Ok, I’m going to tell you one of my really embarrassing stories.
During my first week as a freshman at the University of Illinois, one of my high school friends drunk dialed me. I called her back the next day and said “I’m really disappointed that you got drunk. I thought you were better than that.”
Yeah, I actually said that. Ouch.
She was not a Christian but for some reason I felt the need to hold my friend to a standard she didn’t hold for herself. Needless to say, she was pretty upset. I felt justified at the time, but looking back, felt so bad for saying it that I was too nervous to apologize until 10 years later!
I grew up in church, spending most of my free time with my high school youth group and carefully crafting an identity as the rule-following “golden child.” I avoided anything that had to do with parties and alcohol. I am incredibly grateful for everything I gained from my church upbringing. But somehow I walked away with a sense that I’d already ironed out most of my flaws and that others just needed to catch up with me. That drunk dial conversation was the natural outworking of the judgmental, self-righteous persona that I’d created.
When God Lets You Know That You’re a Jerk
God used college parties to confront me with the ugliness of my self-righteousness. After that unfortunate phone call, I realized I needed to loosen up and at least try showing up to a few parties. So I went, choosing not to drink, and surprisingly, had an awesome time. I went to my first kegger with some sophomores on my dorm floor who were totally cool with me not drinking. When it came time to play flip cup, my buddy Jared would pretend to pour beer in my cup so that I could pretend to drink it and play the game. After joining FIJI, I continued in my choice not to drink before 21, but found that I really loved going to parties and hanging out at the bars with my Greek friends.
I quickly realized that the people I judged for partying were welcoming, kind and way more fun than me. I realized, in turn, that I was an uptight, judgmental jerk.
Love Must Be Our Motive
I’m a firm believer that as Jesus-followers, we should be willing to give up drinking before turning 21. Maybe you’re thinking this sounds impossible, but hear me out. The Apostles Paul and Peter challenge believers to a radical, subversive submission to the governmental laws (Check out Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17). While obviously we don’t submit to laws that cause harm or perpetrate injustice, we should be humbled and challenged by 1st century Jesus-followers who lived their lives above the reproach of law as the subjects of oppressive Roman rule. Early believers were so enraptured with the good news of salvation that they gladly surrendered themselves to God's loving commands.
Here are three ways to make love our motive:
1. Love for God
God is our loving Father and when he challenges us to surrender something to him, it’s an opportunity to trust that he knows what will bring the most good in our lives. It takes practice for this truth to take root in our hearts. If we can learn to joyfully trust him with small sacrifices, like drinking at a party, then we can learn to trust him when the stakes are higher – like choosing our career, staying faithful to our future spouse, or sacrificing our reputation to stand up for what’s right. Not drinking until you’re 21 can be hard! It will require you to make tough choices, but God will bring good through the struggle and it will only increase your intimacy with him.
2. Love for Others
Alcohol is not inherently bad. The Bible actually has great things to say about it (If you don’t believe me, go look at Psalm 104:14-15!). And don’t forget that wine is a key symbol in our theology of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But let’s be honest, most of us in Greek life abuse alcohol and are some of us are addicted to it. It temporarily soothes our social anxieties and stress, fuels our hook-ups, and contributes to the culture of sexual assault.
As members of God’s kingdom we have the opportunity to bring healing and restoration wherever we go. Choosing not to drink is a way of loving our Greek community by living as a prophetic witness, demonstrating to our sisters and brothers that alcohol is not requisite to a fulfilled life. Our only hope for healing the broken condition in which we find ourselves is getting to know the God who offers forgiveness and unconditional love.
In 1 Corinthians 8:13, Paul says:
“Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.”
This verse comes at the tail end of a culturally specific passage about eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols. It’s a bit confusing to modern readers, but the gist is that, out of love for those who are figuring out how to follow Jesus, we should be willing to give up things that may not be a problem for us personally, but could cause another to feel tempted.
Say your best friend struggles with alcoholism and is trying to avoid alcohol, but every time you go out together you’re always holding a drink. Is your freedom to have a (fill-in-the-blank) light beer really more important than helping your friend get well?
My first year out of college, I came back to campus for our chapter’s Initiation ceremony. One of the pledges who had recently come back to his faith confided that he was having trouble deciding whether or not to drink at the after-party. I took him to a nearby gas station where we bought Gatorade, brought them to the party, and had a great time joining in all the drinking games with our “alcohol substitute.” When this guy’s pledge class gathered around to take shots, he looked at me like “What do I do?” I handed over his bottle and told him to go take a Gatorade shot with his new brothers. I had every right to drink at the party as a 22-year old alum, but I had way more fun helping this pledge party in a way that helped him follow Jesus more confidently.
3. Love for Ourselves
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a good craft beer or a nice glass of bourbon these days. But even though I’m over 21, I’ve found I need to be wise about how I drink. All sorts of things can become "soft-addictions" that we use to numb ourselves (shopping, that whole package of Oreos, “just one more” Netflix binges). I have to pay attention to the difference between having a drink for the sake of enjoyment, or having a drink (or several) to avoid dealing with things like grief, anxiety or shame.
Jesus invites us to bring all of our hurts and fears to him for true and lasting healing. Loving ourselves means acknowledging what’s actually going on inside and seeking the peace that can only come from intimacy with our loving Father.
So, How Do I Actually Do This?
If you’re someone who’s currently drinking and wants to limit your intake or stop altogether, it can help to start small. Try setting a reasonable limit for yourself at the next party or mixer and work it down slowly as time progresses. You might be one of those people who can just stop cold turkey. If so, more power to you, but if not, it’s ok to admit that weaning yourself off the habit will require time and grace for yourself.
Pay attention to the emotions or situations that make you feel like you need a drink. Find supportive friends who are willing to not drink with you, pray for you, or hear you out as you verbally process your journey. You may even need to remove yourself from tempting party situations for a time. If it seems like a bigger issue than you can handle on your own, don’t be afraid to seek out a spiritual mentor, pastor or licensed counselor for help.
If you’re someone who doesn’t drink, but struggles to connect in social situations with your sisters/brothers, try branching out at parties more. Don’t just stand in the corner with that “I don’t really want to be here” look. Be the one to start a dance party, or strike up conversations. Bring something crazy and fun like ice cream bars and you’ll automatically be the hit of the party! (I promise I actually did this once!) Try staying later than you might normally and help people get home safe. Pray before and during the party, asking the Holy Spirit to lead you to opportunities to love your friends.
If our motive for not drinking is to earn God’s approval or to put ourselves on a moral pedestal from which we can gaze down judgingly (i.e. me during my freshman year), I’d say just drop the pretense. God’s commandments have always been about love. God loves us, wants us to thrive, wants us to love him, and wants us to love each other. Choosing not to drink underage, while not being a jerk about it, is one of the unique ways that we as Greeks can experience God’s love and share it with our sisters and brothers!