Bitter Pill

Some stories need to be repeated. This story comes from a 40 year missionary in Brazil. It involves a people known as the Katukina, who survive with their own distinct language and separate culture in the Brazilian jungle. Jerry and Gloria Kennell are off the mission field now, due to health issues that have slowed them down a bit, though they continue the work of revising and editing the translation of the Bible into the Katakunan language. (See Kennell blog) According to, only about 200 people speak the Katukinan language. They are a remote tribal group in a remote area of the world.

Jerry recently described an incident during his time with the Katukina in which a man fell ill with malaria, a jungle killer. Quinine is only cure for malari. One of the ways the missionaries serve the tribal people is by bringing in medical supplies, including quinine.

There are two main forms of malaria. One results in horrific physical symptoms such that a person suffering from this form of malaria might wish to die, though it is usually not fatal. The other form does not carry with it the awful physical symptoms, but it results in death if not treated early. The man who contracted malaria suffered from the second, lethal form of malaria. With quinine, however, people usually recover. The man was given quinine pills and aspirin to give him relief from the symptoms. It was thought he would be fine, but a number of days later, in spite of receiving the sure antidote, the man was found dead in his house/hut.

They later discovered the reason. Under the man’s hut, tossed through the cracks in the floor, were the quinine pills. The man had taken the aspirin, but he threw the quinine pills away. Quinine is very bitter. It causes ringing in the ears and is not pleasant to take. The aspirin, on the other hand, was not as bitter and gave him immediate, noticeable relief. The man took the medicine that relieved the symptoms, but he rejected the medicine that would save his life.

We are like that man in the hut. We seek relief from the sufferings of life with things that only relieve or mask the symptoms. We seek self-help, positive thinking, drugs, alcohol and other modern placebos, but we reject the one thing that will save us from our human condition. Many things are pleasant and give us sometime relief, but the one thing that will cure us from what sin and death has wrought we reject.

He who loses his life will find it. He who is last will be first. Narrow is the road that leads to salvation. It can be a bitter pill to face one’s sinfulness, to concede control of one’s destiny, to humble one’s self in the sight of God, to be vulnerable at the core of one’s being. Salvation is not something that comes from anything we can do; it only comes by what God has done for us. Christ is our example. He came humbly and lived among us as a man; he was obedient, even to submit to death. (Phil. 2:8) The way to life is to accept what he has done for us and to submit to it.

Salvation can be a bitter pill, indeed. It means the end of my pride; it means no more of me. Many people, me included, would just about do or concede anything but the very core of ourselves. the bitter pill, however, is the gateway to real salvation, life, joy. No one has described the dilemma of the soul surrendering to his maker better for me than C. S. Lewis:

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words “compelle intrare,” compel them to come in, have been so abused be wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.”

― C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy

“Surprised by Joy” is the title of his autobiographical work. Indeed, the one who takes the cure that God has offered us from the disease that is within us, within all of us, finds not only the cure for the particular ills that personally trouble us, but the cure for ills that we did not even notice because previously tolerated or even embraced them. All sin leads to death. It stands in the way of being the majestic beings we were made to be. It plagues us until we die, even those who have taken the cure. The cure is not instant; it is a process; and it requires continual submission to the One who loves us, who bought us with His life. When we have first received the cure, however, there is a taste of heaven to come; and it grows as we grow in faith, knowledge and submission of our lives to God’s providence.

Like the quinine pill for malaria, there is no other way to be cured from this disease of sin and ultimately death but by the salvation offered by God in Christ. Anything else is nothing but a momentary relief from the symptoms of the disease.

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