Editor's Note: This is Part II in a two-part series on alcohol and your teen. Click here to read Part I.
Many myths surround the use and abuse of alcohol. But the most destructive of all is the belief that being able to drink a large quantity of alcohol is a sign of strength. In reality, a high tolerance for alcohol—being able to “hold your liquor”—is a sign of budding alcoholism. It is the one thing all alcoholics have in common.
One day, we sat in an office with a teen and his parents listening to the teen’s alcohol abuse story. He boasted he could drink a six-pack of beer without being fazed. In fact, he said he would drive others home after consuming 15 to 18 beers at a party. He was trying to make the point that he could handle liquor. Until we explained the reality of high tolerance, he didn’t realize that he perfectly described his need for help to cure his disease of alcoholism.
How Well Do You “Hold Your Liquor”?
Most people have an automatic limiting mechanism that prevents them from developing a high tolerance to alcohol. Drunkenness, illness, or sleep occur when large quantities of alcohol are consumed. The tolerance level stays basically the same throughout life, though many would argue that a growing tolerance is developed over time. It is true that tolerance goes up a bit for most people, but for the alcoholic, the rise is either dramatic or tolerance is high from the first drink. In the world of drinking, the alcoholic veers off on a path that has only one end—addiction to the chemical.
Problem Drinking and Drunkenness
Alcoholism is not to be confused with drunkenness. Many alcoholics have such a high tolerance that they are rarely drunk. They drink a great deal but are often able to stop just before losing control. A family might live with an alcoholic for a lifetime and never see the person drunk. Only in the later stages of life, when a deteriorating and aging body loses its ability to contain vast quantities of alcohol, do many alcoholics drink until they lose control.
Drunkenness, however, can happen to anyone who has any level of tolerance. Some people are drunk on one drink. If that is the case, the Bible forbids them to drink because it condemns drunkenness, and rightfully so. Drunkenness is a big killer in our society.
The Bible clearly states, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). Drunkenness is a counterfeit for being filled with the Spirit. It is a form of escape and a maladaptive coping mechanism. Anyone who gets drunk is a problem drinker and needs help. The sin needs to be confessed, and the behavior changed. Unfortunately, when teenagers drink, most drink to get drunk. That is why teenage drinking is always considered problem drinking. It is illegal, and most of the time it is also immoral.
Having been raised in Texas in a conservative Christian home, I (Steve) heard many sermons on alcoholism. The preacher always referred to the alcoholic as a drunkard. A biblical passage on drunkenness would be used to condemn that person, implying that the person had chosen alcoholism and would spend the remainder of his (they were always considered males) days in a drunken stupor.
Receiving this perspective early in life, my acceptance of the facts about alcoholism and drunkenness did not come easily. But eventually I learned the truth about the biblical perspective. It’s been a great help in understanding alcoholics and assisting them in their recovery.
The Bible doesn’t address the condition of alcoholism. It only speaks to us about drinking and drunkenness. Many ministers think of a drunk man on skid row drinking out of a bottle when they think of an alcoholic. But that is the exception rather than the rule. Only about 5 percent of all alcoholics make it to skid row. The other 95 percent are drinking and functioning in jobs, schools, churches, and in families. Many people have no idea these people are alcoholics.
The Sin Issue
Some of you reading this are no doubt eager to know whether we believe drinking is a sin. This is a difficult area; Christians hold varied views. However, from our study of Scripture, our work with thousands of young people, and our own experiences, we have arrived at the following beliefs. We don’t expect everyone to agree, but we hope this list will stimulate the reader to think through his or her stance.
Drunkenness is always a sin. Scripture is clear on this, a fact that can’t be rationalized away. Those who repeatedly become intoxicated need to confess their sin and obtain whatever help is needed to overcome it. Parents should sit down with their children to explain the sinful nature of drunkenness and why God has so clearly forbidden it.
Drinking is definitely a sin for some people. For the general population, no specific Scriptures forbid wine consumption in small amounts. Some Scriptures do, however, forbid alcohol consumption if it causes another person a spiritual problem. Whenever a spouse is bothered by the other spouse’s drinking, for instance, it is the drinker’s responsibility to stop drinking to prevent the mate from stumbling. But the rightness and wrongness of drinking is an even broader issue.
In our society, with so much damage being done by drinking, many who think it is okay to drink need to reexamine the practice. Alcohol is a dangerous chemical. A person may not drive drunk, but we now know that alcohol damages brain cells and other body tissues. And for us parents who have to be concerned about the behaviors we are modeling, abstinence is the best choice.
Alcoholism is an issue separate from sin. This condition develops from years of (often abusive) drinking, so sin occurs long before the onset of alcoholism. When a person develops alcoholism, compassion rather than judgment should be offered. Direction instead of condemnation is needed. The alcoholic—addicted, sick, and irrational—will respond better to the love of a helpful person than to the anger of one who doesn’t understand. Is alcoholism a sin? The more important question is whether you are prepared to help a fellow sinner.
The Alcoholism Progression
Most people think alcoholics are weak people who cannot cope with life. That is not true. In all my years of working with them, I (Steve) have rarely seen a weak alcoholic. What I usually see is a person of phenomenal strength and stamina. Only a strong person could go to work hungover, be in withdrawal, crave a drink, have nerves agitated and irritated, and still function well for years. Only in the latter stages do I find the effects of alcoholism producing weakness within the person.
Stephen Arterburnfounded New Life Ministries, a broadcast, counseling, and treatment ministry. He hosts the syndicated New Life Live! radio program and has written more than 60 books, including the Every Man series and Healing is a Choice. He's won three Gold Medallions and holds degrees from Baylor and North Texas State Universities.
Jim Burns, Ph.D., founded HomeWord and hosts the radio program HomeWord with Jim Burns. The author of many resources, including Creating an Intimate Marriage and Parenting Teenagers for Positive Results, he has also won three Gold Medallion Awards. Jim holds degrees from Azusa Pacific University, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Greenwich School of Theology.