A Doe Set Free

The genesis of this post (pun intended, given the subject matter) was actually several years ago in a conversation with a good friend.

In the course of our conversation, he shared that in one of the discipleship programs he’d been a part of, they’d had some teaching on identity and the twelve tribes of Israel. He could explain it better than I, but from what I recall the gist of it was how each of the tribes had its own identity, which was revealed through the tribal blessings given by Jacob and Moses. They each had their place in the camp of God’s people, each had their name and their marching order. And just like that, we each have a God-given identity and purpose that may not be the same as someone else’s. There are different “tribes” within the people of God, and that’s ok.

Since the Bible says that Gentiles are grafted into Israel, the teacher had them each get alone with God and ask Him which of the tribes He was grafting them into. My friend’s was Asher, as I recall.

It’s not important enough to make a big deal out of (“what’s your tribe? If you don’t know, you’re missing out on God’s blessing!”), but this sort of thing appeals to me and I wanted one too. So I prayed and asked God what tribe He wanted to put me in, and to my surprise, what I believe I heard was the tribe of Naphtali.

It seemed an odd choice, especially as I began to study the tribal blessings, their history, their place in the camp. Some parts of it I liked immediately, but a lot of it was almost offensive to me. Kind of weak. Wimpy. Not very forward-looking. This is no identity for a man!

But the more I’ve looked, studied and meditated around it, the more truly fitting I find it is.

What a surprise; God knows what He’s doing.

Anyway, I thought I might share some of what I’ve found.

Naphtali was the second son of Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah, and his name means “my struggle”. Rachel named him, saying that “I have fought a great struggle against my sister, and I have won”.

Not the most promising of identities. A name tied up with that ridiculous baby war between Rachel and Leah. Familial strife; Bronze Age version.

But in many cases, God imbues the rather messily-named tribal ancestors’ names with Divine prophetic import; could this also be true of Naphtali?

His name, as I have said, means “my struggle”, and was associated by the mother who named him with victory therein.

Victorious struggle? Now we’re talking!

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, sometimes I feel like I have the soul of a MediƦval knight trapped in the body and mind of a 21st-Century nerd. A large part of my identity, bedrock-deep, is as a warrior, and this God-given tribal identity of Naphtali affirms that as a Divine imprint, not an accident.

The imprint is one of victory, too. To channel my nerd side and quote the sci-fi TV show Babylon 5: “No hopeless struggle against ancient and terrible forces; we were the good guys and they were the bad guys. And they made a very satisfying thump when they hit the ground.”

Silly, perhaps, but it’s an important point. This isn’t some Viking-style valiant last stand in which everyone dies. There is the real possibility of victory. God is, after all, for us. In Him, I may be stronger than I think, and wiser than I know.

The first of the blessings isn’t all that promising either, at first glance: “Naphtali is a doe set free, that bears beautiful fawns” (or possibly “that speaks beautiful words”). Really, God? A doe? Couldn’t it at least be a stag? Something a bit more masculine and warrior-like?

Nope. It’s a doe. A deer. A female deer.

Gazelles and antelopes have horns. Stags have antlers. But a doe is defenceless.

And as I’ve thought and ruminated on it, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s something rather apt about the apparent harmlessness of a doe. You see, for all my warrior self-image, I don’t actually go out of my way to look for conflict. I avoid it if possible; I’ll fight if I have to, but I’m not looking for one. Even my stance on the bearing of arms is doe-like: unarmed by choice. My Defender is the One with the antlers.

A doe is a shy, retiring creature of the forest’s shadows. This seems appropriate to a tribe that’s in the background a lot. They don’t have a lot of time in the limelight; they’re not the visible ones like the Levites and the kings from Judah. The one Biblical hero from the tribe of Naphtali, Barak son of Ahinoam, gets told that “the honour will not be yours, for the LORD will hand Sisera over to a woman”, and he seems ok with that.

It’s very doe-like. Shy, almost.

There’s an identity here of humility, of shunning the limelight, not thrusting oneself forward, letting the glory go where it may so long as the LORD’s will is done.

I can work with that. More importantly, God can work with that.

Does, too, are swift and have an amazing leaping ability. Not to blow my own trumpet or anything, but I have a pretty swift mind and the ability to “jump” ideas from one area into another. I make weird connections. I do languages; “jumping” fairly easily into the strange sounds of a foreign tongue. Again, doe-like.

Ok, God; I’m beginning to get it.

But that “bearing beautiful fawns” business? “Speaking beautiful words” is somewhat better; as I said, I do languages. I write poetry. I write stories sometimes. I blog. Being a wordsmith is apparently Naphtaline.

But “bearing beautiful fawns” is in the NIV’s main text. As a man, it’s… motherly and feminine-seeming. Not obviously masculine as conventionally understood.

However, it’s one of my pet peeves that the way our culture sometimes defines “masculine” expectations isn’t very helpful. We miss out, and our children miss out, when we relegate child-care exclusively to women, for example. There’s a nurturing aspect to proper masculinity which we seldom see in these days; we’re too busy with our bravado and machismo and that stupid man-card nonsense. Being a man and a father is much more vital and relational than we often make it, and in a culture that has fallen for a whole pack of lies about what manhood is, perhaps it takes a man who is a doe to understand this.

The second blessing, the one in Deuteronomy, is on the face of it far more immediately pleasant, but strangely, it’s this that it’s taken me longest to really get a handle on:

“Naphtali is abounding with the favour of the LORD and is full of His blessing. He will inherit southward to the lake”.

Yeah! Finally something good!

And then you dig a little deeper, and you begin to wonder. Really? Is that really… me?

Does “abounding with the favour of the LORD and full of His blessing” really characterise my life?

Well, yes, actually.

Even as I write, this feels like boasting, but it’s not. None of it is my own doing, after all. I have a wonderful wife who may be even smarter than I am and is certainly better to look at, three lovely children (here’s that doe-like familial nurturing side coming out), I have a home, a job, a church. I live in a place where I can follow Jesus without getting thrown into prison for it. I’m smart, gifted at languages, I have many talents. My family isn’t in debt. Full of His blessing sounds like a fair description.

And why?

The favour of the LORD. “Favour” in the Bible is the same word as “grace”; it’s not something I merited or earned, but because God is gracious. I’ve focused a lot in this blog on grace and works; perhaps this might explain why. Naphtali is abounding with the favour of the LORD.

Graciousness is also something I strive for in my dealings with others. Generosity of spirit; largesse, courtesy and giving the benefit of the doubt. It’s perhaps another expression of the Naphtaline “abounding with the grace of the LORD”.

“He will inherit southward to the lake” I’m still less certain about, but that’s ok. Even the NASB’s rendering of it as “Take possession of the sea and the south” is still unclear as to how, or whether, it actually means anything personally. So much of the rest of the tribal identity I find meaning and resonance in that I’m reluctant to write it off, but on the other hand, this is Bible application not fortune-telling.

Naphtali’s place in the tribal camp of the people of Israel in the wilderness was on the north side of the Tabernacle, in the division of Dan. They camped and marched under the serpent standard of the tribe of Dan, and in setting out to march, it was the division of Dan which set off last, and Naphtali last of all.

Again, this is uncomfortable reading. I’ve heard people connect the marching order of the tribes with the idea of heart-willingness to follow God’s leading: “Don’t be like the tribe of Dan. Be swift to set out to go where God is leading”. The idea that I’m the last of the last in that isn’t a good one.

And a serpent standard? The animal representing Satan in the Garden? Eek.

Let’s deal with the serpent first, shall we?

The tribe of Dan’s emblem is a serpent the way Naphtali’s is a doe. It’s connected with the tribal blessing in Genesis 49. “Dan” means “He has judged”, or “He has vindicated”; the name expresses the Divine characteristic of justice, and the serpent emblem may remind us that justice plays no favourites but bites everyone equally.

Being someone with a deep concern to see justice done, I can live with being part of the camp of Dan.

Then, too, the serpent in the Garden of Eden isn’t the only serpent in the Bible. There was also the bronze serpent on a pole, lifted up in the wilderness so that those afflicted by snake bites could look on it and be healed. And Jesus likened Himself to this serpent, so even Jesus isn’t afraid to use snake imagery for righteousness at times. In the Middle Ages, Jesus was even occasionally referred to as “the Good Serpent” in reference to this.

Maybe there’s something here speaking to my love of the oddball, the unexpected image, the weird way of looking at things. I’ll find expressions of God’s goodness and truth in unlikely places. Even a snake.

Then, too, in the ancient world snakes were associated with wisdom. The prophet Daniel (whose name includes the same “Dan” element that the tribe is named after) had wisdom from God to interpret the king’s dream; and was deemed wiser than the king’s wise men. So maybe a snake isn’t so bad after all.

And the “last of the last” business. When the people of Israel broke camp, the division of Dan set off last, and Naphtali last of all. And though some preachers may connect the tribal marching order with willingness to follow the LORD, it’s something God Himself never does. He never turns to the division of Dan and says “and because you’re so wishy-washy, you have to go at the back”.

Given the tribe of Dan’s association with Divine justice, I’ve begun to wonder whether this position at the tail end of everything isn’t connected to God’s self-declaration to Moses in Exodus 34, in which justice (“Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished…”) is the last-mentioned of God’s attributes. Grace, mercy and forgiveness lead the way; justice follows. This is right. The camp of Justice ought to set off last.

The other main aspect of this tail-end position that I want to mention is something that understanding of which I owe to my wife’s Texan perspective and knowledge of the world of cattle ranching:

Naphtali are the eaters of everyone else’s trail dust.

All of the rest have already gone ahead, with their sheep and cattle and donkeys and people raising such clouds of dust as to probably blot out the pillar of fire and cloud. At the rear end of the trail, all you can see is the rear ends of those in front of you, and the great dust-cloud that says “the people of God passed this way”. You get occasional glimpses of the pillar of God way off in the distance, but mostly it’s just dust.

And this is my place: with the eaters of trail dust. I’ll put up with huge amounts of metaphorical trail dust if I know I’m following the LORD. Inconveniences, uncomfortable circumstances, stuff that would set an Issachar or a Levite screaming – to me it’s all part and parcel of following. The price of faith, and it’s worth paying, because even Naphtalis are following the same LORD as the other tribes. We camp around the same Tabernacle, and God is far less interested in when you get there than in whether.

There’s one other time the tribe of Naphtali is mentioned, of course. We hear it every Christmas: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea; Galilee of the Gentiles… The people walking in darkness have seen a great light, and on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.”

It can get pretty dark down here in the trail dust of everyone else. But we’re by no means dishonoured or forgotten by God. It was the land of Naphtali that God Himself came and lived in, taking the low place, at the end of the line. The humble King, down and dirty in the trail dust along with even the last of us all.

So this is “my” tribe. Naphtali. A doe set free. Abounding with grace and blessing. Eaters of trail dust. Followers of the Lord.

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O Families of Nations

My regular Bible readings took me to Psalm 96 yesterday.

It’s a fairly familiar Psalm, beginning “Sing to the LORD a new song”. And the thing about fairly familiar passages is that they are easy to gloss over. If we’ve been following Jesus for any length of time, we can have a tendency to read them almost by rote, not really taking it in but just letting the words wash over us.

What struck me today about the passage was its evangelistic, missionary emphasis.

We can tend to think that in the Old Testament, God is exclusively concerned with Israel. They are the people with whom He has made a Covenant. They are the people He calls His own. They are the nation of faith. All the stories of Joshua, Gideon, King David, Elisha and the rest are all stories of God fighting against the evil pagans who are attacking His people.

Right?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, God is certainly concerned to maintain His Covenant with His people. Even when they are faithless, He remains faithful.

So He’s going to defend them. He has a purpose and plan for them that is not served by their destruction. More, He genuinely loves them and wants their good.

But it never has been solely about Israel. They were and remain God’s chosen people, but chosen for what purpose?

Chosen so that through them God might display His glory to the world.

Abraham was blessed as the father of many nations, ancestor of Israel and father to the nation of faith. But the corollary of that was always that “through you all the nations of the earth will be blessed”.

Psalm 96 makes it clear that God wants the praise not just of His Covenant people, but of all peoples. “The gods of the nations are idols, but YHWH made the heavens” is basically evangelistic in tone. Turn away from these worthless things that you have been serving! There is a real, Living God that made the heavens and can actually do something to help you!

“Ascribe to the LORD, o families of nations/Ascribe to the LORD glory and strength/Ascribe to the LORD the glory due to His name” continues the theme. Giving glory to the LORD is right not just for Israel, not just for His Covenant people whether Old or New, but for all the earth and its families of nations. He made the whole world; He has a right to the praise of the whole world. More, “the gods of the nations are idols”, and ascribing God’s majesty and attributes to a created thing is enslaving yourself to a lie.

It doesn’t much matter if that created thing is money, sex, power, the stars and planets, a carved block of wood or a human philosophy or ideology, it’s a made thing, not a Maker. And when you attribute to it that which is rightfully God’s, that’s the point at which it becomes an idol.

And the passage goes on even more remarkably: “Bring an offering, and come into His courts”. This is, of course, a reference to the Temple worship in Jerusalem.

Under the Law of Moses, Gentiles were forbidden from coming into the Temple beyond the outer court, known as “the court of the Gentiles”. They could observe and listen, but they were outside the Covenant and barred from participation unless they became a Jew by being circumcised and obeying the Law of Moses. “Bring an offering and come into His courts” is especially shocking because it follows on from “Ascribe to the LORD, o families of nations”. In Hebrew, the words “nations” and “Gentiles” are the same, so the sense is pretty clear. Here is King David, prophetically reaching forward to a time when Gentiles will no longer be barred from the worship of God. A time when the invitation to “bring an offering and come into His courts” is for everyone, not just a chosen few.

Part of what the Cross does is open doors and destroy barriers. The sacrificial death of Jesus opens the way for the Gentile, the outsider, to be brought all the way inside the promises of God. And what Psalm 96 helps to show is that this was always the plan. The Gentile Church wasn’t a surprise to God. It was already in the plan. It was the plan: no division any more, but one people worshipping one God.

We can see foreshadowings of it with the Egyptians who chose to go with Israel (ref), with Rahab (a Canaanite), Ruth (a Moabite), Bathsheba (probably a Hittite), Naaman (a Syrian) and others. All the nations of the world being blessed and coming to know God.

Magical Thinking: Do X Get Y (Retro Week)

This week is Retro Week on my blog. I’m reposting stuff from the archives.

This is today’s repost, from 15th March:


One of my pet peeves is what I call “Magical Thinking”. Most people aren’t going to be familiar with the term, since it’s one I more or less made up, so let me begin by defining what I mean.

The ancient pagan world was full of the idea of magic. Not the card-trick illusions of children’s parties, but the actual idea of magic. The thinking was that you could control the world around you, and particularly what happened to you, by deploying spiritual power through certain rituals.

If you wanted to have children, you made sacrifices to the appropriate god in the hope that they would reciprocate and do what you asked. If you needed an edge in business, you could write the name of your rival on a piece of lead and throw it into a stream or melt it with special incantations to bring about bad circumstances – a curse – for them. Alternatively, you could do other rituals to ward off other people’s curses and bring good luck.

Spiritual power was a commodity. Those considered to have it could sell their influence (quite literally) and make good money using their power on others’ behalf. The idea was that to get X to happen, there were certain rituals or practices you could do that would employ spiritual power to force it to occur.

While in some parts of the world this sort of thing is alive and well, we Westerners don’t have precisely this idea of magic in our culture. But we do have a lot of the thinking behind it.

At its base, Magical Thinking is mechanistic. If you do X, you get Y. It’s very cause-and-effect. Cause and effect is a vital part of our scientific understanding of the world, of course. Things obey the physical laws of the universe. If you throw an apple up in the air, gravity always makes it fall down again. If you strike the same ball in the same spot with the same amount of force in the same direction, you will always get the same result. A white light shone through a prism always diffracts into a rainbow in the same way. Plant wheat, and you do not get beans springing up. If you do X, you get Y. Always.

The difficulty comes when we try to apply this same mechanistic logic to human relationships and the spiritual world.

Mechanistic thinking applied to human personality and relationships is generally called Behaviourism. It’s the Pavlov’s dog idea. Apply stimulus A and result B always occurs. Therefore if result B has occurred, it must logically be because stimulus A was applied. On very basic levels it has some truth to it, but it’s mostly been discredited for higher levels of personality and relationship, so I don’t want to spend too much time on it. My basic objection to it is that it is completely deterministic and denies the idea of human free will. If stimulus A (let’s say, someone hitting me) happens to me, I do have a very real decision to make about what to do about it. I’m not a robot.

It’s even worse when you apply it to things spiritual.

The mechanistic “Do X get Y” reasoning can get us into all kinds of trouble.

Let’s take the subject of the tithe. If you listen to a lot of TV preachers (I shan’t bother to name them because new ones are always coming along), you get the idea that tithing is the key to God’s blessing. Taking out all of the hype, they espouse the notion that the link between tithing and blessings (usually material) is an absolute and automatic one. If you give to God, He will give back to you. If you don’t tithe, God will cause all your money to trickle away.

Tithing thus becomes the tool we use to push God’s “bless me with more stuff” button. It’s the same with the whole “word of faith” movement. “Sow your seed of faith” by giving to this or that ministry or whatever the current teaching is, and in due course God will reward you with whatever you have asked him for. Your “seed” of faith grows into what you have requested.

The problem is that in the process, God becomes a sort of vending machine. Put faith in and get a coke out. If you don’t get a coke out, you must have not put enough faith in, or put your faith in the wrong hole, or put it in backwards or something.

God is not a vending machine. He has a will and purposes of His own, and is not there merely to give us stuff.

Or we might look at fasting. This is another discipline of the spiritual life that so often gets misused or misunderstood. With the mechanistic “Do X get Y” mentality I call Magical Thinking, fasting becomes another tool to manipulate God into doing what we want.

“Look, God, I’m fasting. See how spiritual I am? Now you have to give me what I ask for, right?”

Wrong. Completely missing the point. Fasting isn’t some ritualistic exercise or work we do in order to force a reluctant God to bless us in the way we dictate. First of all, God is a loving Father. “Reluctant to bless” is about as far from His character as it’s possible to get. Second, we don’t get to dictate terms to God. Third, fasting is not about pushing God’s buttons in the right order to get a result. The discipline of fasting is far more about us than it is about God. Fasting serves as a very physical reminder for us of the seriousness of what we are doing: approaching the Lord of the Universe for wisdom or blessing. Denying ourselves one of the basic needs of our bodies serves both to underline our dependence on God to meet our needs, and to bring to the surface character issues we may need to work on. I don’t know about you, but I get snappish when I don’t eat. Denying myself food shows me where I still don’t fully have my temper under control, enabling me to work together with the Holy Spirit to bring His sweet influence to bear on my character.

It’s not about pushing God’s buttons; it’s about getting serious with Him about Who He is.

I’m probably going to offend quite a few people with what I say next, but I often wonder whether a lot of the attitude of many churches and Christ-followers toward Israel doesn’t stem as much from Magical Thinking as from anything else. Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t love the Jewish nation or that they aren’t the people God chose to make His everlasting Covenant with, but if you listen to some people you get the impression that God’s blessing is contingent on how we act toward the modern State of Israel. The result is an uneasy impression that the State of Israel can do no wrong and can never be called to account for anything lest we somehow forfeit God’s blessing by saying a mean word about the Jewish state.

Again, it seems too much like mechanistic thinking. Bless Israel, and you automatically get blessing, possibly no matter what the rest of your life is like. Or in contrast, live a life otherwise pleasing to the Lord and after His own heart but imply that the State of Israel may need to be called back to the Word of the Lord just like any other state and you forfeit the blessings of God.

Support for Israel shouldn’t be some fear-based thing we do so that God won’t judge us, but an expression of love for those He loves: the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Now that I’ve probably offended everyone, let’s go on to those Facebook posts that I loathe. You know the ones I mean. They generally have a prayer for God’s blessing on them along with a sentence like “Post this prayer on your wall and see what God will do”. As if the very act of posting on a social media site is what impels the hand of God to act.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it. This is, after all, probably my biggest pet peeve. But I can’t read one of those things without seeing it as a reduction of the awesome Lord of the Universe to the status of Genie of the Lamp.

Genies are the essence of Magical Thinking: rub the lamp and they must come to you. You get three wishes which they must grant. They are bound to it. They have no will in the process at all.

God is manifestly no genie. As CS Lewis says repeatedly of his Christ-figure Aslan: “He’s not a tame Lion.” He doesn’t come when you whistle. He doesn’t dance to your tune. He is not bound over to grant your three wishes whether or not they are good ones or fit His good, pleasing and perfect plans at all. He doesn’t wind Himself around your wrist like a charm bracelet. He is the King. You are the Subject.

I’ve recently been exposed to one of the traditional Anglican versions of the Book of Common Prayer. One of the things I find most refreshing about it is this idea running through it of God as Dread Sovereign, back from the days when kings had real power as well as authority and ruled as well as reigning. There comes across a very real sense that this isn’t Santa Claus; this isn’t a tame God you can keep in your pocket or a genie who exists to grant you wishes. This is not Someone you can take liberties with; this is the One who made the crocodile and the great white shark and called them good, who can split light and darkness with a word and who tells gravity which way Down is. He’s good, but He certainly isn’t safe.

God is not a genie who is bound to give us what we ask for if we rub His lamp the right way. He’s not a vending machine. He is the awesome King of the Universe, who has His own good plans and His own will. He blesses us not because we push His “bless” button but because He loves us and likes to bless us. In fact, He already has.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” we read in Ephesians 1:3, “who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.”

Notice that it’s past tense. He has already blessed us; we don’t have to try and manipulate Him into doing so. Then, too, He has blessed us “with every spiritual blessing” (emphasis mine). He didn’t leave one out to be conditional on our tithing or fasting or making vows of dedication or whatever. They’re all there. Where? “In Christ”. Our access to these blessings comes not from any magical-style ritual we perform or anything we do, but from our connection to Christ.

Faith is not magic. It’s not a mystical energy we expend to get God to do things for us. It’s not a commodity we possess to get God to like us. It’s an expression of trust in the invisible Lord of the Universe to be who He says He is, whether or not the circumstances look like it.

It isn’t magic, it’s relationship.

Magical Thinking: Do X Get Y

One of my pet peeves is what I call “Magical Thinking”. Most people aren’t going to be familiar with the term, since it’s one I more or less made up, so let me begin by defining what I mean.

The ancient pagan world was full of the idea of magic. Not the card-trick illusions of children’s parties, but the actual idea of magic. The thinking was that you could control the world around you, and particularly what happened to you, by deploying spiritual power through certain rituals.

If you wanted to have children, you made sacrifices to the appropriate god in the hope that they would reciprocate and do what you asked. If you needed an edge in business, you could write the name of your rival on a piece of lead and throw it into a stream or melt it with special incantations to bring about bad circumstances – a curse – for them. Alternatively, you could do other rituals to ward off other people’s curses and bring good luck.

Spiritual power was a commodity. Those considered to have it could sell their influence (quite literally) and make good money using their power on others’ behalf. The idea was that to get X to happen, there were certain rituals or practices you could do that would employ spiritual power to force it to occur.

While in some parts of the world this sort of thing is alive and well, we Westerners don’t have precisely this idea of magic in our culture. But we do have a lot of the thinking behind it.

At its base, Magical Thinking is mechanistic. If you do X, you get Y. It’s very cause-and-effect. Cause and effect is a vital part of our scientific understanding of the world, of course. Things obey the physical laws of the universe. If you throw an apple up in the air, gravity always makes it fall down again. If you strike the same ball in the same spot with the same amount of force in the same direction, you will always get the same result. A white light shone through a prism always diffracts into a rainbow in the same way. Plant wheat, and you do not get beans springing up. If you do X, you get Y. Always.

The difficulty comes when we try to apply this same mechanistic logic to human relationships and the spiritual world.

Mechanistic thinking applied to human personality and relationships is generally called Behaviourism. It’s the Pavlov’s dog idea. Apply stimulus A and result B always occurs. Therefore if result B has occurred, it must logically be because stimulus A was applied. On very basic levels it has some truth to it, but it’s mostly been discredited for higher levels of personality and relationship, so I don’t want to spend too much time on it. My basic objection to it is that it is completely deterministic and denies the idea of human free will. If stimulus A (let’s say, someone hitting me) happens to me, I do have a very real decision to make about what to do about it. I’m not a robot.

It’s even worse when you apply it to things spiritual.

The mechanistic “Do X get Y” reasoning can get us into all kinds of trouble.

Let’s take the subject of the tithe. If you listen to a lot of TV preachers (I shan’t bother to name them because new ones are always coming along), you get the idea that tithing is the key to God’s blessing. Taking out all of the hype, they espouse the notion that the link between tithing and blessings (usually material) is an absolute and automatic one. If you give to God, He will give back to you. If you don’t tithe, God will cause all your money to trickle away.

Tithing thus becomes the tool we use to push God’s “bless me with more stuff” button. It’s the same with the whole “word of faith” movement. “Sow your seed of faith” by giving to this or that ministry or whatever the current teaching is, and in due course God will reward you with whatever you have asked him for. Your “seed” of faith grows into what you have requested.

The problem is that in the process, God becomes a sort of vending machine. Put faith in and get a coke out. If you don’t get a coke out, you must have not put enough faith in, or put your faith in the wrong hole, or put it in backwards or something.

God is not a vending machine. He has a will and purposes of His own, and is not there merely to give us stuff.

Or we might look at fasting. This is another discipline of the spiritual life that so often gets misused or misunderstood. With the mechanistic “Do X get Y” mentality I call Magical Thinking, fasting becomes another tool to manipulate God into doing what we want.

“Look, God, I’m fasting. See how spiritual I am? Now you have to give me what I ask for, right?”

Wrong. Completely missing the point. Fasting isn’t some ritualistic exercise or work we do in order to force a reluctant God to bless us in the way we dictate. First of all, God is a loving Father. “Reluctant to bless” is about as far from His character as it’s possible to get. Second, we don’t get to dictate terms to God. Third, fasting is not about pushing God’s buttons in the right order to get a result. The discipline of fasting is far more about us than it is about God. Fasting serves as a very physical reminder for us of the seriousness of what we are doing: approaching the Lord of the Universe for wisdom or blessing. Denying ourselves one of the basic needs of our bodies serves both to underline our dependence on God to meet our needs, and to bring to the surface character issues we may need to work on. I don’t know about you, but I get snappish when I don’t eat. Denying myself food shows me where I still don’t fully have my temper under control, enabling me to work together with the Holy Spirit to bring His sweet influence to bear on my character.

It’s not about pushing God’s buttons; it’s about getting serious with Him about Who He is.

I’m probably going to offend quite a few people with what I say next, but I often wonder whether a lot of the attitude of many churches and Christ-followers toward Israel doesn’t stem as much from Magical Thinking as from anything else. Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t love the Jewish nation or that they aren’t the people God chose to make His everlasting Covenant with, but if you listen to some people you get the impression that God’s blessing is contingent on how we act toward the modern State of Israel. The result is an uneasy impression that the State of Israel can do no wrong and can never be called to account for anything lest we somehow forfeit God’s blessing by saying a mean word about the Jewish state.

Again, it seems too much like mechanistic thinking. Bless Israel, and you automatically get blessing, possibly no matter what the rest of your life is like. Or in contrast, live a life otherwise pleasing to the Lord and after His own heart but imply that the State of Israel may need to be called back to the Word of the Lord just like any other state and you forfeit the blessings of God.

Support for Israel shouldn’t be some fear-based thing we do so that God won’t judge us, but an expression of love for those He loves: the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Now that I’ve probably offended everyone, let’s go on to those Facebook posts that I loathe. You know the ones I mean. They generally have a prayer for God’s blessing on them along with a sentence like “Post this prayer on your wall and see what God will do”. As if the very act of posting on a social media site is what impels the hand of God to act.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it. This is, after all, probably my biggest pet peeve. But I can’t read one of those things without seeing it as a reduction of the awesome Lord of the Universe to the status of Genie of the Lamp.

Genies are the essence of Magical Thinking: rub the lamp and they must come to you. You get three wishes which they must grant. They are bound to it. They have no will in the process at all.

God is manifestly no genie. As CS Lewis says repeatedly of his Christ-figure Aslan: “He’s not a tame Lion.” He doesn’t come when you whistle. He doesn’t dance to your tune. He is not bound over to grant your three wishes whether or not they are good ones or fit His good, pleasing and perfect plans at all. He doesn’t wind Himself around your wrist like a charm bracelet. He is the King. You are the Subject.

I’ve recently been exposed to one of the traditional Anglican versions of the Book of Common Prayer. One of the things I find most refreshing about it is this idea running through it of God as Dread Sovereign, back from the days when kings had real power as well as authority and ruled as well as reigning. There comes across a very real sense that this isn’t Santa Claus; this isn’t a tame God you can keep in your pocket or a genie who exists to grant you wishes. This is not Someone you can take liberties with; this is the One who made the crocodile and the great white shark and called them good, who can split light and darkness with a word and who tells gravity which way Down is. He’s good, but He certainly isn’t safe.

God is not a genie who is bound to give us what we ask for if we rub His lamp the right way. He’s not a vending machine. He is the awesome King of the Universe, who has His own good plans and His own will. He blesses us not because we push His “bless” button but because He loves us and likes to bless us. In fact, He already has.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” we read in Ephesians 1:3, “who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.”

Notice that it’s past tense. He has already blessed us; we don’t have to try and manipulate Him into doing so. Then, too, He has blessed us “with every spiritual blessing” (emphasis mine). He didn’t leave one out to be conditional on our tithing or fasting or making vows of dedication or whatever. They’re all there. Where? “In Christ”. Our access to these blessings comes not from any magical-style ritual we perform or anything we do, but from our connection to Christ.

Faith is not magic. It’s not a mystical energy we expend to get God to do things for us. It’s not a commodity we possess to get God to like us. It’s an expression of trust in the invisible Lord of the Universe to be who He says He is, whether or not the circumstances look like it.

It isn’t magic, it’s relationship.