Real Excellence

Chuck Colson recently commented on the performance enhancing drug epidemic in professional sports in “Monsters of Our Own Making,” an article he wrote for Breakpoint. Colson was a strong influence on me years ago, especially his book Loving God, in which he introduced me to William Wilberforce. Colson acknowledged his debt to Wilberforce by creating The Wilbeforce Forum, and if you haven’t seen “Amazing Grace” you should watch it tonight!

With all due respect to Colson, however, I didn’t think his reasoning about the distinctions between real and false excellence in “Monsters of Our Own Making” was very nuanced or convincing.

He asks, “As our capacity to reengineer the human body grows, what kind of society will we become? Then he quotes Leon Kass of “The Washington Post” who wrote “We might lose sight of the difference between real and false excellence, and eventually not care.” Colson goes on to talk about the model of Eric Liddell, the runner who wouldn’t “compete in the Olympic 100-meter event because it was scheduled on a Sunday, so he trained for the 400-meter race, which required completely different skills. And he not only won, he set a new world record.”

Liddell said : “I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” And Colson agrees “that’s a pleasure we can all feel when we use the abilities God has given us–when we reflect His image, not the image of our own making or a chemists.”

That’s fine as far as it goes. I do not approve of the use of steroids or other drugs, and I agree with his premise that the society is partly responsible for the use of steroids, but I think his analysis does not go any where deep enough.

What is the distinction between “real” and “false” excellence? Is it “real” excellence when an affluent parent can afford to pay for a personal trainer, hours at the batting cage or skating rink, or private coaches? Is it “real” excellence when a high school athlete uses legally prescribed drugs to “push through the pain” when another may not have access to basic health care or nutrition?

What we choose to call “real” excellence reflecting God’s image is conditioned by many socially and culturally unexamined presuppositions. I admire Liddell, too, but human history only honors and remembers the victors. My kids love “Remember the Titans,” and it’s an inspirational story, but would it have been any less inspirational if the Titans had lost? No. Would it have been told? No, again. Liddell’s act of conscience would have been just as pleasing to God had he not run and won the 400 and had we never heard of him.

Real God-pleasing excellence is stopping to help up the runner who was pushed to the side of the field, even if it cost you the race, or even if he comes back and wins, beating you in the process.

The rampant drug use in professional sports is truly a “monster of our own making,” but  the  “monster” is that our model for excellence is warped.  Steroid use is only a reflection of that.  It could vanish tomorrow from sports forever and athletics would still be a flawed model for “real” excellence.

True excellence, real excellence, is seeking the pleasure of the Creator over the pleasures of His creation.

“But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” (1 Sam 16:7)

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