Embracing Placebos and Striving for More

“Just because something makes us feel, think, or act differently doesn’t mean that it’s addressing the core issue. It’s true in physical medicine and it’s true in spiritual growth.”

A recent National Geographic cover story touted an article on “The Healing Power of Faith.” Of course, the focus of the article was not specifically on the healing power of Christian faith, but on faith in general. Really, faith in anything. The article itself, interestingly, was not really on faith in the religious sense (although it did tie that in) but on faith in the emotional sense: the article was on the placebo effect.

The placebo effect is a product of our nature as embodied souls. As embodied souls (psychosomatic beings), what we think and believe can have real, tangible impact on our bodies. It’s for this scientifically observable and explainable reason that researchers can recognize the physical benefits of believing that a certain treatment might help us even if there is no recognizable medical efficacy for the treatment.

The placebo effect comes not just in the form of sugar pills delivered during drug trials but also in the form of your environment or your social relationships. If you associate the sights, sounds, and smells of the hospital with a place of healing, it can help speed up and improve your physical recovery. But if you associate those same sights, sounds, and smells with a place of sickness and death, it can slow down your recovery.

As the article states: “Just as a good performance in a theater can draw us in until we feel we’re watching something real, the theater of healing is designed to draw us in by creating powerful expectations in our brains.” The same is true regarding the healing impact of our relationships. When we’re surrounded by others who are made to feel better by a certain experience, physical space, or placebo treatment, our own healing can be increased.  As one researcher was quoted to say, “Information we take from our social relationships has really profound influences, [not only] on emotional experiences but also on health related outcomes such as pain and healing.”

The placebo effect is real. It is powerful, it is impactful, and it can be incredibly consequential in our lives. There is no reason to deny that fact. However, it’s important to distinguish between the placebo effect and the supernatural working of God. God can and does physically heal people supernaturally. And the healing power of God is different than the healing power of “faith.” Of course, sometimes God works through the placebo effect, just as sometimes he works through skillful surgeons and other doctors to bring about healing. But sometimes he works through supernatural physical healing.

Supernatural physical healing is not something that God promises he will always do for us as Christians. He may choose to use supernatural healing for his own glory, but it is not a promise with a guarantee. But he does guarantee spiritual transformation:

“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13, emphasis added)

Similar to the physical placebo effect, we ought to be careful not to rest on the results of an emotional placebo effect. When you take the time to listen to a friend who is depressed, understand how they’re feeling, and get to know them better, chances are they’re going to feel better. When you institute a regular time to get together with a friend who is struggling with addiction, chances are it will help them to be more disciplined. When you assure a friend who is anxious that no matter what happens you will be there through it all, chances are it will give them a sense of peace.

All of these effects are true blessings. They are the products of love as we live in relationship with one another. And they all have real impact on the lives of those around us. However, we can't mistake these surface-level changes for true heart change. Just because something makes us feel, think, or act differently doesn’t mean that it’s addressing the core issue. It's true in physical medicine and it's true in spiritual growth.

We are called to take our relationships beyond the “placebo effect.” We are called to strive for more. While we can appreciate the blessing of this kind of effect, we are called to dig even deeper with one another so that we might facilitate the heart transformation that God desires for each of us.

To do this requires a willingness to aim for the heart in our conversations and ministry to one another. We must not be content to make one another feel better, but must strive for the gospel and God himself to be more deeply known and more fully applied in one another’s lives. We do this by identifying the ways in which our feelings, thoughts, and actions spring from self-focused goals or self-worship. We do this by helping one another see that our problems are deeper and more insidious than we tend to realize.

But we also do this by reminding one another—no matter how bad it is or how deep the self-focus goes—that God’s grace, forgiveness, kindness, and mercy covers it all. We remind one another that there is no condemnation for those that are in Christ Jesus, and that through him we have been set free from our bondage to these longings and desires.

And we call one another forward in obedience. We lay God’s will (as revealed in his Scriptures) before one another, and we encourage one another on in righteousness. We show one another what it means to truly follow God with our whole heart and we invite one another to give our lives away for the glory of Christ. We become one another’s greatest advocates in the pursuit of holiness and the embodiment of love.

And as we do, we get the opportunity to watch one another not just change here and there, but become more and more like Christ from the inside out. And that is something that no placebo will ever be able to do.