Many Christians today treat faith like magic. While the content of what Christians believe is obviously different from pagan practitioners of magic, the way they believe and the motive they have for believing, seems to be very similar. Magic is generally understood to involve people engaging in special behaviors that empower them to gain favor with, or to otherwise influence, the spiritual realm in order to get it to work to their advantage.
For instance, when praying for someone who is sick, it is often assumed that if we engage in a certain behavior—namely, making ourselves sufficiently certain that the person will be healed—then we could influence the spiritual realm and God would act in a way that would benefit that person. While this might on the surface appear very similar to how a person with a biblical understanding of faith might pray, the assumption about what is going on is much closer to magic.
Another example is the common view of salvation. The prevailing understanding is that for a person to be “saved,” they must believe those doctrines that are “essential to salvation.” And for most Christians, to “believe” means that a person has become sufficiently certain that a doctrine is true. If they believe the right things then they are in.
Along similar lines, many assume that, while all Christians sin, there are certain “deal-breaker” sins that, if not repented of, will cause a person to lose their salvation. For example, I’ve never heard anyone say that greed, gluttony, or gossip that is not repented of will keep a person from being “saved.” But I’ve frequently heard Christians say that homosexuality will certainly do this.
Is this way of thinking about beliefs and behaviors reflecting a biblical or a magical understanding of faith? It seems to me, quite frankly, that it’s much closer to the latter.
One of the key differences between “magic” and biblical faith is that magic is about engaging in behaviors that ultimately benefit the practitioner, while biblical faith is about cultivating a covenantal relationship with God that is built on mutual trust. And while the God-human relationship, like all trusting human-to-human relationships, benefits both God and the person of faith, it is not entered into as a means to some other end. We might say that magical faith is utilitarian while biblical faith is simply faithful.
With all sincerity, people often try to believe the right things to pray the right way. They try to attain a sufficient level of certainty about particular doctrines so that they can be sure that they are saved. Or they work to avoid the “deal-breaker” sins in order to get God to “save” them. But how is this significantly different from those who engage in magic by performing certain behaviors to get the spiritual realm to benefit them?
Faith is not primarily about getting our behaviors and our beliefs right—as if God is some kind of heavenly evaluator who is obsessive about whether your actions don’t cross any lines and you arrive at the right intellectual conclusions. Rather, faith is about trusting in the beautiful character of Christ, about being transformed from the inside out by the power of his unending love, and about learning how to live in the power of the Spirit as you increasingly reflect his love and his will “on earth as it is in heaven.”
—Adapted from Benefit of the Doubt, pages 38-40, 120-121