A number of years ago I spent a couple of days with a hiking club in the rural Eastern Cape province of South Africa.
On the first night of the back-breaking, blister-producing trip, a few of us sat around the fire and a sangoma joined us – one of SA’s few white witchdoctors.
He was dressed in typical traditional garb and wore amulets and charms to ward off various spirits. He asked us if he could throw some herbs into the fire to cleanse the air of evil spirits.
Most people around the fire were very keen as (I guess) they thought that any kind of cleansing from any kind of spirit could only be a good thing.
Apparently, he then purified the air of evil spirits.
A number of things interested me about that evening:
1. The witchdoctor, unlike so many people today, acknowledged (like the Bible does) the existence of the spiritual world
2. The witchdoctor naively thought that some strange smelling smoke could drive away evil spirits
The Bible teaches that Satan and the demons are powerful beings and couldn’t care less about which herbs you throw on the fire. One needs someone more powerful than Satan to bind him or overcome him. Cf. Mark 3:27
3. The witchdoctor gave me insight into the typical, worldly religious worldview
Many people think that they, like the witchdoctor, can control or manipulate the spiritual realm by performing certain rituals, saying certain words or wearing certain charms. This is the essence of religion.
In 1 Samuel Ch. 4-6 we see the people of God buying into this worldly religion and superstition. They treat the sacred Ark of the Covenant as if it were magic. They attempt to manipulate God and twist his arm.
To win a battle against the Philistines, the Israelite army and elders wheel in the Ark of the Covenant as a magical talisman. They presume that God would never allow his Ark to be captured. The people of God treat God as their personal genie-in-a-lamp to achieve their own ends.
God, however, refuses to be treated in this way.
The Israelites are defeated and the Ark of God falls into the hands of the Philistines. Or so they think. As it turns out, the Philistines have fallen into the hand of God – and they find the hand of God to be very heavy. Cf. 5:6, 7, 11
In 1 Samuel 4-6 the Israelites learn the hard way not to treat God as magic.
Through a number of supernatural events, the Ark is returned to Israel and the Israelites too have to learn the Ark is sacred because God is holy. (cf. 6:19-21)
Before we condemn the Israelite army and elders for their superstitious folly, have many people today not done the same?
Twisting God’s arm
The Buddhist monk spins the prayer wheel trusting that the Buddha will be impressed with the many prayers.
The Catholic priest says a few words and believes the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ.
The Muslim does good deeds, fasts during Ramadan and gives money to the poor hoping that they’ll get into Allah’s good books.
Christians are not immune from this superstitious, magical view of God either.
We may think that if we have a devotion in the morning, God is manipulated into giving us a good day at the office.
We may think that if we have an extra-long prayer time or all-night prayer vigil, God will be more likely to answer our requests.
We may think that the words “In Jesus’ name” are a magical formula at the end our prayers to activate God’s power.
We may think that putting a Bible verse or wooden cross above our front door wards off evil spirits.
Please don’t misunderstand me: daily devotions, sincere prayer times, praying in Jesus’ name and displaying Bible verses are good things.
But what is our motive?
Is our motive to manipulate and control God to do what we want? Do we unwittingly use good practices as magical charms?
Or is our motive in all that we do to delight in God and to entrust ourselves to his perfect will – while seeking to live in obedience to His Word?
The remarkable story in Ch. 4-6 urges the latter.