Magical thinking has troubled Christians for two thousand years. It’s the idea that if one knows the right words and says them in the right way God, like Aladdin’s genie, will serve up answers to wishes. It shouldn’t be a surprise. We love magic. We love magicians and magic shows, we love Harry Potter, Bewitched, and Merlin. We love the idea that with just a little effort we too could make things happen for the good, always for the good.
Scripture itself tempts people in that direction. For instance, Jesus told Peter that, if he had enough faith and no doubt in his heart, he could make a mountain jump into the sea (Mk.11). Paul, in his letter to the Romans, said “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8). It’s led some to make faith, the right kind of faith in the right amount, the key to unlocking godly magic in all things, especially things like healing and prosperity.
There are times I wish Jesus, or possibly Mark, had been less disposed to use hyperbole when making a point. Too many of us don’t get it, and take it literally. I imagine Jesus offering a wry smirk as he tried to help Peter understand he would never move mountains, and the little faith he had would be enough. As Mark tells it, the faith talk occurred the same day he drove vendors out of the temple and cursed an innocent fig tree. It was also a few days before he would be crucified, so he may not have been in the best of moods. As an aside, I think the fig tree incident was an object lesson for the disciples about the power or prayer for good and ill, so be careful. Jesus was hungry and wanted a fig from the tree, but it wasn’t the season for figs, so he cursed it and it died. Don’t be so cavalier about damning any person or thing. It has consequences. It’s as much a prayer as one seeking a blessing. But I digress.
In John’s gospel, Jesus said that he would do whatever is asked in his name (John 14). It’s been interpreted to mean that one only has to ask, provided it’s with enough faith and in the right words, and Jesus will deliver what is good for us. And we’re pretty sure we know what good is: a new car, a job, a place to live, romantic love, a good parking spot: it’s all magical thinking. God knows we need the things of life, but seek first the kingdom of God (Matt 6). Yes, but didn’t Pauls say, “all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose”? If you just let it be known how much you love God, and how you are among the called, why not go for it?
Paul would be confused about how misunderstood he could become. For him, there was a lot of nuance in “all things work for good” having to do with good as that which gives meaning, weight, and value to something. All things working for good, as Paul understood it, had to do with God’s purposes being worked out through disciples proclaiming the good news. Like others, he suffered hardship, disease, and an ignoble death, and it was good. Putting Paul’s intention into contemporary English, he might have said: “God’s purposes are being worked out through those who love God and do the work God has given them to do.” In like manner, I imagine Jesus saying something like: “You have no idea how powerful prayer can be when it’s in communion with God’s purposes, and don’t worry so much about getting it right, just a little bit of faith is adequate.”
Understanding it that way removes the magic, and opens the way for intentional participation with God for God’s purposes. It creates opportunity to experience the breathtaking power of prayer in the lives of those who pray, and in the lives of those for whom prayers are said.