Saturday, April 11, 2009

What If a Pill Could Help You Stop Sinning?

Would that be a good thing?

NPR tells the story of how a drug intended to combat alcoholism also reduces impulsive theft—kleptomania. (The audio version contains extra detail.)

In a nutshell, the drug functions as an opiate to reduce the high that accompanies addictions, whether it's derived from narcotics, theft, or other activities.

This story made me wonder: Would we be helped if medication really could reduce the frequency of our sin? Is it a good thing to see quantitative progress in living a moral life, wholly apart from the gospel? I'm not suggesting it's a good thing to be as bad as we can be; I'm wondering what might be the implications for a person who needs the transforming power of the gospel—regardless of whether or not they've been converted—if that person finds behavioral transformation through other means.

So if you knew it would help curtail your sin, would you take the medication or not?


brian said...

"Is it a good thing to see quantitative progress in living a moral life, wholly apart from the gospel?"

What is the difference between the aid of medical treatment and the grace of civil government--given to curtail evil and encourage morality apart from the gospel? Human law does not cancel out or supplant the need for the gospel, but it does benefit all people, regenerate or not, to think twice before stealing, killing, etc.

Here's my question: Should we ever use or advocate medicines that limit or stop the natural consequences to sin (i.e. contraception, sterilization, immunization preventing cervical cancer)?


Greg Linscott said...

I heard the story, too.

I do wonder where the line between legitimate medicine and pharmakeia lies as it pertains to this particular situation. Or, to put it another way, would taking the drug itself perhaps be a sin of a different sort?

Ben said...


Those are reasonable questions. I'm not sure they're apples to oranges. Sickness is an inevitable result of the Fall, but it's not what makes me deserving of God's judgment. Likewise, good civil government does benefit all people, but it doesn't mask the depravity that ought to drive me to the gospel.

Law (and our incapacity to keep it) drives us to Christ. And I'm convinced that the pill will not be created that eliminates all human sin. But I'm still wondering about the question I proposed.

Here's my answer to your last one: If the motive for using those medical treatments is to facilitate avoiding consequences for sin, then I think they're just as sinful as I would be to facilitate someone else escaping the consequences for committing a crime.

Ben said...


Sinful in what way? Motive? Influence on the soul? Would you see this sort of use as somehow different from taking morphine as a pain-killer?

Greg Linscott said...

Proverbs 31:6 would provide us with a principle that substances can legitimately be used to manage physical pain. I would be wondering about the case in point more because it is an alternative attempt at a sort of salvation from (a specific) sin- though I am not drawing that firm conclusion as of yet, mind you. Still, we aren't to indulge in mind-altering/mood-altering substances as a general rule, and we are as believers to exercise the Spirit and add to our virtue knowledge and self control (2 Peter 1:5)- spiritual discipline, and not chemical therapy.

Shannon said...

The other day, I was talking to my wife in the car as I was struggling with a really bad attitude. It was one of those situations where I had absolutely no reason to be grouchy. In fact, all the externals in my life at the moment were great. It's like something "clicked" in a bad way in my head and I was just flat crotchety. I didn't want to talk to nobody, be engaged with any problems, etc.

When this happens I get almost as frustrated about being frustrated as I am frustrated.

So, Tricia asked me, "did you have any caffeine earlier?" And, immediately it came to my mind that I had. Since I don't drink caffeine, if I happen to have a decent dose (in this case it was a Cinnabon coffee drink in a can) then it throws me into a physiological tailspin.

So...when I was struggling with my sinful attitude, did I need a nouthetic counseling session or did I need to repent and wait for the caffeine to get out of my system?

I'm not sure if this is germane to your post, but what you wrote got me to thinking about was how drugs (even as benign as caffeine in my case) do and don't relate to sinful attitudes.

What if we knew that ingesting six servings of raw broccoli a day would help prevent sins of the tongue? Not because it "masked" the problem, but because having a healthy diet helps us remain "emotionally level"?

Michael said...


Traditionally, Christians have taught that limiting the natural consequence of adultery is homicide. Two wrongs don't make a right.


Christians should strive for wisdom and holiness, not sinlessness. Sinlessness is defined by an absence, so it might be possible to avoid sin by becoming nothing. We would eliminate our sinful nature by eliminating our nature.

Holiness is an active and ongoing dedication to God. We become holy by replacing sinful thoughts with Christ-like thoughts and sinful actions with Christ-like actions, and best of all by receiving Christ in us as much as possible.

If we reduce ourselves to reduce sin, how much will we be able to love the Lord and our neighbors, and how much room is left in us for Christ?


Michael said...

In greedy pursuit of brevity I made my point unclear. Drugs that reduce our desires to sin reduce our minds and bodies, period. They make us less human because less of us is left. But a holy life is not just different, it is *more* than a regular life because it pursues more, bigger truth and it uses a fuller range of our human nature.

This is the same problem Trappist monks, etc., have. They cut off vocal communication to not sin, but they really reduced themselves and left a very small legacy of good works. Compare that to some other orders, who tried to tame, not eliminate, the tongue. Their writings are treasured by all kinds of Christians today for their wisdom.

Anonymous said...

The fact that it is an opiate caught my attention. Paul said to be filled with the spirit rather than drunk with wine. The issue is one of control. God influence = a good thing. Anything else controlling me = a bad thing.

Chip Van Emmerik

Anonymous said...

That's funny. I looked at this headline twice without really reading it well. Both times I thought it said, "What if PHIL could help you stop sinning?" Instinctively, I was wondering if you were talking about Phil Johnson. :-)


Ben said...


I think that's a different question, though an interesting one. So if the quality of our diet has a noticeable impact on our mood so that it propagates sinful attitudes or behavior, I do think we're exercising biblical wisdom to control our diet in a way that helps us bring our bodies under our control and moving towards submission to God's commands.

That can probably work in a positive or a negative direction. Medications could work similarly, but I like the way Michael (the first Michael) is thinking about its effects on our personhood.

A related question would be how we should think about gene therapy. My initial thoughts are that there would be parallels in how Michael is addressing the issue.

Shannon said...

Ben, I think I agree with Michael, and I realize I was a bit off topic; however, I'm wondering about how physiological effects from a particular drug (let's assume it's not "mind altering"), a certain diet, and other things affect us in our pursuit of holiness.

I'm not suggesting we have an excuse, or that the sin isn't still sin.

Do we as individuals pursue or avoid certain physiological things that will either positively or adversely affect us in our pursuit? I gave the example of Caffeine because I know that it has an adverse effect on me -- I avoid it because I become "weaker." I also know that when I'm eating a good diet then I seem to be more mentally sharp.

I think I am still off-topic, but there is something rattling in my brain that connects the two.

Ben said...


I think the personal lifestyle decisions you've made demonstrate biblical wisdom in avoiding circumstances that lead to sin. The context of Ephesians 4:27 doesn't have anything to do with diet, but it does warn us that, principially, we are obligated to avoid circumstances that give the devil an opportunity to tempt us to fall.

Not having internet access at home or installing a filter or accountability software doesn't address the heart issue, but that certainly doesn't mean those tools are useless. Maybe that's part of the putting sin to death in our bodies that Colossians 3 describes.

But those tools don't use pharmaceuticals to shape our desires or impulses. They help us deal with and fight against the full range of those impulses. Do you think that's a meaningful difference?

Shannon said...

Oh make me laugh. You know me too well to know that I am not as diligent in my diet as I possibly should be. This as I sip on my coffee (decaf of course) and munch on my bowl of Fruit Loops.

I certainly did not intend to spin your post into some defense of being a vegan or something like that. Rather I was trying to connect some dots.

Perhaps I'm trying to consider your proposition in light of the "hyper" nouthetic doctrine that virtually nothing physiological has an impact on our behavior. Furthermore, I couldn't agree more that this is an issue of the heart. I don't believe that just because we might be able to suppress our sin through physiological means that we don't need to be divinely saved this day of our sin.

What I was trying to get at moreso was that whether it's a synthetic pill that may "level" us out, or if it's a concoction of homeopathic solutions to "level" us out, what's the difference? I'm just wondering how many of us ingest "natural" things because we know they help us to be "stronger" to battle our trials. Does that even make sense?'s a question (since we're hypothesizing about a pill that can prevent sin). What if scientists developed a microchip for our brains that would instantly allow us to have all of Scripture stored in our head?

I've got to go run...I need to go work on my homemade soap and get ready for our home church services.

Ben said...


I want the record to show that I did NOT raise any issues associated with your assorted homeschooling peculiarities. ;-)

Not sure what to think about the microchip. I'm sure the day is coming.

I see the point you're making, but I'm trying to sustain a distinction between introducing a chemical that deliberately deadens part of who we are (whether natural or synthetic) and deliberately avoiding chemicals (again, natural or synthetic) that we know stir up sinful tendencies.