A couple of weeks ago I was asked to consider this question: “Is faith a placebo?” This morning, I would like to share my answer to that question.
Within the question we find two terms that perhaps require further clarification: faith and placebo. What do these two terms mean?
For a definition of faith, we turn to Hebrews 11:1, where we are told, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
For a definition of placebo, we turn to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, where we are told that a placebo is “a medication prescribed more for the mental relief of the patient than for its actual effect on his disorder; something tending to soothe.”
So, based on these definitions, it seems to me that this issue which I was asked to take up is really two separate but related questions: Is the assurance of what we hope for and the belief in what we cannot see soothing? Is this really the purpose of faith: to make us feel better?
In answering the first question, personal experience and the testimony of other believers would seem to indicate that the answer is “yes”. Within this very space this morning are the testimonies of those who have shared with me how their faith was a comfort to them in the face of extremely trying times. Believing that God forgives soothes the guilt of the repentant heart. Believing that God is everlasting soothes the grief of the one who has lost a loved one in death. Even in our worship, whether we are singing that it is well with our soul when sorrows like sea billows roll or that we are trading our sorrows for the joy of the Lord, we affirm that our faith comforts us.
Our use of Scripture even reflects the comfort that our faith provides. Consider what are probably the two most well-known passages of Scripture: The 23rd Psalm - “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me besid the still waters. He restoreth my soul” and John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” Why do these passages resonate so strongly with us that many can recite these words from memory even if they are not familiar with any other Scripture? Is it because these 2 passages resonate so powerfully with a message of comfort – in the 23rd Psalm, a promise for today that God will restore our souls, and in John 3:16, a promise for tomorrow that in Christ we have the assurance of everlasting life? Are there any two promises that do more to put our mind at ease than these 2?
Jesus himself teaches us that it is His desire that faith would result in our being soothed. In Matthew 11, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jesus here makes the bold pronouncement that coming to Him in faith can lead to our souls finding that restoration that Psalm 23 speaks of. Almost every funeral I officiate, I start by reading these words because I think we should be reminded that our Lord and our God does desire to give us rest.
So then, as I consider the first question - Is the assurance of what we hope for and the belief in what we cannot see soothing? – I feel that the answer to this question, both Biblically and experientially, is “Yes”. So then, what of the 2nd question: is this the purpose of faith – to make us feel better? When I look back at the original question and the definitions that I put forth at the beginning, I am struck that a placebo, from a medical perspective, is not intended to deal with the health problem itself. It is instead designed to make the person mentally and emotionally feel better while not actually dealing with the actual health problem that is causing the mental and emotional strain in the first place. Is this what faith is? Is faith that which allows us to maintain sanity in a broken world, without ever addressing the brokeness itself?
In my experience, it is at this question that many find themselves polarized. At one pole, we find Karl Marx. Marx is the famous author of The Communist Manifesto, yet perhaps his most wellknown quote is not found in his most well-known work. In an essay entitled Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx wrote: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness.” Marx argued that religion was a crutch that encouraged the poor to be satisfied with surviving in poverty. Marx called on the people to toss aside religion and a fake sense of security in order to work to change their circumstances and know true happiness. While Marx’s thoughts on religion have come to be wrapped up in the economic and politcal realities of communism, in truth Marx states what many think and say who have nothing to do with communism. At this pole, faith is spiritual Valuum, numbing our senses to the causes of suffering so that we can bear to face each day. Faith is a mode of survival, of grinning and bearing it. While it would be easy to assume that this pole is surrounded by enemies of religion, let us realize that there are a good number of Christians who live at this pole as well. Faith is the escape from their problems, it is the buzz of the mountaintop experience, and they desire nothing else than to keep the spiritual high going.
At the other pole, opposite Karl Marx and those who see faith as a drug or an escape, is Benny Hinn. Hinn is the well-known TV evangelist who performs “faith healings”. Hinn and others like him have long been dogged by questions about how many healings they have actually performed and whether or not people stay healed. Hinn, and other faith healers, are quick to argue that if someone is not healed, it is because of a lack of faith on their part. Others have built on this idea, teaching a prosperity gospel that says, “If you have enough faith, God will make you wealthy.” At this pole, you find those who argue that the amount of faith we have is directly related to the amount our circumstances can change. Whether we are sick or healthy, rich or poor is dependent on our faith, seemingly spoken of more in quantitative than qualitative terms. Faith is not just about feeling good; faith can change our circumstances for the better or for the worse. And while it would be easy to assume that mostly religious people gather around this pole, the truth is that we would find a good number of people gathered at this pole that we would not call religious at first glance. Inevitably there are those who make the argument against faith that the suffering of believers is evidence that God is not real. This argument is based on the idea that faith should keep us from needing to be soothed.
At one pole, all faith does is make us feel better because it is powerless to change our difficult circumstances. At the other pole, faith doesn’t need to provide comfort because true faith should remove all that causes us to suffer. Are we left to choose between these two, or to define our position somewhere in the vast spectrum in between?
I don’t believe so. I believe there is another way, another perspective. This morning, I want to conclude by laying out a third answer for your consideration. This third answer begins, I believe, with understanding a basic principle about God
In Habakkkuk 2, the prophet commends the righteous for living by faith and condemns the rich and the proud for seeking to live solely by what is tangible. In verses 18-19, the prophet describes the idols that this second group ends up creating. 19What use is an idol once its maker has shaped it— a cast image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in what has been made, though the product is only an idol that cannot speak! Alas for you who say to the wood, “Wake up!” to silent stone, “Rouse yourself!” Can it teach? See, it is gold and silver plated, and there is no breath in it at all. The problem with living without faith is that we end up chasing after fallible creations that are not alive, that cannot speak and teach. They cannot challenge or create. All the while, Habakkuk says in verse 20, “The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!” While the idols of man lie silent before their creators, the Creator of the Universe lives, and all are invited to stop and listen to Him who is wholly other than us yet is alone able to relate to us.
The reality that Habakkuk was reminding Israel of in the face of the Babylonian threat is the same idea that the 19th century Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard would remind the Protestant church: God is different from humanity. God is personal, holy, and transcendent, whereas humans are finite, dependent , and sinful. This vast difference between humanity and God makes it nearly impossible to know and understand God in the same way we know and understand what the weather is outside. The only way to know God, Kierkegaard argued, was to leave the objective position of observer and take the risk of becoming a participant in a relationship with God. This risk is what Kierkegaard identified as faith. When we read Hebrews 11:1 and the definition of faith, what we find is comfort held in tension with risk. Yes, we hear of assurance and conviction, but Hebrews 11 also reminds us that we are talking of what we hope for and what we cannot see. Faith cannot escape the call to take a risk, and taking a risk is never comfortable. In fact, when we try to make it more comfortable, we end up building idols that we can touch and see but that can’t speak and have no life in them to do anything. When we try to remove the risk, we ultimately remove the relationship.
However, when we can embrace the uncomfortability of the risk, we open the door for the reception of assurance and conviction. The author of Hebrews goes on after verse 1 to lay out the “Faith Hall of Fame”. Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses – these and so many more are praised for what they accomplished “by faith”. However, as I read through this Hall of Fame, an interesting observation arises. In verse 7, we are told that “By faith, Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household.” Verse 11 says, “By faith [Abraham] received power of procreation, even though he was too old – and Sarah herself was barren – because he considered him faithful who had promised”. In these instances we see that faith either inspired a man to make a change, in the case of Noah, or inspired a man to receive a change, in the case of Abraham. However, in verse 9, we are told, “By faith [Abraham] stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents”. The other 2 verses show Noah and Abraham’s circumstances being changed for the better. However, in verse 9, Abraham’s faith is praised because he was willing to live as a guest in his own home. It was his land, but he was forced to live in it as a stranger. In some cases faith is connected with change, while in other cases, faith is connected with living amid unchanging difficult circumstances.
This then, it seems to me, is the third way: faith is taking an uncomfortable risk that an Almighty God will prepare us to live with whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. Faith is risking to believe that God can overcome evil with good, while also risking to believe that God can endow the good with endurance to withstand the persecution of evil. Faith means we are not satisfied with a broken creation and seek to change it as God equips us to do so, while at the same time believing that there is comfort for the broken until the day when God’s kingdom comes and all is made new. The poles of Karl Marx and Benny Hinn put the impetus of faith on humanity: at one pole, humanity must toss aside faith in order to truly change the world. At the other pole, the only way God can work is if humanity acquires enough faith. In both cases, faith centers on us. Hebrews 11 calls us to take the risk to center faith on God, the mysterious and hidden Lord. Yet, in taking that risk, a whole new world is opened to us, and we are able to find the assurance and the conviction that is beyond our grasp when we settle for our own efforts.
Is faith a placebo? Certainly faith provides to us a message of comfort in anxious and troubled times. It soothes the heart and the soul when the storm clouds are gathering. However, faith is not just a happy pill. Faith dares to invite God into the trouble, into the storm with us. There was a time when Christ spoke to the storm and it ceased. There was another time when Christ walked on the water in the midst of the storm and invited Peter to walk with him. Did either one prove him more or less God? This is faith: risking to believe God is with us in the storm, whether he causes it to cease or invites us to walk with him through it.