Thy will be done. – Jesus of Nazareth, praying
Today, I have random thoughts on how magical thinking works its way into otherwise healthy Christianity.
I’ve never been a fan of Word of Faith preacher Fred Price, quoted up there right before words from my real Hero. And my dislike of his philosophies isn’t simply because he makes unkind comments about the blind and the deaf ("How can you glorify God in your body, when it doesn't function right?....What makes you think the Holy Ghost wants to live inside of a body where He can't see out through the windows, and He can't hear out the ears?" – Fred Price).
No, my real dislike of Freddy-boy’s teachings is how they help to sneak magical thinking into the Body of Christ. Price and his ilk make a regular practice of insisting (1) God can’t do things in your life if you don’t invoke Him right, (2) wealth and health are the evidence of the Holy Spirit in your life, and (3) God adapts His will for you based on your will for yourself.
In other words … if you get the mantra right and “declare” and “claim” and “envision” yourself living the good life, Zeus has no option but to hand over the good things.
Sorry, not Zeus. I meant God.
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Here’s a hard one to write, because it’s about people I love: The other day, I sat in a prayer meeting and watched a brother in Christ be corrected by a prayer meeting leader (gently, though) who noted that the brother had prayed for someone who’d been “sent home to die” by the doctors. The correction went something like this: Don’t say that the doctors sent your friend home to die, because when you say it that way, our words have the power to turn it into a reality. Instead, say something positive, because that will bring about the positive result. Say the doctors sent him home to enjoy an abundant life and to be healed.
What are we seeing here? The fruit of ministries like Fred Price’s, magical thinking. This kind of attitude envisions God as a prankster, one who is waiting for someone to use the wrong words, just to show them that he can hand over a bad thing, even when the heart of the praying believer is longing for a good thing. “Aha!” says this type of god. “I caught you asking wrongly! Watch what happens, now that you’ve used the wrong words!”
This is not Christianity. So what is it?
- It is the cartoonish thinking of Linus from the Charlie Brown cartoons, the character thrown into despair when he accidentally slips and says, “If the Great Pumpkin comes …” instead of “When the Great Pumpkin comes …” Linus believed he had stopped the coming miracle by a slip of the tongue.
- It is the diabolical thinking of any number of Deal With The Devil tales, in which a demon (or a genie, in Arabic literature) turns a good wish into a bad one by finding a loophole or flaw in the way the question was asked.
- It is the New Age foolishness of The Secret and other power-of-positive-thinking schemes, wherein simply thinking positive thoughts makes those positive thoughts come true … and when they don’t come true, it’s good evidence you were letting negative thoughts sneak in, you failure.
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Does God punish negativity? If God so thoroughly dislikes our speaking the negatives aloud, why on Earth did He permit so many depressing Psalms? And a whole book of Lamentations! Those are pretty odd selections from a Being who demands positive words and attitudes and punishes a downcast heart.
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“Be careful what you pray for. You might get it!”
This is another line I’ve heard casually tossed about by my brothers and sisters in Christ. Sometimes it’s used as a half-joke; other times it’s delivered with deadly seriousness. No matter which way it’s used, the concept underlying it is a slap at Scripture, at the assurances of Jesus in Matthew 7:
Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?
Word of Faith practitioners, with their demands that all magic words be phrased positively and as claims of affirmation, would hasten to point out that the son in this verse knows to ask for bread. The son named it and claimed it! But my worry is how they characterize the Lord’s role in this verse … seeing Him as a father who won’t give a thing to the son if the request isn’t made with perfect wording. A god who responds with gleeful, puckish pranks when the petition is done incorrectly. A god who reacts to magic words, rather than to real needs among his children.
A god who says, “Gotcha!”
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Not everyone who uses Word of Faith vocabulary is a full-blown Word of Faith practitioner. The problem, however, is that name-it-and-claim-it thinking sneaks into the ideas and words of true believers in Christ. Think of yeast. Think of dough. Get the picture? The danger is like that. I’m being careful not to say what will happen, because I don’t want to say it out loud and force God to make it come true.
Here are a three warning signs that magical Word of Faith thinking might be creeping into your congregation:
Clue 1--The power of names: When you ask for prayer for someone who isn’t present, those praying ask what the person’s name is. This may seem innocent enough, but notice that when you don’t give the name, those praying will inevitably remind God, “You know all things, so you know this person’s name ...” Here’s what’s up with that: It is ancient, magical thinking to believe knowing a thing’s “true name” gives you power over that thing. In shamanism, voodoo, occult practices, demonism, ecstatic-trance faiths, and fairy tales like Rumpelstiltskin, having the name means having the power. Word of Faith practitioners (or those influenced by them) who don’t have the name always feel slightly uncomfortable, and seem driven to remind God that, yeah, okay, He knows the name, I guess. He has the power, so He can do the magic, I suppose. Remember, Lord, You know things.
Clue 2--Quoting Scripture to God: Admit it. You’ve heard it. “Yes, Lord! Praise you, Lord! As You said in Your Scripture, as You taught us in Isaiah chapter 53 verse 5, by Your stripes we are healed … “ You’ve been in front of preachers who act as if they are talking to God, but in the course of it, tell Him specifically what He’s said in His Scriptures, and then give the citation of where He said it (should He wish to look it up later, I suppose). As far as I can tell, preachers who do this frequently – note I said that last bit, for I don’t want you thinking I mean anyone who now and then cites a Scripture in the course of a prayer – but those who make a regular habit of quoting the Lord His own Scriptures, chapter and verse, are up to one of two things:
1) They are not talking to the Lord at all, but talking to the audience,performing the prayer, and trying to whip up a powerful faith-knowledge
combo in the minds of the believers … a spell, in essence, that will, by
words of power, make the requested magic happen; or
2) Even worse, they are talking to the Lord, and are trying to use some
magic influence they believe to be in the words of Scripture to force
the hand of God to act, and to bend His will to their own. If you think
I may be overstating this, please reread the Fred Price quotation I opened
Clue 3--Your magic finances: To keep their health and wealth Gospel churning along, Word of Faith practitioners will give you Scripture’s magic formulas for becoming rich yourself. Inevitably, this involves giving money to them. Mind you, I am not talking about a church’s normal requests for donations. Rather, I’m talking about those hucksters who craft biblical equations to spell out exactly what your monetary Return On Investment will be when you mail in your Love Offering. Their message: giving is getting, and getting is holy. Your health, your wealth, those are the evidence that the Holy Spirit lives in you. The Holy Spirit, these preachers say, doesn’t want to live in a cheap shack … so give to us, that God might be freed from His shackles and give to you.
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Dear Rev. Fred Price,
I learned from your sermons and from your son’s sermons that God will bless me one hundredfold if I give generously to your ministry in easy-to-make monthly payments. You’ve shown me clearly in Genesis chapter 26 verse 12 that if I send you one hundred dollars, the Lord will be righteous and reward me with a hundred hundred-dollar bills!
Because I love your ministry so much, I want a blessing like that to fall upon you, not upon me. It dawned on me: This principle of faith must work for you, too! Therefore, I would like to encourage you to send me $1,000.00 U.S., which will result in God giving you $100,000.00 on my behalf. Since I can’t afford to send you a hundred grand myself, this is the best way I can guarantee you get it.
I’ve enclosed a self-addressed stamped envelop for your convenience. Getting that thousand to me before next Tuesday would be awesome, since my rent is due.
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You guys didn’t really think my name was “Cosmic Parx,” did you?