I used to think magic was the stuff of fairy tales. Later I understood that magic had a more real, sinister expression. But in any case, I always saw magic as something far removed from my every-day life.
Until I discovered it woven into the very fabric of my faith.
The realization came as I stumbled upon this definition of magic:
Magic is the attempt by humans to control their destiny through the management or manipulation of supernatural powers in such a way that results are virtually guaranteed. 1
Although the piece I was reading described pagan practices, as I thought the matter through, I realized I had little room to judge. In truth, I have subtly been raised to believe that I can control and manipulate God. For example, God blesses those who live in a certain way, He keeps His promises, He always acts consistently with His character.
While each of these claims is true, modern Christianity has twisted them into the mistaken belief that God must behave in a certain way. I have heard (and done it myself) people demand things of God, citing “promises” in the Bible, or holding Him to His character. I have seen others blind-sided when trouble comes their way, saying like Job, “But I did everything right…”
Peter Scazzero, in his book “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality” writes quite candidly:
“I like control… I also like to remind God of His need to behave in ways that fit in with my clear ideas of Him. For example, God is just, merciful, good, wise loving. The problem, then, is that God is beyond the grasp of every concept I have of Him. He is utterly incomprehensible.
“Yes, God is everything revealed in scripture, but also infinitely more. God is not an object that I can determine, master, possess, or command. And I still try to somehow use my “clear ideas” about God to give me power over Him, or to somehow possess Him.”
I see two problems with this kind of Christian magic. First, it puts us in the place of God. Any belief that we can manipulate Him, control Him, or demand anything from Him places us above Him. To insist that He fit within our finite definitions of “goodness” or “justice” or keep His promises as we interpret them is to insinuate that our judgment, timing, and understanding of the big picture reigns supreme.
Don’t get me wrong. I think God loves lively discussions and spirited debate with His children. Be real, be passionate, be persistent, reason with Him. In truth, people such as Job, Abraham and Moses actually argued with God, and were called His friends. But at the end of the day, they all allowed God to be God.
The second danger is that a faith built upon the mistaken belief that God is predictable or controllable, can be severely shaken when God does not behave in the ways we expect Him to. Believing wrong things about God creates an image of Him that is false. Indeed a “tame” god who we have comfortably “figured out” seems reassuring and safe. But, this is not God at all. As St. Augustine wrote, “If you understand, it is not God you understand.”
True faith in the one and only God of the universe demands that we fall to our knees in utter humility and risk letting go of control to Someone whose ways and thoughts are as high above ours as the heavens are above the earth. (Isaiah 55:8–9)
Paul Hiebert, in his article “The Excluded Middle,” summarized the issue beautifully when he wrote, “…the church and mission must guard against Christianity itself becoming a new form of magic. Magic is based on a mechanistic view—a formula approach to reality that allows humans to control their own destiny. Worship on the other hand, is rooted in a relational view of life. Worshipers place themselves in the power and mercy of a greater being. …The difference is not one of form, but of attitude.” [italics mine]
1 From Paul Hiebert, “The Excluded Middle” and Clinton E. Arnold, “The Colossian Syncretism.”
“The transforming moment in Christian conversion comes when we realize that even God has left us. We then discover it was not God, but our image of God, that abandoned us. This frees us to discover more of the mystery of God than we knew. Only then is change possible.”
—M. Craig Barnes
(quoted in “The Lazarus Life” by Stephen Smith)