Why I Gave Up Alcohol
Writer Sarah Bessey looks at conviction, legalism and the meaning of obedience.
One of my most vivid childhood memories is of my mother and my father standing at our kitchen sink in Winnipeg surrounded by the last empty bottles, big smiles on their faces as my mother poured each one out. The bottles made that glug-glug noise when the pouring is too fast for the opening. We made an occasion out of that moment as a family. It was a celebration, a milestone, one that my sister and I didn’t quite understand but we felt the relief in our home.
My parents had a complicated relationship with alcohol; not exactly personally although there was some of that but within their larger story of family and friends. When they converted to Christianity in their thirties, they were under no illusions and they were desperate to make everything new. They poured out all of the alcohol in the house in a grand renunciation of the old ways, the old bondages, the old addictions, the old possibilities. They wanted something new and different and better.
They were new people, a new creation, a new story was going to be written about their family.
In the old hard drinking days of business, my father never veered from his Diet Coke once. Their relationships with some family members became tense because no one remembered how to hang out without a beer. They tried not to judge others but they knew what they knew. To them, this wasn’t even a choice to stop drinking, it was simply who they were now. They untethered drinking from their identity and never looked back. It’s been about thirty years since that decision now. A lot of their friends and family have joined them in their temperance now.
So I never saw an adult drunk in my childhood to my memory. I never witnessed an excess of alcohol. I grew up in a sober home where adults having fun was never linked to clinking ice cubes or lipstick stains on a wine glass. My parents were young, they were filled with life and joy and hope. Who needed alcohol now?
The first time I drank alcohol, I was about fourteen years old. I lied to my parents and went to a party at a friend’s house where we drank cheap red wine and those sickly sweet wine coolers with all of the cool kids. I didn’t like it much but I kept at it: after all, it was worth the effort, look at how I was fitting in now. I was already smoking a pack day, what was a bit of booze? And a year later, I had more regrets than any fifteen year old should have.
At seventeen, I decided to follow God for my own self. I quit drinking as part of the deal and didn’t touch the stuff for ten years.
I decided I wanted to have wine with dinner like civilized grown-ups. I wanted the lovely glass of red beside me as I read my books. I wanted to know about the world of wine: tastes, bouquets, tannins, regions, all of it. Brian began to enjoy craft beer. He would buy a six-pack of beer and it would last for six months. I would buy a bottle of red and it would last for a week. We sipped wine occasionally and turned the radio to NPR.
For ten years, we drank alcohol in this way: occasionally, barely, and with interest. We liked to learn about it. We liked the world of craft beer and wine.
But slowly I began to drink more than my husband.
His rare growler of beer still lasts but my bottle of wine on the sideboard began to disappear a bit sooner and then the bottle became a bigger bottle of cheaper variety and then the big bottles became a box of wine. I kept it in the kitchen cupboard.
My parents grew accustomed to my drinking, even accepting. I never drank in front of them out of respect for their journey. They listened to my reasonings about social drinking and moderation and our freedom in Christ.
I grew to love the imagery of wine in Scripture, to see it as an emblem of the New City and of heavenly banquets. I liked the sophistication of wine, the theology of wine, the metaphor of wine, the community around wine at the table. I liked the celebration of champagne, the warmth of a cabernet, the summer light of chardonnay.
Without noticing, I was drinking almost every night now. It didn’t bother me in the least.
I have learned that when you are walking with Jesus, the Holy Spirit is always up to something.
And when it comes to conviction, I have found the Spirit to be gentle but relentless.
Change and transformation is an ongoing process. I am always grateful how the Spirit isn’t harsh or overwhelming but rather how at the right time and in the right moment, we know it’s time to change.
We begin to sense that this Thing that used to be okay is no longer okay. The Thing that used to mean freedom has become bondage. The Thing that used to signal joy has become a possibility of sorrow. The Thing that used to mean nothing has become something, perhaps everything.
Or at least that’s what happened to me. It was fine, everything was fine. And then I knew it wasn’t going to be fine for much longer.
Because a year ago, I knew God wanted me to stop drinking.
And I fought it with my reason. Oh, I had all of the excuses for why I could keep enjoying my wine in the evenings – I work hard, I give so much, I’m not an alcoholic, I’m never hung-over, it doesn’t affect my life, it’s social, it’s fun, it’s in the Bible for pity’s sake!
But still I sensed the Spirit, infinite patience and rueful love, waiting for me to trust the invitation as I defiantly poured another glass of wine.
I began to be haunted by the writer of Hebrews who said, “…let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.”
I began to wonder why I was resisting throwing off the “weight” of alcohol, why I was so determined to keep running my race with this habit that had begun to feel so heavy.
In my soul, I could see the Holy Spirit practically jogging alongside of me to say every now and again: “Aren’t you ready to put that heavy weight down yet? I think it’s time you stopped this one. It’s your time to put it down. It looks to me like it’s getting heavier the longer you hold on.”
No, no, I’m fine. I’ll just keep going like this. Everyone else does. It’s fine. We’re all fine. I’m fine. Look at how fine we are.
Maybe I’ll just sit down at the side of the road for a while to catch my breath.
In my life, when it comes to the dawning of change, it can feel as if God presses a thumb down on something in my life. As if to say, “here, this spot, this one, let’s stay here for a while. I want to lean on this.”
It has happened about other habits or dependencies or sins or stumbles in my life as I’ve followed Jesus. I’m always glad for it. This has been the source of a lot of transformation in my life: something that was okay suddenly becomes not-okay and inside of that, there is an invitation to more shalom, more peace, more hope, more love, more trust, more wholeness.
It’s never about deprivation, it’s about becoming who we were meant to be all along.
In the old days, they used to call this “holiness” or “sanctification” – both words we don’t hear much because they lost some meaning by their misuse perhaps. I do know this sort of transformation whatever we want to call it hardly ever happens all at once, it’s a slow burn and it refines and clarifies and distills.
We grow into our new choices.
I remember when I felt that thumb press down on my cynicism, for instance. I had become so dependent on my cynicism, on my know-it-all tendencies, on my “yeah-but…” when it came to everything that I was missing so much of life and goodness and hope and possibility. I felt that challenge from the Holy Spirit for a year before I began in earnest to lean into the healing, into the renewal of hope again in my life. And that was one of the hardest and best things God has ever done in me.
The pressing of God’s thumb has felt like the hand of a massage therapist to someone with knots in their back: here is the knot, the pressure point, the source of the pain, and the pressing perhaps feels like more pain until suddenly it feels like release and exhale and movement.
Yes, God’s thumb had come down on my drinking, and I was wriggling under the weight, resisting and bargaining and excusing.
Conviction often begins with noticing.
I began to see how alcohol-centric our culture has become.
To see how much of our version of fun revolves around wine or beer or some form of alcohol. To see how unhealthy our dependence is. To see the industry around it, capitalizing and marketing and selling and manipulating and exploiting.
I began to see what those no-fun tee-totalers a hundred years ago had seen – how the victims of alcohol were almost always the ones who were most vulnerable, how it impoverished families and lives, how it threw a lit match into powder kegs of longings.
I began to see how unhealthy it made me feel in mind and body. I began to read news stories I had somehow missed about how alcohol was linked to so much physical toll in our bodies.
I began to see women of my generation becoming increasingly dependent, as wine was marketed to women as the rest or as the treat they deserved for their exhaustion and their diligence and their selflessness.
I began to see news stories everywhere about the rise of women drinking. I began to read memoirs and stories and articles from women who had become caught in drinking too much and about how they felt addicted and dependent and entangled almost before they knew it.
I also began to notice how the church had begun to embrace drinking as well.
Others of my generation who had also grown up in legalism regarding or abstention from alcohol perhaps, and so were exploring their emancipation with micro-brews and homemade wine over thick theology books and bible studies and hymn-sings. Then I began to wonder about stumbling blocks and I couldn’t seem to shake off early church admonitions to consider one another, to give preference to one another’s weaknesses. Were we setting someone else up? Were we judging the ones who abstain as legalists?
I remembered Brennan Manning – the man who has translated the love of God in a way that I could receive it more than probably any other writer – was addicted to alcohol and I re-read up one of his last books before he died: “All is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir” where he vulnerably writes about what this battle has cost him, even as he experienced the unending and unconditional love of God in the midst of it, how he experienced regret and pain and loss alongside of the love and tenderness of God in this dependency. And I thought about the Ragamuffin for many, many days.
I began to notice my friends who were in recovery. I began to notice how hard it is to be in recovery, to be an abstainer, in a world of drinking. And how it was somehow just as hard to be an abstainer in the Church as outside of the Church. I stopped posting pictures of wine on my Instagram. I began to wonder if I was thinking of myself and my own freedom more than I was considering others.
I began to notice how one glass of wine almost always means two or three.
I began to realize I was not a special snowflake somehow immune to addiction and dependence.
I began to see what my parents had always seen because I began to see it in myself.
And still the Holy Spirit sat with me, waiting for me to trust this invitation.
Not to moderation, not to legalism, not to “counting drinks” or “accountability” or reasonableness. No, I was under no illusions, this would be a full scale surrender, a laying down my preferences and rights to embrace what just might something better.
I thought it would be hard.
I thought it would be awful.
I thought I would have no more fun.
I thought it would be boring.
I thought I would miss the way alcohol softened and blurred the hard edges of life.
I thought I was giving up so much.
I thought I’d be an outsider now.
I thought I’d be the odd-person-out in get-togethers.
I thought I wouldn’t fit in anymore.
I thought I’d be perceived as a legalist.
I thought I’d be judged for my own convictions.
I thought I would miss it too much.
So I quit drinking.
Quietly. Without a lot of fanfare. It’s been a while now. I simply stopped one day and I haven’t had anything to drink since that day.
The surprising thing to me is this: it’s been good.
I haven’t missed it, I haven’t felt like an outsider, I haven’t felt longings to drink. In fact, I have noticed that my not-drinking has given other people permission to stop, too.
I wonder if my experience here is a grace that was given to me: once I stepped out in trust, once I said yes to the invitation from God, I was met with goodness.
I was prepared for struggle to quit: I wasn’t prepared for how good I would feel in my body, in my soul, and in my mind. It felt exactly like setting down a weight.
I was surprised at how wide and spacious I began to feel in my soul. I would think, “Do I want wine tonight?” and always I would respond to myself, “No, I’m a non-drinker. Drinking isn’t who I am anymore.” I stopped asking myself if I wanted a drink. I always didn’t. I don’t know where that thought came from – I have my suspicions that was prompted by the Holy Spirit.
“…let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.”
I began to move freely.
Then I felt like I was flying.
My older children asked me about it eventually. They said, “Mum, you don’t buy wine anymore, do you?
I said, no, I don’t.
They both smiled and one of them said, “Good, I’m glad. I don’t think it’s good for you. I’m glad you’re like Granny and Papa now.”
I said, “Me, too.”
I didn’t know that my children were paying much attention to me pour that glass of wine every night.
But they were watching. Aren’t they always?
So much of what we teach our children is caught rather than taught.
I still don’t think drinking is “sin” across the board. Nope. It’s a deeply personal choice. Not all sin is clear-cut: it’s often deeply tied to our motives and our hidden choices. I have zero judgement on anyone else’s choices. Conviction isn’t one size fits all.
After all, I was fine with drinking for a really long time until all of a sudden, I wasn’t anymore.
For some people, a drink is just a drink and that’s okay. But there are a lot of people who know that a drink can be dependence and distrust and damage and danger.
I don’t presume to make decisions for anyone else. I am wary of taking on the role of Holy Spirit in someone else’s life.
But if it feels like a weight, imagine how free you’ll be when you lay it down. If you’re sensing the invitation, it’s not an invitation to deprivation, but an invitation to abundance.
I think that conviction has gotten a bit of a bad rap in the Church over the past little while.
It’s understandable. We have an overcorrection to a lot of the legalism and boundary-marker Christianity that damaged so many, the behaviour modification and rule-making and imposition of other people’s convictions onto our own souls.
But in our steering away from legalism, I wonder if we left the road to holiness or began to forget that God also cares about what we do and how we do it and why.
Conviction is less about condemnation than it is about invitation. It’s an invitation into freedom. It’s an invitation into wholeness.
Perhaps our choices towards those invitations from God are really an intersection for our agency or free will and the Holy Spirit’s activity – maybe that’s where transformation begins.
I quit drinking because I felt like God asked me to quit drinking. I’ve never regretted saying yes to God.
On a Saturday morning, I poured the last of the wine in my house down the sink. I was alone, no audience for me.
I thought of my mother and my father in their brand-new believer zeal, how all of those years earlier I had witnessed this same moment in their lives. Perhaps I was always headed towards this same emancipation. I am a bit older than they were on that day in Winnipeg when they poured out the booze. Then I put our fancy wine glasses away and I liked how open and clean everything looked now. I put the kettle on for a cup of tea.
This piece originally appeared on SarahBessey.com. It was re-published with permission. After it was originally posted, Sarah shared this update:
This essay was about my personal experience of journeying with God and about how things that are not “sinful” per se can become a weight to us. It was about drinking but it was also about discipleship. It was NOT an essay about dealing with alcoholism. I’m not an alcoholic and I never was an alcoholic: that is why I could quit drinking with such little fanfare or suffering or process or support. For me, it was simply a matter of a quality decision.
But for people who are addicts or are in the grips of the disease of alcoholism or people who have become dependent, you need to know that my story here is not prescriptive nor is it normative. Most people who are struggling with drinking NEED HELP. And that is a good thing. And I am a big big big fan of you getting the help you need.
In one of my books, I wrote this: “Miracles sometimes look like a kapow! lightning-strike revelation; and sometimes miracles look like showing up for your counseling appointments. Sometimes miracles look like medication and patience and discipline.”
Your story of quitting drinking may look like getting yourself to Alcoholics Anonymous every single time the doors are open. It will look like showing up. It may look like counselling. It may look like a long road of reconciliation and forgiveness. It may look like creating a plan for success. It may look like a support network and accountability.
And that is GOOD AND HOLY.
It would deeply grieve me for anyone to read my essay and think, “Well, she quit drinking in one decision so why can’t I?” It is not the same thing. You are taking on a burden that isn’t yours to bear.
There is a big difference between sin and addiction – but you don’t need to take on any shame or condemnation for either one. If it’s sin, sure, like me, you can – in cooperation with the Holy Spirit – pull the root out. And if it’s addiction, you might be set free instantly and I pray for that! But it is JUST AS AMAZING and just as miraculous for you to put your hand up for help and to surrender to the daily work of sobriety. In my mind, people who ask for help are heroes.
So I implore you – if you are feeling that alcohol has a hold on you, if you feel dependent, if you know you are addicted, if you are losing yourself, if you are paying the price already, if you are tired and hung-over and miserable and longing for freedom: please get help. Put your hand up. Tell someone. We need you, I promise. Your life is worth saving. And we will all be cheering you on.