Like that lingering smoke at the back door of church, a smelly stigma sticks to the Reformed, young and old alike. What are our well known indulgences? Drinking (see my previous article—March 1, 2020, p. 259) and smoking. What has generally become a socially unacceptable activity in the world seems to remain a norm in Reformed circles—a liberty to insist upon, along with orthodoxy. Therefore, though admittedly with some hesitation, I seek to unveil this altar of strange incense that few today dare to disparage.1
What is the appeal of this smoke? For beginners, peer pressure and the rebel image are alluring. Afterwards, the smoke break allows an escape from work and stress. The “fresh air” provides a social environment. And the nicotine becomes a gripping addiction. It’s not just the drug, but the nostalgia of the whole experience: the tamping of the pack, the removal of the cellophane, the breaking of the foil, the sight of fresh rolls sliding against each another, the sense of altruism in supplying a bum, the momentary dangle upon the lips, the sound of a match or lighter, the sucking of the flame, the feel of a thin cylinder between the fingers, the euphoria of the chemical cocktail permeating the air passages, brain, and lungs, and the nonchalant but satisfying exhale.
There is nothing inherently sinful about tobacco, nicotine, and paper—or the thousands of other chemicals like arsenic, butane, and cyanide emanating from those tubes. Puffing on toxic fumes is not wicked of itself. Even the drugs’ stimulating and sedating effects are not evil. Seriously.
But(t)…. You saw it coming, but please don’t dismissively flick this one away.
Addiction to any of the above is sin against the first and great commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” As your pocket carries your pack, as your fingers clasp that cig, as your lips cradle that baby, and as your body craves another kick, what is your heart carrying, clasping, cradling, and craving? What is your comfort in life and in death, the companion you turn to for peace, relief, escape, and help? What do you long for, trust in, depend on, and look to? The first commandment cuts through the thick curtain of our ribs to reveal in the temple of the smoker’s body not first and foremost damaged lungs but a soul bowing to an altar of strange incense. God commands us, “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength,” and yet our souls fall before the gods of self and smoke. Lord’s Day 34 of our Heidelberg Catechism defines idolatry in this way: “Idolatry is, instead of, or besides that one true God who has manifested Himself in His word, to contrive, or have any other object, in which men place their trust.” Herein we find the source of that lingering smoke.
When we impenitently continue in sin against the first commandment, we soon find ourselves breaking many other commandments along with it. The sixth commandment is the most obvious. Perhaps seventy years ago we could call habitual smoking a sin of ignorance, but with time proving smoking lethal, we must call it what it is: willful sin against the sixth commandment. As the smelly incense rises in our souls, the regular smoking frequently causes lung cancer, heart disease, constricting of vessels, and many more deadly maladies. It is fatal not only to the smokers themselves, but also to those we claim to love the most. We are murdering our spouse, friend, son, or daughter by transmitting to them both the second-hand smoke we exhale and the first-hand experience of our suicidal example. On the selfish altars of our hearts we burn not only tobacco but ourselves and others. The Heidelberg Catechism explains the words “Thou shalt not kill” in Lord’s Day 40: “That neither in thoughts, nor words, nor gestures, much less in deeds, I dishonor, hate, wound, or kill my neighbor by myself or by another…also, that I hurt not myself, nor willfully expose myself to any danger.” Dangerous developments in the smoking industry should make us more aware of how the lingering smoke kills. The deadly chemicals, which at one time were funneled mainly through pipes, cigars, and cigarettes, now spout from in increasing number of devices like electronic cigarettes and other personal vaporizers. Once extolled as safer than cigarettes and as means to quit smoking, these gadgets are only proving to aggravate the problem. The young and restless puff more to get their high, and their dying bodies crave something stronger. Soon the nicotine siphoned by smoke or vapor becomes a gateway to other deadly drugs like the now-legalized marijuana. Refusing to perceive the smoking addiction as murder will only lead to the condoning of all kinds of deadly drugs.
With these idolatrous offerings, we not only kill but steal. The money we could offer in thanksgiving to God we spend on these smoking censers of covetousness. Lord’s Day 42 explains that in the eighth commandment, God forbids “all covetousness, all abuse and waste of His gifts,” and He requires “that [we] faithfully labor, so that [we] may be able to relieve the needy.” The Lord Christ, the owner of every cent in our possession, commands us to be good stewards of His gifts, particularly in the financial support of our churches, families, schools, and the poor. But as these cancer sticks soar to approximately ten dollars a pack, we rob God and His kingdom by spending excessive amounts on our selfish oblations.
The smoking addiction is sin against the first, sixth, and eighth commandments. All who insist that it is not a sinful addiction but “just a harmless habit” also sin against the ninth commandment—“Thou shalt not bear false witness.” Common in all kinds of addiction is lying to yourself and to others, and included among these lies are all kinds of smokescreens to excuse sin and obscure the problem. First, there is this claim: “There are other things far worse than smoking.” And I answer: “Yes, but I don’t see how other serious sins condone your deadly one.” Second, there is this appeal: “Godly and respectable people in the past (for example, Herman Hoeksema) were smokers too.” And I respond: “True, but as godly and correct as such men were in many respects, they are wrong when God’s Word contradicts them.” Third, there is this complaint: “It is legalism and an infringement upon our liberty to call smoking a sin.” And I insist: “Correct, but I never condemned smoking itself, only the addiction to it. Now use not your liberty ‘for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God’” (1 Pet. 2:16).
If we continue to abuse our freedom in Christ by excusing our sin, we tar not only our insides but our witness to the world. The heart and nose of the elect unbeliever find our “cloud of witnesses” an acrid deterrent to the doctrines of grace, and the reprobate mock our obvious inconsistencies. Should not the gospel of Christ be a sweet savour (see 2 Cor. 2:14 and Eph. 5:2)? When Jesus commanded, “Let your light so shine before men,” He was clearly calling for a different “light”—“that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
The law’s unveiling of the idolatrous, murderous, covetous, and deceptive altar of strange fire within is meant to drive us outside the camp, away from our self-devoted smoking shrine, and instead towards His holy temple. Our High Priest’s sacrifice on the altar of the cross has torn the veil and granted us access to God in spite of our sin. May the sweet smell of His intercession on our behalf draw us unto His grace. May the breath of His Spirit blow away that which clouds our minds so that we may clearly see our sin and the Savior whose passion earns our forgiveness and empowers us unto holiness. May our Father’s unconditional fellowship motivate you to thankful service; “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” (Rom. 12:1).
1 Back in 1979 and 1982, Rev. Gise VanBaren was the lone voice against smoking in the Standard Bearer. Professor Barry Gritters joined him in 1988. Rev. VanBaren wrote another article on the topic in 2003. Young and old would profit from looking up those articles in the SB archives at https://sb.rfpa.org.