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The Strength You Have

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The story of Gideon found in Judges 6–8 is one of my favorites from the bible. Gideon is not handsome or charismatic like David. He doesn’t have superhuman strength like Samson. He’s not chosen from birth like Jeremiah or Samuel. He’s just a regular guy, frightened like everyone else by the Midianite marauders who roll into town on their Harley camels. Like the banditos in The Magnificent Seven, they take whatever they want and leave so little for the Israelites that the people are doomed to perpetual poverty and hide their families and belongings in caves.

Gideon, too, is hiding from the Midianites when the angel of the Lord first approaches him. He is threshing grain in a wine press. Grain is usually threshed on a threshing floor—a wide, open space where the wind can carry away the chaff as the grain is tossed in the air. A wine press is an especially poor place for threshing. It was usually a large pit lined with bricks with a smaller hole in the center. The grapes were dumped in around the center hole and crushed by stomping on them. The juice would flow into the center hole. During threshing, the walls of the press would block the wind, making it harder to separate the chaff from the grain, but they would also block the view of any passing Midianites who might come and seize the grain as soon as Gideon was done with the threshing.

I can imagine Gideon suddenly being hailed by the angel, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.” He freezes with fear but relaxes when he realizes the angel is not a Midianite. His fear turns to anger.

“Excuse me,” he says. “If the Lord is with us, why has it been decades since we saw any evidence of it? We hear stories about God’s wonders, but we never see them, and right now we are being savagely oppressed, and God does nothing.”

Then the angel of the Lord gives him a most extraordinary command. “Go in the strength you have and save Israel from the hand of the Midianites. Am I not sending you?”

Gideon is dumbfounded. “Me? You want me to save Israel? I’m the least influential guy from the weakest clan in Manasseh.”

“Oh, that,” says the Lord. “Not to worry. You’ll have me with you.”

As the story unfolds, however, God shows Gideon that he means exactly what he says. Gideon does save Israel using only the strength he has. The only wonders God performs are signs to reassure Gideon that he is really hearing from God rather than hallucinating or going mad. His military strategy is insane. He attacks with 300 men armed with—swords? no—trumpets and torches hidden in clay jars. The plan is to scare the Midianites into killing each other, and amazingly it works. Once the Israelites see the Midianites are on the run, then they are emboldened to pursue them until there are none left. Then peace and prosperity return to Israel for the rest of Gideon’s life.

God didn’t equip Gideon with special powers or abilities. He didn’t provide him with overwhelming force, an army to match the size of Midian’s invasion. He called Gideon to use the strength he had to relieve the suffering of the Israelites. The Apostle Paul makes it explicit:

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are.

1 Corinthians 1:26-2

God can call you and give you a mission now, where you are, with the strength you have. You can begin where you are to express his love. You can join with others to oppose injustice. You can alleviate the suffering of those in pain. You can be kind. Kindness requires no preparation or training or special talents or gifts.

Here are three things to keep in mind if you feel God is calling you to do something.

  1. Check your motives. God didn’t call Gideon to make him rich or famous or powerful. He called him to relieve the oppression of his people, to correct an injustice, to right a wrong. Gideon did become rich and famous and powerful, but that was a by-product of God’s mission, not the main event.
  2. Make sure it’s God. God provided signs that he was one speaking to Gideon, signs that made sense to Gideon. He burned up the meal Gideon brought to the angel. He did the thing with the fleece, wet with no dew all around one day and dry when the surrounding ground was wet with dew the next. He also gave him intelligence about his enemy in advance of his attack. All of these things served to reassure Gideon that he was acting as God intended.
  3. God isn’t magic. God’s presence with Gideon did not make Gideon’s task easier. It made it possible. Gideon still had to deal with smashing idols, raising an army, selecting an elite force, planning his military strategy, pursuing the enemy, and cleaning up after all the slaughter. He had to deal with self-doubt and fear. None of those things were easy. Easy would have been staying in the wine press threshing.

God may have a special mission for you, a unique calling to a particular task, but if he does not, he still expects all who belong to him to follow his commands to love others, to do good and act with kindness even toward those who scoff at your beliefs or persecute you, and to pray for the coming of his kingdom. These things are a general call to all his followers. Go in the strength you have and do them.

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Harry Potter

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Should a Christian read Harry Potter? Some say Harry Potter is filled with occult and pagan influences and that Christians have no business reading such things. Others say that the Harry Potter books are entertaining stories about good and evil and that Christians have as much right to read them as anyone else.

The Harry Potter books certainly contain occult and pagan influences. Anyone who feels an unhealthy interest in the occult probably should not read them. Harry Potter is a wizard. All his friends are wizards or witches. Those who are not magical (called Muggles), are portrayed as stupid or dull. Characters use magic wands, cast spells, use hexes to cause harm, drink magic potions, and fly on broomsticks. Harry and his friends are dishonest and conniving. They disregard rules, ignore the admonitions of their teachers, and cheat when they think they can get away with it. The characters are also thoroughly secular as are most characters in most modern fiction. If they believe in God at all, he is a distant Creator who set the world in motion but no longer bothers about it. Neither Jesus nor Satan is ever mentioned, despite references to Christmas in each book.

The books are also well-written and very entertaining. The stories contain elements of adventure and mystery. Each book builds to climactic scenes in which Harry confronts evil and overcomes it. Harry is told repeatedly that what really separates him from the likes of Voldemort—the evil wizard who repeatedly tries to kill Harry—is his capacity to love. Again and again he risks his life to save his friends. Despite his flaws, Harry is a noble and self-sacrificing character. You can’t help admiring him.

The question of whether Christians ought to read Harry Potter is like the first century concern with eating food offered to idols. Some considered eating such food a disgrace to the true God. Others considered it a participation in the worship of devils. Still others saw nothing wrong with it; it was just food. Paul makes clear that the focus of our attention should not be on the food. Our proper concern is with people. If my eating causes someone weak in the faith to fall into sin, then I ought not to eat. Better that I should encourage the weak and build them up rather than fight with them and tear them down. In the same way, it seems to me, that I should not argue with those who oppose reading Harry Potter. I should instead encourage them and build them up, so that they will stand firm in their faith.

When my daughter was in fifth grade, her teacher started reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to the entire class. Jane found the book disturbing. She did not like to hear about wizards and witches and magic. She asked to be excused from class during the readings. I supported her, and she went to the library while the rest of the class listened to the book. I also told her teacher that the Harry Potter books were controversial among evangelical Christians. She thanked me because she hadn’t heard anything but praise for them. Jane is now in the eighth grade and an avid reader, but she still has not read any Harry Potter books, and I will not press her to do so.

When my son, Noah, was in fifth grade, he was hardly reading at all. He had outgrown Captain Underpants, for which I was thankful, but he seemed not to enjoy reading anything. To his mind, reading was one of those boring things you had to do at school. Only a nerd or a dork would read without having to. I decided to try to interest him in reading with Harry Potter. To peak his interest, I told him that Jane did not like it and couldn’t stand to hear it read. By the time he made his way through the first book, he was hooked on reading and on Harry Potter. I know some people will censure me for putting books “inspired by Satan” into my son’s hands. However, I do not think they are inspired by Satan, and the books have actually provided many useful opportunities for Noah and me to talk about the difference between the magic in the books and the kind of magic practiced by modern pagans and Wiccans. He knows the difference between the fictional world of Harry Potter and the real world. He has not become obsessed with magic. In fact he has a heart that hungers and thirsts after righteouness. He loves the worship of God.

There are some Christians who do not know that Satan has been defeated. They seem to think that he has great power still in this world and that he can afflict Christians who try to mess with him. But Jesus showed us how to deal with Satan. He never backed down. He always made Satan crawl. He gave his followers the same authority and told them to use it. “Cast out devils,” he said. “Heal the sick. Raise the dead. Freely you have received; freely give.” The only power Satan retains is the power of deceit. Like Saruman in The Lord of the Rings he may charm the unwary with lies and do some damage through trickery and smooth talk, but he has no real power of his own. When his lies are exposed and he is confronted in the name of Jesus, he flees. So too, Harry Potter holds no terrors for those who read warily, discerning the truth.

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