For the past couple of weeks, each bright, new, hopeful morning has been accompanied by the misery of itchy, swollen eyes, mucousy coughs, unrelenting sneezing and a runny nose that flows like the Euphrates. This isn’t new for me, in fact, for most of my life I have suffered under the tyrannous reign of allergens. That’s what the medical community calls them anyway. I call them evil oppressors of life and joy. So, naturally, I have been an anti-histamine junkie ever since I was a kid. I have known and loved many little pills in my life: Sudafed, Tylenol Allergy/Sinus, Claritin, Allegra, etc…. Some made me so tired and lethargic that I’d just assume keep the snot. Others worked for a while and then seemed to lose effectiveness. Currently, I have a fantastic relationship with Zyrtec. It has yet to let me down. Although, I’m sure this is not the end of my anti-histamine journey because unfortunately anti-histamines don’t make you better, they just make you dependent.
I tried to switch to allergy shots a few years ago, but it didn’t go so well. I was fascinated by the promises of an anti-histamine free life, but there was one problem. I had to make it through the allergy tests. I had been told that on my first visit I would be subjected to all sorts of scratching and poking with needles in order to find out what I was actually allergic to. And, well… let’s just say I don’t have a great history with needles. For some reason they produce some sort of anxiety in me that causes me to get dizzy, light-headed and on more than one occasion, to completely lose consciousness and wake up with my face on the floor or pressed up against some stranger’s chest. So, when I finally sat/laid down on the chair/table thing that they have in all doctor’s offices, I warned the doctor that I may blackout and fall on my face at any moment but that it wasn’t a big deal or anything because I was used to it. She looked a little concerned, but I think my optimism must have won her over because she began to scratch my back with all kinds of different allergen-coated needles. I made it through all of the scratches and after a few minutes of waiting we discovered, due to a huge rash on my back, that I was allergic to most grasses and many trees. I was a little annoyed that the insanely itchy rash but I was relieved that I had made it through the testing. And then she came back with a tray full of tiny syringes and began to draw like 20 little lines on each of my arms. I asked, “Uhhh, what’s with all the needles. Didn’t we just find out what I was allergic to?” And she explained that we needed to do a subcutaneous test by injecting the allergens under the skin, which meant about 30-40 little shots. At this point, I knew I was facing a defining moment in my life. It was like a dude who’s afraid of heights going to the Empire State building or someone afraid of bugs visiting Florida. I reminded her that I may end up sprawled out on the floor like a bear skin rug, but I would try to warn her before it happened. I was feeling quite proud of myself as she completed the first row of shots and started in on the second. And that’s when it started… I could feel it coming. So, I told her “I’m about to pass out, so…” and then I woke up on the floor with a cold rag on my head. After that they decided not to finish the tests and told me that allergy shots weren’t for me. I wanted to protest the decision but it’s hard to make your case when you’re lying on the floor with a rag on your face. And that was it. No allergy shots for me. I was back to the anti-histamines. So, all in all, I paid them $300 to afflict me with a huge, itchy rash and then poke me with needles until I passed out. Not my favorite day.
During that whole experience I did some research on allergy shots and antihistamines and how they worked. Allow me to share….
Allergic triggers, such as pollen, prompt mast cells (frontline defenders of the body) to release a chemical called histamine that sets in motion a cascade of symptoms to repel the invaders. We call it allergies when this response is triggered by something that would not otherwise be harmful to the body. Antihistamines reduce allergy symptoms by blocking the action of the histamine. – (DrGreene.com)
Allergy shots are injections that contain trace amounts of the allergens themselves. So, for example, if you are allergic to grass pollen, a small amount of grass pollen will be put into the shot. Allergy shots help your body fight the allergen. When you get shots of the allergen, your body makes antibodies to the allergen. The next time you have contact with the allergen, these antibodies help block its effect. Because the antibodies help block the way your body reacts to the allergen, your symptoms become less severe. After many allergy shots, you might start to get relief from your allergy symptoms. This relief will last for a long time. Getting started (1-2 times per week), after 6 months of weekly shots, your doctor will decide when you can start maintenance treatments about once per month. After about 3-5 years of maintenance shots, you may be able to stop having shots all together. – (Familydoctor.org)
In effect, antihistamines subdue the body’s natural defenses which in turn causes a reduction in symptoms but they do nothing to address the real problem which lies deep within the immune system itself. So, you become dependent on the little pills. It’s an endless cycle of pill taking and pill purchasing. And inevitably in four hours (or maybe 12 hours if you buy the expensive kind) your symptoms return. They are at best a temporary solution to the symptoms of a problem. And while they look like they are blocking the allergens, all they are really doing is masking their effects. While the shots deal with the core issue itself and, in effect, retraining your body’s immune responses to react appropriately which may actually solve the entire allergy problem.
I couldn’t help but recognize the similarity of these allergy treatments to how so many of us view religion. In a way, religion is the antihistamine of the masses. Most people seem to believe that pleasing God is about behavior modification. That God is displeased with your behavior and if you attend church, and change as many of those behaviors as possible than your relationship with God will be good. The only problem with that is the Bible. The gospel isn’t a message about behavior modification. It actually teaches us that the problem lies deep within our hearts and no matter how much effort we make at behavior modification, we will never change our heart. We will continue to fight those same behaviors or maybe replace those behaviors with others that are equally bad or worse. And we’ll be chained to this constant cycle of short-lived religious experiences that produce guilt > shame > renewed desire to change > self-effort > failure > guilt > shame… so on and so on. And that’s where the Good News is actually REALLY good. The gospel is that God has done for us, in Christ, what we could not do for ourselves. If you are in Christ, you have already been declared blameless and perfect and He has begun a healing work in your heart that repairs the brokenness of our fallen nature so that you can now start to see actual progress and growth instead of just a continual and exhausting cycle of behavior modification. The gospel heals us from the inside out and whenever we try to reverse that process we are only masking the symptoms and not addressing the root issue at the core of our being.
(Okay, so I do want to address a weakness in the metaphor before someone calls me on it. The allergy shots actually use trace amount of allergens to retrain the immune system. I’m not saying that we should regularly expose ourselves to sin in order to overcome sin. I was just using the broader, overall picture as the metaphor. Like most metaphors, it obviously breaks down when you get specific. I already know that someone, like myself, will probably pick up on that and mock me for it…. Ha! Beat you to it!)