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Wanting Magic

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One of the attractions of the Christian faith, at least for me, is the tall tales in the bible. You know what I mean: floating axe heads, parted waters, men unsinged in a fire pit, lightning from a cloudless sky that obliterates not only the sacrificial offering but the very stones on which it was laid. The stories are frankly unbelievable, and yet countless people down through the ages have nevertheless believed them. In fact, such stories exist in every culture, not just in the bible. Humans have always told tales that can’t be true and still insisted that they are.

As a child, I wanted desperately to witness a genuine miracle, something that could not be explained as unaccountably improbable but only as really impossible and yet there it was right in front of me.

I want to see miracles, to see the world change,
I wrestled the angel for more than a name,
For more than a feeling, for more than a cause.
I’m singing ‘Spirit, take me up in arms with You’
And you’re raising the dead in me.

“Twenty Four”, Switchfoot.

Christianity seemed to promise such possibilities. Jesus himself told his disciples that with faith nothing would be impossible to them. They could move mountains! And yet….

What I wanted was power. I wanted the universe to submit to me.

To that end, I made extravagant promises to God. I prayed for faith. I prayed to be filled with God’s Spirit. I sought out ways to compel God to do my bidding. I tried to cajole him, tried to manipulate him, tried to get him on my side. It was only later that I realized that what I was looking for, hoping for, longing for was magic.

Magic confers effortless power through properly applied rituals. The underlying premise of magic is that the forces that move the world are subject to esoteric rules that can be used to manipulate them. Just say the right words in the right order with the right inflection, and you can heal the sick, raise the dead, take up deadly serpents, and drink poison without being harmed. Some more advanced forms might require physical acts such as sprinkling specially prepared water or wine, consuming certain foods, or imbibing certain drinks. Did not even Jesus make an eye salve from dust and saliva to heal a blind man? If I could have learned exactly what to say and how to say it, the power of God would be at my disposal to do my will.

Imagine the audacity of thinking you could use God’s power for any purpose except God’s will. I had that audacity.

Nevertheless, the world still reverberates with stories of miracles. Humans still believe in impossible things, and it is one of our great strengths. Faith drives us to try things that have never been tried, to challenge accepted wisdom and even undisputed facts. That drive and those challenges continue to yield extraordinary benefits for all mankind, but they do not come by magic. They come through perseverance, hard work, paradigm shifts in our understanding, and repeated failures from which we learn what doesn’t work. Only one new idea in a million may succeed, but thanks to our amazing capacity to disseminate knowledge, one idea can make the world better for everyone.

One such idea is the good news at the heart of Christianity, that despite the horrors and terrors present in the world, despite the suffering and loss we all endure in life, God loves us all as a good father loves his children with an unshakable love. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is at your elbow.” All you have to do to enter it is turn toward it; it’s right there.

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God Is Not In Control

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Well, of course, God is in control. He’s the supreme being, the maker and ruler of the cosmos. How could he not be in control of what he has made? It depends somewhat on what you mean by “control.” Does God determine everything that happens? Is he responsible for earthquakes and tsunamis, witch hunts and revolutions, murders and rapes? Does he get some kind of twisted delight out of tragic accidents or childhood cancer or Covid-19 deaths? If he does not cause disaster and evil, then does he permit it? And if he permits it, isn’t that the moral equivalent of causing it?

These are deep questions, and I am ill-qualified to answer them, but like many others, I can’t help trying to come to terms with them. As a Christian who trusts God and believes he is all good all the time, it does not sit well with me to imagine he created terrible evils or permits them. Perhaps, then, he allows evil because he can’t put a stop to it. In other words, God is not in control.

I’ve written already about who rules the world. Here I would like to introduce another bit of evidence, this time from the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus taught his followers to pray, “Your name: be hallowed; your kingdom: come; your will: be done. As in heaven, so on earth.” Yet who prays for what they already have? If God’s name is already highly esteemed, if his kingdom is already manifest throughout the world, if his will is already being done, then why make a petition of it? Christians pray for God’s will to be done because it’s not being done. How is it that omnipotence cannot do whatever it pleases whenever it pleases?

One conclusion that many people come to is simply that there is no God. This view has several advantages—a simplified morality where nothing is Good or Evil in some universal, cosmic sense but merely good or bad to or for particular outcomes in particular situations; a sense of intellectual superiority to the vast majority of mankind who throughout history has believed in some kind of god; freedom from arbitrary rules about how to live and behave; and the seductive promise that the pain and despair of existence can’t last forever.

It has disadvantages, too. Without God, there is no ultimate justice. The uncaught murderer will forever go unpunished. Without God, the longing we all have to be fully comprehended and to be loved can never be satisfied. Without God, we each and also collectively face the daunting task of deciding for ourselves what is good and what is evil. Without God, there is no lasting life, no meaning to everything. We can only look forward to the heat death of the universe and perhaps—if some models are correct—an endless cycle of new universes that come into being, grow old, and die over unimaginably vast stretches of time and space.

At this point, I think it is helpful to introduce a distinction between power and authority. Power is the ability to act in a situation or context. Authority is the right to act in a situation or context. To act in a way that is good and right requires both power and authority. For example, a police officer might respond to a call about a domestic dispute and discovers that one of the participants is an undocumented immigrant. However, her city is a sanctuary city, and the police are specifically prohibited from detaining undocumented immigrants unless they are in violation of a city ordinance. The police officer has the power to act but not the authority.

The opening chapters of Genesis reveal a God who, in the act of creating, made creatures enough like himself that he could commune with them and love them. He subjected the world he had made to their authority, and when they rebelled against his good governance, they ceded that authority to God’s enemy. Thus Satan became the ruler of this world, and by his schemes and deceptions he has brought much evil into the world.

If God were like us, his judgment would have been swift and severe. He would have overpowered and immediately crushed the serpent, slain Adam and Eve for their disobedience, and restarted the whole project afresh. But God is not like us. He responded with love like a parent with disobedient children. He gave them consequences for their actions and waited to see what they would do. Would they repent and seek to re-establish the communion they had had with him? Or would they continue in rebellion? Throughout history, some have chosen repentance and some have chosen rebellion1Of course, the Christian understanding is that everyone defaults to rebellion, but some choose repentance and life. In his efforts to persuade rebellious humanity, God even sent his own son as an emissary, not with violence and threats, but with gentleness and love, to persuade the rebels to lay down their arms and surrender. He commissioned his church to the same task, calling them out from their accustomed lives to live a new life in obedience to God by displaying his own loving character in their words and deeds.

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:9

For this reason, those who claim to be Christians but act with judgment and condemnation toward others have not rightly understood the mission of the church. The church has not been tasked with making society righteous by advocating for laws that reflect Bronze Age values from the Law of Moses. Indeed, Paul taught that the Law no longer held sway over those who commit themselves to Christ2Read just about any of Paul’s letters but especially those to the Romans and the Galatians. Therefore, when Christians spew forth vituperation and anger toward those whose political views differ from their own, they are revealing how much their own hearts and minds are still in bondage to the sinful nature. They are still in rebellion against God, who is patient with everyone but especially with those who have never known his goodness and love. Just as parents are gentle with young children who have not yet learned how to behave but harsher with older children who certainly know better, so God has more patience with sinners who have not known him but has less patience with those who have tasted his mercy and forgiveness.

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.

Brennan Manning, attributed

Footnotes

  • 1
    Of course, the Christian understanding is that everyone defaults to rebellion, but some choose repentance and life
  • 2
    Read just about any of Paul’s letters but especially those to the Romans and the Galatians
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