I was extremely eager to read the featured article in the December 2016 National Geographic. The title was “The Healing Power of Faith.” I’ve been reading National Geographic as long as I have been reading. It always seems to contain information that is new and endlessly fascinating. Countless articles have reported that a life of faith is good for one’s health and well-being. Concentrated prayer helps organize our brain circuitry, clean living keeps us from being exposed to the harmful effects of stimulants and sexually transmitted diseases, meaningful relationships raise the levels of oxytocin and endorphins in the blood stream. I have even read reports that people who are prayed for get better faster than people who aren’t. This is true whether the subject knows she is being prayed for or not.
So I was anxious to read what new scientific breakthroughs affirmed the benefits of faith. The subtitle, “You are what you believe” seemed to confirm my expectations. I was wrong. What followed were several pages of text and photographs describing the effectiveness of a surprising range of unlikely behaviors which prove effective in treating everything from Parkinson’s to broken bones, so long as the participant believes these behaviors will be effective. The upshot of it all, after 25 pages, is that placebos work.
I realized that 33 years ago at Fort Hill Christian Youth Camp near Cincinnati, Ohio. There were 12 boys, aged 7 to 9 in my cabin, many of them first time campers. Some were severely homesick. One boy in particular was about to go home. I was referred to the camp nurse. She was a retired RN who looked suspiciously like Nurse Ratched. “So you got a case of homesickness,” she asked me eying the little boy like she might rap his knuckles with a ruler. “Yes,” I answered, “it’s pretty bad.” “Bring him around before bedtime and I’ll give him a homesick pill. Don’t bring him before bedtime…the pills make you really drowsy.”
And so at bedtime we walked the 50 yards or so from the cabin to the nurse’s station. She listened to his heart, and shined a light in his eyes. Then she brought out a prescription bottle filled with Tic-Tacs. She carefully placed a Tic-Tac under his tongue and told him to hold it there. She timed out ten seconds on her watch. “Has it started to tingle?” she asked. He shook his head yes. “Good,” she said, “That means it is working. You can take him back, but don’t let him fall down he may be asleep before you get him back to the cabin.”
He was. And he had no problem with homesickness the rest of the week. For the other boys, just knowing they had access to effective medication if they needed it made everything better.
The National Geographic piece was not about faith, not in a Biblical sense. It was about the power of our emotional selves over our physical and mental selves. David Brooks in his book The Social Animal (Random House 2011) concludes that “Reason is nestled upon emotion and dependent upon it. Emotion assigns value to things, and reason can only make choices on the basis of those valuations…the key to a well-lived life is to have trained the emotions to send the right signals and to be sensitive to their subtle calls,” (pp.21-22).
Of course, we know this from scripture. Paul instructs us to dwell on the things that are “honorable, right, pure, lovely, respectable, excellent, and praiseworthy” (I Thessalonians 4.8). He instructs us to always rejoice (I Thessalonians 4.8, also Psalm 118.24). In the Beatitudes Jesus seeks to completely retrain our hearts to value things like peace, mercy, gentleness, mournfulness, even persecution (Matthew 5.3-12). Each passage understands that we must train our emotions to value what is right and good.
When we do, our reason has muscle – moral muscle – the strength we need in a sinful world. Since God provides everything we need for life and godliness (II Peter 1.3) weakness will never be an excuse. As this New Year begins, let us establish good habits for emotional training to build moral muscle.