Disney’s 1964 musical-fantasy film Mary Poppins was replete with happy tunes, but one that recently came into my head and stayed for days was the song that includes the lyrics “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, The medicine go down, The medicine go down.” I even started humming it. Involuntarily.
Wondering about what practical truth this cute aphorism means to convey I did some research. One article I read stated that experts have actually discovered that infants who are given sugar feel less pain during injections than those who go without. Pediatrician Paul Heaton discovered that a tiny amount of sugar can actually ease the discomfort felt by babies when receiving their shots. A few drops of a sucrose solution put on their tongues before an injection was found to act as an analgesia, effectively blocking the pain they felt in their arms or bottoms. Dr. Heaton reported that “The sweet taste works through nerve channels in the tongue that perceive sweetness in the brain which reacts by producing endorphins, a pain reliever.” He claims his practical studies have revealed what parents have known and proven for generations — that a sweet treat works best to distract discomfort of any sort.
Interestingly, while thinking about this premise it dawned on me that Mary Poppins’ childish refrain may convey wise advice indeed, well beyond the scope of mere practical medicine. Here’s why.
To my dismay, a close friend of mine and I occasionally engage in a spirited but amicable repartee regarding the seeming inevitability of trials that befall everyone at one time or another. He consistently drags out his Bible’s well-worn verses from the Book of James that champion the necessity and benefits derived from suffering. I myself would prefer that suffering and affliction not be a part of life, mine or anyone’s. He and James say it must be so in this current age of fallen man. I say I don’t like that reality, and remind him that even Martin Luther didn’t want to include James within the scriptural canon. He says, well, it’s still there.
The problem of suffering in this life has been agonized over (pun intended) for centuries. Every religion tries to posit an answer. In this post, I have no intent to resolve the issue, but I have a thought I want to share. It’s mine; and I’m not a theologian, just a person who believes in a God who wants to help me deal with issues that trouble my soul.
Here goes. So, what if – what if – we interpret physical or emotional suffering as a form of medicine we need to take to help cure us from something even worse, from spiritual diseases that could eventually be fatal: like a prideful, selfish arrogance that says “I’m the center of the universe. It’s all about me. It’s my life and I want it my way, and I’m living for myself whatever it costs me or the rest of the world around me. And I certainly don’t want or need any divine help.” Did you notice that there was a lot of “I” in there, (that would be ego) instead of the “I Am” (that’s God’s name)?
And what if . . . the complimentary dose of sugar represents . . . faith? Without it, without the realization that in the worst of circumstances God is with me, cares about my pain and has a purpose for everything no matter how unconscionable, life’s intense struggles can be difficult and maybe impossible to endure. No, lacking a deep rooted faith, the medicine alone – affliction or whatever you call it — will be bitter, and I will spurn it. I will just stubbornly suffer to spite my suffering.
Am I implying that a callous, disinterested God wants us to suffer? Causes cancer, AIDS, mental illness? Kills babies and children, delights in destructive hurricanes and earthquakes and wastes the lives of countless innocent people in the horrors of war? Certainly not. The Bible portrays the Creator’s character as quite the opposite. “In the beginning,” God, never intending for His creation to descend into a world of pain and death, “saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good.” (Gen. 1:30) We actually have a loving God, “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness” (Ex. 34:6), who can use pain and brokenness to our advantage, for our ultimate benefit, to refine his followers in holiness, and to bring unbelievers to a place of surrender, belief and dependency. Pain, in the light of eternity, should never be portrayed as pointless or as an end in itself. So suffering can be redemptive. Mourning can turn into dancing. (Psalm 30:12)
Is faith the necessary prescription I’m looking for, the sweetness that balances out the distasteful? This curious analogy became personally more relevant recently when two families I know suffered the tragic loss of their sons, just in their twenties. It’s a parent’s worst heartache. Inconsolable grief, for the families and those of us who loved them. No reasonable, rational answers can be found to soften the great sadness that will never go away. Like Job we lament the great gravity of our distress, “Oh that my grief were fully weighed and my calamity laid with it on the scales!” It’s immeasurably heavy.
Isaiah 53:3 says prophetically that even the Christ Himself would be “A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face.” We have then a God who understands our plight, our desperation in this fallen world full of trials, struggles, disappointments, suffering and death. He is kind enough though to provide comfort in the worst of tragedies by assuring us that He “causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
Maybe we need the strong medicine. Ever heard the expression, “There are no atheists in foxholes”? Facing imminent death, perhaps even the most hardline skeptic in the fury of battle may hope for the possibility of some saving grace bestowed to even the most wretched of lost souls and be saved with a simple childlike dose of faith.
Do I understand it? No. I don’t know why life is so short for some, or suffering so long for many, or why billions of galaxies are out there in a seemingly endless expanse of space while we drift alone on this particularly privileged planet. But as directed I will take a spoonful of faith in the One who holds it all together. Ironically, even the sugar of faith will at times itself be tested, for its validity and effectiveness.
So I guess I will sheepishly condescend to my friend in the faith who encourages me through every little bump and major tremor in my own personal life with the provocative admonition of James to “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-3) Oh, I almost forgot. The chorus ends with a line that cheerfully declares that, with some sugar, “the medicine goes down . . . in the most delightful way.” Well, let’s try it and see.