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Rev. VanBaren is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

A Time for Self-examination (2)

Last time I quoted from articles from the secular press which, I thought, spoke eloquently of the dangers of smoking, of its addictive nature, and of its great cost. None, I dare say, can refute what the articles stated. Some might point out, however, “That’s not the Bible you quoted!”

Others might claim, perhaps even correctly, that there are other and more serious problems in our “life style.” There are the evils of drunkenness and of worldly amusements and of materialism. Why “pick on” smoking?

The claim could even be made that the Christian need not follow after every trend within the liberal society of our day. Society today continues to expand the “no smoking” areas. Why should we simply imitate them? We ought rather to follow the requirements of Scripture—not necessarily the practices of a secular society. We have rebuked others who refuse to follow clear mandates of Scripture. We ought diligently to follow the testimony of God’s Word—not just the latest trends of society.

Well, let’s consider some of the spiritual and biblical implications of this “habit.”

(1)There is the matter of the waste of the resources that God has provided for us. While it is true that we waste money in our affluent age on many other things than cigarettes, smoking has somehow assumed an importance to many above all other usages of our wealth. A pack and a half a day smoker spends a minimum of $2,750 a year on cigarettes. If two in the family smoke, that figure doubles. That’s considerably more than the church budget, which, we sometimes complain, is too high. One must also consider the many other related costs involved. Some have had to seek diaconal aid for their living expenses, but could not quit smoking. One man was questioned about his inability to pay the church budget. He and his wife were chain smokers. His response? “I’m entitled to one sin, aren’t I?” Some cannot pay all of their school tuition—but can’t quit smoking. Children’s health and nourishment have been sacrificed on that altar of “Christian liberty.” Does this sort of activity harmonize with Matthew 6:33?

(2)There is the matter of harm to one’s own self and to one’s family. If the bread-winner of the family contracts lung-cancer or other smoking related disease, and dies—what a devastating effect this has on the family! But, some might respond, there is the matter of “Christian liberty.” Parents who would doubtless give their lives to protect their children forget the effects of this habit upon those same children. The unborn child is affected in the womb. Smokers’ children are affected often with asthma or other health problems—though they themselves do not smoke. And smokers’ children are most likely to continue this practice when they come of age (or before). Ought these be proud of the example they set for their children?

We would die for our children—but to quit smoking for their sakes (and ours), well, that’s just too much to ask.

There is the question of the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Among other things, the Heidelberg Catechism (L.D. 40) states, “…also that I hurt not myself, nor willfully expose myself to any danger….” Never mind the conclusions of unbelievers. Let’s ask ourselves, “Does the instruction of the Heidelberg Catechism on the sixth command apply to smoking too?”

(3)There is the matter of the “habit” of smoking. We freely speak of it as such. Now, a “habit” may be good, or bad, or adiaphora. But that sort of language is a cover-up. Smoking is far, far more than a “habit.” It’s an addiction. An addiction is today considered to be a “habit” that is inherently bad and almost unbreakable. There is the addiction to gambling. There is the addiction to illicit drugs such as heroin. So there is the addiction of smoking. The addiction, we are told, is to the nicotine in the cigarette. The cigarette is simply the delivery system. This addiction is stronger, it is claimed, than the addiction of the heroin addict. Most smokers, it is claimed, want to quit—but can’t. Consider the woman mentioned in the article quoted last time. She saw her husband suffer the consequences of his smoking—lung cancer that led to his death within seven months. The horror of it caused her to resolve to quit smoking—but she couldn’t. She could not—though her two little girls begged her to do so.

An addiction? Or, Christian liberty? Romans 9:26, 27 states, “I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.” An addict has not brought his body “under subjection” in regard to smoking. He seldom admits that he cannot bring his body “under subjection,” but he knows that it is true nevertheless.

(4)There is also the question of creating offence to others within the church and to those who come to visit a congregation. Those within the church who have at one point quit smoking themselves can easily take somewhat of a sanctimonious attitude toward the smoker. “If I can quit, why can’t he?” But every former smoker knows what a difficult thing it was for him to quit. Still, is there not good reason for offence? It is obvious, so very obvious, for all to see, that the smoker usually takes his last puff on a cigarette just before he enters the church, and then, after the service, he quickly heads for the area immediately outside the entrance of the church for his “smoke.” One wonders with how much difficulty these sit through a lengthy service until they can exit and take that next puff.

Those who would look askance at one who tossed a banana peel to the ground in front of the church think nothing of tossing cigarette butts to the ground. It’s litter that offends many also. But that is a relatively minor thing. After all, we hire janitors to clean up such litter.

There are those who have attended our churches, who seem attracted by the doctrines taught within the church, who are nevertheless offended by the Christian’s smoking. Perhaps that’s “their problem.” Yet to compel such visitors to walk past smokers in order to enter the sanctuary or to exit it is to show no concern about the sensibilities of others. If others love the doctrine, ought they not to love us “as we are”? But is this what “Christian liberty” is all about?

(5)Within the church there are those who have real allergies that are aggravated by the smell that smokers exude. It is not just the breath. That smell can be covered up quite nicely by mints or sprays. The effects of smoking stay in one’s clothing. Within the church there are those who must make sure they sit far enough away from known smokers so that they can breathe more easily. But: that’s their problem, is it not?

Or will the time come when church also has its “smoking” and “non-smoking” sections?

(6)Excuses, excuses, excuses. You have doubtless heard many of them. The individual does indeed have “will power,” which he uses in deciding to continue to smoke. One claimed that if he died the sooner (humanly speaking) because of his “habit,” he would the sooner be with his Lord! Perhaps that one could rather walk the center lane of some busy Interstate. Such “pious” declarations refuse to take into account the suffering that might have to be endured before he is taken to “be with his Lord.” There is no consideration either of the suffering and pain his agony and death brings upon the family. He does not reckonthe financial drain involved in all of this. One might (I say, “tongue-in-cheek”) better play Russian roulette.

(7)Possibly the saddest thing is that one will not acknowledge the harm of smoking though he sees dear ones slowly die at least in part because of this addiction. He cannot stop smoking—until the doctors say, “You have lung cancer. Treatment may possibly help, provided you quit smoking.” Sometimes that will convince one to quit—but often it is too late.

Christian liberty? A “liberty” to harm one’s body? A “liberty” to affect the health of those dear to him? A “liberty” to influence one’s children to do what the parents have been doing for many years? A “liberty” to continue doing what offends others?

This “habit”—no, addiction—is so great that many admit that they cannot quit. It matters not that others suffer. It matters not that sometimes other bills are neglected. One cannot quit. Many are ashamed of the addiction that keeps them so bound. Many would be ready to admit, if they are honest, “I have to quit—but I don’t know how.”

Perhaps some suggestions are in order. Obviously, first of all, there is the matter of earnest and sincere prayer to God for His guidance and grace to do what is so necessary. But prayer without faithful effort by one’s own labor would be vain. Pray first; pray often. Then, get off your knees and face the problem head-on.

One can make use of available medical assistance. Many have done this successfully. Others try this—but fail. There is also another way—similar to that followed by A.A. A number of addicts can decide to meet together once a week (or month) and discuss their problem. After devotions, these can discuss if, and how often, they have failed in their attempt to quit. They can discuss when and why they are most likely to smoke. They might point out to each other ways in which they substituted something else for smoking. They can encourage each other in the almost-impossible task of breaking the addiction.

I fear that we take the approach of (former) Vice-president Al Gore (quoted last time):

…Al Gore, for instance, inspired by the death of his own sister from lung cancer, insisted not long ago that he will do everything he can to keep cigarettes out of the hands of children. But he says he would never outlaw cigarettes because millions of people smoke.

We can perhaps agree that addiction is involved. We can perhaps agree that it can be harmful as well as offensive. But we could never outlaw cigarettes for church members—just too many of our people, men and women, do this.

So why bother writing these articles? If but one young person reads these articles and refrains from beginning this “habit,” or if it causes one “addict” to quit, it would have been worth the effort taken to write about this unpopular subject.