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Defying God’s limitations

This month’s column tackles the hot potato of doping.

Field of Dreams Pete Nicholas
Figure Image
photo: iStock

Doping. It’s a word that rears its ugly head all too often in the world of sport. Already in 2018 there have been a series of drug scandals, while the international sporting community is still coming to terms with the scale of Russian state-sponsored doping.

What the Bible says

Much has been written about the whole subject and will continue to be I’m sure, but rather than explore the specifics of any particular case, the aim of this column is to look at what the Bible says about doping in general.

At a basic level, of course, doping is cheating and cheating is both lying (claiming something that is not true) and disobeying the sports governing authorities and rule makers. Both of these are clearly prohibited in the Bible (Colossians 3.9: ‘Do not lie to one another’; Romans 13.1: ‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities’). But can we go any further in understanding the pathology of doping other than just pronouncing it a ‘sin’?

Sport is good

First, it is important to understand that there is nothing inherently wrong about sport. At various points in church history, sport has been declared inherently ‘bad’ or ‘idolatrous’ by the church. As we see in Genesis 1, the creation is good, and sport is part of God’s good creation – a gift from him. Doping happens because sport has been affected (and infected) by humanity’s fall into sin, not because there is anything inherently flawed about sport.

Secondly, what is it that makes doping so prevalent? Partly it is the time we live in and a heady mix of professionalism in sport and drug innovation. Amateur players cheated (and still do) but the huge sums of money involved in sport today, and the availability of drugs to enhance performance, encourage doping.

Pushing the boundaries

But what is it that makes athletes want to take performance-enhancing drugs? Partly it is a timeless human desire to push the boundaries of what we can achieve. The Olympic motto Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Higher, Stronger) sums it up well. A key aspect of sport is a good desire to see what we can achieve; how fast can we go, how high can we jump, how well can we play? This is part of our creatureliness; rejoicing in our talents and exploring what it means to be made in the image of God (Genesis 1.27).

Distorted desire

This desire becomes distorted when it extends beyond exploring our creatureliness and becomes about wanting to become more. The original temptation of the serpent was to be ‘like God’ (Genesis 3.5) and so often the motivation behind doping is a desire to be more than we are, more than God has made us to be.

In sport, we sometimes use the hyperbole, ‘that was a superhuman effort’. It was a label often given to the cyclist Lance Armstrong before he admitted doping. But the truth is that the very best achievements in sport show us not something ‘superhuman’ but the best of being human.

God has given us great ability and also creaturely limitations. Sport at its best is a mutual exploration of those abilities within God’s good limitations, but sport at its worst is when we seek to transcend those limitations and buy into the lie that we can be more than God has made us to be. This distorts sport and distorts us as human beings within sport. At its essence, doping is this distortion and corruption of sport and the human image, which is why the ultimate answer to doping is to recapture what it means to be fully human – made in the image of God.

Pete Nicholas is Senior Minister at Inspire Church London and a former Christians in Sport staff member. www.christiansinsport.org.uk