"I am certain that the LSD experiment has helped me very much. I find myself with a heightened colour perception and an appreciation of beauty almost destroyed by my years of depressions."
-Bill W, Founder of Alcoholics Anonymous
When some Christians condemn psychedelics, they may cite the New Testament’s command to be “sober-minded.” In most translations, this loaded term pops up in several passages:
“The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.” (1 Peter 4:7, ESV)
“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8, ESV)
“Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. (Titus 2:2, ESV)
“As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”
(2 Timothy 4:5, ESV)
In the modern day, we have attached quite binary thinking to substance use, largely based on Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous definitions and programs. Either you are “sober” or you are a “user.” This is treated like an “on” and “off” switch, and it is closely tied to a narrative about addiction or “getting sober.” This binary narrative about substance use is frequently read into the Bible, and it can cause us to miss the point of these passages.
The Greek words translated as “sober-minded” are the adjective νηφαλέος and the verb νήφω. There are two senses to these words. The first and most rigid is “to abstain from alcohol.” The second is idiomatic, meaning to have self-control and a clear head. In addition to the fact that alcohol itself is never mentioned in any of these New Testament passages, there are other reasons to think that the idiomatic or metaphorical meaning is intended.
“Sober-minded” is used as a synonym for being “self-controlled” (1 Peter 4:7), “watchful” (1 Peter 5:8), “self-controlled” and “steadfast” (Titus 2:2), and goal-focused (2 Timothy 4:5). These are character traits, not just actions, a descriptive pattern repeated in 2 Timothy 3:2 and 3:11. This pattern of using “sober-minded” in the context of virtues and watchfulness fits an understanding of these words as idioms for having a strong disposition or, perhaps “pulling yourself together” in a time of crisis.
Similarly, one of Paul’s most famous statements is to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) This is, obviously, not possible unless one understands prayer to be an attitude or mentality, not the literal action of prayer. Likewise, 1 Peter 5:8 is not condemning daydreaming or sleeping just because one cannot “be watchful” in these states.
Most Christians who condemn psychedelics understand this principle already. They would not condemn being under the influence of nitrous oxide to get their wisdom teeth removed, despite the fact that nitrous oxide is a commonly abused drug that can produce hallucinations. In fact, most would make sure someone recorded a funny video of the experience to laugh about or upload to Youtube later! It seems that anti-psychedelic Christians already know that being “sober-minded” is not a hard-and-fast, inviolable rule. They just have their own, unspoken rules about when this principle of being sober-minded does not apply to substance use.
Ketamine provides a particularly unique challenge to Christians who want to condemn the medical use of psychedelics, but not the medical use of anesthetics. Ketamine is sometimes used to sedate patients for surgery or control their pain. Yet, this very same drug is hallucinogenic and commonly used as “psychedelic therapy” for depression. An anti-psychedelic advocate would have a difficult time explaining why ketamine use is not sober-minded for depression patients, yet perfectly acceptable for surgeries.
Using psychedelics to treat mental illness brings up another interesting point. Could psychedelics actually promote “sober-mindedness?” Mental illnesses like OCD, PTSD, addiction, depression, and anxiety certainly affect our judgment. This does not mean that people with these illnesses, including myself, are less intelligent. It does not mean that we are sinful or dangerous. However, it does mean that we may fall into self-destructive patterns and struggle to make healthy choices for ourselves. Psychedelics have the demonstrated potential to free people suffering from mental illness from this cycle, opening up our minds to possibilities and choices to live life better, recover from trauma, and build resilience to stress.
This is the sober-mindedness that Christians are asked to seek. It is the wholeness of mind and spirit. While psychedelics may cause a short period of altered consciousness, they can actually be a tool for people to self-reflect and live with greater wisdom and self-awareness. Far from being an enemy of sober-mindedness, psychedelics can actually be an ally in the development of a strong disposition and open mind.