It was like any other early August evening across the country. Professional baseball parks all over America were filled with fans watching players engaged in America’s pastime—players who are among the most talented and finely trained athletes in the world, pitchers who throw balls faster than most of us can see, and batters, who not only must see that ball, but hit it as hard and far as they can.
And that is what one outfielder did as he came to the plate in the fifth inning of a game in San Francisco. He smacked an 84 mile-per-hour fast ball 435 feet into the center-field seats of AT&T Park where the San Francisco Giants play. Homeruns are not so unusual for Barry Bonds, but on August 7, 2007, that homerun was the 756th of his career, meaning he has hit more than anyone else who’s played the game. Bonds broke a record set by Hank Aaron 33 years ago and became baseball’s all-time homerun king.
Yet, in the days following this game, the media and sportswriters noted the lack of fanfare for this accomplishment. For months, controversy had surrounded Bonds for his alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs. And although Bonds denied it, most fans weren’t buying his side of the story. When playing away from his hometown park in San Francisco, Bonds was scorned and ridiculed by scores of disenchanted fans.
What if the allegation is true? Why does it matter so much to us? After all, people enhance themselves physically every day for a multitude of reasons. In athletics, players rely on all sorts of unnatural aids to improve their performance. Players drink Gatorade. They have their eyesight improved with LASIK eye surgery. They undergo weight training on incredibly elaborate exercise equipment that was unheard of a short time ago. So at what point does using something manmade to improve physical performance become sinful?
To answer this difficult ethical question from a Christian worldview we must first examine a number of underlying issues. How should believers view new technologies that allow us to change our bodies? Do we have a right to alter the bodies God gave us? Is there a place for healthy enhancement?
As Christians, we understand that man’s sin has marred creation, including our bodies. Yet we are also commanded to take dominion over creation and use the tools and talents we have to improve the world for the sake of His glory. So at what point do we say we have improved it too much, or in the wrong way, or for the wrong reasons? When does the battle against the effects of the Fall become a battle against God’s will?
The world can be a complicated and messy place for determining right and wrong. Often what sounds perfectly reasonable to someone sitting in church on Sunday morning can be difficult to apply to life outside. For example, many believers cringe at the idea of plastic surgery for purely cosmetic reasons. But what if that same procedure were used to restore a burn victim? Those same Christians now see no moral dilemma. For this reason, the context in any given situation must be considered.
Consider military fighter pilots, says David Powlison, a counselor and faculty member at the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF). At times this extreme specialty career may require physical performance that is impossible without the aid of some stimulant. “They take drugs, which are illegal in other settings, to stay awake and alert longer than normal. So the rules about such drugs are not set in stone. We certainly need our pilots to be alert.” The lives of many may hinge on their clear thinking in a stressful situation.
In his book Choosing the Good, Dennis P. Hollinger, a professor of Christian ethics at Messiah College, says that context always plays a mediating role in our ethical quandaries. Though many believers contend that context is irrelevant to ethical questions, and many secular thinkers say context is completely determinative, both extremes are the wrong approach to moral dilemmas. “There are transcendent realities, known through divine revelation, in which we ground our ethics and moral universals,” writes Hollinger. “The context, however, determines how we appeal to these trans-cultural norms and virtues and how we seek to apply them within the world. … The Bible, the source of a Christian worldview and moral guidelines, is never read in a vacuum.”
This is not to say that the world is without moral absolutes—only that God’s moral principles must be properly applied. Often an action, while not intrinsically evil, violates the conventions of a given situation. In the sport of baseball, for example, one of the first contextual questions is whether the enhancement in question is against the rules of the game.
“Illegality, and what’s defined as cheating, is often not written in God’s law,” says Powlison, “but Barry Bonds, Ben Johnson, [and other athletes who use steroids] were aware that their actions were against the rules, and what took place was cheating. Even if using steroids was not against the rules technically, it was against the accepted standards of fair play, and Bonds knew it was wrong.”
Clearly the Bible doesn’t speak of steroid use and plastic surgery specifically. Nevertheless, with careful consideration and a dose of wisdom, biblical principles of right and wrong can be applied to contemporary ethical questions like these.
“Maturity involves working out the principles of Scripture in practice, finding out how the laws of God work in the rough and tumble of life,” says William Edgar, a professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary, and an expert in medical ethics.
Edgar points to Hebrews 5:14, which entreats believers to train themselves to determine the differences between good and evil. The passage suggests that this process is not easy for baby believers, but requires a mature faith and understanding, says Edgar. “And Romans chapter 12 also shows us how good God’s will is. We discover it by getting out there in the world doing it. Using our lives and work to create order, and reversing the Fall—escaping folly and the abuse of power—can only be answered out there in ‘the field.’
“Moral law,” Edgar continues, “is objective, but it has to be practiced, and process is important, not just rules. Consider Proverbs—different answers are called for in different situations. Often these answers can only be determined after a lifetime of practicing our faith.”
What’s the Motivation?
Why are so many athletes caught up in doping scandals? What motivates them to risk their health and reputation for small advantages on the field? Is it a question of pride or vainglory? Are they obsessed with fame and recognition? Perhaps wealth and comfort cause them to justify these shortcuts to success. Whatever the motivation, the Bible has a good deal to say about sins of heart and attitude.
There is no end to biblical instruction on the issue of pride, says Peter Enns, a professor of Old Testament and biblical hermeneutics at Westminster Theological Seminary. “Often it is a self-centered focus. Be the best at all costs. It’s not about serving God in my vocation. The Christian response should be to look at the deeper heart issues that drive our decision-making: insecurity, over-competitiveness, fear of failure, fear of losing a $20 million dollar income. Substance abuse is more a symptom of bad heart attitudes than anything else.”
Enns, who played minor league baseball, believes there are several ways we can evaluate our motivation before taking a drug or submitting to an enhancing procedure. “Ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this, and for whom? At what point is taking this drug going to work against me? Can I take this drug for God’s glory?’”
These can be difficult questions, says Enns, but self-examination is vital to getting at the heart of the matter. “I don’t think that anyone could make the case that using steroids to create a race of muscular supermen is part of God’s plan. When people are taking steroids they are not doing it to take every thought captive for God. You could ask the same question about ‘mind enhancing’ drugs—can you drop acid for the glory of God? No one would agree to that.”
Covetousness too, can be an improper motivator for drastic self-enhancements. Contemporary technology allows us to procure the same characteristics for ourselves that others may have been given naturally—no theft or scheming required. In the past, covetousness could only get you someone’s possessions. Now, with the right medical procedures, it can conceivably get you their nose, mouth, or chin.
In his book Doing Right, author and former ethics professor David W. Gill talks about the pitfalls of coveting. “Ambition to prosper through hard work … is not improper,” says Gill. “But [this] desire … can go off track by becoming obsessive and idolatrous or by leading us into covetousness.” The desire to look better and feel healthier is not inherently evil. But what if that desire leads us to expensive cosmetic surgery, or extreme diets? “The challenge is to balance self-acceptance, contentment, and trust in God’s care with a constructive and appropriate ambition. This,” concedes Gill, “is not easy in a culture such as ours.”
Covetousness, Gill explains, is a form of idolatry. It insults God by rejecting His provisions in our lives, deeming it inadequate. “In our hearts we say, ‘God, you’ve not been fair with me. You’ve shortchanged me. You owe me something better!’”
In this era of technological wonders, it seems that the list of things we can’t change about ourselves is quickly shrinking. In addition, our culture’s moral resolve to resist unhealthy enhancements is shrinking as well. Everywhere we go, we are bombarded with images and messages that breed unhappiness with who we are.
“These seductive sirens of advertising and Hollywood cultures that surround us stimulate fantasies and dreams of perfecting ourselves,” says Richard Winter, a professor of practical theology at Covenant Seminary. “They increase our dissatisfaction and discontent with who we are and what we possess.”
In his book Perfecting Ourselves to Death, Winter talks about how our culture helps us to forget our true identity by promoting a self-centered worldview. Yet it can be tricky to discern a dangerous influence since so much of medical technology is beneficial. We must focus, says Winter, on how God sees us and not on how we view ourselves: “If there is a personal God who created us, then the heart of the issue is not what others, or even we, think of who we are. What really matters is what God thinks of us. We have a given or derived identity—not an identity that we create for ourselves. Society does not define me, I do not define myself; God defines me.”
Concern with our appearance and performance is not a bad thing—until natural concern becomes obsession. The temptation to enhance ourselves for the wrong reasons can be too strong to resist. According to Winter, “Although physical beauty is a gift from God to be appreciated and enjoyed, it should not become a defining characteristic of a person’s identity in the way it does in American culture today. Physical strength is a good thing, but it is one among many priorities in life and should not become the main source of value or identity. Training the body is good, but habits of the heart are even more important.”
Pride: The Sovereignty of Man
Although a baseball player probably isn’t thinking about the hubris of mankind when he decides to take steroids, he exhibits one of man’s deep and abiding weaknesses in doing so. As much as possible, we desire to control our world, and the misuse of technology can foster this pride. The more of our lives we control, the less we think we need to rely on God. Quoting Dorothy Sayers, Winter notes, “[Pride] is the sin of trying to be as God. It is the sin which proclaims that Man can produce out of his own wits and his own impulses and his own imagination the standards by which he lives. … The name under which Pride walks the world at this moment is the Perfectibility of Man.”
The lure of technology can lull us into a false sense of sovereignty. When we believe our blessings are of our own making, our view of ourselves and the world around us becomes warped. As technology advances toward genetic revolution, what choices will human society be forced to make?
“To believe that our talents and powers are wholly our own doing is to misunderstand our place in creation, to confuse our role with God’s,” writes Michael Sandel in his book The Case Against Perfection. With the age of genetic engineering practically upon us, Sandel, a government professor at Harvard University, examines how unfettered control over physical selves and that of our progeny will affect society. “The awareness that our talents and abilities are not wholly our own doing restrains our tendency toward hubris.”
The widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports indicates that many players happily take advantage of any technology available to them—effectively controlling their own fate, says Sandel. But what happens when we are completely and literally self-made? The more we lose our sense of giftedness, the more we will tend to nurture our own pride and forsake our obligations to the world around us.
He writes, “Why, after all, do the successful owe anything to the least advantaged members of society? One compelling answer to this question leans heavily on the notion of giftedness. … If our genetic endowments are gifts, rather than achievements … we have an obligation to share this bounty with those who, through no fault of their own, lack comparable gifts.”
Matters of the Heart
As we move forward into the 21st century, with greater medical, pharmaceutical, and genetic options available, we will certainly have more and more challenging opportunities to use the Word of God to interpret contemporary morality. For better or for worse there seem to be many “gray” areas of medical ethics waiting for the insight of a Christian perspective.
“We need people to keep thinking about these things,” says Peter Enns. “We need to give thought to these issues. When you get down to it, these [medical ethics] questions get into the deeper issues of the heart.”
Like the builders of the Tower of Babel, many proponents of such scientific advances have embraced the hubris of man. It is vital that we learn from such watershed moments of the past, and continue to examine our motivations, our hearts, ourselves, when making decisions about physical enhancement.
“Over 100 years ago when anesthesia was invented,” notes David Powlison, “many Bible-believing people thought is was wrong to administer it during childbirth. Their reasoning was that God had ordained childbirth to be painful, it had always been painful, and it was against nature to ease that pain. But we have come to realize that the creation of a common grace blessing to relieve this pain is a good thing.”
On the other hand, he notes, you cannot simply draw lines in the sand on questions of medical ethics. God often has deep lessons to teach us through pain, suffering, and physical limitations. Powlison concedes, “For myself, as with anyone, there are days in my life when I feel fruitful and productive. And then there are times when I feel like my mind isn’t working properly, like my head is in a trash can. At the time those days seem wasted. What if I could take a pill so that I would not have dark, unproductive days? I don’t think that would be sinful per se, but I wouldn’t do it. I look at my life and I see that my failures, physical or otherwise, have taught me so much about wisdom and grace and perseverance against my sinful human nature. I would never trade away those ‘wasted’ days. Wisdom is often earned and learned in the context of bumbling around.”
Stephen McGarvey is the executive editor of Crosswalk.com and a freelance writer on issues of faith, culture, and human rights. He lives in the Richmond, Va., area with his wife and two children, and attends Sycamore Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Midlothian, Va.