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.