(I published this Monday over at sbcIMPACT. This is a subject I feel passionate about, so I decided to repost it here, for anyone who wanders by over the weekend.)
Christians put their faith in a powerful, living God who works in and among his people in grace and strength. When we submit to him as Lord and seek his glory, his presence and power work among his people. Magic is the manipulation of spiritual forces to gain personal advantage – prosperity, fertility, forgiveness. They are not the same, but I think too many Christians treat their faith as just another form of magic – a better way to get what I want, a superior way to manipulate spiritual forces to achieve my goals and ambitions in life. In short, we pervert faith into magical religion. It is not!
A Biblical Example
The story told in 1 Samuel 4 about Israel’s battle with the Philistines illustrates this clearly. God’s chosen people had seen the Living God work in power so many times. The Plagues. The Exodus. Water from the rock, followed by manna and quail. The crossi
ng of the Jordan. Jericho. The Conquest of Canaan. God had shown himself powerful and faithful to his obedient people at every turn. But now the people were disobedient, idolatrous – and the power of God was not longer seen in the land of Israel.
And victory was no longer gained in Israel’s wars. When Israel walked with God, they defeated foe after foe, enemies too big for Israel to fight, but the power of the Living God gave them victory. Egypt was decimated. The Transjordan and Canaanite nations fell before the power of the Living God at work among his obedient people. But those days had passed. Now, Israel was oppressed and defeated by the very nations God had granted them victory over. It was no failure in the power of God, but his power was only to be released when the people walked in faith, in purity, in passion for him. Now, their hearts were far from him and the Philistines were defeating them at every turn.
The Philistines came from their encampment at Aphek, attacked and routed Israel and four thousand of Israel’s best soldiers lost their lives on the field of battle that day – a devastating blow. Israel couldn’t believe it. “Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines?” they asked. They did not make the connection between obedience and the power of God. In their hubris, they believed they could live as they pleased and still experience the glorious presence and sustaining power of God.
So, they looked for a solution and they found it. They needed to bring the ark out into battle – the Ark of the Covenant, the Ark of Moses, the golden Ark which symbolized the presence of God among his people. Surely, if they went and got the ark and carried it in front of the army, the power of God would go before them and they would defeat their enemies. They went to Shiloh where the ark rested in the tabernacle and got Hophni and Phineas, the wicked sons of Eli the High Priest to lead them out into battle. With the power of the Ark of God going before them, they would be invincible and Israel’s army would rout the Philistines.
When the ark entered the Israelite camp, the army rejoiced and terror filled the Philistine camp. Everyone had heard stories of the power of the Living God whose ark that was. They all assumed that an army which walked out into battle behind something as powerful as the Ark was invulnerable, that there was no question about the outcome of the battle. “Woe to us,” the Philistines lamented. “Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness.” They had severe issues of low self-esteem now. Their confidence was gone. But they steeled themselves for battle and decided to go out and do the best they could.
Lo and behold, the unthinkable happened. The Philistines won. Israel was routed and fled to its homes. Thirty thousand Israelite foot soldiers fell this time. The ark did not give them victory. In fact, the ark itself fell into Philistine hands. The pagan armies now had the mighty talisman of God’s power.
It was a day of unspeakable tragedy. The sons of Eli died on the battlefield that day along with the thirty thousand others. The ark fell into enemy hands. And when someone told Eli what had happened, the ninety-eight year old man was overcome and fell backward from his seat, hit his head, broke his neck and died. Phineas’ wife was in the process of giving birth. When she heard the news, she gave birth to a son and lived only long enough to give him the name “Ichabod.” “The Glory is Gone.”
That is the way the people felt. The ark was gone, fallen into Philistine hands. They assumed that because the Ark was gone, so was the presence and power of God – his glory gone. He must have forgotten his people and departed from them. The presence that destroyed Pharaoh, that parted the sea and stopped the flow of the Jordan, the presence that made the walls come tumbling down and routed the armies of Canaan, that gave Gideon’s 300 men the power to defeat the armies of Midian – that glory had now departed from the people of God. With that thought of despair, Phineas’ wife died and all of Israel grieved.
The Glory Was Never IN the Ark
But the people needed to learn a lesson that many need to learn today. The power of God was never in the ark. The power was in God. The Ark was only a symbol of that power. The Glory had not departed Israel when the Ark fell into enemy hands. The Glory of Israel was their God. Israel had been putting their faith in a talisman, in an ark, instead of in the glorious power of God. They were not practicing faith, they were practicing magical religion. They did not need an ark, they needed repentance and revival.
All the Canaanite nations’ religions were occult-based. They believed that certain artifacts had miraculous power. They believed that if they performed the proper rituals, chanted the proper prayers, went through the motions of certain sacrifices, they could cause the gods to act in a certain way.
That is the essence of “magical religion.” Magical religion is based on human effort to motivate or control divine activity. If I do this, then God will do that. If I perform this ritual, then God will give me that blessing. Chant the right spell. Mix the ingredients of the potion the correct way. Say the right words. Pray the proper prayers. Put a certain amount of money in the offering plate. Magical religion seeks to control God, to cause him to act in a certain way or to grant us certain favors.
Magical religion is focused on me. I want what I want. I act in certain ways to get God to give me what I want. If I just do things right, God will give me exactly what I desire.
Think about one of the runaway bestseller “Christian” books of the day. “Your Best Life Now.” The book tells you how to act to get the best life for yourself that you can possibly get. Its all about you. Health. Wealth. Happiness. Achievement. “Here’s how you can get God to give you everything you want.”
Balderdash. That is not faith; that is magic!
The Essence of Christian Faith
Magical religion is false in so many ways. Let me focus on just a couple. First, in magical religion, you seek to manipulate divine power to get what you want from God. You do what you think will appease God, please God, motivate God so that you can get what you want from him. In our faith, we are called to die to self that we might live to God. Jesus told us that if anyone would come after him, “he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” Christianity is not about you finding a way to get what you want, but you dying to self to live for the glory of God and the interests of his kingdom.
Second, faith requires us to submit to God and live under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. One of the reasons that the pagan religions appealed to Israel was that they permitted people to live as they pleased and still gain access to the power of God. Israel could walk in rebellion and if they only had the magic of the Ark going before them, God would surely give them victory.
But God works his wonders in the obedient. In Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, Moses spells out for the people the blessings that will flow to them when they obey God. He also spelled out the consequences of their disobedience.
The arrogance of Israel that they thought could walk in disobedience and still receive the blessings of obedience. God does not work that way. He pours out his blessings and releases his power through the obedient. When we think that we can walk in self-will and rebellion, then go through certain religious duties or rituals, practice certain acts of the faith and get the blessing of God – we are practicing magical religion, not biblical faith.
How do you know if you are practicing biblical faith or magical religion? Here are some scenarios you might consider.
- When you wear a cross around your neck but do not walk the way of the cross – denying yourself, dying to your own ambitions to serve others – you are practicing magical religion.
- When you act like there is power in certain programs, you are practicing magical religion. “If it worked in Tuscaloosa, it will work here!” Henry Blackaby had it right. “Programs don’t work, God works.”
- When you think that you can gain God’s favor and blessings by giving certain amounts of money, performing certain tasks or working hard in the church, you are practicing magical religion. “To obey is better than to sacrifice.”
- When you are walking in disobedience, but think that an emotional worship experience, or the performance of certain rituals or duties will abrogate your need for repentance – you are practicing magical religion. There is nothing that can motivate or manipulate the powerful hand of God to bless you in your disobedience.
- When you assume that putting your faith in Jesus is going to suddenly make all the problems in your life disappear, you are practicing magical religion. That may work out in Christian movies, but in real life in this world you are guaranteed hard times which our Savior sustains you through but does not deliver you from.
- When you practice your “faith” to gain success in this life – you are practicing magical religion. Its all about Jesus, not about you!
God has not lost his power. He is still the Living God who created this world, who sustains it by his power, who defeated Egypt and brought Israel out of slavery and into the Promised Land, who brought fire on Elijah’s sacrifice, who sent Jesus to live a perfect life, heal the sick, raise the dead and make atonement for us. He sent his Spirit to dwell in us and empower us.
If we will die to self and live again for the glory of God, we will see that mighty power at work. Perverting our faith into magical religion, as the sons of Eli tried to do, will simply leave us defeated and discouraged, wondering where the glory has gone.