Placebos are fascinating things.
A placebo, in medical terms, is an ineffectual treatment for a disease or other malady, given to the patient, for the sole purpose of deceiving the patient. While that seems like a mean thing to do, placebos are important when doing research, in order to see whether or not a given drug is actually more effective than a placebo. The fascinating thing about placebos is how often they seem to actually make people think they feel better. People given placebos will in some cases heal faster, or feel better than people who are given nothing. This effect is not completely understood, but it is recognized as valid, and is called a placebo effect.
The whole phenomena suggests that a percentage of our health problems is, indeed, all in our heads. Either that, or the brain has greater power to heal the body than some skeptics might want us to believe. Either way, however, a placebo’s ability to help only goes so far. At some point, one has an actual health problem that cannot be dealt with mentally, or made to go away by such a simple trick.
While a placebo is a medical term, the concept can be seen to manifest in other things in our lives. We often do things, not because they provide actual help, but because they make us feel better. Realistically, if your home has large glass windows right beside a stout door, the deadbolt on the door is not going to keep anyone out who really wants to get in, but we turn the deadbolt anyway because it makes us feel safer. It’s a placebo for sleeping better at night.
Placebos are mostly harmless, except and when they distract you or prevent you from doing what you really need to be doing. Feeling better is great, but if it’s all just a mental trick, it’s nothing more self-deception.
In religion, the Bible argues that a lot of what people engage in is of little actual spiritual value. You might say that a great deal of religion is nothing more than a spiritual placebo – activities which only make the person doing them feel spiritual, without actually improving one’s standing with God.
We read in the Scriptures: “Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations— “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:20-23; NKJV)
Notice also what Christ says about worthless worship: “In vain they worship me, teaching as doctrine the commandments of men.” (Matthew 15:9; cf. Isaiah 29:13)
There are two commonalities between the two cited passages: both mention the commandments of men. When God tells you to do a thing, the commandment has real spiritual value. When a man tells you to do a thing, even if it makes you feel like you are being spiritual, it’s a worthless spiritual placebo. It cannot do a thing to actually save your soul or make you pleasing to God.
When Jesus was confronted by the chief priests who wanted to know about His source of authority, Jesus pointed them to John the Baptist, asking of them whether John’s baptism was from God or from men. (cf. Matthew 21:23-25) It was a good question which cut right to the heart of the matter.
Anything we do in religion should be “from God.” Whenever we engage in a particular practice, we should ask ourselves – “is this from God or from men?” If it is from God, and we can find in the Scriptures a, “thus saith the Lord,” then we should do it with all our hearts.
If it is from men, we can safely ignore it, knowing that while it might of an “appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion,” it is of no actual spiritual value. The commandments of men can never be more than a spiritual placebo. They might make us feel good for a while, but in the end we are just as spiritually sick as when we started.
At the church of Christ, we strive to make sure that all we do, in word or deed, is done by the authority of Christ or Lord and Savior (cf. Colossians 3:17). We invite you to join us in worship and study at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.