Magic, materialism, and the middle way.

I’m not superstitious, but I am a little stitious.

— Michael Scott, The Office.

America has a problem. In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis said that the devil doesn’t mind if a man is a magician or a materialist, but hails both errors with the same delight. I think that Americans are simultaneously far too supernaturalist and far too naturalist. By this I mean that we paradoxically see God both everywhere and nowhere, and this weird double standard is damaging to our faith. This paradox is captured beautifully for us in the following tweets from Paula White:

As I said, this is an excellent example of our dichotomized mindset. Ms. White clearly believes that our words have power. When tackling mountains, should one use Expulso or Reducto, I wonder? Your faith-filled words allow God to do things for you. The poor, powerless creator of the universe looks down from on high just waiting for you to have enough faith to fill up a word so that He can help you out! Scrolling through her Twitter feed, it becomes quickly obvious how Ms. White views our words as a supernatural work. There is no such thing as the mundane in this mindset: No more prayers for daily bread, now we ask for abundance; no more working quietly with our hands, now we have to shout down whatever is meant by “mountains;” everything revolves around some super-Christian destiny. What if your destiny is to be a dentist?

I could go on about how the other half of this dialogue is just as confused. In this kind of theology, when God speaks to us it is apart from His Word. It is in impressions confirmed by omens, like moving to NYC because after you prayed about it you started seeing a whole bunch of “I Heart NYC” shirts. It’s in “what does this bible verse mean to you” bible studies. God speaks definitively enough in vision-casting, but rarely is the Apostolic message read from the pulpit. God’s voice is sought after in everything but the clear teachings of Scripture handed down by the Apostles for all people to believe. This kind of mysticism, on both ends of the dialogue, has shipwrecked the faith of countless people; it almost claimed my faith when I was young. Despair is an easy thing to fall into when you look to yourself or your surroundings rather than Christ dying for you on the Cross to define how God feels toward you.

Herein lies the paradox of this theology: Everything is supernatural and spiritual, except for God, who is bound by this law of attraction. God, the only truly supernatural thing in existence, is in fact reduced to a mere vending machine to be manipulated by clever words and prayers. And thus nothing is supernatural: Everything operates by the naturalistic mechanism of cause and effect. If I pray correctly, then God is bound to answer my prayers. For a country that stresses how Christianity is a relationship, there’s not much relationship to be had with this robotic God.

Even worse, now the impetus of that relationship is on you. You have to approach God correctly, you have to have enough faith, you have to speak the right words, you, you, you, you, you… And when your faith-filled words fail to fix the disease that is killing your child? When you can’t quite find the right words to allow God to fix your broken relationship with your spouse? It’s easy to see why so many people despair of any help from this weak God.

Let me propose a better way — a way that sees far more of God in the natural, and far less of us in the supernatural. I was studying Luther’s Small Catechism the other day, and in reading what he has to say about the first article of the Apostle’s Creed, a particular phrase stuck out to me:

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

What does this mean?–Answer.

I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them; in addition thereto, clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and homestead, wife and children, fields, cattle, and all my goods; that He provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support this body and life, protects me from all danger, and guards me and preserves me from all evil; and all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I owe it to Him to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him. This is most certainly true.

(source)

Every good thing that we have, from our bodies to our families to our material possessions, is from God. When you get your paycheck, it is not your employer providing for you, but it is God through your employer providing for you. Your ability to read the words of this post is only given to you because God has provided and preserved your eyes and cognitive faculties. He does not do this because of your good behavior or any worthiness on your part. To put it another way, contra Paula White, you were not born because your words allowed God to give you your “body and soul,” but because He is good and merciful and decided to create you that He might show this goodness and mercy to you. His Goodness, not your words, is His motivation for blessing you. And that blessing is only made evident in Christ.

If anyone had faith, it was Jesus. And yet when He asked the Father that this cup might pass, it did not. Why? Pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy. God was working in the Cross for the redemption of the World, reconciling us to Himself and not counting our trespasses against us. Why? Pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy. Not because we deserved to be reconciled! Not because our faith-filled words merited salvation! And certainly not because we allowed God to act! Simply because, in spite of us, God chose to step down into this world, “take up that human nature into [Himself],” and demonstrate His love toward sinners by dying for them. In this death, He has made His goodness so apparent that Paul had the audacity to write that God makes all things work for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. Paul, who watched the stoning of St. Stephen, who was beaten, stoned and left for dead, shipwrecked, imprisoned, and tortured for Christ’s sake, turned around and said that all of this was good. Why? Because Paul saw all of this through the lens of the Cross, God’s definitive statement toward humanity of love, mercy, and peace.

This is what I mean by a better way: What if we, like Paul, learned that rather than seeing our suffering as something to be fled from, it was something to be rejoiced in, not for the sake of suffering alone but for what God is doing in and through us in that suffering. It is a far greater thing to suffer for Christ’s sake than to gain the world and lose your soul. And when we view suffering in our life through the lens of the Cross, all of this word of faith nonsense falls aside quite easily and we start to see God’s pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy even in our weakness.

Just after the climax of the trilogy The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee discovers that his friend Gandalf was not dead (as he thought) but alive. He cries, “I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself’! Is everything sad going to come untrue?” The answer of Christianity to that question is yes. Everything sad is going to come untrue and it will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost.

— Tim Keller, The Reason for God, pg. 33

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