Smoking Pot and Following Jesus?
As a young adult pastor in a city ranked as one of the top ten “Best Cities for Hippies”, I get the pleasure of discussing what Jesus thinks about marijuana pretty often. The majority of people who smoke weed are guys in their twenties, so these are the people that I pastor.
The reality though, is that this is an issue that all Christians need to know how to handle; people are smoking pot now more than ever. With 18.9 million Americans reporting marijuana use in the past few months, and 54% of our country now in support of legalizing marijuana for recreational use, Christians in the United States need to understand how Biblical ethics apply to the use of marijuana. As more states seek to decriminalize possession of marijuana and legalize its use, the Christian response to marijuana will no longer be as simple as “just obey the law”. Many Christians will be asking whether or not it is morally acceptable to smoke marijuana. Although disciples of Jesus should never be content with just what is “morally acceptable”, but should pursue what is wise and loving toward God and neighbor, the question will nonetheless be asked with increasing frequency in our country. To arrive at a sound answer, we will need to examine how the Bible speaks to the use of marijuana in two different contexts, and then consider what a life shaped by the gospel looks like regarding the recreational use of marijuana.
We will focus specifically on the recreational use of marijuana for the purpose of getting high, and not on other uses such as the regulated medicinal use of marijuana as prescribed by a physician. First we will have to briefly look at the illegal, recreational use of marijuana, and then move on to the legal, recreational use of marijuana. My claim is that the recreational use of marijuana is sinful and unethical, even when permitted by the law and used in moderation. I believe this is the position that the Bible leads us toward as followers of Jesus and Spirit-empowered worshipers of God.
ILLEGAL, RECREATIONAL MARIJUANA USE
The first context we will look at is where the governing authorities declare the use of marijuana to be illegal. Right now this is the case for every state except Colorado and Washington, and the official Federal position of our nation. While this is a very straightforward issue regarding Christian ethics that the Bible makes very clear for us, it is still important to start here. We are to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1-7) and humbly “be submissive to rulers” (Tit. 3:1) as long as the law does not require us to break the higher law of God’s righteous commands. The only case where disobedience to governing authorities is acceptable is when those authorities demand disobedience to God. In that case we follow the example of the Apostles who said that “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Since God never gives a command in the Bible to smoke marijuana, it would be unethical and sinful to smoke weed and get high in the context of a government that declares the recreational use of marijuana to be illegal. Using marijuana in this context would be direct disobedience to the Bible, since the Bible calls us to submit to our government’s laws. The much more challenging question is what the Christian should do in the context of a government that declares the use of marijuana legal.
LEGAL, RECREATIONAL MARIJUANA USE
When smoking marijuana is not forbidden by the law, is it still wrong? We must first acknowledge that governing authorities will many times permit what God’s law forbids. What is legally permissible is not always morally right. It is not illegal to commit adultery in the United States, but God has declared that to be a sin. So the question we need to examine is whether or not the Bible has anything to say about smoking weed and getting high. If God forbids it, then it would be unethical and sinful to use marijuana, regardless of permission from the government. In order to arrive at a compelling conclusion, we need to ask a series of questions about what the Bible says regarding the use of marijuana.
1) Does the Bible explicitly address the use of marijuana?
No, the Bible does not mention it explicitly at all. Those who are in favor of smoking weed will often appeal to their favorite verse from Genesis 1 where God says to Adam, “I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food”. Marijuana is a plant that yields seed, but this is still an obscure verse because it does not explicitly mention marijuana, and the context is what we are given for sustenance and food, not for recreationally smoking and getting high, which is the issue at hand. Those who are in opposition to smoking weed will usually go to passages that pertain to alcohol, which we will look at next, but are of no use to us in this question since marijuana is not alcohol. So there is truthfully no explicit command in the Bible that calls us to either partake in or abstain from the substance of marijuana, by any of its cultural or scientific names. There is also no explicit command in the Bible that says not to slash your neighbor’s tires, but we can deduce from Jesus’ command to love your neighbor that this would be a sinful act. In cases where there is no specific rule or command given, we look at other principles in the Bible that are similar in nature and reason by analogy what should be done. This brings us to our next question.
2) Do the passages that pertain to alcohol have any analogous principles for our discussion?
Yes, some of them do. Though alcohol and marijuana are clearly different substances, the effects they have on our minds and bodies have some similarities. It is important to note that the New Testament actually does not take a position against the substance of alcohol itself, but it does command against drunkenness. The New Testament even favors the wise use of alcohol in moderation for certain occasions. Jesus drank wine, and encouraged his disciples to drink wine, when he instituted the Lord’s Supper. Paul instructed Timothy to have some wine for health reasons. What the New Testament clearly condemns is not alcohol, but the state of drunkenness that results from having too much alcohol. In Ephesians, Paul commands, “do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery”. No one would argue that this command only applies to wine and not beer. That kind of legalistic attitude would ignore the clear principle; we should not get drunk. In Galatians, Paul lists drunkenness as one of the “works of the flesh”, which is sinfully opposed to the Spirit and to God’s kingdom. Since it is not the substance of alcohol, but the mental and physical state of drunkenness that is sinful, we need to consider whether the state of being high should be counted as a form of drunkenness.
3) What is drunkenness?
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism describes some of the effects of drunkenness as having “difficulty walking, blurred vision, slurred speech, slowed reaction times, impaired memory”. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines being drunk as “having the faculties impaired by alcohol”. The Bible follows this same kind of description and definition when referring to drunkenness, where someone’s thinking and behavior are impaired due to being overcome by either wine or some kind of strong drink. We see an example of this in Isaiah 28. The leaders of Israel have fallen tragically short of God’s calling, and the prophet likens them to “drunkards” who are “overcome with wine” and “swallowed by wine”. He says that they “stagger with strong drink”, “reel in vision”, and “stumble in giving judgment”. Their ability to see, walk, and make right judgments is impaired because of indulging in alcohol. This description of drunkenness, whether it is metaphorical or not, is consistent with how we would normally define drunkenness. Proverbs also agrees in its warning that if you get drunk then your “eyes will see strange things, and your heart utter perverse things”. When someone has consumed an amount alcohol that causes their mental or physical abilities to be impaired, they are referred to as being in a state of drunkenness, and the Bible speaks negatively about it. This is what we need to compare with the effects of getting high.
4) What is being high like?
The immediate effect of smoking weed is getting “high”. Unlike alcohol, which can take several drinks before arriving at a state of drunkenness, the effects of marijuana are immediate. While it is possible for someone to have a glass of wine and not get drunk, it is nearly impossible for someone to smoke any amount of marijuana and not get high. So drinking in moderation does not always lead to drunkenness, but smoking in moderation will always lead to getting high. Not only that, but many people will have a beer or glass of wine with no intention of getting drunk, whereas the intention behind smoking marijuana recreationally is always directed at the experience of getting high. Here is what the National Institute on Drug Abuse says about the effects of smoking marijuana:
Marijuana over-activates the endocannabinoid system, causing the “high” and other effects that users experience. These effects include altered perceptions and mood, impaired coordination, difficulty with thinking and problem solving, and disrupted learning and memory; Additionally, because it seriously impairs judgment and motor coordination, marijuana contributes to risk of injury or death while driving a car. A recent analysis of data from several studies found that marijuana use more than doubles a driver’s risk of being in an accident.
Getting high clearly impairs our faculties. When compared with the twenty-fold increase in the risk of a fatal accident for drivers who are drunk on alcohol, driving while high admittedly does not seem to be as dangerous. The effects of being drunk from alcohol are typically much more dramatic than the effects of being high, but this is just an issue of how drunk someone is and not whether or not they are drunk. Being high immediately and significantly impairs our faculties, which is the primary definition of drunkenness, meaning we can conclude by analogy that the Biblical principle of abstaining from drunkenness applies to getting high from marijuana as well.
John Piper articulates this by explaining that a marijuana high is a “kind of drunkenness” because it “leads away from the kind of sober-mindedness and self-control that is essential in using the mind for the glory of God”. This leads us to consider why God commands his people to abstain from the state of drunkenness.
5) What state of mind does God call us to in the Bible?
After examining verses that negatively address this state of drunkenness that we should abstain from, we need to consider now what state of mind the Bible positively calls us to pursue. If smoking weed and getting high stand in opposition to the state of mind that God desires for his people then we can conclude that it would be sinful to get high for recreation. Since marijuana is a mind-altering drug, we need to consider what the Bible says about our minds.
Given that Jesus said the greatest commandment was to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul, we know that our state of mind is directly involved in obeying Jesus and worshiping God. In fact, Paul says in Romans that in order to live out a life of worshiping God, we need to “be transformed by the renewal of [our] mind” so that we can “discern what is the will of God”. Our ability to use our minds to discern, or judge rightly, is essential to our faith. This is why Paul explains to Timothy that overseers in the church must be “sober-minded” so that they can care for, lead, and instruct Jesus’ people. He says that Timothy himself should “always be sober-minded”. He writes to Titus that the older men, serving as examples in the church, should be “sober-minded” as well.Â Peter charges all Christians to be sober-minded three times, for three reasons. He explains that “being sober-minded” is essential for holy living, for prayer, and for resisting the devil.
The New Testament calls Christians to be sober nine times. The Greek word for sober in each of these cases is “nepho” which could also be translated “clear-headed”. It is the opposite of the brain-fog brought about by being high. So when Paul says that we should “keep awake and be sober”, he is exhorting us to be in our right mind in all circumstances so that we will live holy, effective lives on mission with God. He explains that Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works”. This is the gospel. Jesus has redeemed us by his blood on the cross! Our bodies are not our own; we belong to Jesus to glorify God. Our sober-mindedness is necessary to be a people who are zealous for worshiping God, praying, meditating on his word, sharing the gospel, making disciples of all the nations, and serving the communities we live in.
By choosing to smoke weed, we are deciding to put ourselves in a state of mind that is ineffective for the purposes of God.
We are on mission with God to “gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad”. The last thing Christians need to do is check out of reality by getting high while there is a world of dying people who need to hear about Jesus.
So is it morally acceptable to smoke weed recreationally?
The evidence says no. Getting high effectively removes our sobriety and brings us to a state of mind that can be considered drunkenness because of how it impairs our faculties. Since the purpose of smoking marijuana is to get high, it would be intentionally disobeying God’s commands in the Bible to have a sober mind and abstain from drunkenness. Not only is it morally unacceptable, but the intent behind it runs contrary to a life shaped by the gospel for the glory of God. Being high keeps us from soberly and effectively engaging in the worship of God with our mind, and the mission of God to be Jesus’ witnesses in the world. So I conclude that it is sinful, unethical, unwise, and unloving to smoke weed as a recreational activity, even when it is permitted by law.
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