Magic Thinking

Magic is the use of special words or ceremonies in the belief that they produce results. Sadly, magic thinking1 creeps into Christian life sometimes. Jesus rejected it.

The crafty suggestion came from Satan.

Then the devil took Him into the holy city; and he had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple and said to Him, “If you are the Son of God throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give His angels charge concerning you’; and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “On the other hand, it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Matt. 4:5-7)

Satan tested Jesus by trying to tap into the human fascination with magic thinking. It went something like this: Take a person’s trust in a truth, practice, or standard of their religion and put it on steroids. In other words, claim that it is especially effective. Then suggest relying on that truth or practice as the key to a desired goal. In the scene above, Jesus jumping would have been magic thinking, a reliance on waving a Scripture promise in God’s face and telling Him to honor it simply because it is Scripture. We must always keep faith in context. A dive from the temple fell outside God’s will. God provides for us and protects us when we’re walking in the light of His will, not when we’re knowingly taking a spiritual night hike.

Magic thinking underlies any broad idea of religion that suggests that national or family Christian heritage gives us a head start with God. Some Jews chanted that one (Luke 3:8). The idea that God is bound to protect His people, so we do not need to buy insurance or take precautions against infection, is like holding up a Christian club membership card. For some, church attendance, devotion times, or keeping a Bible in the house fit the definition. Special prayers, or prayers by special people, are other forms. Even using the name Jesus can be mumbo-jumbo without relationship with Him (Acts 19:13-16). Extreme forms of magic thinking become cults. We mustn’t condemn any and every ceremony and liturgy, because identifying the object of faith is key to diagnosing the mindset, and only God knows where individual hearts are putting their faith. Presumably the people healed by Peter’s shadow and his apron put their faith in God’s healing power. To avoid magic thinking we must focus faith on God Himself and His specific directions, and rely on God’s grace that faith in Jesus’ finished work releases.

  1. A term I first heard used by John Mark Comer of Bridgetown Church in Portland, Oregon. []

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