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Is It Time to Get a New Watch?

Almost twenty years ago, my wife bought me an expensive watch for Christmas. (In my world, expensive is a couple of hundred dollars, on sale at half price, not a Rolex.) For almost twenty years, it has given me good service, and it is still doing so. It was a good purchase.

This watch was a replacement for another expensive watch that had served me well for almost thirty years. It was given to me by the Baptist church I attended throughout my early years.

There is a history to that watch. In the midst of the Temperance movement—about 1911, I think—a wealthy man was concerned about the youth in the congregation. He set up a trust fund called “Purpose of Heart” that would give a fifty-dollar gold watch to any young man who took a pledge not to smoke tobacco or drink alcohol. The pledge was to last for the young man’s entire life, but the watch was given if he kept the pledge until age twenty-one. It was assumed that patterns of life established by that age would continue. In 1911, a fifty-dollar gold watch was a remarkable gift, worth more than a man’s monthly salary.

Some teaching went along with the offer of the gold watch. One of the arguments was that Christians’ bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and it would be wrong to defile such temples (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

When I was growing up in that church in the 1950s and 1960s, the program was still in place, and I took the pledge. When I turned twenty-one, I was given the watch (at that time a watch worth more than fifty dollars but certainly not gold). I accepted the watch but with some ambivalence. By that time, I had gone off to university and had gained some new insight into the issues.

My ambivalence was not concerned with smoking but with alcohol. For one thing, my own study of the Bible had convinced me that the Bible does not forbid drinking alcohol, although it does forbid drunkenness. On that basis, I could not judge anyone who enjoyed a glass of wine or bottle of beer.

At university, I also had my first close-up encounters with alcohol. (For part of my childhood, the small town I had grown up in had still been “dry.” As a holdover from Prohibition, the residents had not yet voted to allow alcohol to be sold in our town.)

In my first week at university, I went into the dorm washroom and saw one of the senior students lying on the floor in his underwear, passed out next to the toilet. I didn’t at first know what was wrong with him because he was the first passed-out drunk I had ever seen. But I soon discovered he wasn’t the only student with a drinking problem. This senior student’s roommate was on track to become a dentist. Every Thursday night, which was pub night on campus, the roommate would swear that he was not going to the pub. But every Thursday night he went. When the pub closed, he would come back, lie down, and throw up all over himself and his bed. It was patently obvious to me that students who drank too much became loud, obnoxious, stupid, and sick. I witnessed a number of students whose academic studies and potential professional careers were derailed by alcoholism. My roommate partially lost his eyesight for a day after chugging too much hard liquor. It was also considered acceptable practice in the dorm to get girls drunk in order to make them more susceptible to having sex. This was the era of the sexual revolution, and curbing sexual freedom was considered prudish and old-fashioned. But my father had taught me, mostly by his example, to treat women with respect, and I found the prevailing attitude in the dorm to be selfish and evil. The evidence before me did not make alcohol seem very attractive.

When I was growing up, Christians were ridiculed for their opposition to smoking and drinking. They were accused of having a puritanical desire to deprive people of enjoyment. I find it odd that no such arguments are levied against the health professionals and politicians who are waging war against tobacco today. Back then, we did not have all of the current scientific evidence linking smoking to cancer, but it was obvious to anyone who was willing to look that smokers all seemed to have what was then called a “smoker’s cough.” However, back then Christians seemed to be about the only people concerned about this.

When I started university, I saw no evidence of illegal drug use. But, by the time I was in my senior year, a new wave of students had come in who were regular drug users. For the most part, they seemed unhappy, depressed, distracted, and stupid. They seemed unaware of what was going on around them. I wasn’t sure whether they took drugs because they were stupid or the drugs had damaged their minds.

Since then, our streets have filled with homeless people, many of them addicted to drugs. I have watched as a close relative, once active in his church, descended into drug addiction. In spite of all attempts to help him, he died. He had apparently started with marijuana. I never want to see that again, although it is happening all around us.

As I said, when I was at university, my study of the Bible had convinced me that the Bible did not forbid the drinking of alcohol. Knowing what I did then, I would likely not have taken the “Purpose of Heart” pledge. But my promise not to drink or smoke was a solemn promise, made before God, and I kept that promise. I am still keeping it. From what I know now of my personality, I suspect that if I had started drinking, there is a good chance I would have become an alcoholic, and my life would have turned out very differently.

This explains my ambivalence when I was given that watch. It felt as if it was being given as a reward for virtue when what I was feeling was gratitude for having been saved from possible alcoholism. Similarly, my avoidance of tobacco saved me from a horrendous early death from cancer and the waste of literally thousands of dollars. In our society, which glorifies pursuing our dreams and creating our own futures, we too often fail to recognize our own human frailty. If we play with fire, many of us will get burned.

These reflections, coupled with our Canadian government’s recent decision to legalize marijuana, have led me to consider whether we need a revived temperance movement today.

I am not talking about passing laws to ban the sale and use of alcohol, tobacco, or even marijuana again. Popular opinion says that Prohibition didn’t work because “You can’t legislate morality.” This is nonsense. All laws are an attempt to legislate morality. We have laws against murder and theft because they are considered to be wrong. What Prohibition demonstrated is that you can’t legislate morality if a significant minority is determined to break the law. It is very difficult to outlaw marijuana in our society because there are too many judges, lawyers, police officers, and politicians who have used marijuana. We have had laws against marijuana, and the leaders of society have not wanted to enforce them. It is also stated that Prohibition encouraged the growth of organized crime. This is true, but it also reduced a lot of disorganized crime. In any case, alcohol is now legal and is a factor in many traffic accidents, incidents of domestic abuse, assaults, and murders. We have legalized alcohol and we have now legalized marijuana, and we will live with the consequences.

As I said, I am not pushing for any laws to be passed or for any other legal solution. What I have in mind is a temperance movement in which Christians (and others) resolve that, no matter what the rest of society is doing, they will not defile themselves. That is what the Baptist church of my youth was doing. There is also a fine example of this approach in Daniel 1:8, where Daniel and his friends refused to partake of the royal food and wine in Babylon. There is also the example of Joshua, who said that the rest of society would make its own decisions but that he and his house would take a different path (Joshua 24:15). 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 is still in the Bible, and it would still be wrong to defile the temples where the Holy Spirit has come to live. The best and easiest way to cure an alcoholic or drug addict is to prevent the person from becoming one in the first place.

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