Patent Medicine, Truth Claims, and The Most Loving Thing To Do

Dear __________,

First of all, let me say how pleased I am that we are able to have this conversation. I suspect that you have been urged in the past to distrust whatever I had to say. I sincerely hope I’m wrong, but I suspect otherwise. At any rate, the fact that we may now carry on an open and sincere dialog is a precious gift which I highly value. 

Now on to the matter at hand.

You write, "There is something so grating about pat, perfect answers that don’t speak healing to a soul grappling for meaningful truth.…Sometimes it’s acceptable to say, ‘I don’t know for sure.’” I completely agree. Truth without love turns medicine into poison. What is meant to heal only sickens, and in some instances, kills. So you have certainly spoken truly. 

You also write:

I just see a lot of arguments out there that are simply written to BE argumentative. Or written to criticize our fellow believers for not sharing the exact same outlook as us. And how in the world can that be edifying or loving? At what point do we “be the change we hope to see in the world,” and stop trying to get the last word? Partly I understand this is part of what you do, yes? It’s your “job” to be “theologically correct” and maybe it’s your job to make sure that others know when they AREN’T being theologically correct. But... at what expense? … And it’s exactly these types of sharp corners that wear me out and make me want to distance myself from the “I have all the answers” crowd.

You raise a lot of issues in this paragraph. This being said, I think the core of your argument revolves around one central idea, specifically, that certainty and love are mutually exclusive. It appears, and please correct me if I misunderstand, that correction has little or no place in your understanding of edifying and loving. In response, I’d like you to consider the following story.

Suppose you go to a doctor and complain, “I feel terrible.” After an examination and a few tests, the doctor informs you that you have an infection. 

“The infection is rather serious, I’m afraid,” the doctor explains. “Left untreated it will become completely debilitating. But the good news is that it’s treatable. I’m writing a prescription for an oral antibiotic that will bring the infection under control. It won’t work immediately, but in about a month you should see signs of improvement. Unfortunately, the infection will never completely go away, but if you stay on this antibiotic as prescribed you will eventually see a remission of nearly all the serious symptoms. I have a sample bottle here for you to take with you.” He reaches into the cabinet above his desk and hands you a bottle. Then he sits down, pulls out a prescription pad, and begins to write.

Upon receiving the bottle, you twist off the cap and take a sniff. The pungent odor makes you wince and turn away. “Ugh! This smells horrible. … How does it taste?”

The doctor smiles and continues to write. “Not so good, I’m afraid. It’s rather bitter. There’s been some research to try and make it more palatable, but nothing’s worked so far. But I’m told the more you take it the less objectionable it becomes.” The doctor pulls out a book from his top drawer and turns to a dosing guide. He runs his finger down a chart before looking up and asking, “How much did you say you weigh?”

“I’m not sure I like that question,” you respond. “Are you being purposely abrasive?”

“No,” he says, looking genuinely surprised. “Not at all. I just need to know in order to prescribe the proper dose.” 

You pause for a moment as your eyes narrow. “How do I know this will work? I’ve tried a different medicine before that said it would work, but it didn’t.”

“What medicine did you try?” asks the doctor. “Do you remember the name of it?”

“Of course I remember the name of it. It was given to me by my family. It was called Uncle John’s Miracle Elixir, and it smelled an awful lot like this. All it did was make me sicker. How do I know this is any different?”

The doctor leans back in his chair and smiles. “Young lady, I assure you that this is not a patent medicine. This is real medicine. Countless millions who have exactly what you have, have taken this and the results have been universally the same…uh…when taken as directed, of course.”

“Funny,” you say, but there’s no smile on your face. “That’s exactly what my family said about the Miracle Elixir.” Your eyes narrow further until suddenly you take a deep breath and smile. “I don’t think I want your medicine,” you say cheerfully. “I have a different approach I’d like to explore.”

The doctor leans forward, looking concerned. “And that would be…?”

“Aroma Therapy.”

“Aroma Therapy…for an infection…” the doctor repeats flatly.

“Yeah, you know, essential oils, scented candles, that sort of thing,” you explain cheerfully. “I’ve read that this has done wonders for some people.”

There is a long pause as the doctor leans back in his chair. He rests his elbow on the arm of the chair and his chin in his hand. His forehead is furrowed and his eyebrows drawn together. Finally, he speaks.

“I’m sure you have the best of intentions,” he begins, maintaining the same stern look, “but as your doctor, I must warn you that this is a dangerous course of action. Your infection will only get worse.” 

“You must understand,” he continues slowly, “infections are not cured by pleasant smells.…they are only cured by antibiotics.”

Now…consider the following questions: 

In this last sentence, was the doctor being unloving by making this “100% truth claim?” Would you consider this a “pat, perfect answer?” Is the doctor part of the “‘I have all the answers’ crowd?” Was he unloving or loving by prescribing the bitter medicine?  Or was he doing the most loving thing possible by telling you the truth?

Hope I’ve given you something to think about.

With much tender affection,

Pastor Baker