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Drunk on temptation? The Book of Proverbs can help.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 31, 2024

The Book of Proverbs is dull reading at times, since its proverbial statements are often repetitive. At other times, a colorful maxim may strike the reader very forcefully, making it an effective life-lesson. But there is a wry humor in this book as well, though it may often go unrecognized amidst the flow of platitudes. So imagine my delight when I came across this passage in chapter 23 (verses 29-35):

Who has woe? Who has sorrow?
Who has strife? Who has complaining?
Who has wounds without cause?
Who has redness of eyes?
Those who tarry long over wine,
those who go to try mixed wine.
Do not look at wine when it is red,
when it sparkles in the cup
and goes down smoothly.
At the last it bites like a serpent,
and stings like an adder.
Your eyes will see strange things,
and your mind utter perverse things.
You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea,
like one who lies on the top of a mast.
“They struck me,” you will say, “but I was not hurt;
they beat me, but I did not feel it.
When shall I awake?
I will seek another drink.”

Of course nowadays it is unfashionable to poke fun at drunkards, and it is true that full-blown alcoholism is no joke, even if it begins precisely with that lack of self-control which the cure is designed to restore. But drunkenness here in the Book of Proverbs may offer a lesson in what happens if we do not choose to resist small temptations: As long as we are in denial, they grow more destructive over time. And the temptations can vary, for each of us has his own particular weaknesses, whether arising from our spiritual, bodily, familial or cultural situations.

Despite the seriousness of the topic, this description in the Book of Proverbs is delightful precisely because it comes from an inspired author and is found exactly where we least expect it. It is, of course, a simple cautionary tale. But with a prayerful and reflective reading, it can apply to just about any besetting fault we may have.

Indeed, we could probably write something similar about the effect of each of our passions on our own behavior and our own prospects. If we are prone to unbridled anger, it would be just as easy for someone to write up a brief mockery of our behavior as it would be if we were constantly critical or improvident, or if we were plagued by jealousy or loquacity, or if we tended toward arrogance, delighted in petty theft, or constantly presumed upon the generosity of others. Indeed, comedies of various kinds have featured all of these characteristics and many more—even though they really are not funny at all, either to those characterized by these tendencies, or to those annoyed or abused by them.

The lesson here is that, in the right context, it is not only permissible but generally effective to mock sin in the sense of portraying temptation as amusing and sin as a form of folly. Poking fun in the right spirit is salutary, and wisely laughing at our own weaknesses (rather than foolishly defending them) is actually a step toward sanity. Seeing how our sins make us stupid is one way of recognizing that we really do not wish to be fools. Most of us like jokes, but we have no wish to be one. Poking gentle fun is one form of correction, especially if we can poke fun at ourselves.

We are so often confused and misled that one of the most comical steps to reform is to ask ruefully, if only after the fact, “What was I thinking?!” Allegorically, of course, we were thinking that we wanted another drink—that is, another indulgence of the sweet temptation. When the embarrassment or remorse has receded in our memories, we may indeed say, “They struck me, but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it…. I will seek another drink.”

But once we recognize the pattern—as the Book of Proverbs so conveniently enables us to do—we may be able to answer ourselves. For when we think like that, it is only because we are already beginning to savor drunkenness before the fact—that is, to savor the temptation before the fall. The temptation itself becomes a pleasure, and it is just this that must be taken as a warning—not when we feel repugnance at the sin, which generally comes later, but when we become spiritually reflective enough to recognize the utter folly of our own state of mind.

When shall we awake? If we add a hasty prayer, it will often be the smallest recognition of our own foolishness that will both awaken us and hold us back.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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