Do You Believe in Magic?

by Larry Barber


Michael was noticeably disturbed as he walked into my office. He tentatively took a seat on my couch. After several minutes, he asked me what was wrong with him. Why did so many other Christians whom he observed seem to have the kind of faith that enabled them to overcome sin and have fulfilling, successful marriages? Like many Christians, Michael believed that faith was the essential ingredient that made this possible.

Coming to terms with our moral failure is a painfully sobering process. At first glance, it could appear that this was the only reason Michael was so shaken. But Michael, like many of us, did not realize that beyond the agonizing process of confronting his brokenness, something he believed in caused him to despair. Michael was unaware that he had based his faith upon a myth. Though the myth was not founded in reality, he believed it because he wanted it to be true. But to believe a myth because you want it to be true is to believe in magic, not faith.

Whether or not we are conscious of it, we are all susceptible to myths. For example, a myth common to our culture is the belief that if we marry the right person, we will find happiness. Underlying this myth is the belief that happiness means having our emotional and physical needs met and having a marriage that is not so hard. We hold on to this myth even though we look around and observe few couples who are committed to each other and despite evidence to the contrary that one out of two marriages in America ends in divorce.

In the Christian culture, we commonly believe a spiritualized version of the marriage myth. We listen to Bible teachers who tell us that more than anything God wants us to be happy in this present life. He wants to meet all our needs. He wants us to live abundantly. We are told that marriage is one of the more important gifts that God gives us to bring about our happiness. We are told that the goal of marriage is for us to find fulfillment.

Foundational to the spiritualized marriage myth and our pursuit of happiness in marriage is another myth common to Christian culture: faith leads to success. In the minds of many, a Christian who appears successful likely has faith. A Christian who is not successful probably lacks faith. Michael found himself unable to live up to his own expectations of where he believed his faith would lead him. Because he was not successful in overcoming sin in his life, Michael concluded that he lacked faith.

According to the myth, such success looks like this: if we truly have faith in Jesus, then God will meet our emotional and physical needs through our marriage partner; life will go relatively smoothly; we will experience consistent harmony in marriage as evidenced by the absence of conflict; we will be moderately successful in our vocational and financial endeavors; we will enjoy good health; we will not commit some grievous sin; we will have great sex; and we will raise healthy children who are respectful, who love the Lord, and who do not get into trouble or embarrass us. Faith in Jesus will magically result in a better life in general and a successful marriage in particular.

This myth, however, is built upon a false understanding of faith as a state of consciousness, a feeling of dependency that transports us out of the mundane into the spiritual. This “faith,” is the mechanism that empowers us to live successful lives. Believing the myth, we see faith as the crucial ingredient that opens the door for the Holy Spirit to work, enabling us not to sin. We think that if our faith is strong enough, then God will empower us to prevail over sin in our lives, to make right choices to obey Him. The stronger and more intense this “faith” feeling is, the more we see it as evidence of God’s presence in our lives, demonstrating our faith. And, of course, the individual believer is responsible for cultivating this feeling by participating in daily devotions, prayer, and especially worship at church. And so goes the myth.

The biblical view of faith is quite different. The Bible does not present faith as a feeling or a mechanism that empowers us for successful living. Neither does it present faith as the consequence that results from having observed certain religious disciplines. The term “faith” in the New Testament simply means “belief.” When the New Testament writers refer to Christians having faith, they are describing those who have heard the apostles’ claims about the gospel and have come to believe that those claims are true.

So, from the New Testament writers’ perspective, faith is not a feeling; it is, rather, our response to the Bible’s message, which we have come to be persuaded is true and to which we have become personally committed. In other words, faith is the process of discovering the Bible’s version of reality and becoming personally committed to that truth in such a way that it affects the direction of our life.

For example, if we are personally committed to the belief that it is good and right to be merciful, then when we have been hurt by others, our faith and personal commitment to that truth will be demonstrated by our striving to forgive. If we are not personally committed to the truth of mercy, then we will most likely not strive to forgive when we have been hurt.

Even though we demonstrate our personal commitment to the truth through our choices, having biblical faith does not mean that because we believe the truth about something, we will always make good choices. Having a difficult time forgiving others may or may not reflect a problem with faith. We may sincerely believe in the truth of forgiveness, and our struggle simply reflects our brokenness. Through coming to grips with forgiving someone, we may become persuaded that our brokenness is a bigger problem than we had previously realized.

In contrast to the myth of faith, biblical faith is not something of which we have more or less. We are either personally committed to the truth of the Bible or we are not, though over time and through experience we may become more convinced of the Bible’s truth.

Let me explain what this might look like in marriage. In marriage, we are confronted with situations every day that challenge us as we decide how we will interact with each other. In these interactions, because we are morally broken, we often fail and hurt each other even when we do not want to, in ways we never imagined ourselves capable of. Given the nature of the marriage relationship, we experience firsthand our own failures as well as those of our spouse. But God has designed marriage as a classroom such that through the consequences of our failures, a divine metamorphosis of sorts takes place inside us. God begins to transform our desires and our minds so that we actually desire goodness and we begin to see reality from His perspective. At the same time, when we continue to hurt each other, the experience of failure teaches us to hate our brokenness and to recognize our profound need for mercy. There is no more effective instructor than this kind of struggle.

As God gives us eyes to see, we come to recognize our sin, layer by layer, and our inability to control it. In the midst of our continual failure, our desire for goodness increases and we better understand what is good and what is evil from His perspective. The internal tension created by these two opposing forces is exactly the experience God has authored for us. Consequently, we become persuaded of the truth, that is, we come to believe as never before that we have a disease of our heart and will. We become convinced that we desperately need mercy, and we come to understand the value of righteousness. Experiencing the natural consequences of our moral failure, then, is a crucial element in maturing our faith.

The biblical understanding of faith as a belief in the truth of the gospel contrasts sharply with the false understanding of faith as a mechanism that enables us to avoid any struggle with sin. Indeed, believers in the myth of faith view anyone struggling with sin to be lacking genuine faith. In contrast, the biblical model of faith assumes that we will struggle with sin. Although the Bible never condones sin, it presents our struggle with sin as a normal part of the believer’s life. While God is transforming us, sin may not indicate our lack of faith after all, but rather be visible evidence of sanctification in our lives.

There are two major problems with the myth of faith. First, the myth that faith in Jesus will magically empower us to overcome sin seduces us into believing that sin is not a big problem. It is excruciating to face the truth that we are morally broken. We do not want to believe that this disease of our will called “sin” is beyond our ability to manage. A stunning example of this appeared recently in the nightly news. At her press conference, Debra LaFave, the Florida teacher who confessed to sexually assaulting her fourteen-year-old student, described herself as a “good Christian woman” and “basically a good person.” As Ms. LaFave demonstrated, we all want to believe that we are basically good people, despite the reality of our sinful choices.

The second problem with the myth of faith is that it gives us a false sense of power. Like the popular character Harry Potter, who confronts the evil powers of the sinister Lord Voldemort with his magic wand, we perceive that we have a magic wand called “faith” to wave over sin. But while Harry could overcome the power of evil and win the day by increasing the intensity of his feelings and focusing his energy through his magic wand, sin is a much more serious problem than can be overcome by intense feelings and focus—no matter how magical or powerful the feeling might seem.

God wants each of us to hear the message of the Bible: I, not someone else, am my own worst problem. We are not naturally prone to accept this truth. We are allergic to it. We are resistant and hardened to it. This is the natural state of human beings that the biblical authors describe.

If we are blessed, however, God will mercifully intervene in our lives. He will mark us as His own by miraculously and dramatically opening our minds and hearts to the truth. He does this so that we might hear the truth, see the truth, and not turn our eyes away. By divine miracle, we find ourselves open to the truth speaking to us and teaching us. We come to be persuaded of the truth and become so personally committed to that truth that it affects the choices we strive to make. This is biblical faith.

Copyright June 2006 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Larry Barber