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GENUINE FAITH VERSUS DECEPTIVE MAGIC
by bruno sebrechts
3/16/2021 / Bible Studies
Unfounded faith only leads to confusion. Even demons have some kind of faith, but obviously no saving faith (Jas 2:19). In 1 Corinthians 13:1, Paul compares impressive faith experiences, devoid of love, to sounding brass and a clanging cymbal, both used in pagan cultic rituals and processions in Paul’s days, to demand the attention of their gods. So, when faith, gifts, or signs become ends in themselves, they are no better than magic. Even faith that leads to miracles can be worthless, for faith without proper works means nothing (see 1 Cor 13:2; Jas 2:26).
In Acts 8, a sorcerer named Simon fully believed in miracles (he was even baptized) but his heart was full of darkness. Only faith that includes the cleansing of the heart pleases God (Acts 15:9).
Biblical faith is based on the revelation and will of God. While we may respond to God's general revelation with general faith, specific faith is a response to God’s specific will. A sick person, for example, can generally believe that ultimately God will make all things new, including his sick body (Rev 21:5; Phil 3:21). But God is also at work here and now. He could know by specific revelation that God is willing to release him into healing at a certain moment (Acts 4:30; 14:9).
Throughout Scripture, God's miracles always have a primary cause—God’s intervention—but there is often also a secondary instrumental cause of human prayers and/or personal acts of faith. When Peter saw Jesus walking on the water, he asked for a commission to walk to him. Jesus’ specific command enabled Peter to do it, as long as he kept his faith by focusing on Jesus (Matt 14:28-31).
Paul links faith with obedience (Rom 1:5; 16:26). When God commanded Moses to stretch out his staff over the Red Sea, his faith was evidenced by his obedience. Moses’ act was successful because he was mandated, even if he could have some inner hesitation or doubt. But if he had tried to do such things without God’s mandate, even a full inner assurance would be to no avail.
Faith can bring deliverance from danger or safety in the midst of the danger. The faith of young believers faces different challenges from that of more mature Christians. The first may worry whether God can deliver from difficulties. Though mature believers may realize God’s ability to deliver, their challenge may be to trust God’s wisdom anyway (see Hab 3:17–18).
In an example from the workplace, a job applicant’s total belief in the prospective employer may convince the interviewer to give him the job. But if a longer-term employee’s performance begins to slacken, the boss will not be impressed by any claims to still have full faith in the company; the boss will expect such a faith to be translated into dedication.
Easily digested milk is for babies, but solid food is for adults (Heb 5:13–14). Jesus’ disciples first saw his glory in the miracle of wine at a wedding in Cana. Yet, in the end, many of them would glorify God through suffering and martyrdom (John 21:19).
In Luke 22:51, Jesus healed the severe injury of Malchus who arrested him. But after his resurrection, Jesus did not prevent Stephen’s death by injuries, nor did he make the natural healing process unnecessary for the injuries of Paul and Silas at Philippi (Acts 7:29; 16:33). Whatever the reason for these differences, there is no indication it was because of Malchus’ strong faith versus a lack of faith of the latter.
Genuine Faith is God-Centered
God fulfills his promises according to his wisdom. The promise to Abraham (to be a blessing for all nations) was not his own invention, to come true by his own faith efforts. It originated with God, and Abraham believed him. Other great examples of faith include Moses, Joshua, David, and Elijah, whose faith and prayers were not ways of achieving personal aims, but means of relying on God's faithfulness and wisdom. And even armed with specific guidance, they had to await God’s timing for the fulfillment—just as we should today.
Biblical faith reassures that God will intervene as we trust him, and leaves how he will intervene up to him (Heb 11:32–38). To claim God's promises, we should seek his kingdom—his rule—first (Mat 6:33). Genuine faith is not merely about self-interest. It even provides the strength to set selfish dreams aside, while inspiring us to long for God’s rule.
Serving God or Using God?
In the early church, magic and sorcery were seen as demonic signs. It was motivated by self-interest; not "thy will be done,” but "my will be done". Its supporters did not question the source of the supernatural power, as long as the desired results were achieved. Pagans put those who performed it on a pedestal.
In Galatians 5:20, Paul called on believers to break with sorcery, or to avoid using spiritual means to manipulate or control. Genuine faith is a fruit of God's Spirit (Gal 5:22), as opposed to a kind of faith that springs from, and is carried by, human passion and selfishness (i.e., Spirit versus flesh).
The major difference between magic and genuine faith is the practitioner’s attitude and claims to activate or channel special powers, often through ritual connections. Genuine faith can also include rituals such as baptism, communion, and anointing with oil. But unlike the magicians’ disinterest in the source of their power, our faith charges us to expect everything from the Holy Spirit. Early Christianity was alert to this and recognized the danger of counterfeit miracles in their midst. Church father Origen noted that the difference between Christ and magicians was that the works of the latter did not include a call to moral transformation, or to live in light of God’s judgment.
Since rituals or outward actions are not essentially magic, we must keep in mind the fundamental differences. Second Kings 5:11 notes Naaman’s objection to bathing seven times in the Jordan to be healed of leprosy, for he had expected some ritual or laying on of hands. But God had something else in mind, and Naaman got a lesson in humility.
Jesus’ miracles honored the Father. His miracles reflected his moral teachings and his coming kingdom—which should apply to all rituals. Water baptism is not a technique to activate power; it is an act which 1 Peter 3:21 describes as an answer of a good conscience toward God. Participating in communion is to remind us of Jesus’ sufferings rather than to fulfill personal objectives. Being anointed with oil by the elders has to do with the prayer of faith and the confession of sins (Jas 5:14). And the bleeding woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment was healed, not just because of touching the hem. Luke mentions her faith as the explanation for the miracle (Luke 8:48).
The sign of the cross and the picture of a fish were acceptable signs in the early church, as long as they merely represented a confession. Fixating on methods can draw us toward superstitious rituals. Even the use of Jesus’ name can become an empty ritual (Acts 19:13). Expelling demons in his name should be done in trusting Jesus to act as we intervene according to his will.
For protection against evil spirits, Jewish exorcists wore belt-boxes containing texts from the Torah. During the first centuries, a similar mixture of magic and faith crept into the church, despite that Jesus did not use rituals in delivering demonized people. This should alert us to test all church history practices in light of Scripture.
Irenaeus, another church father, complained about enchanters who tried to gain power over demons, and wrote that the true casting out of demons should be done “with selfless motives, in the power of God and in light of truth.” Other leaders agreed that authentic deliverances never resulted from mere formulas, but only when Jesus Christ’s power confronted the demons, affirming that he himself was still present and still ministering. Short-term effects were not decisive. Athanasius (296–373) mentioned that while non-Christians may exorcise demons, only Christians could thoroughly banish them. In light of the preceding points, we may formulate the main characteristics of insidious forms of magic.
Faith contaminated by magical thinking:
- strongly emphasizes own desires,
- engenders superficial feelings of emotional enthusiasm,
- offers prayers that are biased, demanding, and flippant,
- is centered on self-empowerment,
- emphasizes the thrill of the moment,
- places the spotlight on the “gift(s)” or titles of those who minister,
- creates a continuing dependence on people with prominent gifts or ministries,
- strives for reproducible methods,
- emphasizes symbolic acts, superstitions, and suggests special meanings of signs and events,
- makes associations between natural and spiritual events, based on personal impressions,
- is maintained by human techniques (marketing, puffed up testimonies),
- is often accompanied by greed and love of money,
- produces effects that do not relate to any sanctifying influence,
- is intolerant of reasonable criticism,
- nourishes pride,
- is desired as a tool for power.
Conversely, authentic faith has following characteristics:
- Its central theme is to seek God’s will and obey his word,
- It recognizes the nature of sin, seeks sanctification (see Num 20:12),
- Prayers are balanced, not just claiming or demanding,
- It is conscious that all genuine spiritual power belongs to the Holy Spirit,
- It focuses on long-term results,
- The minister prefers to remain in the background to allow God to get all the glory,
- It acknowledges God, as revealed in the Bible, as the only source,
- No fixed methods; sole dependence on the living God,
- Jesus Christ, the only Deliverer,
- Jesus’ death and resurrection is the only way of salvation,
- It expresses serenity; God's Spirit is more important than publicity,
- It does not put much emphasis on money; recognizes greed as evil,
- It promotes the worshipping of God in awe,
- It is confirmed by the deep peace of God,
- It is open for review and helpful criticism,
- It nourishes humility,
- It educates us to trust a powerful God.
“Believe … You Shall Have”
Does Mark 11:24 come close to magic and self-interest: “Therefore, I tell you, all things whatever you pray and ask for, believe that you receive them, and you shall have them”?
The context is not concerned with the fulfillment of every personal desire, but with the right personal and communal attitude in prayer. Quoting from Jeremiah, Jesus had just driven the money changers from the temple: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations. But you have made it a den of robbers!” (Mark 11:17). The context of Jeremiah was a temple filled with worshippers who still trusted their own idols and cherished all kind of evil desires (Jer 7:11).
The next day, the disciples saw that a figless fig tree Jesus had cursed shortly before had “withered away from the roots” (v. 20). Then Peter asks Jesus’ about it. How can they approach God with peace of mind after Jesus had acted so fiercely in the temple and then withered the fig tree? In the context of Jeremiah’s temple account, a figless fig tree was an image of God’s people ripe for judgement and no longer privileged to get answered prayers (Jer. 8:13-15; 11:11,16; 14:12; 15:1).
In his reply, Jesus admonished them to have a correct attitude of faith. “Have faith in God” (11:22) —not faith in egocentric religious practices, nor in the power of their faith, but faith in God and his will; or more literally, “have the faith of God” (YLT); or freely translated, “have the kind of trust that comes from God” (CJB). The fig tree was withered “from its roots” to show that God’s people can only be blessed when the hidden roots of their spiritual lives are healthy.
Jesus then explains that faith that genuinely originates from God can move mountains, which was an Old Testament metaphor for overcoming huge obstacles on the way to destiny (Isa 40:4). To be sustained and to prevail, faith must align with the character and will of God. His answer may or may not agree with our personal expectations. The original Greek “all things whatever you pray and ask for, believe that you receive (them), and you shall have (them)” does not include the pronoun “them”, and the pronouns “you” are plural. These verses challenge us to expect a divine answer for any intentional prayer offered in unity and in mutual forgiveness (vs 25-26). However, God can surpass or go against our specific expectations because he knows what is best. His answer may be “yes, no, or wait.” He invites us to boldly pray in the “house of prayer”, but if it is all about self-interest, the house becomes a “den of robbers.” Prayer is not an opportunity to fulfill financial greed, as it was with the money changers, nor to appease egoistic self-interests, as it was with the contemporaries of Jeremiah. Prayer is an opportunity to get God’s help to overcome enormous obstacles in fulfilling our mission, and that should be the intention of genuine faith. If the Christian community adopts such an attitude, they can pray for “anything,” and they will get God’s answer.
In Acts 19, healings and deliverances related to Paul’s handkerchiefs and aprons may raise questions, for evil spirits left after contact with these objects. Yet, it underscores God's omnipotence and sovereignty to use any means that he chooses. Paul and the other apostles never adopted this as a normal deliverance method, despite ancient myths that claimed a person’s clothes could transmit his power. The Bible records several occasions when clothes were used in special ways, but also emphasizes that faith in God was behind it (2 Kgs 2:8; Mark 6:56; Luke 8:44).
By using Paul’s clothes, God showed the Ephesians his superiority against their sorceries. In a superstitious environment where pagans claimed special powers related to enchanted objects, God used unenchanted, everyday items with phenomenal results, just as he did when Aaron met Pharaoh. Aaron turned his staff into a snake, and Pharaoh’s magicians did the very same thing, but Aaron’s snake then swallowed those of the magicians. And consider Elijah in his conflict with the priests of Baal. Their god was “specialized” in fertility, rain, and lightning, but God showed his supremacy, even over their domain.
Text is available in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, Chinese, Russian, Arabic and Farsi.
For a general treatment of the theme of spiritual deliverance, see
"Light In Our Darkness, Essentials of Spiritual Deliverance" – Bruno Sebrechts.
Humble Joy Publishing ISBN 9789083136400.
Spanish Edition ISBN 9789083136417
Bruno Sebrechts is a counselor and Bible teacher with over twenty-five years of pastoral experience. He saw God at work, especially in the healing and deliverance of the most damaged believers. His writings are the result of his extensive experience and continuous study. www.LightInOurDarkness.net
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