What are magic, science, and prayer? How do they differ? How do they work in our lives? How should they work? What can be do to make them work better?
Last Sunday my family and I watched The Hobbit, the latest movie from the writings of the great fantasy author JRR Tolkien, which also includes the Lord of the Rings series. It was a good show, bringing the audience through sadness, excitement, laughter, and the whole range of emotions. During my time of prayer and meditation this morning I considered some of the differences between science, prayer, and magic, as it is portrayed in The Hobbit and the Harry Potter series.
Magic, as it is popularly portrayed, is a means of using unseen powers, usually along with a bit of a physical material, a gesture and an incantation, to accomplish a specific end. In The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings series, the wizards Gandalf and Saruman mutter incantations at their enemies, and sometimes at each other. Dumbledore, Voldemort, and the other wizards do the same in Harry Potter. In the popular fantasy role playing game Dungeons and Dragons, the spell Darkvision, allowing the caster to see in the dark, requires him or her to speak a certain phrase, perform a specific gesture, and use a pinch of dried carrot to cast the spell. These fantasy writers and game designers didn’t invent these procedures for casting spells out of whole cloth. Instead, they studied the history of mythology and magic and wrote their works combining and sampling practices from throughout the world.
Magic as seen in games, books and movies is exciting and powerful. It lets the caster do what few others can, defies the laws of nature, and brings with it great power, fame and wealth. In Harry Potter, only wizards can practice magic; non wizards, known as “Muggles”, are excluded. In a modern form of “noblesse oblige” (the obligation of nobility), the wizards are supposed to protect the muggles, who are not as powerful as they are. Magic can be done for good and for evil, as its only moral filter is whatever moral filter the caster brings with him. Magic is inherently self-focused; the power of the magic may not reside in the user (as with “The Force” in Star Wars) but the power to use the magic does reside in the user, and she uses it for her own purposes. Though mistakes occur, the magician is portrayed as having essentially complete control over what the magic will do. The biggest problem with “magic” in the real world is that it doesn’t work, at least not to control physical phenomena. Priests in Egypt, druids in England, and shamans in North America tried for centuries to discover the words that controlled the Nile flooding, the materials that reliably calmed the seas, and the dances that brought rain, but they failed. Modern users of “magick” such as Wiccans or other pagans generally claim that it primarily affects oneself, not the outside world.
Science, as it has been practiced for the past four centuries, does not provide merely the illusion of excitement and power; it is exciting and powerful. Science does not oppose the laws of nature but uses them to the advantage of the scientist and the society that supports him. Science does not focus on the words and gestures of the individual scientist but rather on using proper materials in proper proportions at proper times and in proper ways to achieve great effects. One of the greatest scientific advances in human history, gunpowder, is composed of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate (saltpeter). Mixed in proper amounts, each ground to a fine powder, and lighted in a controlled manner, gunpowder revolutionized warfare and destroyed social structures, such as feudalism in Europe, and empires, such as the Mamelukes in Egypt, throughout the world. Gunpowder is even present in the Lord of the Rings, though it is portrayed as magic rather than science.
Unlike magic, science is available to the many; not limited to the few. The practice of magic in most of history was limited to those born to it, but there are no inherent genetic, racial, social, or economic limitations to who can learn science and wield its power. Science can be used for good or for evil, and like magic its only moral filter is the moral filter that the user, and her society, applies. Mistakes occur in science, but the user has reliable control over its effects. Science can be self focused, because though the power of science lies outside the scientist, the ability to use that power lies within him, and he uses it to advance his own agenda. Science works. Engineers in Egypt figured out how to control the Nile, scientists in England discovered how to avoid rough seas, and farmers in North America devised how to irrigate croplands.
Prayer, defined popularly as asking God for something, has been practiced since the dawn of time. Some skeptics may consider prayer to be a form of magic, specifically divination, which is an attempt to gain insight into a question or situation with the aid of the supernatural. As such, they might suggest that everything mentioned in the paragraphs about magic applies to prayer as well.
A Christian would more likely define prayer as encountering God and experiencing His glory, whether or not the person praying asked for anything. Prayer involves consciously acknowledging the magnificence of the Creator, asking forgiveness of sins, intentional and unintentional, and asking God to make the petitioner less inclined to sin. Prayer frequently includes giving thanks for what the Lord has done for the person praying, and concludes with a set of new or repeat requests. Any or all of these elements may occur in any given prayer. Common prayer practices, such as closing eyes, folding hands, standing up, kneeling, or whatever else, are merely cultural in the Christian tradition. There is no required gesture or body position in Christian prayer, nor is there a specified verbal (script or incantation) or material component. Prayer is not the same as spell casting. Prayer is available to anyone at anytime in any place and for any reason.
Prayer is different from magic and science in other ways. Christian prayer is not focused on the person praying; it is focused on the person of God. While it is tempting to use prayer as another way to advance one’s self interest, the Bible is clear that humans were created to know God, serve Him, love Him, glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. Prayer has a moral filter independent of the one praying. First, the one praying places himself under the authority of God. God uses the Christian to accomplish His purposes rather than the Christian using God to accomplish his. Second, when the believer asks God for something, the Lord applies His moral filter to the request, and will not grant a request which is evil. The power of prayer lies in God, not in man, and the one praying does not have reliable control over its effects.
Some believe that prayer does not work. Others argue that prayer works, but since man has no reliable control over its effects, it is a waste of time. Why then should Christians pray?
- In the Bible, God commands His people to pray.
- God is truly glorified, our sins are really forgiven, and others are honestly blessed.
- By coming into the presence of God, the person praying becomes more like God. The power and peace of God dispel the weakness and frustration of man. The clarity of the mind of God overcomes the confusion in the mind of man, and the love in the heart of God melts the hatred in the heart of man.
- We are reminded of the glory of the Lord, the seriousness of our sin, the generosity of His gifts to us, and the power of God to meet our needs. His glory makes us humble, His forgiveness and provision make us grateful, and His power gives us comfort throughout the trials that we and others face.
- Prayer, like meditation, has positive physiologic benefits including lowering blood pressure and decreasing inflammatory chemicals in the body. This contributes to better health in the one praying.
- The Lord never intended prayer to be used as a sole intervention. Prayer for others must be accompanied by acts of service to them, done with selflessness and joy. It must also be accompanied by Bible study to learn the truths of God and His universe, which allows for wise interventions. Spiritual disciplines are maximally effective to change the life of a man, of others, and of the world when used in combination.
- God may change what He does in response to the prayers of man (Genesis 18:20-33, Isaiah 38:1-5).
- We are a good example to others.
How does Christian prayer actually work?
Since God provides the power in prayer, the man who wants to pray effectively must know God. This begins with Christian salvation (justification), but it includes knowing Him intimately through the Bible, through worship, through personal experience, through Christian service, and through other people. No one who neglects any of these areas can have consistent power in prayer.
Psalm 66:18 teaches that if man regards sin in his heart, the Lord will not hear him. Therefore God will not hear a prayer (except a prayer for salvation) from a person who has unconfessed sin. Prayers can also be hindered by poor interpersonal relations (Matthew 3:23, 1 Peter 3:7). The man who wants effective prayers must not have unrepented sin and must have done all he can to be at peace with others (Romans 12:18).
God is at work in the world, and since prayer is focused on Him and not on man, the praying person must ask God what He is doing in the situation at hand. Then the person of prayer must ask God what He wants him or her to do about it. If the prayer does not fit in His plan, it will not be granted. Does this mean that we should ask God what we think He wants instead of what we actually desire? Absolutely not! More than the most loving Father, God wants us to be honest with Him (Philippians 4:6) and He wants to give us everything that we ask. He will only deny us that which will hurt us or hurt others. Our poor understanding, not His lack of grace, is the problem. Even if God does not grant our petition, He will give us peace throughout it (Philippians 4:7)
As a wizard recites a spell with a specific purpose, and as a scientist uses materials for a specific result, so the prayer warrior asks God for a specific outcome. The scientist seeks a measurable outcome and so should the saint. Once the man of prayer specifies his request, he expects to receive what he has asked, just as the skilled magician or scientist expects his craft to be effective. If someone asks about it, the person of prayer boldly tells others of his request and his expectation that God will honor it.
Sometimes we ask the Lord for something different than what we actually want or need, and are disappointed when He does not grant our petition. One young boy prayed that the rain would stop so he could go with his family to watch a baseball game. The rain did not stop, but the father managed to get dry seats under an overhang in the sparsely filled ballpark. God may not have answered the boy’s specific prayer, but did He not grant his real request? How often do we pray, not knowing what we really want or need, not receive our request, and feel disappointed? How often does God grant our desire, only to have us not notice because He didn’t answer as we expected? As Garth Brooks so memorably sings, “sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers.”
The Lord provides a moral filter for prayer. If someone humiliates us at work and we ask God to break his legs, we should not be surprised if God does not grant our desire. He is not evil and will never aid or abet any evil desire. Man does evil, but the Lord is never a party.
Imagine a man kneeling in prayer. He is a genuine follower of Jesus Christ and knows God intimately. He is faithful in prayer, Bible study, worship, service, and the other spiritual disciplines, and has good relationships with those around him. There is a challenging situation at work and he has searched the Scriptures to see what might help resolve it. During this prayer time the man has confessed his sins, and given God glory. As a result, He has quieted the anxieties and distractions of this man’s busy world. The prayer warrior has sincerely thanked God for His generous provision, and it is time to ask the Lord for help at work.
Our praying man will ask God what He is doing in the situation, for nothing happens, good or bad, that God does not use for the greater good and for His glory. Sometimes it takes a long time, and the Lord may refer him back to the Bible or to someone else for guidance. Eventually God will reveal the part of His plan that His saint needs to know and what he needs to do. In obedience the man on his knees will pray what the Lord commands, and when the prayer is done the man will obey
Like wisps of smoke from the smoldering fire the specific, God-inspired prayers of the righteous man will rise as a fragrance to the Lord. The prayers from other saints on the same issue will likewise rise to heaven. God will harmonize the prayers, helping the petitioners to ask for what they want in the right way, and transform the wisps of smoke into a raging fire of godly power. Then prayers become effective, as the prayers of Elijah were in the days of Ahab (James 5:16-18).
Prayer works in other ways as well. Praying for someone often reveals ways that the one praying can help the one prayed for. While I prayed for a would-be missionary to get to the mission field, the Lord revealed to me some ways that he could raise money. I was able to help link someone else to a job. Just telling someone that you are praying for them can encourage them. Praying about an issue can bring mental clarity to that issue. Many times while praying for my patients I have had an insight that has led to a better diagnosis or treatment. The medical effects of prayer are well documented and positive. A network of people praying for each other multiplies these good effects. Unlike science, which is focused on the physical world, prayer impacts the physical world primarily through the spiritual world. This is not to say that God does not impact the physical world directly as a result of prayer. He does. However, God primarily uses ordinary means to accomplish His extraordinary ends.
Magic may be exciting and powerful in books, games, or movies but in reality the magic described there is fiction. Science is powerful but not moral, and sometimes does more harm than good. Prayer, communion with the One God, Creator and Lord of the Universe, is the most powerful thing of all. However it does not work like anything else because its object is not to serve us, but to serve Him. Christians must learn and live the power of prayer, because the troubles that we face in our individual lives and in the world are far too great to address with our poor powers alone. The dominion and glory of the Risen Lord alone provides our hope.