Author: Ron Graham


Abstinence and Spirituality
—The principle behind abstinence

Abstaining from strong drink does not make one more spiritual. However, there is a principle that causes one to practice abstinence, and this principle has great spiritual value.

1 Abstinence Itself is Spiritually Neutral

If one thinks of abstinence as a virtue in itself, and one practises abstinence religiously for its own sake, then one is not spiritual, but carnal, because one is following self-made religion in stead of Christ (Colossians 2:13-23).

Without controversy, Jesus Christ was a spiritual person. Yet he never bound or preached abstinence from certain foods or drinks, but declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19, Romans 14:14). Abstinence, of itself, therefore, does not make one more holy.

Neither partaking of food or drink, nor abstaining from it, confers any measure of spirituality, because "God's kingdom is not food and drink, but righteousness, and peace and joy in the Holy spirit" (Romans 14:17). "Food will not commend us to God, we are neither worse off if we do not eat, nor better off if we do" (1Corinthians 8:8).

Abstinence and Attitude

For example, let us think of another kind of abstinence, namely vegetarianism. The popular perception of a vegetarian as more spiritual than a meat eater, is of pagan, not Biblical origin. One cannot rightly claim that vegetarianism makes him or her more spiritual than people who eat flesh. Likewise, abstinence from strong drink, simply as abstinence, adds nothing to one's spiritual stature.

Bad attitudes develop from thinking of abstinence, or of indulgence, as more spiritual or righteous. She who abstains, and thinks her self-denial makes her more spiritual, will tend to judge and condemn those who indulge. He who indulges and thinks this liberty makes him more spiritual, will tend to look down upon those who abstain (Romans 14:10).

In fact, both abstinence and indulgence are, in themselves, spiritually and morally neutral and of no religious value. Now, having pointed that out, let us look at the principle that does have enormous spiritual value, and which leads to abstinence from strong drink.

2 The Principle of Lawfulness

Consider the following statement by Paul...

What is Paul saying here? He is pointing out that a thing can be lawful yet not mandatory. The law may permit you to do it, but the law does not require it of you. You can choose not to do it, because the law has not bound you to do it, and therefore you are not "subject" to it.

For example, when Jesus and the Pharisees were discussing divorce, they said that Moses "commanded" divorce, but Jesus said that Moses "permitted" it (Matthew 19:7-8). If it had been a command by Moses, they would have been subject to it. However it was not a command. It was not even the right thing to do.

3 The Principle of Fruitfulness

Now consider another related statement by Paul...

What is Paul saying here? He is pointing out that the law might permit something, but that does not necessarily make it a good thing to do. It may not be profitable or helpful to do it. If it were an unhelpful or unfruitful thing do do, if it might tear down rather than edify or build up, then surely you would not do it even though it is lawful.

Someone might say that if a thing is lawful, then it must be the right thing to do. If that were true, we would have to do everything that is lawful, because James says, "If one knows the right thing to do, and does not do it, to him it is sin" (James 4:17). But of course James is talking about doing the right thing, and sometimes the right thing to do is to abstain from doing what is lawful, because it would be unprofitable and unhelpful to do it.

Notice the spiritual principle here. We do not choose to do what we like, merely on the grounds that it is lawful, but rather we choose to do only what is profitable, beneficial, and edifying to everyone (Romans 14:19).

The Golden Rule

This principle is but a bullant's whisker from the familiar golden rule, "Love your neighbour as yourself" (Matthew 22:39), "As you want others to do for you, do so for them" (Matthew 7:12), "Do not look out merely for your own interests, but look out also for the interests of others" (Philippians 2:4).

The great principle we have considered in this lesson leads to growth and fruitfulness. It orders our lives in many ways. One application of this principle is total abstinence from alcohol. The abstinence in itself has no spiritual value, but the principle leading to it is of great value indeed, and those who live by it show spiritual maturity.