Be of Sober Spirit
During my first few years as a Christian I was very fortunate to have a couple of adolescent friends who were as serious about trying to live the Christian life as I was. One of those friends was especially straight-laced and grave because he had, in his study of the Scriptures, happened upon several admonitions to soberness. Therefore, whenever my other friend and I would cut up, joke, or play childish pranks, we soon learned to expect a serious rebuke and an admonition to “be sober minded” from our serious young brother. I do not know how much good these admonitions did, for we also soon learned not to joke in our friend’s presence—while joking twice as much in his absence to assert our youthful independence. But at that time I really did not have a good response to my friend’s criticism, especially when he seemed to have the full weight of Holy Writ behind his argument.
Looking back on my youthful experiences, I now see that it is at least possible that, at times, my adolescent exuberance may have needed tempering and exhortations to maturity, even by one of my peers, were entirely in order. However, I still believe that my buddy missed the mark in understanding the Scriptures in reference to soberness.
The word “sober” is a word that very seldom graces the vocabulary of twenty-first century Americans. When it is mentioned, it is usually used as the opposite of “drunk” or “intoxicated.” This modern connotation often robs Christians of a proper understanding of Peter’s command in 1 Peter 5:8 to “be of sober spirit” by making us assume that our tee-totaling status means that this passage must have been intended for less temperate souls. At the other end of the spectrum, but in my view just as mistaken, are those who think of the life Christians should lead as a very serious and humorless one.
In the New Testament, there are six words that are translated by some form of the word “sober” (i.e., sober, soberly, soberminded, soberness, sobriety, etc.) and only one of them has anything specifically to do with being free from intoxicants. All of them, however, carry with them the idea of being self-controlled, sensible, of sound mind, reasonable, or prudent. Thus, while not discouraging abstinence from alcohol or a reasonable sense of humor, the idea in the New Testament is a much broader one. It requires the Christian to be in control of himself under all circumstances, to possess the spiritual sense to know how to view serious matters seriously, and to thoughtfully make prudent judgments in this life based on a proper understanding of eternal consequences. Thus, when Peter says, “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8), he expects us to have the good sense not to toy with Satan or sin any more than we would enter a hungry lion’s cage. All a lion can do is make you his breakfast, but the devil can send you to hell forever. When Peter says, “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer” (1 Peter 4:7), he intends for us to not squander our opportunities for prayer and service because, in the light of eternity, all of our choices in this life become significant.