Thinking Well, Pt 2: Do You Believe in Magic?

I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s. The days of 33’s and 45’s. These were the days when a hit record was actually something that you could hold in your hand. The Lovin’ Spoonful had a hit record back in 1965. I was a junior at Lafayette High School in Brooklyn, New York (just thought I’d throw in a plug for my Alma Mater). The title of the song was, “Do You Believe in Magic?” It wasn’t about the “hocus pocus” that we associate with magic. It was, well, “Do you believe in magic in a young girl’s heart? How the music can free her whenever it starts? And it’s magic when the music is groovy it makes you feel happy like an old-time movie.” It wasn’t about the dark arts of prestidigitation. It was a reference to the impact of music on the feelings of a young heart.

When I came into God’s Church twelve years later, I learned quickly that magic was no laughing matter. Tradition has it, Simon Magus was a prestidigitator “par excellence.” So much so, he was declared to be a god by his followers. We don’t know to what degree he was “gifted” by the spirits of darkness, but he had quite a following. However, I am not referring to the sorcery of Simon Magus nor to the sleight of hand we see exhibited at birthday parties and on the Las Vegas stage. It is the kind of magic that influences many in God’s Church. Maybe even you. It’s called “magical thinking.

In this series about “thinking well,” magical thinking is of great import. Its importance rests in the fact that it is widespread and yet goes unrecognized by many. In my years in the Church, I have witnessed it over and over again. It is insidious. It works in a hidden and usually injurious way. We must identify it and bring it under the control of a mind that is always moving towards thinking well.

Magical Thinking: Definition & History

There is quite a bit of literature on the subject. The field of psychology – from its inception – has been focused on magical thinking. Magical thinking is the belief that one’s ideas, thoughts, actions, words, or use of symbols can literally change things in the material world. Psychologists view magical thinking as a primary process, the kind of thought process that is typically found in young children. As we mature, we progress out of this primary process to a secondary process. We move out of the fanciful to the rational and scientific. Examples include beliefs that the movement of the Sun and the Moon can be influenced by one’s thoughts and that many buildings don’t have a 13th floor because the number is believed to be “unlucky.” Magical thinking is the remnant of a childlike mind. It sees connections where there are none. The rise of anthropology and sociology in the 19th century brought an even greater focus to the issue of magical thinking. It became tied to religion and primitive cultures and considered inferior to the scientific reasoning found in more advanced Western societies. So, there was a strong connection made between magical thinking and religious practices.

Today, we live in a society where people light candles, pray to statues, and use “holy” water. They create fairy tales involving Santa Claus and the Easter bunny. Is it any wonder that those who base their confidence in rational, scientific thought think that religion is a remnant of childlike thinking? Yet religion is not the exclusive theater of operations for magical thinkers. The secular world has its share of this phenomenon: knocking on wood, not walking under ladders, and the reliance upon lucky numbers. My father bet daily for over 30 years on his lucky number, never winning anything, until one Sunday morning. He woke me early to escort him to collect his substantial winnings. While the winnings were significant, they didn’t make up for the money wasted on decades of “playing the numbers.” However, no one could suggest that the winnings were the result of anything other than his lucky number. He continued to play that number for many years after winning. He never won another penny.

Finding motivation in coincidence

A belief that life’s events are not random but deeply ordered gives people the feeling that everything happens for a reason. It places confidence in ritual: doing a series of things in the same order to ensure success. For example, the athlete who wears the same pair of socks for every game, refusing to wash them until he loses; the sales representative who wears a “lucky” suit to an important meeting; or the baseball pitcher who touches his cap and adjusts his glove the same way before every pitch.

I can hear everyone saying, “That’s not me. I don’t put any trust in these occurrences or rituals.” Have you ever heard someone in God’s Church say: “I know God wants me to do this;” “I know God inspired me to speak the way I did;” or “I know God wants me to quit my job”? Have you ever told yourself, “It is not a coincidence that these two things happened at the same time; God’s hand was in this”? Do you believe that there are no coincidences in life? That everything happens for a reason? If so, how do you reconcile that with the following scripture?

Ecc 9:11: I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the mighty, nor even bread to the wise, nor even riches to men of understanding, nor even favour to men of knowledge – for time and chance meets with them all.

We indulge in magical thinking when we attribute all positive occurrences to God’s favor or when we attribute all difficulties as God’s displeasure. If something positive happens, we think, “My life is pleasing to God. He is blessing me.” If things go wrong, it is God’s punishment or Satan’s influence. This is magical thinking; it’s pervasive and causes injury. This approach prevents us from considering all the possible causes, many of which rest on our own shoulders. It is a way of thinking that presumes we had little to say about the outcome. Is it not possible that what occurred was the result of coincidence, time and chance? All things work together for good, even time and chance occurrences, if we learn from them.

Magical thinking in the Church of God

Over the years, I have spoken to many who can’t figure out why God punishes them on such a regular basis. “What have I done to deserve having these problems occur over and over in my life?” Yet, as an observer, I can often see it has been poor decision making and self-indulgence that nurtures the circumstances that led to these problems. Some come to a crucial decision in their lives. They are met with opposition from others. The wise counsel suggests not taking the action that the individual has chosen. The person then “goes to God” in fasting and prayer. This is a good thing, right? Not when we use them as mere rituals to seek confirmation of our preferred choice.

During all my days in the Church, I have never heard someone say that fasting and prayer led them to not follow through on their determined course of action. Fasting and prayer only confirmed their choice was right. When asked how they came to such an important decision, in the face of wise counsel against their desired action, the answer is, “I fasted and prayed about it.” Well, you can’t argue with fasting and prayer! It works every time! I have earnestly asked to know what came out of the prayer and fasting that was so affirming of their decision. It is always strong feelings based on vague reasonings that encouraged them to act.

We should fast and pray before we make a decision. All the possibilities should be brought before God. Our prayer should be for a humble attitude to be able to see where we are wrong. If we have done our due diligence, gathered the information needed, sought wise council, and taken serious consideration of the council before making our decision, we are on solid ground. Even if the decision was not the best of all the possible choices, it may very well still receive a blessing.

How can we stop thinking magically?

Magical thinking remains a subtle obstacle to making good decisions. But the more we observe ourselves, the more we can reduce our tendency to indulge in it. Consciously identifying your wrong desires and biases is a good start. Write them down. Try to identify their cause. Work to free yourself from them to the best of your ability. Demand proof, even when things seem obvious. Try to remain intellectually “agnostic” toward what hasn’t been proven or isn’t provable, even if you find yourself emotionally inclined to believe it. This approach will aid you in not acting with more confidence in your belief than is justified. Don’t allow others to think for you. We all tend to cling to the things we believe and the reasoning that leads us to believe them.

We must also learn that making a bad decision is not inherently a sin (unless of course it is contrary to God’s Law). If the decision is the result of our exercise of free will, God more often than not will aide us with any difficulty, regardless of whether it was His direct intervention or not. But we must always be willing to admit when we are wrong and learn from hardship or failure.

The difference between magic and faith

Heb 11:1 (ISV): Now faith is the assurance that what we hope for will come about and the certainty that what we cannot see exists. 

Faith is based on belief in the truth. It is grounded in clear promises revealed in the Word of God. As we study and meditate on God’s Word, we become more intimately aware of the extent and certainty of those promises. We courageously move forward with our lives knowing that these promises have been, are now, and will continue to be bestowed upon us and God’s People. Our decisions are based on this certainty, this gift of faith. There is no question about the source of this faith. We stand in the faith OF Christ.

Magical thinking has no relation to the truth. It is not a show of faith but has roots in superstition, wishful thinking, and a need to establish our own desires. Often magical thinking is a crutch we use to justify a course an action that we have chosen in spite of sound logic and counsel to the contrary. It is motivated by self-will not free will; a will enslaved to personal needs, desires, and feelings; and pushes us to seek justification outside of sound biblical principles. Many rationalize this behavior by using biblical trappings to hide a crumbling foundation. Fasting, prayer, meditation, council, and study become mere ritual when we approach them with a deep-seated desire to establish our own will.

This type of decision making is not founded in the certainty of biblical faith but in the uncertainty of coincidence, superstition, and legalism. It strips the heart out of sublime biblical teaching, replacing it with a deceptive desire to establish the self. Remember what I said earlier in this blog: magical thinking is a process that is typically found in young children. As we mature, we leave the imaginary behind in exchange for what is real. The apostle Paul new about magical thinking and gave clear instructions about what we should do.

What better way to close this blog?

1Co 13:11 – When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 

Sounds like good advice to me!