You’re so chill,” a coworker said to my boss one day. This was an understatement. In a high-pressure job, this man always seemed to be the person who either resolved conflict or defused tension. Having spent several years with him, I grew to appreciate his understated ability to make peace in difficult situations.
Rarely is this kind of calm maturity encouraged by today’s leadership literature. Traits like ambition, extroversion, and toughness are held up as the most noble and desirable. In public leadership, sobriety is seen as weakness, especially when compared to today’s celebrities who seem to advance by open displays of crassness, outrage, and greed. Even church leadership models seem to reward charisma and star quality instead of the more subtle pastoral graces described in Scripture.
Paul, in all of his writings to the church, always seemed to include these unassuming characteristics in the requirements for spiritual leaders. To Titus, he encouraged “self-control” and “sensibility” (Titus 1:8). To Timothy, he wrote of “dignity” and “sobriety” (1 Tim. 3:8-10). To the Ephesian elders, Paul encouraged a kind of sober self-assessment (Acts 20:1-38).
Sobriety is a term we don’t often use, unless we are speaking of substance abuse. The word immediately conjures up images of rehab centers and 12-step programs, of celebrities in sunglasses avoiding the glare of TMZ’s camera lights. But sobriety is a much more robust spiritual characteristic than the willpower to avoid addictive substances. It’s a distinctly Christian trait—a calm yet firm presence, an ability to trust God enough to restrain our emotions and lean into difficult situations with grace. And it’s not a quality needed only by pastors, elders, and church leaders. This kind of grace is necessary in our homes and workplaces. Ken Sande, author of The Peacemaker, writes, “When displaying the riches of God’s love and pleasing him is more important than holding onto worldly things and pleasing yourself, it becomes increasingly natural to respond to conflict graciously, wisely, and with self-control.”
Why is it that we so devalue this gentle virtue, given as an evidence of the Spirit’s work of sanctification? Why is being clear-eyed, instead of reactive, seen as weakness? Perhaps it is because this kind of wise restraint requires an uncommon dependence on Christ as Lord. If He is Lord, we can let go of the powerful desire within to win, to make a point, to be heard. Wise Christians are less concerned with scoring personal victories and more concerned with the welfare of the people with whom they interact.
Rarely is this kind of calm maturity encouraged by today’s leadership literature. Traits like ambition, extroversion, and toughness are held up as the most noble and desirable.
It is interesting that most of Paul’s admonitions about sobriety are set in a context that deals with abusive behaviors. Don’t be intoxicated with wine, he warns the Ephesians, but be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18). It’s as if the fervent and fragile longings in the heart are going to be guided, filled, or ruled by something. Scripture tells us that the classic strangleholds of substances or anger or pride are like prisons upon the soul. But the classic spiritual virtues, created in us by the Holy Spirit and nurtured by the spiritual disciplines, free us from our own self-destructive tendencies.
This is perhaps the best way we can demonstrate our love for Christ in the world. The average employee may have few opportunities each week to initiate a spiritual conversation, but he or she may be presented with manifold situations in which to point to Christ by exhibiting self-control and gentleness.
Sobriety is sometimes confused with passivity, but we know that demonstrative displays of righteous outrage are sometimes necessary. Jesus cleansed the temple with fury. Paul employed barbed rebukes in his writing. The prophets communicated God’s fiery judgments. But the recognition of our tendency to selfishness should cause us to employ anger in the rarest of moments and only when God’s glory (as opposed to our own) is at stake. A sober temperament creates a chance for resolution in those times when conflict is unavoidable.
Which brings me back to my boss. What people most admired about him was not that he was “chill,” but that he had learned to apply his temperament well. He could be relied on to know when to lean into conflict and when to neutralize it, when to stand up and when to sit down, when to speak up and when to be quiet. It’s a skill I’m still learning in all of my relationships, and while the world may not prize the subtle traits of self-control and sobriety, I’m discovering just how priceless they can be as evidence of grace.
Of course, I will often fail in this pursuit, and so will you—particularly as we are tested by close relationships in the workplace, at home, and in the community. And that means we’ll have to go back to our coworkers, children, and spouses and ask for forgiveness. But even in these moments of contrition, we are putting on display the otherworldliness of the gospel we believe—that our brokenness requires the grace of Jesus.
Illustration by Ben Mounsey