What’s your spiritual placebo?

I was in a hotel elevator last weekend. I couldn’t wait seven seconds, so I pressed the “close door” button. At crosswalks, I often press the “walk” button at least five times. (Because pressing it more often will make it work better and faster. Duh.)

You know what’s funny? Those buttons don’t do anything. An article in the New York Times last fall shared a secret. Those buttons are considered technological placebos. They are buttons that give you the illusion of control.

Since the 1990s, the “close door” buttons in elevators don’t actually do anything. Crosswalk signals in many cities (especially New York) are on automatic timers, so buttons can’t control them. Want to know what’s even worse? As early as the 1960s, many offices installed fake thermostats to make employees think they could control the temperature, which is actually set to a narrow range. 

Psychologist Ellen J. Langer explained the reasons for these placebos: “Perceived control is very important. It diminishes stress and promotes well-being.”

I think we have spiritual placebos too. We push the “prayer” button or “ritual” button to help us feel in control of our circumstances. Maybe we don’t intend to, but the questions we ask, the attitudes we have, and the ways we respond to trouble show we think we are in control of our spiritual lives.

I go to church regularly, so why did God let me get sick? 

I spend my volunteer time doing churchy things so that means I’m a good Christian. 

If we worship this way, God will be happier with our church. 

I prayed and prayed; I can’t believe I didn’t get the job or am still single or don’t have a baby. 

If I worry enough about my kids, nothing will happen to them.

Here’s the problem: just like technological placebos, spiritual placebos don’t work. God doesn’t love us more because of the rituals we perform. Children die. Young parents get sick. People get fired. What’s different, though, is that when it comes to spiritual issues, perceived control isn’t important at all. In fact, it increases stress and promotes self-reliance. 

God doesn’t love us more because of the things we do. He loves us because of what Jesus has done. The prayers we pray are simply a beautiful way to present our requests to him, trusting him to answer in a way that is best for us. The ways we serve others are opportunities to do the good works he prepared in advance for us to do. Our worship times provide great opportunities for us to keep meeting with others and be built up for the week ahead.

Only when we realize that God is completely and fully in control can we live in peace. Then the ways we pray, worship, and serve are ways to bring him glory.

Linda Buxa is a writer and speaker. The upside of working from home is that she actually can control the thermostat.