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Jesus, not Magic

The Sunday School teacher searches the small faces of her class to find someone with the answer to her question.

As usual, little Danny has his hand up.

As usual, little Danny answers, “Jesus!”

And, as usual, little Danny is right.

Every savvy Sunday School veteran knows that if you aren’t sure of the answer to a teacher’s question, just venture Jesus and you have a good chance of being correct.

This is a lesson that veteran Christians, in fact, need to remember, and for two crucial reasons: (1) Jesus really is The Answer to life’s biggest questions, and (2) Christians nonetheless tend to slide away from Jesus to other answers, and especially answers that partake of magic rather than of faith.

I hope soon to offer you a Signature Series on faith—as the fundamental posture of the Christian before God, as the most basic lesson we have to learn in Christian discipleship, and as the root of everything else in Christian living. For now, however, I want to follow on a recent post in which I suggested why the Bible doesn’t provide the Christian with a comprehensive and categorical list of virtures to guide our behaviour. Instead, the Bible insists that we walk in the Spirit, following the example of Christ, in the service of our heavenly Father.

To cite the old evangelical adage, It’s not a religion; it's a relationship. Christianity is not a code to follow nor a technique to master. It’s not a skill to acquire or a force to control. Christianity is personal acquaintance with, personal allegiance to, and personal cooperation with the living God: the God who lives, the God who wants to live with us, Emmanuel.

A perpetual temptation, however, is to depersonalize this core reality, to objectify Christian piety and to commodify the work of the Holy Spirit. Here’s what I mean.

I’ve been re-reading E. M. Bounds, a nineteenth-century American Methodist pastor, on prayer. Bounds is not a deep thinker but instead insistently hammers away on the theme of his lifework: pray, pray, pray. I need that reminder, so I’m subjecting myself to his ministry each morning.

Still, Bounds writes of “unction”—literally the anointing with oil of a priest and metaphorically the infusion of the believer with the Holy Spirit—as a sort of energy. There’s nothing wrong with that: lots of poets, lyricists, and preachers have done so, and the Bible itself uses images of water, light, and so on to describe the Spirit’s presence and ministry.

Bounds nonetheless verges on magic as he exhorts the reader to pray daily, early, and protractedly as if this action will automatically produce spiritual power for preaching (his main focus) and for Christian living more generally.

“Without unceasing prayer the unction never comes,” he says in Power through Prayer. Bounds encourages the reader to follow the example of the apostle Paul in garnering prayer from every quarter one can: “Units of prayer combined, like drops of water, make an ocean that defies resistance.” He even says that “more time and early hours for prayer would act like magic [!] to revive and invigorate many a decayed spiritual life.”

It is not, however, some unseen force that gives godly preaching its power. And that power doesn’t come from being revved up by long prayers. Jesus prayed long and hard himself, yes, as did the apostles. So should we. But not as a kind of industrial process. Beware the commodification of spiritual power.

Again, the closest and richest relationships, familial or friendly, do require time on task. It would be a doomed marriage in which the partners conversed only briefly at the beginning and end of the day, like the token prayers of Christians. The problem is in quantifying a personal relationship, like a benighted spouse thinking all he has to do to make his marriage strong is to “put the time in.”

All around the world these days, Christians are praying in extended meetings: Korea, China, India, Africa, Latin America. Surely God is glad for this earnestness, and Canadian Christians who by comparison hardly pray at all, whether alone or together, must critique such practices with humble caution. Yet observers of each of these Christian groups have wondered aloud about whether these long and many prayers indicate the continuing influence of shamanism rather than, or at least alongside of, extraordinary Christian piety. Are these believers merely working diligently to get what they want from God?

Jesus warned against “heaping up empty phrases like the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matt. 6:7). Why not? “For your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (6:8). Prayer is conversation, not manufacture. Gentiles (= “the nations”) tried to do the right things in order to obtain the right results. But getting divine power to do what you want is magic. It isn’t Christian ethics and it isn’t Christian prayer.

There is much more to say about prayer, faith, and life in the Spirit, of course, and I hope to say more presently. Today, then, let’s recall that the answer to life’s problems isn’t learning a spell, or acquiring a method, or undertaking an exercise—even apparently Christian exercises—in order to produce the desired outcome.

The Way, the Truth, and the Life is a Person, and the big answers to the big questions lie in whether and how you relate to the Source of All Good.

Little Danny is right. Jesus.

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