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Christians culture prayer religion science spirit spiritual life theology

Magical Thinking

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Arthur C. Clarke propounded that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (Clarke’s third law). Certainly, we have reached the point where our own technology seems magical to some. We can communicate instantly with almost anyone almost anywhere on the globe. We have devices that can pinpoint our position on the earth within a few dozen feet and calculate a route for us to follow to get to any destination, even taking into account heavy traffic and road construction. Computing technology has advanced so quickly that science fiction can no longer stay ahead of it. The blinking lights and toggle switches of thirty years ago feel almost as ancient now as wooden water wheels and ox-drawn plows. Computer interfaces have become increasingly simple. We will soon have interfaces that can understand a wide range of spoken languages, perhaps even translating on the fly. These technologies, which seemed far-fetched only a few decades ago, are now within our grasp.

Nevertheless, there is an important difference between technology and magic that has enabled even the most primitive cultures to easily grasp that the wonders of modern technology are man-made, not magical. Put simply it is this: technology works according to easily accessible principles of cause and effect, but magic works by performing rituals that have no discernible connection to the desired outcome.

The difference between technology and magic is the difference between scientific thinking and magical thinking. For example, suppose I give you a little box with a button on it, and I tell you that every time you press the button, your garage door will open if it is closed or close if it is open. Can you test this assertion? Certainly. You press the button and see if the garage door opens. Wow! It works! But how does it work? You try pressing the button when you’re at a friend’s house. Nothing happens. You try pressing it when you’re on a nearby hill where you can see the garage. Nothing happens. You learn with a little experimentation that you have to be within about 150 feet for the button to work. Perhaps you examine the garage and see a motor that activates when you press the button. The motor is attached to a chain, and the chain is attached to your garage door. When the motor activates, it raises or lowers the door. You can do all this and see all this knowing nothing about radio waves, yet you know that what you are seeing is not magic. It is technology. It works; it obeys simple rules; you can see some of the connections that make the system operate.

Now, suppose you give me a little box with a button on, but you tell me that pressing the button will give me healing hands so that the next person I touch will be healed of a disease. I decide to try it out, and it seems to work. Everyone I touch after pressing the button gets better. A few get better right away, but most get better after several days. Another few get better after many days or even a stay in the hospital. Still, I have good success with the button, and I begin to believe in its power. Then somebody I touch after using the button dies a few days later. Maybe there are limits to the power of the button. It doesn’t always work, but neither does your garage door opener.

So what is the difference? When I use the button, I do not see any discernible pattern in how I use it and the results I get. Sure, almost everyone gets better, but perhaps they would have gotten better anyway. In addition, I don’t see any connection between my use of the button and any other phenomenon. When you press your button, you can see a motor activate and see how it connects to the door and raises it. For me to believe in the effectiveness of my button in the face of objections requires magical thinking. Somehow, pressing the button imparts healing power to my hands. I don’t know how it works; I can’t explain it, but I know when I touch people after pressing the button they get better.

It may seem that only religious people are subject to magical thinking, but this is not so. Nearly everyone at some time or other has tried to influence events outside there control by observing some kind of ritual. People of no particular religion talk about gremlins getting into their computer or about how some good deed they have done gives them a karmic edge in a competition. Sometimes when I am driving with my daughter, and she doesn’t want to be delayed by any traffic lights, she will intone as we approach a red light, “Turn green. Turn green.” If the light turns green before we get to it, she will claim that she made it turn green. Of course, if I seriously pressed her, she would acknowledge that she can’t control traffic lights, but in more desperate circumstances, people are willing to try more desperate measures even if they doubt their efficacy.

Magical thinking doesn’t merely claim ignorance; it claims that the connection between ritual and outcome is unknowable or inexplicable. Scientific thinking may well claim ignorance, but it will also insist on devising experiments with a testable hypothesis to see just how a particular cause produces an observed effect. Magical thinking ignores or suppresses evidence; scientific thinking welcomes evidence.

We know now about diseases caused by microbes. People used to think they were caused by evil spirits. Microbes are invisible; so are evil spirits. Overcoming microbes requires expert intervention (a doctor); so does overcoming evil spirits (a priest or shaman). But microbes can be seen if we have the right instruments. They can be cultivated. We can discover what they need to survive and what wastes they produce. We can’t do any of that with evil spirits. This is not to say that spirits do not exist. It is to say that we should not expect to find physical evidence of spiritual phenomena. Someone who claims that the spiritual world does not exist because there is no physical evidence for it, is like a deaf man who refuses to believe in music because no one can tell him what color it is.

Belief in a spiritual world, however, should not make us think that we can control the physical world through ritual observances—any ritual observances. Prayer has no measurable effect on the physical world. Why should it? The purpose of prayer is not to give Christians control of the world but to give God control of the Christians. If we live in obedience to him, with our minds tuned to his Spirit, then we will transform the world. If we think that living by biblical principles is a means to worldly wealth and prosperity, then we will become conformed to the world and nothing good will come of us.

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book review prayer religion spiritual life

An Uncommon Book of Prayer

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I’ve read a lot of books about prayer. Years ago I read Rosalind Rinker’s Prayer: Conversing With God, one of many books to describe prayer as a conversation rather than a ritual observance. More recently, I read Steve Brown’s Approaching God: How to Pray. Despite the how-to subtitle, I didn’t find it to be a very practical guide. It didn’t address the fundamental issues that cause prayerlessness.

Paul Miller knows why we pray and why we don’t. A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World is absolutely the best book on prayer I have ever come across. Miller, using compelling examples from his own life as well as scriptural teaching, shows us why we need to pray, why we don’t pray, and how to pray.

He begins with establishing child-like trust, moves on to how cynicism undermines that trust, and explains how to overcome cynicism by deconstructing its allure and false promises. A lot of prayer is petition, and petitioning—asking—is the very thing we find hardest to do. Complaining, “dialoguing,” soul-searching, and even praising are all easier to do because they don’t require trusting God. We can do them even if no one is listening. So Miller wisely focuses on asking and examines why we don’t ask and what we fail to ask for.

Finally, Miller integrates prayer into the story of God. Every life is a story, and prayer can make that story exciting and compelling if we let it. He concludes with some practical suggestions for helping us gain our Father’s perspective on our story through prayer cards and journaling.

This book has transformed the way I think about prayer, and I have already begun to put it’s suggestions into practice. It has also helped build my faith as I have seen real needs met and real prayers answered. A must-read for anyone interested in prayer. Even non-Christians would benefit from understanding the fundamental difference between prayer as the desperate cry of an overwhelmed child and prayer as ritual observance. Get this book, read it, and pray.

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prayer theology

Prayer’s Purpose

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For many people prayer is a what you do when the situation is out of your control. If you can’t stop your child from using drugs or you can’t seem to get out from under a mountain of debt or you can’t seem to attract the admiration of that cute girl in your history class, then you go to God and ask for help. You may just ask, or if you are really desperate, you may try bargaining. “I’ll never tell another lie if I can just have this one thing”—as if you could somehow benefit God by not sinning. Behind these kinds of prayers lurks a misunderstanding of the purpose of prayer and what God is like.

If God really is all that Christians have claimed: all-knowing, all-powerful, ever-present; then prayer as an attempt to manipulate him makes no sense. How can you or I expect to alter the Unalterable? Can our petitions move God to consider circumstances he didn’t know about? Can we appeal to his compassion on the basis of his ignorance? Ridiculous! “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matt 6:8) So why pray?

If prayer has no effect on God, what good is it?

Troops going into battle take a radio with them so they can maintain contact with their headquarters. They don’t use the radio to plead with their commander to stop the war and get them out of the battle. They don’t try to change their commander’s objectives at all. Instead they use the radio to get detailed instructions on how to pursue the commander’s objectives and to request whatever they need to press the battle forward. If they are low on ammunition, they ask for more. If they have captured a town, they wait to learn what their next objective should be. The radio was not given to them for their comfort or so they could listen to their favorite shows. It is not designed to further their pursuits at all but to help win the war.

Prayer is like the combat radio. If we approach it as a means to our own ends, it will disappoint us. But if we abandon our own ends and pray unceasingly for God’s will to be done in this world, then we will not only see miracles, we will do them.

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