A Pepper Grinder Post

It's Magic

I'm going to ask a question, and I want you to give an honest answer.  After reading Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings or Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia or one of J.K. Rowling's books about Harry Potter, have you ever wished you had magical powers?  Or (and this is a sad thought indeed), if you have never read any of these books but have seen some of the movies based on them, have you ever wished, when your favorite mug has smashed on the floor, that you could whip out your wand, point it at the fragments of mug, mutter "repairo," and the mug would instantly be as good as new?  I think many Christians know that pursuit of magical powers isn't an okay thing Biblically, but--be honest here--wouldn't it be cool to have them?

Well, I will admit up front, I have thought that.  I wouldn't pursue it, partly because I doubt that morally neutral magical powers exist in our world.  Old Testament law groups various magical practices together with child sacrifice as something that should not exist in the nation of Israel (Deuteronomy 18:10), and the people who are mentioned as practicing witchcraft were people like Jezebel (2 Kings 9:22) and Manasseh (2 Chronicles 33:6)--not exactly people we would hold up as role models.  In the New Testament, too, people who had or claimed to have magical powers (like Simon in Acts 8) were seen as obtaining power from Satan, and witchcraft is included in a list of acts stemming from our sinful nature in Galatians 5:19-21.

Hermione with magic wandAnd yet, thinking about it, there's another reason I would not pursue magical powers, even if I believed I could obtain powers that were not evil.  That reason is unintended consequences.  This is easiest to explain with an example.  Suppose that I was not just a normal IT guy, but an IT guy with magical powers.  If I was at work and typed the wrong command and something bad happened, I would just ease my wand out of my backpack, hold it discreetly under my desk, and mutter some pseudo-Latin phrase. Presto--the mistake would be undone.  Or suppose I was fighting one of those baffling and frustrating problems that plague those of us who make our living in the world of computers.  Why, after an hour of Googling for a solution and trying all the normal things, wouldn't I just say a quick spell and fix the problem?  On the surface, this sounds great.  I have saved my company money and have saved myself and others a lot of frustration.  I look good, and everyone is happy.

The problem is, having lived with myself for fifty-seven years, I know what the results would be.

  1. I would become lazier.  Maybe at first I would work at understanding and fixing problems before I resorted to magic, but I suspect that, as time went on, I would become quicker and quicker to reach for the wand.
  2. I would become arrogant.  Even though I would know that my success as a systems analyst had nothing to do with my intelligence or hard work, as people began to think highly of me because of my constant success, I would happily join them in that opinion.
  3. I would lose out on character qualities.  Having the magic wand would certainly do nothing to help me develop perseverance.  I also think I would miss out on all sorts of subtle qualities like compassion if I could magically fix things--why would I feel for someone suffering after making a mistake if I never had to experience the results of mistakes myself?
  4. I would be shallower.  I have learned a great many things while poking around trying to fix problems.  In addition to lots of technical stuff, I think I've developed more wisdom.

Moving beyond the IT world, I also think about some of the painful things I have gone through in my life.  At the time I was going through them, I wanted nothing so much as to make the pain stop.  If I had had a magic wand, I am sure I would have used it.  And yet, looking back, I see that those things, as hard as they were, accomplished good things in me.  I would not be the same person if I had not gone through some of the troubles I've experienced, and I am pretty certain that the differences if I had had an easier life would not mostly be good ones. 

In a similar way, I think "good" things I might cause to happen might have negative consequences somewhere down the road that I had not foreseen.  I read a book review recently that highlighted this danger in an interesting way.  It was a review in World Magazine (the June 27, 2015 issue) of The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution by John Compton.  According to the review (which I have no reason to doubt--I just haven't read the book myself), Compton shows that some evangelicals in the nineteenth century pushed for the Supreme Court to modify their interpretation of the Constitution's property rights provisions, so that the evangelicals could pass legislation restricting some "vices," such as lotteries and alcohol sales.  To bend the strong constitutional protections for private property, the justices came up with the idea that the Constitution was a "living" document that needed to be "interpreted" anew by successive generations.  Anyone even vaguely aware of some of the political and judicial struggles of the last forty to fifty years in the United States can see that the idea of a "living Constitution" has been used to force states to accept practices that the founding fathers and the 19th century evangelicals would have been appalled by.

Without my brain even breaking into a sweat, I can think of several other examples in politics where a law designed to do one good thing ended up having other effects which no one had expected.  It's not surprising that this is common in politics, since I can think of few things that are as much like waving a magic wand as legislators passing laws.  Another thing like magic is computer programming, and I can attest from personal experience how easy it is to add a line of code to fix one thing, only to have it break something else.

man prayingHere is the basic problem with people having magical powers, as I see it.  When people have those types of powers, they become omnipotent (with a small "o"), but they are not omniscient.  If we have the power to do whatever we want, but we don't know everything and can't foresee the future, we are GOING to mess things up.  This is the crucial difference between prayer and magic.  In magic, we are acting according to our knowledge and desires.  In prayer, we are asking God to do things, but he who knows and foresees everything, can choose to say "no" to our request; or to say "yes, but wait;" or to do what we ask, but in a way that is very different than we pictured.  In the one case, we are in control; in the other, God is in control.

This is part of why I hate the teaching that God is forced to answer any prayer if we have enough confidence when we pray--it turns prayer from a humble request to our all-wise Father into a Christian version of magic.  (I also hate it because it is misinterpreting the Scripture and misunderstanding faith.  See my series for more on this.)  While I understand the appeal of magic, I know that sinful me with a magic wand in my hand would be a recipe for disaster.  A much better plan is sinful me on my knees before the loving God of the universe.


*Photo Credits: Hermione (Emma Watson) with wand from , man in prayer by