Modern Medicine and the Temptation of Babel

Over Thanksgiving last year, I got strep throat. I haven’t had strep since college and it reminded me quickly why I hope to never have it again. It’s awful. But antibiotics are God’s gift to humanity. I only had to endure the effects of strep until the antibiotics kicked in, but every hour the pain lasted, I thanked God I live this side of modern medicine. Within hours, the pain subsided and I could at least drink a smoothie. Within days, I started feeling like a human again. Modern medicine is a privilege I don’t take for granted. It’s a blessing to live on this side of human ingenuity in medicine. In the days following, I started thinking about how in our strongest moments we tend to think very little of these modern medical advances. We can even begin to think they are unnecessary. Go long enough without getting the flu and you start to wonder why on earth you need a flu shot every year. If all you know of childbirth are the success stories, you start to wonder why everyone doesn’t just push back against intervention during delivery. But only fools want to go back to the days of death in childbirth, no antibiotics, and no vaccines. The gift of modern medicine can dull us to the blessing of how far we’ve come. But it can also make us proud. It also can lead us to idolatry, trusting in the works of our hands, rather than the God who made the hands that create and invent.

The Pride of Babel and Modern Medicine

Back during the anthrax scare of the early 2000s, news anchor Tom Brokaw closed his evening broadcast saying “in Cipro we trust.” This drug had saved the life of his co-workers and many others. Let all of America praise it, he said. While it was partly a lighthearted comment about the blessing of having protection against Anthrax, his comments revealed that the idol of trusting in our own inventions runs deep.

The more we develop, the more we grow, and the more we create, the more susceptible we are to thinking that we are here by nothing other than the strength of our own hands, our own minds, or our own health. This pride is not new though. It’s of the oldest kind. It’s the pride that has led countless men and women to believe that they are the master of their own fate, their own destiny, as the William Ernest Henley poem states.  It’s even the very same pride that led to the tower of Babel.

We are all familiar with Babel, right? (Gen. 11:1-9). The people decided to make a tower to reach heaven. They grew proud in their capabilities and wanted to show off. They thought they could be like God. The great sin that has plagued us since the beginning is that give us a little power and we all begin to think we are the source of it all. We create. We produce. We invent. We discover. All the while secretly (or even publicly) saying: “Look how God like I can be?”

God is not surprised by our medical discoveries anymore than he was surprised that the people could make a great tower back in Babel. He made us after all. He made us like himself. Any invention or discovery shouldn’t lead to human worship. It should lead to God worship. “What do you have that you did not receive?” Paul asks in 1 Corinthians 4:7. The humble response is nothing, nothing at all.

Worshiping the Right Creator

God knows our tendency towards idolatry as much as he knew the hearts of those in Babel. And in every instance he responds with mercy. For them, he confused their language so they were protected from their own pride and idolatry. For us, he doesn’t let us understand or know everything. He allows modern medicine to fail us. He lets us still get strep throat. He lets flu vaccines fail. He let’s birth plans go awry. He even lets our bodies decay and ultimately die. We are not God. He reminds us just how small we really, lest we foolishly begin to think that we could ever ascend to his seat of power.

But in our humbling he also directs us to a better source and a better object of our worship. In Isaiah 46, God reminds Israel just how foolish it is to worship something made by your own hands. Why worship something you can carry in your pocket, when you can worship the God who sustains the universe? Why worship something that can be destroyed in an instant, when you can worship the God who has always existed and can never be destroyed?

Perhaps, though, the idolatry is more subtle. It’s not worshiping the works of our hands, as much as it is forgetting where the health and strength come from? Psalm 65:35 says: “Awesome is God from his sanctuary; the God of Israel—he is the one who gives power and strength to his people. Blessed be God.” Any modern medical advancement we benefit from must always be attributed to God. Strength and power and intellect and discovery all belong to him. He gave scientists minds to understand antibiotics and viruses. He gave doctors skill to diagnose. He gave pharmacists the ability to fill prescriptions correctly. He even gave us awareness of our own bodies, enough to know when we need to go to the doctor. He could have left us to the ravages of a broken world, instead he gave us ingenuity and modern medicine. Praise be to God for his abundant gifts.

The next time I come down with strep throat (which I hope is not for a very long time), I’m going to check my own heart when I am tempted to worship the gift, rather than the giver. Antibiotics don’t deserve my praise, God does. The heart of Babel lurks in all of us, tempting us all to fall prey to the lie that we can be like God if we just put our minds to it. Only God is God. And in his mercy, he lets us live with the many gifts this world has to offer. Even gifts of modern medicine.