families or just plain messed up their lives while “under the influence.” Maybe you don’t just know such people. Maybe you are one of those who is being harmed by the power of alcohol.
You might expect me to say that people should never be under the influence, that they should always be in complete control of their own actions. But that’s not what I’m going to say. Instead, I want to say that you haven’t really lived, you haven’t really enjoyed life at its best, until you know what it’s like to be under the influence. In fact, life is best if you’re under the influence all the time, every hour of every day.
There’s a lot more to life than just staying sober and being in charge of your thoughts and emotions and actions. The best and happiest life is when your thoughts and emotions and actions are affected by some other power, when you’re under an influence that makes you someone you wouldn’t otherwise be. The influence I’m talking about, though, isn’t the power of alcohol or drugs; it’s the power of the Spirit of God.
In Ephesians 5:18, the Bible says, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit.” In other words, be divinely drunk, spiritually soused. God puts getting drunk side by side with being filled by his Spirit, and the Lord hints that there’s at least something in common. That’s a shocking comparison! There’s also a contrast, of course—getting drunk and being Spirit-filled are very different—but by putting the two side by side, the Bible is saying they are also comparable in some ways.
When you drink too much alcohol, you became another person. You do some things you wouldn’t otherwise do. Likewise, when you’re filled with the Holy Spirit, you also become another person and do some things you wouldn’t otherwise do. In both cases, you’re under the influence of another power.
On the day of Pentecost, shortly after Jesus rose from the dead, God poured out his Holy Spirit with tremendous power on the followers of Jesus. When Jesus’ disciples were filled with the Spirit, they began to praise God and to speak of him in such a way that those who heard them could tell they were under the influence of something beyond themselves. These onlookers reacted in one of two ways. They were either amazed at the power of God and his mighty wonders, or else they made fun of the disciples and said, “They have had too much wine.” Apparently, there is something about the Holy Spirit’s influence that is so unusual and overwhelming that if you didn’t know better, you might think a Spirit-filled person was drunk.
So let’s think about being under the influence. One of the most basic facts about human beings is that God designed us with a desire to be under an influence beyond ourselves. You and I were not designed simply to be our own persons. We were created with a need to be filled with the Holy Spirit of God and to live under his joyous, life-giving influence. If we’re not under the Spirit’s influence, we may try to satisfy our craving by putting ourselves under some other influence, like alcohol or drugs. In a sense, getting drunk or getting high is a religious experience. It’s an attempt to satisfy our religious craving to be under the influence of some other power. We have that craving because our hearts are restless and empty until they are filled with the Spirit for whom we were created. Being under the influence is either a terrible and deadly thing, or else it’s a life-giving and joyful thing. It all depends what influence you’re under.
The Bible says, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit.” When these words of the Bible were first written, drunkenness was an epidemic. Drunken parties were even a sacred ceremony in some religions. Many people who came to Christ had once lived this way, and huge numbers of non-Christians were still living this way. Christians needed the reminder not to go back to their old ways, and non-Christians needed to know that their drunken excess was a sign that they were far from God.
Things haven’t changed much, have they? No matter where you go nowadays, you’re told that happiness and alcohol go together. You can’t watch a game on TV without seeing a beer commercial. You can’t open a magazine without seeing liquor ads. You can’t drive down the road without seeing liquor billboards. Advertisers keep trumpeting that alcohol brings happiness. That message comes at you from every angle, and not just in advertising. You probably won’t make it through school without classmates offering you booze or drugs. You can hardly go to an office party or a wedding reception without getting pressured to drink too much. “Have a good time” often means, “Go ahead, drink till you’re under the influence.”
Even some churches go with the flow. Some church people are more comfortable drinking with a group of buddies than praying with them or sharing Christ with them. Some church people dress well on Sunday morning but drink like pagans on Friday night. Many church weddings begin with a sacred ceremony and end in a drunken dance. A pastor may wince to see an elder or the bride’s mother acting silly, but what pastor dares to stop the party and warn that drunkenness belongs outside God’s kingdom (Galatians 5:21)?
The Bible says bluntly, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery.” Now, if you’re like me, “debauchery” isn’t a word you use every day. You might not know what it means. But whatever it means, it must be bad! “Debauchery”—the word even sounds disgusting, doesn’t it? What does it actually mean? It means to squander, to overdo, to go to excess, to waste, to throw away. Debauchery means throwing away money, throwing away time, throwing away energy, throwing away health, throwing away family, throwing away dignity, throwing away purity, throwing away intellect, throwing away yourself, throwing away your life. That happens when you’re under the influence of alcohol. Living under the influence of alcohol leads to debauchery, to trashing everything that matters. There’s a sharp contrast between that kind of life and the Spirit-filled life.
But that’s not the only reason Scripture mentions these things side by side. Yes, there are sharp contrasts, but another reason for mentioning the influence of alcohol and the influence of the Holy Spirit in the same breath is that there are some parallels or comparisons. By looking at the impact liquor has on people, we can get a better grasp on the impact God’s Spirit has on people.
Not Just Words
One obvious thing about liquor is that it’s not just an abstract idea. Alcohol changes you. When you drink a lot of it, you’re not the same person you were before you got drunk. So it is with the Holy Spirit. He’s not just an abstract idea. He’s a person and an active power. When you’ve got the Holy Spirit in you, you’re a different person than you were without him. You’re under the influence of a power that changes who you are.
To speak of liquor and the Holy Spirit in the same breath may not be a flattering comparison, but God wants to drive home the point that the influence of his Spirit is even more real and powerful than the influence of alcohol. Genuine Christianity isn’t just a matter of words but of power. Jesus didn’t just come into the world to give us a new set of ideas. He came to give us new life, and to bring a new power to bear in our lives: the power of his Holy Spirit living within us.
There’s a big difference between reading the label on a liquor bottle and actually drinking what’s inside the bottle. There’s also a big difference between reading what the Bible says about the Holy Spirit and actually being filled with the Holy Spirit. You don’t get drunk simply by reading a liquor label, and you don’t get transformed just by reading about the Spirit. The Spirit must get into you and do what the Bible describes.
Every comparison has its limits, of course. The Bible isn’t just a label on a bottle that you can ignore once you drink in the real thing. The Bible is the Word of the living God, inspired by the Spirit and used by the Spirit to communicate with us. So don’t get the impression that you can just drink in the Spirit and forget about the Bible. But do understand that there’s more to the Christian life than words, even if those words are the very words of God himself. The Bible says, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power” (1 Corinthians 4:20).
Real Christianity is living under the influence of a Person and power, not just of looking at words on a page and reciting doctrinal formulas. The Bible’s words are marvelous, and doctrinal formulas can be very helpful, but Christianity is more than just words. It’s new life and power as you are filled with the Spirit and come under the influence of Jesus.
We could almost say that getting drunk is the evil twin of being filled with the Holy Spirit. Both are cases of being under the influence in a way that affects thoughts and feelings and actions, but with opposite results.
Take, for example, one of the Bible’s more detailed (and humorous) pictures of what it’s like to get drunk. In Proverbs 23:29-35, the Bible says,
Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaints? Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes? Those who linger over wine, who go to sample bowls of mixed wine. Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly! In the end it bites like a snake and poisons like a viper. Your eyes will see strange sights and your mind imagine confusing things. You will be like one sleeping on the high seas, lying on top of the rigging. “They hit me,” you will say, “but I’m not hurt! They beat me, but I don’t feel it! When will I wake up so I can find another drink.”
Isn’t that a perfect picture of a drunk person? When someone is drunk, he is so ridiculous and yet so pathetic that it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry. When a bartender asks, “What’s your poison?” the question means exactly what it says. “It goes down smoothly,” says the Bible, but “it poisons like a viper.” When you drink too much, you can’t see straight or think straight. You’re as dizzy and wobbly and confused as someone sleeping atop the mast of a ship in stormy weather. You get bruised and beat up, but you think you’ve been having a great time. In fact, you can’t wait to wake up from your stupor so you can get something more to drink.
Whatever can be said of alcohol, there’s no denying that it has a powerful effect and influences everything about you. The Holy Spirit, too, influences everything about you, but in the opposite way.
Shaping the Mind
Consider the influence on your mind. Drinking too much liquor can make you think you’re having fun even when you’re getting hurt. It can make you think you’re being funny and charming, when any sober person watching you can see that you’re being obnoxious and stupid. Even after you sober up, your memory is twisted—if you remember anything at all. You remember being smooth and smart, the life of the party. Others remember you saying dumb things, making crude sexual advances, and vomiting. Drinking distorts your memory and twists your reasoning. As recovering alcoholics sometimes put it, “The stinking thinking causes the drinking.” And the reverse is also true: the drinking causes even more stinking thinking. It’s a vicious circle.
When you’re under the influence of the Holy Spirit, the effect on your mind is as great as alcohol, but with the opposite effect. Instead of clouding your mind and distorting your thinking, the Spirit clears your head and sharpens your thinking. Just before the Bible speaks in Ephesians 5 of being filled with the Spirit, it says, “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” (Ephesians 5:16-17). Wise, clear thinking that sees God’s will—that’s what happens when you’re under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
Booze and drugs can make you see things. You hallucinate. You see things you never saw before, but the things you see aren’t really there. The Holy Spirit, too, affects your mind in such a way that you see things you’ve never seen before, but the things the Spirit helps you see are things that really are there.
The Spirit opens your mind to the deep things of God, things that have always been there but that you never saw until you came under the influence of the Spirit. You begin to see God’s purity, power, wisdom, and love in ways you couldn’t possibly see without the Spirit. You see what God has done for you in Jesus. The Spirit shows us this, says the Bible, “that we may understand what God has freely given us” (1 Corinthians 2:12) In fact, if we are filled with the Spirit, the effect on our thinking is so great, says the Bible, that it can be said that “we have the mind of Christ” (2:16).
Another part of the clear thinking that comes from the Spirit is that you can see evil for what it is. You become realistic and sensitive to things in your life that need changing. Alcohol makes you less alert to your own faults and weaknesses. When you drink too much, you do more and more rotten things, but your awareness of them becomes less and less. The opposite happens when you’re filled with the Spirit: you commit fewer and fewer sins, but your awareness of the sins you do commit becomes clearer and clearer.
Being drunk with wine clouds your mind so that you throw away many opportunities. Being filled with the Spirit clears your minds so that you seize opportunities for good that you never saw before. When you’re under the influence of liquor, you’re careless. When you’re under the influence of the Spirit, you’re careful—and yet carefree. You’re careful and alert to the opportunities God is giving you, and at the same time, you’re carefree and relaxed, knowing that you don’t have to do it all on your own because you can rely on God’s power within you.
That brings us to the realm of emotions and attitudes. Alcohol has a powerful emotional affect. It can make you feel happy for a while, but in the end it leaves you feeling low. Any doctor can tell you that alcohol is a depressant. Some people say they drink to drown their sorrows, but drinking doesn’t drown sorrows. It irrigates sorrows and makes them grow.
Like alcohol, the Holy Spirit powerfully affects emotions, but instead of being a depressant, the Spirit stimulates and encourages and empowers. When you’re under the influence of the Spirit, you don’t try to run from sorrows or look for a way to pretend they’re not there. Instead, the Holy Spirit helps you to face your sorrows and moves you to rejoice anyway, because you hope in Christ and are filled with God’s love. The Bible says, “We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings… And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Romans 5:2-5).
Another way in which liquor and the Spirit are similar yet different is in the area of inhibitions, things that you won’t do because you’d be embarrassed. Liquor lowers inhibitions. When you drink too much, you no longer feel ashamed of things that would have embarrassed you horribly when you were sober. Like alcohol, the Spirit lowers inhibitions, but instead of lowering inhibitions on bad things, the Spirit lowers inhibitions about good things.
Many of us have two kinds of secrets: those things that are so shameful we don’t want anyone to know them and those things that are so deep and precious that we feel too shy to share them with others who might not understand. Liquor makes you unashamed to reveal your worst secrets, unashamed to revel in your worst instincts, and unashamed to celebrate what is disgusting. The Holy Spirit makes you unashamed to reveal your deep yearning and love for God, unashamed to rejoice in Christ, and unashamed to celebrate what is truly beautiful. Liquor makes you brazen; the Spirit makes you bold. Liquor frees you from inhibitions that keep you from acting like an animal. The Spirit frees you from inhibitions that keep you from praising God in the company of others.
Right after the Bible says in Ephesians 5 to be filled with the Spirit, it goes on to say, “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:19-20). The Spirit helps us not to be embarrassed about singing together and talking with each other about spiritual things. The joyous freedom of the Spirit moves people to speak together, sing together, pray together, and celebrate together without holding back.
As he frees our emotions to praise and rejoice with others, the Spirit also frees us to enjoy closer, deeper relationships. Liquor has a phony, counterfeit version of this. Drinking buddies get together and bond under the influence of alcohol. But the fellowship of a bottle can’t begin to match the spiritual fellowship of God’s people who are under the influence of his Spirit.
Has God been speaking to you today? The Bible says, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Maybe you’ve been drinking too much or using drugs, and now you’ve heard God telling you to change. God is speaking to you right now, so please listen before its too late. Ask for God’s help to stop your deadly behavior. Use whatever help God provides—clinics, support groups, Christian friends, or whatever—to get clean and sober and stay that way. And above all, depend on the Holy Spirit of God.
Or maybe you haven’t been abusing alcohol or drugs. Even so, let me ask you: are you under the influence of the Holy Spirit? Not everybody has a drinking problem, but everybody has an inner thirst that only God can satisfy. Are you filled with the Holy Spirit? Can you honestly say that the life and power of God are at work in you? Have you trusted in Jesus Christ as your Savior? Are your thoughts and attitudes and actions being changed in a way that can’t be explained except for the Spirit at work in you? If so, I rejoice with you. If not, then make this the day that you give up on your old ways. Make this the day that you call on God to accept you for Jesus’ sake. Make this the day when you yield to the inner prompting of God’s Spirit, and when you are filled to overflowing with the life and power of Christ.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.