Faith and Magic

A correspondent recently posed a series of good, tough questions about the nature of faith. One of them had to do with just how a Christian definition of faith differs from that of magic: “Some Christians pray as though they can compel God to do their will. I would argue that doing so is very much like or identical to doing magic.”

For the record, however, Jesus does seem to sound to some ears as if he is recommending a kind of magic: “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, `Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:22-24)

Health-and-wealth “prosperity” preaching loves this passage. So do certain sorts of faith-healers. “Name it and claim it,” they say.

So, is faith just a combination of wishful thinking and incantation?

A blog isn’t a place for a sustained theology lesson, of course. A church is, or a classroom, or even a book. (Indeed, I have just the book in mind: Alister McGrath, ed., Zondervan Handbook of Christian Beliefs–in Britain, the Lion Handbook of Christian Beliefs–published just last year and featuring an opening chapter on “faith” by your servant.) Still, we can take up one or two points here.

First, Jesus is not, in fact, recommending magic. Magic is all about my being able to manipulate cosmic forces to get what I want. It is mechanical, a sort of metaphysical vending machine. I produce the right inputs, and I get the right outputs.

Prayer is about personal request–indeed, the word “prayer” has “asking” as its root. So Jesus is talking about having “faith in God” and asking “in prayer.”

Jesus is presuming, therefore, both common sense and a godly orientation in his audience. He is giving his instruction, after all, in the context of everything else he teaches. And nothing in his teaching is about selfish gain. Nothing in his teaching is about whimsical wonders and magic shows. Nothing in his teaching is about manipulation, but instead about service to God and our neigbours.

Thus the point of the mountain analogy is not that we can ask for any ridiculous, large thing: “Dear God, I would really like you to produce an earthquake big enough to send that mountain into the sea for no reason I can think of except momentary caprice.” The point is that nothing is too great to ask of God if we are asking something worthy of a prayer to God, something we can actually trust God to do.

So if we are trying to love God better–to grow in knowledge and gratitude and admiration and holiness and fervour and the fruit of the Spirit–and we trust God to help us and ask him to do so, we can have complete confidence that even such an amazing thing as the full reconditioning of a human heart will actually happen.

If we are trying to love our neighbour–to seek whatever is for his or her very best interest–and we trust God to help us and ask him to do so, we can have complete confidence that what our neighbour really needs will be provided.

This might seem less than magic: “Ah, I see. So I can’t just ask for whatever I like, but now I have to ask for what God wants me to ask. Big deal!”

Instead, however, it is better than magic. Stories of magic around the world abound with unintended consequences that result in disaster–from Midas’s touch to Aladdin and his lamp to the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Prayer is a great improvement upon magic because we are asking an infinitely wise and totally good Being to do what is really best, either what we want or something better.

We can be confident–literally, “with faith”–that only good will surely happen according to these promises. And that faith thus impels us to faith-ful-ness. It motivates us to get busy on things that matter, rather than quaking with paralyzing fear (“Will anything good come of this?”) or drowsing in slothful complacency (“What’s the use?”). Ask and act: trust and obey. Pretty basic–and the key to everything else in the Christian life.

So don’t bother asking for the moon. And don’t bother asking for a moving mountain. Ask for something even greater, more important, and more exciting: the transformation of your heart and mine, the spread of the gospel, the purification and maturation of the church, the rehabilitation of our damaged, glorious planet–yes, ask for the world!

For this is the will of God, and he will surely do it.

0 Responses to “Faith and Magic”

  1. hydralisk

    Couldn’t one say that the asking done in prayer, along with whatever faith and righteous desires are required to make it succeed, is the input and any miracle that results from it is the output?

    I appreciate the part about no unintended consequences from faith (well, no bad ones I hope).

  2. Jeff

    Thanks for these thoughts. I’m reminded of two quotes. The first is from Habakkuk who, after complaining to God about the injustice he perceives all around him, trusts God enough to say, “I will look to see what He will say to me, and what to answer when I am rebuked.” He doesn’t get why things are the way they are, but he trusts that — in spite of his suspicions to the contrary — God is in control. This faith goes beyond reason. The second quote is from Charles Williams, who says in his peculiar, yet compelling manner: “Nothing is certain, but everything is safe.” I want so much to learn to live in the light of this kind of faith — the “ask and act: trust and obey” kind of faith that you describe so beautifully in your post. Scary… but maybe less scary than the alternatives.

  3. Steve Bedard

    I appreciate your comments. There is a danger that Christians can treat prayer as magic and I know I have, even if I did not label it that way. By the way. N.T. Wright has an interesting interpretation of the mountain passage in Jesus and the Victory of God. Wright suggests that Jesus is referring to a specific mountain: the temple mount. Wright argues that this is part of Jesus’ transition from a temple based faith to a christological faith. I am not sure I agree, but it is interesting.

  4. Michael Crook


    Just wanted to say thanks for investing the time in this blog. Your posts are not only well-written but also helpful and on varied subjects. I appreciate the conversations you’re starting or continuing.

  5. kbartha

    Right on bud. You’re bang on: magic = manipulation… and there is a lot of magic around and even within the Church. How’s that for a heretical imperitive? Accusing certain religious leaders of manipulation…

    There is a lot going on out there in the vastness of the cosmos but only simple faith and obedience to Jesus Christ can navigate through it all. In all my dealings with all those who dwell in the dark I have not found a single spirit or shadow that has not had to submit to Jesus Christ. All power is in Christ. Magic is just a twisted up heresy. And the heresy shows off its harsh edges through the pride of a stubborn stone heart.

  6. Gordon Tisher

    Steve Dutch, in his extensive collection of essays on science and irrationalism, has some good commentary on magic and religion:

    Judaism and Christianity fight a constant rear-guard action against creeping magic. In parts of the world where magical belief systems are deeply ingrained, the local Christianity is heavily infused with magical practices and attitudes. The entire Old Testament is a chronicle of a losing battle with creeping magic. Leviticus and Deuteronomy laid out rules for ritual observances and sacrifices. A few centuries later Judaism had largely degenerated into nominal ritual observances indistinguishable from magic:

    * Isaiah 1:11 “The multitude of your sacrifices— what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.”
    * Jeremiah 14:12 “Although they fast, I will not listen to their cry; though they offer burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Instead, I will destroy them with the sword, famine and plague.”
    * Hosea 6:6 “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”
    * Amos 5:22 “Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them.”

    You can just see the later prophets, faces turning purple and the veins on their necks standing out, screaming at the top of their lungs: “Don’t you get it, you morons? God doesn’t need dead animals. The animals are just a symbol. He wants mercy and justice.” Unfortunately, dead animals are a lot easier; you don’t have to make any personal changes or give up exploiting other people. The same theme is carried over in the New Testament:

    * Matthew 9:13 “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
    * Mark 12:33 “To love him [God] with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

    Man, that last one sounds way too much like total commitment. Coming to church once in a while and putting a dollar in the collection plate is a whole lot less work.

  7. Carolyn James

    As someone who has just battled a mountain and lost, I find your words deeply comforting and encouraging. We were praying–not for the mountain to be moved, but for the storm on the mountain to stop. My brother-in-law Kelly was in a snow cave up near the summit of Mt. Hood and rescue climbers couldn’t reach him because of blizzard conditions. The storm finally stopped, but by then it was too late.

    There are other mountains in my life, and your reminder that God can move them gives me fresh incentive to pray and not give up.

  8. D.Washington

    Very timely topic John.

    The ‘name it and claim it’ dogma is flooding the market with it’s gosperity message.

  9. LBetts

    On “unintended consequences” of magic vs. prayer, the principle behind the title of the book “A Severe Mercy” has always bothered me for this very reason. The point of the title, and story to which it is attached (and presented as being based on C.S. Lewis’ theological perspective) is precisely that a person’s literal prayer request was granted by God, with a “trick” unintended consequence. That doesn’t ring true to my understanding of God’s character, but I’ve never heard anyone explore this.

    If you get a chance in future posts, I’d be interested in hearing your expansion on the topic: does God grant our specific requests, only to “burn” us with consequences we didn’t expect in our naivete? Which seems to be the point of “A Severe Mercy”.


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