Using Self-Control to Stay Sober
Self-Control Word Study, Lesson 6
Last week, we talked about self-control as it relates to sex. This week, we’ll look at another area where self-control is hard: alcohol. Similar to sex, the world seems to celebrate alcohol. Youth are tempted by their peers to try alcohol. For young adults, it’s common to go out for a night on the town and see who can get the most drunk. For not-as-young people, drinking often happens at home, where you can drink the whole bottle of wine or entire case of beer without anyone to hold you back. The Bible clearly warns against getting drunk:
Ephesians 5:18 – Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.
Note that this is not a warning to not enjoy alcohol at all. Even Jesus drank wine (Luke 7:33-34), and his first miracle was to turn water into wine at a wedding (John 2:1-11). The point is to have self-control when it comes to drinking alcohol so that you still have full control of your body and mind rather than alcohol taking control. If you cannot have self-control in this area, then perhaps self-denial is a better option. We’ll talk about this in Lesson 8.
If the Bible clearly warns against getting drunk, why do so many people excessively drink alcohol? This is another area where Satan can easily gain control because it feels good or it helps you forget something awful, and in some instances it can make you more popular or help you fit in, especially for youth. Then once you get started, it can become an addiction. It also is often hard to draw the line between “enough” and “too much,” so it’s easy for Satan to push you to have one more until you are no longer in control of yourself.
To help you process your thoughts as you go throughout this lesson, a reflection journal sheet is available. You can access it by clicking here.
Let’s look at what the Bible has to say specifically in relation to alcohol and self-control.
The Importance of Being Sober
Many of the connections in this section I likely wouldn’t have made at all except for the difference in translation between self-control and sober in the 1984 and 2011 NIV versions. From what I can tell from Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary, the translation to sober rather than self-control is more accurate. But that connotation of self-control is still there, and this connection is intriguing to me, so we’ll explore it.
The clearest connection between self-control and alcohol intake is through the Greek word nēphō, which we discussed in Lesson 2. In that lesson, we saw that the 1984 version of NIV translated this word as “self-controlled” most of the time. However, in the 2011 version of NIV, this word is instead translated to “sober” or to be of “sober mind.” According to Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary, the literal translation of nēphō is to be “sober, not intoxicated.” Let’s look at the different instances of the word nēphō in the New Testament. The word translated nēphō is bolded. Consider reading this word as both sober (2011 version) and self-controlled (1984 version).
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. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.
In this passage, there is a clear contrast between those who are awake vs. asleep and those who are sober (self-controlled) vs. drunk. Making the choice to pursue faith, love, and salvation takes a clear mind, because these are not natural choices for those who are born with a sin nature. In order to make this choice, we need to have a mind that is not muddled by alcohol.
1 Peter 1:13: Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.
1 Peter 4:7: The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray.
1 Peter 5:8: Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.
In the three verses in 1 Peter, we are warned to have a sober mind (or self-control) so that we can be alert for the devil’s schemes and for Jesus’ return, as we discussed in Lesson 2. Think about those who are in the military or are first responders—police, firefighters, EMTs. One of the most important aspects of the job is to go into any situation with a mind that is clear and alert so you can be aware of potential danger. In our spiritual lives, it’s the same way. We have to have a clear mind (or self-control) so that we can be successful at obeying God rather than falling for Satan’s schemes. Then we will be ready for Christ’s return.
But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.
I think my favorite phrasing is in 1 Timothy 4:5—keep your head! When you drink too much alcohol, one of the first things you lose is the ability to think clearly and make good decisions. Even when you don’t feel impaired at all, you can have a delayed cognitive response. If you want to have self-control at all times, you need to be able to keep your head clear in all situations.
Being Sober Means Having a Clear Mind
The word nēphō is not the only word that is sometimes translated as a sober mind. As we saw in Lesson 4, sōphroneō is also translated with a connotation for having a sober mind, as we saw in Titus 2:6:
Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled.
In Romans 12:3, this same word is translated as sober judgment, where it gives the impression of having self-control in how you think about yourself.
For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: 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.
How common is it when you are drunk to feel like you can do the impossible? You can drive home without endangering anyone. You can leap off tall buildings without getting hurt. You can swim across a lake. All of these are instances of too much alcohol causing you to not use sober judgment when you think about yourself and your abilities. Too much alcohol can also cause you to act in ways that are contrary to your faith. That’s the part that is most concerning.
Having a clear mind and sober judgment is an important part of a Christian’s life. Sometimes, the Bible uses both sōphroneō and nēphō to emphasize the importance of a clear mind, such as in 1 Peter 4:7, where sōphroneō is translated as alert and nēphō is translated as sober mind.
The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray.
So here’s three versions of 1 Peter 4:7:
With Greek: Therefore be sōphroneō and nēphō so that you may pray.
1984 NIV: Be clear-minded and self-controlled so that you can pray.
2011 NIV: Be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray.
Somehow it gives a pretty clear connection between being sober, being self-controlled, and having a clear mind.
This connection between being sober, having a clear mind, and having self-control is intriguing to me. When it comes to alcohol specifically, this is a cycle. If you have poor self-control, you drink too much. Then you start to have a mind that is not clear, which leads to less self-control, and the cycle starts over again. If you use self-control to resist drinking too much, then you can keep a clear mind, which helps you use more self-control to not drink more.
What action or sin in your life do you need to apply this to? Not everyone has trouble with alcohol, but we all struggle with something that perpetuates this same cycle. Pray that God would give you the strength and wisdom to use self-control next time that temptation comes your way.
To help you process your thoughts as you go throughout this lesson, a reflection journal sheet is available. Journal sheets can be downloaded and used now or later. They can be printed and filled in by hand or saved and filled out electronically.
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