My husband and I don’t drink alcohol.
Don’t worry; this isn’t a diatribe against believers who do. (This post is headed elsewhere, FYI: the discussion of alcohol is just a jumping-off point). A lot of my Christian friends have been known to enjoy a glass of wine or a beer now and again. And I’ve always known that, denomination to denomination – and sometimes church to church – thoughts and feelings on whether to imbibe differ. That’s never bothered me; I’m comfortable with the variance.
For my part, I was raised up in a denomination where alcohol was verboten in any form. I’m grateful for that; abstaining kept me out of an awful lot of trouble in high school and college, and it’s saved me untold amounts of dollars as an adult. My husband, who was not raised as a believer, nevertheless grew up worried about the alcoholism in his family, and so he has always abstained, too. Although we’re in a denomination now that permits the “responsible consumption” of alcohol, we’ve continued as a personal matter to abstain.
And let me tell you, people have a lot of feelings about that.
When we went to brunch recently at a popular neighborhood restaurant, the server enthusiastically pointed us to the Bloody Mary bar. “They’re half off!” she said excitedly and, when we refused, offered us a slew of other drinks. When my husband asked for orange juice, she stared at him for a long time and then looked at me. “You just want the mixer by itself?” she asked in confusion.
We had a good laugh about that. Gone are the days that OJ existed as something other than an ingredient for mimosas, I guess.
My husband has been the odd man out at more than one work dinner or networking event with an open bar, carting around his little glass of Coke to the amusement and notice of his co-workers. I remember sitting at grad-school brunch seminars surrounded by bottles on bottles of wine and cheap champagne, nursing a juice box I’d conjured up from the canteen nearby. Once, out to dinner with a good Christian friend of mine, she perused the wine menu–and then paused when I ordered a water. She leaned over. “Is it okay?” she whispered. “Like, will it offend you if I drink? Will you be bothered?” I had to assure her it made not the slightest difference to me if she had a glass.
The thing, abstaining from alcohol marks you pretty clearly as different. Most people drink, whether casually or otherwise. Alcohol is at almost every restaurant, every work event, every part or social networking gathering that I’ve ever been a part of it. It is common. My not drinking, I know, often causes people to wonder if I am a) pregnant or b) a recovering alcoholic. When they hear that it’s a personal spiritual conviction of mine, non-Christians often respond with a vague, startled, uncertain discomfort, as though I’m going to immediately stand and plant a church right there in the restaurant. As for believers? Well, those who don’t drink are supportive, and those who do drink become concerned that I’m going to preach at them, force them to abstain, or yell at them for not sharing my conviction.
I don’t and never would. Personal spiritual convictions are exactly that. But all these experiences have made me think a lot about what it means to be different, and a Christian, and how being truly different from the world involves much more than merely modifying or abstaining from some behaviors. What does Christian difference really look like?
Believers are meant to stand out. We’re supposed to be salt and light. We are specifically instructed not to be conformed to this world, but rather transformed (Romans 12:2). And we see this made manifest in Jesus. Although we see Him presented in Isaiah 53:3 as having “no stately form or majesty to attract us, no beauty that we should desire Him,” it’s also clear from Scripture that Jesus drew people in. There was something different in His character, in His approach, in His very person that made prostitutes and tax collectors and Pharisees and ailing people feel as though they could approach Him.
And this is where I start wondering: in what ways do I stand out from the world as a believer? In what ways am I different, and in what ways do those differences draw people to Christ?
It’s harder than you’d think. I suspect a lot of the time we depend on obvious, external differences – like our personal convictions, our church attendance, the Bible in our car sear – to show that we’re set apart. But depending on such things can be dangerous. Abstain from alcohol? Well, so do pregnant women and people who fear their family histories and a whole slew of adherents to other religions and recovering alcoholics. Do good deeds and act with great moral and ethical care? There are some really ethical, kind, generous secular people out there who don’t believe in God at all. The behaviors and habits that we feel identify us as “different” to the world aren’t enough on their own.
What is enough is what we find in Matthew 22:38, what Jesus identifies as the first and greatest commandment, and then the second like it: love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Carry the Bible on the seat of your car. Abstain from alcohol, or don’t, depending on your personal spiritual conviction. Do acts of good and kindness. But recognize that all of these things set us apart only inasmuch as they are done in deep love of God and love for others. That sort of sacrifical, generous giving – the willingness to pour out for God, or for someone else – is what nothing else in the world can replicate.
Today, I was out walking in my favorite little neighborhood when I spotted a grandfather with his grandson. I know that he was a grandfather because the little boy in the stroller he was pushing had on a shirt that said “I love my grandpa” and the older gentleman was wearing a shirt that said “I love my grandson.” They matched! Grandpa was carrying a Mickey Mouse backpack on his shoulder! It was adorable.
But what really got me was what I heard as I passed. The little boy in the stroller was pointing to something far off in the distance and was, in his very limited language, trying to share his excitement with his grandpa: “Ba da da da ba ba!”
You couldn’t make out a word of what he was saying. But Grandpa was nodding as if he heard every word, staring off into the distance where that chubby little finger was pointing, and beaming. “Is that so?” he asked his little grandson as I passed. “Well, I never noticed that before! That’s really something else!”
Something about their interaction – grandpa’s obvious investment in the non-conversation, his sheer joy in listening to his grandson’s nonsense, and his grandson’s delight in sharing something great with grandpa – warmed my heart for the whole of my walk. The shirts were cute, and evidence of their bond, but a shirt couldn’t replace the sheer love you could sense between the two of them.
And so it is with us. Our practices, our behaviors, the things we do – it’s all meaningless nonsense, to paraphrase Paul, if there’s no love in it. That is what makes us different. And it convicts me to realize that by that standard of difference, I often fall short. It makes me want to grow closer to God, to let the Holy Spirit work more in my life, so that such an unmistakable love stands out about me just as much as anything else that I do. I wish the same for all of us.