The sugar pill and the real thing

April 6, 2009 | 16 comments

This post was originally published on September 15, 2007.

Over these past couple weeks of woe Vicodin has basically become part of the Food Pyramid for me, so the topic of analgesics and other drugs has been on my mind.

It reminded me of a friend’s story of a drug trial he participated in in college. A pharmaceutical company was offering to pay people $1, 000 to have a minor medical procedure performed in return for feedback about a new pain medication they were testing. After a quick calculation of how many six packs of Schlitz they could buy with that kind of money, my friend and his roommate signed up. Participants were aware that some people would be given the real drug, whereas others would receive only a placebo, a sugar pill, to control for potential psychological factors (e.g. people feeling pain relief because they expected to, not because the drug was actually working).

When I asked about the results, my friend said that his roommate wasn’t sure if he was part of the control group — his pain was pretty bad, but it seemed to go off and on, so he thought he might have received the sugar pill. When I asked my friend if he thought he got the real drug, he said with a laugh, “Ooooooh, yeah. You know the real thing when you get it.” In what was probably an annoying attempt to play devil’s advocate, I pushed him on the issue. How did he know that the pain relief wasn’t just the placebo effect, the results coming only from his mind? He responded with a laugh, “Because it completely knocked me on my a**.”

Though it’s not a very eloquent way to phrase it, that’s how I feel about Christianity.

Every now and then I get a comment suggesting that all of changes I’ve seen in my life since my conversion can be chalked up to a sort of placebo effect. Perhaps I wanted Christianity to be true, so I saw what I needed to see to make it true.

First of all, the fact is that that I didn’t really want Christianity to be true. I perceived the entire religion to be a nothing more than a fairy tale that people used as a mental crutch. I thought that Christianity was synonymous with things like homophobia and sexism, so I gagged at the idea of ever calling myself a “Christian.” And I really, really did not want the Catholic Church to have any truth to it since I thought it was a corrupt institution that made people feel guilty about everything.

That aside, perhaps some hidden part of my subconscious wanted it all to be true. Or maybe it filled some need I wasn’t aware I had, or I just wanted to see results because I’d invested so much time researching and reading about it. Maybe it’s all the placebo effect. Maybe I got a sugar pill.

Like my friend in the pharmaceutical study, the notion makes me chuckle to entertain it. I can’t prove it to anyone else, but I know what I’ve experienced. And it ain’t no sugar pill.

Even in my pre-religion days, I was always interested in self-reflection and self-improvement. I read lots of popular secular books about how to be a better person, find happiness, improve relationships with others, etc. and tried all sorts of techniques to improve these things. So I’m pretty well aware of what my capabilities are in terms of making changes in my life. It’s not that impressive. Years of trying to improve my life on my own yielded very few results.

And then I stumbled into Christianity. I never intended for my attempts to live as a Christian to bring about much change in my life. I saw it as an intellectual endeavor rather than self-improvement project. I had come to the conclusion that the religion seemed to have some truth to it, so I thought I’d try living the way this Christian God would want us to live if he existed, just to see what happened. I thought of it as an almost entirely intellectual exercise.

Pardon the expression, but I find that what happened next is best described by paraphrasing my friend in the pharmaceutical study: I was knocked on my a**. It was like the foundation of my life started crumbling below me and I found myself riding a landslide to a totally different existence. Rather than the surface-level, temporary changes I’d seen in my life when using secular methods that relied on self alone, with Christianity I experienced a deep transformation that went down to the root of my soul. It was not something I could have brought about on my own.

When things started to happen like pride, cynicism and irritability being edged out by love, hope and peace, it was not of my own doing. I liked being prideful, cynical and irritable. It’s just who I was. But, sometime after I started the Christianity experiment, all of those traits began to leave a bad taste in my mouth. I didn’t want to change, but it’s almost as if I had no choice; I so deeply craved more of the peace and joy that I’d found only in the Christian religion that I no longer felt comfortable living life the way I had before. Much like being on a drug, my perception of the world around me, my actions, my desires, even my innermost thoughts were altered. Some force had acted upon me, slowly transforming me into the better person I never intended to be.

All my life I’d always thought that Christianity was a sugar pill. I thought that people swallowed it and then saw whatever they needed or wanted to see to make themselves feel better. But now that I have tried it for myself, I see that Christianity brings with it Something real, powerful, and external to the human mind. I agree with my friend in the drug study — you know the real thing when you get it. And this is the real thing.


  1. sarah

    Amazing. I could have written this post myself. Down to the same words in many parts. Infact, I still have serious trouble saying aloud that I am a Christian, after so many years of believing it to be just a “crutch for foolish people.”

    But like you I can not deny that its the real thing. For a long time I *wanted* to deny that (not wanting to be a fool with a crutch) but basically I had no choice – not and continue to respect myself and my own intelligence.

    Funny thing though. Some of the most blatant defendants of Christianity I know are prideful, cynical, and irritating. (Not you, lol!) Makes me wonder what really makes a Christian. Maybe the sugar pill isn’t just the different philosophies or religions but also the attitude and perspective we have about our Christianity too?

  2. Hope

    So true.

  3. Chris

    “[S]o I thought I’d try living the way this Christian God would want us to live if he existed, just to see what happened.”

    The thing about Pascal’s Wager is that, though its fruits do indeed extend into eternity, those same fruits begin in the here and now.

  4. Jenny

    hahaha, so accurate… and so fitting during Holy Week.

  5. Charlotte

    yes. the gospel changes everything.

  6. Megan@SortaCrunchy

    Just last night in our study of Acts, our pastor said the Bible’s most convincing evidence of the truth and power of the resurrection is the changed lives of the disciples. I think your testimony in this echoes that thought.

    Beautiful. I’m glad you re-posted this. There is SO MUCH in your archives – I don’t think I’ll ever get to it all!

  7. glacialmama

    Just found your blog via Jamie's (Lord Make Me a Saint). Love it & am looking forward to reading more when time permits!! Have a blessed Holy Week!!

  8. Dean

    I want to share this blog with family and friends because my conversion was very much the same. Today I am so different in how I see the world from the way I used to see it that I can’t explain the change other than with the word “slow, on-going conversion”. Keep up the wondereful writing. You are helpinig so many of us, even when we do not have time to comment.

  9. Anonymous

    There is some problem with this analogy.

    Namely, that the placebo and nocebo effects work. Not always, but then again, tested medication doesn’t always work either.

    I can cite some studies and a few of the more extreme accounts of the placebo/nocebo effects if you like.

  10. Jenn Calling Home

    Once again, I’m amazed at how you describe your conversion in such creative, descriptive ways (e.g., much like your previous “death row” post).

    I knew when the light went on in my brain, and heart – and I completely understood what it meant to “believe in your heart”…and “confess with your mouth” (Romans 10:9-10) – that I was completely changed. All of my efforts to do away with drugs and alcohol on my own efforts, to try and live a “good” life…they were all in vain. But in that moment, I was miraculously freed from those things. I can say without a doubt, with proof, that it was no placebo pill, or a crutch, but the real thing. I will never ever be the same. Praise God!

  11. momof2boyz

    Jennifer, what a great post. I love your blog- your posts are always interesting and inspirational! Thank you for posting this !

  12. Jim T.

    Sometimes I think of the placebo thing and my conversion. I get rocked by doubt. I hear of things in the church that reflect us sinners and think, briefly, I am seeing Christ.
    When it comes right down to it, I choose Jesus because the world I see and my place in it doesn’t make sense without Jesus. So I jump off into Jesus and now I have something that I have never had before but I have to be swimming and not touching bottom to realize or feel it. Thank you Lord for letting me die to myself. Amen

  13. A.D.

    Dean said, “You are helpinig so many of us, even when we do not have time to comment.”

    Ditto that. (And I might add, when we’re just shy about commenting.)

  14. ABBEY

    What an unusual analogy … the placebo affect of Christianity. Amazing insight. Since I just posted a comment that my full conversion took 23 years, then I suppose I can relate strongly to this post. The bottom line is this: God never gave up on me, God never gives up on anyone. He keeps trying and trying to save you from yourself, and He will be there trying until you take your last breath, and hopefully you will have listened and you will see him when to take that last breath, as well.

    Bless you,

  15. 'Becca

    Anonymous, the fact that a placebo can “work” doesn’t break the analogy. Believing that the world is balanced on the shell of a giant turtle, that a Magic 8 Ball can predict the future, or that the television is watching us may “work” for a person in that it provides an explanation for what goes on in the world and thus brings the believer a sense of knowing what to do and why. That doesn’t mean that these beliefs will heal the person or lead to his ultimate salvation.

    What troubles me about this analogy of Christianity as narcotic painkiller are its similarity to the famous saying, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” and the fact that when I’ve taken narcotics, they’ve knocked me on my a** in a totally different way that Christianity–the effect of a narcotic has an essential wrongness, shutting off parts of my brain that I need in a way that is terrifying because it feels so melted and inescapable, whereas Christianity has an essential rightness in which I feel myself becoming better and more capable. Also, a narcotic dulls your brain’s reception of messages about your body’s effort or injury–things are wrong with you, but you don’t care–whereas Christianity sets you face-to-face with wrongnesses and makes you responsible for righting them.

  16. Anonymous

    No, the point is that the placebo effect (taking the sugar pill without realizing it’s a sugar pill) can lead to a complete recovery in some cases. One would think that you could tell – but the crux of the matter on the subject of placebos is that … you can’t.

    Which is why I believe that the analogy provided was poor. If the sugar pill can have the same healing properties (due to the brain being convinced that it will work and creating the appropriate response), then through the same analogy, other paths can lead to God. Which clearly isn’t what Jennifer means.

    I have a thing about word choice. I’m like a lamprey – I latch onto inaccurate word choices and don’t let go. Don’t mind me, really.

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