Thursday, February 19, 2009

Toward a Theology of Smoking

By Andrew Faris

Today Tim Challies posted this thoughtful and humble piece asking the question, "Is it sinful to smoke?" I thought about commenting there, but instead I've decided to dedicate a full post to the subject because not only have I been thinking of writing about this for some time, but I also have too much to say to fit into a comment there. So here it goes...

First of all, we need to distinguish between types of smoking. The addicted cigarette smoker should quit. There is a reasonable chance that he is killing himself and wasting a heck of a lot of money in the process. This seems obvious.

But once we get past that, the issue gets a little more complicated. Is it sinful to smoke a pipe, a cigar, or occasional cigarettes?

My basic thesis is this: smoking can be enjoyed to the glory of God, or it can be enjoyed sinfully, but the sinfulness is not intrinsic to the action (unlike, say, looking at pornography, which is always sinful).

For one thing, the medical effects of pipe smoking, to the best of my knowledge, have actually received relatively little study, and some studies, no joke, apparently show that casual pipe smoking can prolong life. For those who don't realize, you do not inhale the smoke when you smoke a cigar or pipe (well, you try not to, cause it's dang unpleasant if you accidentally do!); rather, you hold the smoke in your mouth, get the flavor of the tobacco, then blow it out. That is why the biggest health risk for pipe and cigar smoking is mouth cancer of various kinds (i.e. lips, tongue, etc.).

If those studies are real and accurate (note my tentativeness here, commenters), presumably pipe smoking would lead to longer life because it is relaxing. Stress notoriously leads to many fatal diseases, and smoking would ease stress. I am less sure about the effects of cigar smoking, only because there is so much more tobacco in a cigar than in a pipe, such that any adverse effects of tobacco would be considerably intensified for regular cigar smokers as opposed to regular pipe smokers.

If you couldn't tell from my discussion there, I am a pipe smoker (and occasionally, a cigar smoker, but pipe tobacco is way better...), and in fact a relatively avid one. I would say on average I smoke a couple times a week, though that number is a bit inflated at this point in life because I life with seven other guys, all very mature Christians, and several of them enjoy various kinds of smoking as well. When I get married in a month and a half, my smoking will likely decrease. In the mean time, we sit outside and smoke together relatively often in the evenings.

Which leads me to a major point: men do not tend to sit down and have in depth conversations about important things out of nowhere. But put a pipe, a cigar, or a beer in a guy's hand who enjoys that sort of thing, and great conversations arise.

My own anecdotal evidence for this phenomenon could fill more blog posts than you would care to read. Put simply, I have had countless deep conversations about serious life issues (including the state of spiritual lives, difficult issues generally, jobs, girlfriends/fiancees, and theology, to name a few) with my Christian brothers that I honestly think would not have arisen had we not been sitting out and smoking a pipe, a cigar, or for one of my roommates, a Marlboro Red. This kind of smoking is often perceived as manly, as a time for thoughtfulness. It takes awhile (at least thirty minutes), it is genuinely enjoyable for folks like me, and it importantly for the sake of conversation, it falls into the background of the atmosphere while the conversation comes to the fore. This leads to good conversation, which is in my view the reason that smoking can be done to the glory of God.

Further, I keep a pack of cigarettes in my computer bag or messenger bag. I don't particularly enjoy smoking cigarettes, but I'm willing to do it for the purpose of making relationships with those I don't know. I read and study at coffee shops quite a bit, and at coffee shops people often sit outside and smoke a cigarette while talking, reading, and drinking their cup of coffee. There is no easier way to get a conversation going with someone you don't know than by pulling out a cigarette and asking them for a light if they are already smoking. The awkwardness of going up to someone you don't know and beginning a conversation with them is completely alleviated by starting that conversation over a cigarette.

Most cigarette smokers will tell you that one of the most difficult things about quitting smoking is the community aspect. A group of people will go outside and smoke together, and while they do they talk. And of course, an addicted smoker can't stand out there around all that smoke and resist the temptation himself, so he has to stay away. Which means staying from the community and the conversation. And that is no fun. Even as a stranger, the minute I walk up to a group like that and ask for a light, I am typically implicitly invited into the conversation. Imagine if that was your group of regular friends and your could no longer share those conversations.

That said, I do not consider myself to be in any danger of getting addicted to cigarettes. For one thing I've actually done this only a few times in roughly four months of having the cigarettes in my bag, but each time it has allowed me the opportunity to make relationship (I know one guy by name who is a regular at the same Starbucks I'm a regular at because I smoked with him once). Also, I don't enjoy cigarettes, which probably helps, and I go back and forth on inhaling them in those situations.

My point in all of this is this: if smoking occasionally won't kill me anymore than eating In-N-Out will, if I'm not blowing money on it, and if I can use it to deepen relationships for kingdom purposes, why not? I'm not saying that everyone should smoke, but I do think that the stigma attached to it can be unfair, and I do think it can absolutely be done to the glory of God.

22 comments:

Stan McCullars said...

Amen my brother!

It seems smoking gets a bad rap. Some people enjoy it. Fine. It seems to me that being a busybody is far more distasteful than smoking could ever be.

I don't smoke but support people who do. I also support their property rights. Your house, your rules. Your restaurant, allow smoking. The government has no right to interfere.

Johnnie said...

An enjoyable post, Andrew. I'm not sure you've provided an actual theology, per se, of smoking, but I'm sure your tongue was somewhat in the vicinity of your cheek when you gave your post that title. You do, however, provide a rational and common-sensical approach to smoking: we should look at smoking, as we should all things, with a clear head, stripped of the fraudulent misstatements we are so given about lifestyle choices. There are good things to be said for smoking, just as there are bad things, and you outline those very nicely.

I looked at the link in your post because I was curious to know where this idea that smoking is "sinful" comes from. And I really didn't get an answer. It's a fascinating question: how to define "sin". The suggestions in that post RE smoking do not convince--many of them fall, in my eyes, under the category of "a bad idea" which cannot, surely, be equal in every case to "sin." Especially when, as in the case of sitting outside with fellow travelers, enjoying a relaxing pipe and conversing, the act can be, in fact, a good idea.

One is reminded of Huck Finn, forced to live with the Widow Douglas and adhere to her rules: smoking was sinful, going barefoot was sinful, playing with his friend Tom was sinful...he couldn't see no sense in it. He was right.

Andrew Faris said...

Stan: Thanks! Glad to have anyone's support!

Johnnie: funny you should mention the title, because I first wrote the current title, but then realized I wasn't doing much theology, so I changed it. But then I left and re-entered the post editing a couple times and blah blah blah, and in the end, though I thought I had changed it to, "Is Smoking Sinful?" I ended up with the original title. Oh well.

Also, I probably should've said it, but I hope it's clear that I don't necessarily disagree with anything Challies said, and I really do think he left most of his post to question-asking, not answering. So just so we're clear, Challies raised a question and I went after it. That's all!

I don't know where you live, but if you ever come to southern California, drop me an email so we can go get an Old Belhaven Stout and smoke a pipe together!

Andrew

Joel said...

"but pipe tobacco is way better..."

False. Studies have shown that cigar smoking is categorically superior to and far more enjoyable then pipe smoking. Plus cigar smokers are better theologians than pipe smokers, in support of my argument I submit Charles H. Spurgeon.

dac said...

Have to agree with Joel. There are four of us at church who enjoy not only the occasional cigar, but even the occasional beer.

James Grant said...

This is a great post! Thanks

Bill Faris said...

To quote a Baptist evangelist I once heard: "Smoking may not send you to hell, but it sure makes you smell like you've been there." And speaking of hell, why the hell is my blog still missing from your blog roll?

I think Dennis Prager makes a good point (as a religious Jew, mind you) that there is a difference between "unholy" behavior and "sinful" behavior in that certain things like smoking seem "unholy" to some, while "sinful" behaviors offend the clear standards of God (i.e. lusting via pornography as you mentioned, the Ten Commandments, etc).

I think the questions of whether the Corinthian believers should eat meat sacrificed to idols is a fair parallel -- especially when considering the place of In 'n Out Burger in your life.

My observation is that freedom scares people because we know the potential for error and excess is always in play so some people pull the line in tight and then proceed to question anyone else who doesn't. This, I believe, will never change.

In the meantime, thanks for giving me a pipe for Christmas and, no, I still don't care a bit about beer.

Jason said...

I really appreciated this post. Personally, I really don't like being around anyone smoking anything other than good pipe tobacco. However, I don't think that there is any inherent sinfulness in it unless they are mastered by it.

Like the Pharisees, we tend to set up "fence rules" so that we don't accidentally stray into sin. However, I also think that we run just as much of a risk of feeling justified by our rules and committing sin as we do of actually committing sin by going too far with our Christian liberty.

I also find it fascinating that so many are often quick to decry smoking and drinking, but not so quick to decry gluttony. We freely distribute one of the most addictive legal stimulants in the world at most churches, but quite a few of those churches would never think of distributing a tasty depressant made from barley, malt, and hops.

You've got to love how Tim Challies can start a conversation!

Mastering Divinity said...

I have a few comments to make, but I'll leave it to this one:
"For those who don't realize, you do not inhale the smoke when you smoke a cigar or pipe (well, you try not to, cause it's dang unpleasant if you accidentally do!); rather, you hold the smoke in your mouth, get the flavor of the tobacco, then blow it out. That is why the biggest health risk for pipe and cigar smoking is mouth cancer of various kinds (i.e. lips, tongue, etc.)."

The major flaw in those studies is that they ignore that much of cigar and pipe smoking is done, as you point out, communally. Why is that an issue? If you have 6 or 7 guys sitting around smoking cigars you end up with a lot of secondhand smoke. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, because of the special place cigarettes have in American culture, there have never been few, if any studies, discussing this.

Jenny Bruce said...

One of the things I love about my circle of friends is that we can discuss the state of our spiritual lives, difficult issues generally, jobs,boyfriends/fiancees/husbands, kids and theology over a decadent dessert AND receive the heart healthy benefits of dark chocolate. Booyah.

Jeff and Jenny's dad said...

Thought-provoking post, Andrew!

Since my father-in-law, my mom and my dad all died as a direct result of smoking, I have a somewhat different perspective on a theology of smoking. As you know, Romans 14 and 1 Cor 8-10 give us a number of tests for engaging in practices neither endorsed nor prohibited by Scripture, (often referred to as "gray areas," "doubtful things;") areas of behavior where the Bible gives us freedom to follow our own convictions. Paul writes in Romans 1414-15, "I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died." One test for whether I can participate in an activity is how my participation affects others. Paul says that if what for him is a legitimate activity hurts his brother, he will defer to the law of love and not do it. The issue isn't just whether an activity is legal; it's whether its loving. So will my smoking harm my brother? I don't know of anyone who would argue that smoking is harmless. Cigarettes are the only legal product whose advertised and legal use is known to harm the body. Smoking is the leading cause of cnacer deaths in this country. Smoking increases the risk for heart disease, stomach cancer, pneumonia and a host of other maladies. Even moderate smoking harms the heart. Smoke contains known carcinogens and toxins which cause DNA damage, oxidative stress and inflamation. Most people are unable to smoke infrequently since nicotine is an addictive drug like heroin or cocaine, with physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms. While cigar or pipe smoking may be less lethal, there is still the increased risk for lip, mouth, tongue and colin cancer, even if one does not inhale.

Smoking cigars can cause cancers of the lung, lip, tongue, mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, and probably cancers of the bladder and pancreas. The risk of death from lung cancer is not as high as it is for cigarette smokers, but is still many times higher than the risk for non-smokers. Pipe smokers have an increased risk of dying from cancers of the lung, throat, esophagus, larynx, pancreas, and colon and rectum. They also have an increased risk of dying of heart disease, stroke, and chronic lung disease. The level of these risks seems to be about the same as that for cigar smokers. For those who do not inhale, nicotine is absorbed more slowly through the lining of the mouth. Both inhaled and non-inhaled nicotine are highly addictive. Second-hand smoke contains an even larger amounts of some toxins and cancer-causing substances which directly affect non-smokers in the vicinity.
So to compare smoking to eating at In-n-Out hardly seems a fair comparison. One can certainly eat in moderation. I'm not sure one can smoke in moderation without impacting, to some extent, one's health. My issue, however, is not the impact your smoking has on you; it's the impact your smoking has on others. Beyond the issue of second-hand smoke, your example can influence others to embrace a practice which is demonstratably harmful. So where does walking according to love fit into a theology of smoking? Choosing whether to smoke could be compared with choosing to build a swimming pool in your backyard. Unlike smoking, there are numerous health benefits in swimming. It relieves stress better than pipe smoking. But considering the number of young children who drown each year in unsupervised family pools, I could not in good conscience have one in my backyard. However, in terms of the sheer magnitude of deaths caused as a direct result of smoking, the number of deaths in private pools shrinks to insignificance. So how can I smoke and love my neighbor as myself at the same time? What do you think, Andrew?

C. Michael Patton said...

Great post.

Andrew Faris said...

Joel: what about C. S. Lewis (not a "theologian" per se, but a heck of a thinker), and of course Karl Barth? Plus it's right there in his name: John PIPEr. Just saying.

Dad: I'll work on your blog. I'll have to see if it passes inspection for the other bloggers here though...

John and Mastering Divinity: good, thoughtful stuff. So thoughtful in fact that I don't want to deal with it in a comment, because I have too much to say. And just as I was in the middle of writing my full post response, my fiancee came over to celebrate my birthday with me. So it'll have to wait until tomorrow, most likely.

And James, Michael, and other: thanks!

Andrew

Johnnie said...

"But considering the number of young children who drown each year in unsupervised family pools, I could not in good conscience have one in my backyard."

And here, sadly, you lose all credibility.

Your family history with smoking is compelling and tragic. But in fact, you can smoke in moderation and not be harmed, and you can pay attention to where the second hand smoke is going and not harm others as well. I don't need to cite sources: smokers--cigarette, cigar, pipe, whatever--have lived full and healthy lives. Not all of them, true, and for all of us, the lesson is: go to the doctor and get checked out, and if you do things like smoke, be smart about it.

But then you give you swimming pool analogy, and here we are: the fraudulent misstatement I alluded to in my first post here. Take the number of private, home swimming pools in the USA and divide that number by the accidental drownings. It's miniscule, to the point of irrelevance. You were better off when talking about smoking, which can be, obviously, extremely dangerous.

And then to take your fraudulent misstatement and attach it to some sort of Biblical, theological point...yikes. It's why most of the world rolls their eyes at us.

I'm going out to my back patio to smoke a cigar. And I might have a scotch too. And my eternal soul is ok with that.

Andrew Faris said...

Johnnie,

Tomorrow I will detail my disagreement with John (Jeff and Jenny's Dad).

That said, John Bruce is one of the godliest men I've ever known. He is also an exceptionally good, faithful, and thoughtful pastor. If I ended up with a ministry anywhere close to as God-honoring as his, I would be exceptionally thankful in my life.

So while he made his statement (which I do disagree with- I'm smoking my pipe as I write this) and is a big boy and can defend it himself, may I suggest a bit more humility? Tone of voice is lost in a blog comment, so perhaps you have requisite humility after all. But your statements are quite strong- he hasn't denied the Trinity or anything, so perhaps he does have some credibility left!

I think about it kind of like this: I always thought the idea that Jesus cleansed the temple twice was dumb, then I found out D. A. Carson believes that. I still believe in only one cleansing, but no longer do I think the two cleansing idea is outright idiotic! Kind of like a reverse ad hominem.

Andrew

Susan S. said...

As I mentioned on Challies' blog, I have a Bible scholar friend who occasionally wonders into a bar for a beer, and a good smoke..... of the cigar variety.... and always has a book in hand.... often of the theological variety. Quite often he ends up in long, intimate conversations with strangers who approach him because of the cigar.... then ask about the book. He inevitably shares the gospel with them. He says that in this environment a person's guard is down, and they are more likely to open up.

I would call that "smoking to the glory of God"! ;-Q

Susan S. said...

As I mentioned on Challies' blog, I have a Bible scholar friend who occasionally wonders into a bar for a beer, and a good smoke..... of the cigar variety.... and always has a book in hand.... often of the theological sort. Quite often he ends up in long, intimate conversations with strangers who approach him because of the cigar.... then ask about the book. He inevitably share the gospel with them. He says that in this environment a person's guard is down, and they are more likely to open up.

I would call that "smoking to the glory of God"!

;-Q

Tremonti said...

Andrew,
This is a great post...a rare gem if i might add. In my culture smoking is perceived to be associated with being bad...associated with darkness. The society around (christian community) does not accept the 'practice'.

You made some good point in saying that smoking can be a pathway to meaningful conversation, one that I would agree with.

I used to smoke, but mainly because of being addicted to it. I used to think smoking was demonic as what some christian leaders depicted. But over time and with much thinking and 'wisdom' I have changed my views towards it.

Although I would not be able to give any smoking vices, you made grate points to the argument. I'm not sure if I would every try smoking again (I did have addiction issues) but your post does give me much needed insight to the otherside of smoking.

To me my only negative against smoking cigarettes is addiction issues and for health reasons.

Great post...again!

rick said...

Damian - As a cigar smoker, I thought this was an interesting perspective. Sad to say, I purposefully do not give it thought. I guess I'm concerned I'll decide it is wrong.

SI plan to continue in the ignorance mode for now.

I'm not sure your post is sufficient to overcome the arguments against smoking. But I will say your point about relaxing and creating a social environment is right on. I have had countless hours in great conversation with my son and friends that definitely would not have occurred otherwise.

Thanks for the insight. Perhaps one day I will do the necessary soul searching on this ... but for now all I can say is, "smoke 'em if you got 'em."

rick said...

Damian - As a cigar smoker, I thought this was an interesting perspective. Sad to say, I purposefully do not give it thought. I guess I'm concerned I'll decide it is wrong.

SI plan to continue in the ignorance mode for now.

I'm not sure your post is sufficient to overcome the arguments against smoking. But I will say your point about relaxing and creating a social environment is right on. I have had countless hours in great conversation with my son and friends that definitely would not have occurred otherwise.

Thanks for the insight. Perhaps one day I will do the necessary soul searching on this ... but for now all I can say is, "smoke 'em if you got 'em."

karlo said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Unknown said...

I couldn't agree with your first sentance more, except for the typographical period after the word 'false'.

Regards,
J. Shelton
Selma, NC