Why We All Need to Sober Up

The most powerful intoxicants come from within us.

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

Related Topics:  Spiritual Life

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What happens to my notes

8 but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled,

8 Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain,

9 but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.

10 These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach.

1 After the uproar had ceased, Paul sent for the disciples, and when he had exhorted them and taken his leave of them, he left to go to Macedonia.

2 When he had gone through those districts and had given them much exhortation, he came to Greece.

3 And there he spent three months, and when a plot was formed against him by the Jews as he was about to set sail for Syria, he decided to return through Macedonia.

4 And he was accompanied by Sopater of Berea, the son of Pyrrhus, and by Aristarchus and Secundus of the Thessalonians, and Gaius of Derbe, and Timothy, and Tychicus and Trophimus of Asia.

5 But these had gone on ahead and were waiting for us at Troas.

6 We sailed from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread, and came to them at Troas within five days; and there we stayed seven days.

7 On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight.

8 There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered together.

9 And there was a young man named Eutychus sitting on the window sill, sinking into a deep sleep; and as Paul kept on talking, he was overcome by sleep and fell down from the third floor and was picked up dead.

10 But Paul went down and fell upon him, and after embracing him, he said, Do not be troubled, for his life is in him."

11 When he had gone back up and had broken the bread and eaten, he talked with them a long while until daybreak, and then left.

12 They took away the boy alive, and were greatly comforted.

13 But we, going ahead to the ship, set sail for Assos, intending from there to take Paul on board; for so he had arranged it, intending himself to go by land.

14 And when he met us at Assos, we took him on board and came to Mitylene.

15 Sailing from there, we arrived the following day opposite Chios; and the next day we crossed over to Samos; and the day following we came to Miletus.

16 For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus so that he would not have to spend time in Asia; for he was hurrying to be in Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost.

17 From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church.

18 And when they had come to him, he said to them, You yourselves know, from the first day that I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time,

19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which came upon me through the plots of the Jews;

20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house,

21 solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

22 And now, behold, bound by the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there,

23 except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me.

24 But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.

25 And now, behold, I know that all of you, among whom I went about preaching the kingdom, will no longer see my face.

26 Therefore, I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men.

27 For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God.

28 Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.

29 I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock;

30 and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.

31 Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.

32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

33 I have coveted no one's silver or gold or clothes.

34 You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my own needs and to the men who were with me.

35 In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, `It is more blessed to give than to receive.'"

36 When he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all.

37 And they began to weep aloud and embraced Paul, and repeatedly kissed him,

38 grieving especially over the word which he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they were accompanying him to the ship.

18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit,

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