Liquid spirits versus the Holy Spirit

What does it mean to be “under the influence?"

Commentary | Steve Thompson

What does it mean to be “under the influence?"

From a Christian perspective, an old yet fresh approach to the dangers of alcohol consumption is the idea that drinking alcohol has spiritual implications. We should not overlook the significance of the expression “under the influence.”

What is this influence, and what does it mean? Rather than being “under the influence” of the Holy Spirit, could it be “under the influence” of another spirit that is taken in a liquid form?

Generally, the expression “under the influence” is referring to the effect alcohol crossing the blood brain barrier has on the delicate neural pathways involved in our complex thought processes. This liquid “spirit” can quickly impair judgment.

Many ancient people groups, including those living in the biblical world, saw intoxication as a spiritual experience. Over the past 200 years, this explanation of drunkenness has been eclipsed by a different explanation, focusing on what alcohol does pharmacologically to the body and, in particular, to the brain. Perhaps this is because the effect alcohol has on the body has become easier to measure than its effect on the human spirit.

However, the idea that drinking has spiritual—perhaps we should use the phrase “counter-spiritual”—dimensions has not disappeared. It’s even making a comeback among people who otherwise have a scientific understanding of reality. Is the idea biblical? For a test, note the following passages:

In Acts 2:11-13, some of the bystanders hearing the believers speaking in their own tongues about “the wonderful works of God” assumed they were “full of new wine.” Peter notes they were not drunk but filled with God’s Spirit.

Paul in Romans 13:12-13 called believers away from “works of darkness” such as drunkenness, challenging them to "put on the armor of light.” Note also 1 Corinthians 10:21: “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons.” Paul admonished the Ephesians not to be “drunk with wine, in which is dissipation.” Instead, Paul says, “Be filled with the Spirit” (5:18).

In 1 Peter, being sober is associated three times with desirable spiritual values. In 1:13-15, it is associated with living a life of holiness. In 4:6-7, it is necessary for those living in the Spirit. In 5:8, it is a prerequisite for the spiritual battle of resisting the Devil.

When God called the Israelites out of Egypt, He gave them no “wine or similar drink” (Deuteronomy 29:6). People called by God to a spiritually challenging role needed a clear mind (see Leviticus 10:8-11 and Luke 7:33).

So, it’s clear the Bible contrasts the spirits of alcohol with the Holy Spirit. The challenge is to choose one or the other.

It’s your life, but is your life under God’s influence?

Dr. Steve Thompson is the higher degree research supervisor at Avondale College of Higher Education in Cooranbong, New South Wales, Australia.