The Nocebo Effect: Even God Cannot Help! (Video)

Have you ever heard of the “nocebo effect,” a term not so often used? But, I am sure you have heard of the “placebo effect,” which represents the positive outcome because your belief. What it means is, if you believe a particular medication or treatment will cure your disease, it will, or at least improve the likelihood of it.

For example, suppose you caught a cold, and you take vitamin C immediately because you strongly believe it will stop your cold. In that case, it is likely to happen, not because vitamin C can cure your cold, but because you believe it will.

In general, the medical community believes 30% of healing happens due to the placebo effect. If you trust your doctor and believe that they have the special skill to cure your disease, you have added a third more chance for them to help you recover.

A research study at Columbia University has proven that prayer can also improve your chance of cure by 30%, quite similar to the placebo effect. Some recent studies have discovered that your belief can produce even more positive outcomes. They found that as much as 70% of the cure can be credited to the patient’s belief system. That’s the positive side of belief that we call the “placebo effect.”

There is also a negative side of belief known as the “nocebo effect.” It means if you don’t believe a certain drug can cure your disease, it will reduce its effectiveness. If you don’t trust your doctor, they might not be able to help you, no matter how skillful they are.

So, if the chance of cure of a disease is 50-50, the placebo effect will make it 80%, and the nocebo effect will reduce it to only a 20% chance. It all depends on whether you believe or unbelieve.

We often talk about the power of belief, but we hardly talk about the power of unbelief. A person’s unbelief can be so powerful that even God cannot help them. There is a story in the Bible where the nocebo effect of the people was so strong that even Jesus could not do anything about it.

As human beings, we all want to improve our positive outcomes and reduce negative results. We all want to increase our chance of success and decrease failure. So today, let’s learn how to prevent the nocebo effect so that God’s power can work on your life to the fullest.

[Hi, in case we haven’t met yet, I am Sam Stone, the Lightkeeper. You are the light of the world, and I am the keeper! (No pun intended). It’s my calling to help you shine your brightest so that God is glorified in you, and you are satisfied in God.]

The scripture lesson for today is from the Gospel According to Mark 6:1-13. [Listen to the Word of the Lord!]

He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. 4 Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” 5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6 And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. 7 He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9 but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10 He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. (Mk 6:1–13).

[This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!]

Did you notice that? Jesus couldn’t perform miracles in his hometown because of their unbelief—the nocebo effect. Verse 6 gives us some serious food for thought.

And he was amazed at their unbelief.” (v 6).

Jesus often praised people for their faith and rebuke his disciples for having little faith. So, we might think there is nothing unsurprising for him to see people’s doubts and unbelief. However, the unbelief of his hometown folks had gone beyond his expectation to the extent that it “amazed” him.

Can you believe that? People can amaze God with their unbelief. We all have seen people who lack faith and got trapped in the cycle of negative outcomes, but we might have never thought that some of them could go as far as making God amazed. Even the almighty God cannot do anything for those who don’t believe. Verse 5 says,

And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” (v 5).

In his hometown, Jesus could not perform any miracle because of their “amazing” unbelief. That is a good example of the nocebo effect. They did not believe in “the doctor,” so he could not perform mighty miracles except a few minor treatments.

We usually don’t think about our capability to block God’s power because we think God is almighty. We might even think nothing we do could prevent God from intruding our lives, but, in fact, God cannot do anything if we resist him. Why? Is it because God is not almighty?

This story reveals that God honors the human “free will” that He created us with. God gives us free will so that we have the freedom to love and the freedom to believe. God did not make us like robots because God wants to receive true and genuine love from us out of our free will.

He does not force us to love him or believe in him. So, if he forces his miracles on us, he would have violated our free will. Does it make sense? Jesus said,

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” (Rev 3:20).

This verse shows that God does not force himself into our life and coerce us to fellowship with him. Instead, he respects our space and honors our free will to open the door to invite him in. It says, “I will come in to eat with him and he with me.” He prefers the two-way relationship.

This verse also gives us a clue to avoid the nocebo effect. The clue is hospitality. Jesus is knocking on the door of our hearts and expecting hospitality from us. His grace, combined with our hospitality, generates miracles. Our hospitality is our faith in action. Jesus’ hometown folks were not hospitable.

Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. (Mark 6:3).

Jesus returned to his hometown and taught at the synagogue on the sabbath. People were astounded at his wisdom and impressed by his deeds, but they did not like him as a person. They asked, “Is not this the carpenter?” It was derogatory because it means, “he is not a scholar, but a mere handyman.”

He had not been known trained by a reputable rabbi or attended a rabbinic “ivy league” school. So, his mouth does not deserve to utter the word of wisdom. You can say familiarity breeds contempt. It doesn’t matter where the contempt comes from, but it prevents us from being hospitable.

Then they also said, “Is not this the son of Mary?” This rhetorical question is even worse because it was derogatory to address someone by their mother’s name. It implies Jesus was not a legitimate child because they knew his mother but not his father. It was equivalent to calling him a bastard.

We must avoid treating anyone with contempt or miss the opportunity to entertain angels. Remember Abraham provided three travelers hospitality, and he ended up entertaining God and two angels. Hospitality is an integral part of faith because it’s an act of oneness.

And it says that they took offense at him. The term “took offense” was translated from Greek “σκάνδαλον” (skandalon), meaning “trap.” So, it literally means they are trapped in their own contempt. Their contempt for Jesus kept them from believing Jesus as the Savior, the Son of God.

They were thinking, “If God were to save the world, He could use anyone but the bastard.” Their unbelief produced the nocebo effect, making Jesus unable to improve their lives. However, Jesus was kind to them, excusing them for their contempt by saying,

Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” (v. 4).

Jesus is saying, “I understand that familiarity breeds contempt.” The good news is later, most of them became believers. One of his brothers, James, became a faithful disciple and wrote the Epistle of James.

For now, Jesus left the town and went to teach in other places. It seems his ministry was quite successful in other places, so he trained his disciples to expand his ministry to more towns and villages. Again, in here, we learn that hospitality is the main condition to God’s power at work.

He ordered his disciples to practice minimalism for two reasons: firstly, to rely on God’s power rather than their own possessions, and secondly, to gauge the villagers’ hospitality. So, we can see two elements at work here—God’s grace carried by the disciples and people’s faith shown by their hospitality. God’s grace is like a seed, and people’s faith is like the soil the seed falls on.

He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place.” (Mk 6:10).

Jesus asked them to stay in one house until they leave the place. It means hospitality is gauged not only on the warmth but also on the dept. Inviting someone to your home for a cup of tea is different from providing them accommodation for a week. There is shallow hospitality and deep hospitality.

Those villages with deep hospitality are likely to receive the miracles more profoundly. It seems hospitality to the disciples can tell the receptivity of the gospel. It is a good measurement of their faith and readiness. Like the good soil, the seed will grow and bear fruit, liking the placebo effect. Then Jesus talked about the opposite situation:

“If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” (Mk 6:11).

Shaking off the dust means their job is done, and they are moving on. It was not the disciples’ fault their message was not accepted. Just as Jesus moved on from his hometown, which was not hospitable to him, the disciples were to do the same without wasting time. They are not to carry even the unfertile soil to the next village.

Matthew’s version has a clear judgment against the unhospitable towns or villages.

“If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.” (Mt 10:14–15).

Sodom and Gomorrah were burnt down because of their lack of hospitality. In fact, they provided hostility rather than hospitality. They wanted to rape the two handsome guests staying in Lot’s house. They were handsome because they were angels.

The depth of Lot’s hospitality is in stark contrast to the villagers. He offered his virgin daughter to them, but they insisted on violating the virtue of hospitality. So, the angels took Lot’s family out before God rained down the fire on these two towns.

Jesus said that those villages and towns that were not hospitable to the disciples would suffer worse judgment. In a sense, Jesus compared each pair of his disciples as the two angels that went to give Sodom and Gomorrah the last chance to repent.

You can say hospitality is God’s hidden commandment or measurement of our faith. I understand it’s not easy to provide hospitality nowadays as we have seen some horror movies about good people opening their home to vicious thieves rather than angels. However, where there is a will, there is a way.

It is the attitude of hospitality that is important. If we think guests are annoying, it might be a time to assess our faith to avoid the nocebo effect. If we are willing to be hospitable, we might even prepare ahead of time mentally and physically to be ready when there is an opportunity to provide hospitality.

Abraham did not wait until the guests to show up to provide hospitality. He went out of his way to invite the strangers to his home. That means he and his wife were prepared to receive guests all the time. As a result, they ended up entertaining angels and received great blessings.

The passage ended by saying,

So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” (v. 12-13).

The demons were cast out, and the sick were cured not just because of the power Jesus gave them but also because of the people’s hospitality. These are just physical and temporal blessings mentioned, but more important spiritual and eternal blessings also come with hospitality. So let us all be hospitable. Paul said,

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Heb 13:2).

Until we meet again, keep your light shining brighter and broader, and harvest profound happiness. Amen!