When I hear the word, superstitious, I see Michael Scott from The Office, saying to the camera, “I’m not really superstitious; I’m just a little stitious.” The other image that comes to mind is a young person in 18thcentury garb anxiously bathing a toad by the light of the moon in order to rid themselves of warts. Nothing but anguish and futility in that, I imagine. Superstition takes so many forms, and not surprisingly given human nature, is still present in the current age where science is supposedly doing away with old wives’ tales and replacing them with the light of cold hard reason.
But the superstition I am more interested in is the kind that we Christians fall into unawares. The ancient pagans were very serious about their foul little gods who were often brutal, bloody, and not surprisingly, rather human-like. The thrust of their religions was similar. Words, in particular, were very important. The power of a magic spell or mystic prayer was that if spoken correctly, with the right rituals in place, the deity found itself compelled to answer the requests of the person. The purpose of pagan prayer is control born out of the usual fears of sickness, poverty, and other losses. Magic gave the pagans control over their gods.
That we would like control over God should come as no surprise to us.
The first time I became aware that I was erring on the side of the superstitious, I had in my possession a little purple book with the title, Praying the Scriptures over Your Children. The book organized all of the best, most encouraging verses and promises into categories. If I found myself in the midst of a difficulty with one of my children, all i had to do was find the topic and pray to my heart’s content. And let me make it clear that I do not think there is anything wrong with that book or what it does. It is my own soul that was in some error.
If when we pray, we lose sight of the One to whom we are praying, we begin to mouth magic Bible verses and prayers that we hear others pray. I went through a phase where I asked God to “hide me in Christ” every time I felt anxious. I heard a preacher say those words, and it sounded very good to me. It was my good luck charm against an uncertain world. The problem was not with the words, but with the assumption I made about the words.
If I said a certain prayer, then God had to answer it. After all, I had said all the right things.
And therein lay the heart of the superstitious prayer. If I say the right prayers, God will have to answer me because I did it the right way. My performance “saved” me just as the performance of the ancient Philistine before Dagon saved him. My prayers were not unemotional, either. I was sure at the time that I was performing some tremendous spiritual warfare with only one problem; my prayers went unanswered a lot of the time.
Prayer can be such a great unknown, especially for a new Christian. We fling desperate words into the air hoping they do not fall to the ground, that they will be caught by God who we think is up there. Meanwhile the trials we face come at us quickly, and God’s involvement can seem haphazard. I tried all the good pagan tricks, too. After all, I learned them in church. Abasing myself, confessing my utter unworthiness, using eloquence, or being very long-winded; these are the weapons used in religions everywhere. They are of no use because they are pointed in the wrong direction. We perform for the others in the prayer circles or for a God that is way out there, beyond our knowing.
So how do you avoid being a superstitious Christian? Here are a few that I keep in mind as I move in relationship with God.
- He is in here and out there. I no longer pray towards the outside, imagining God hovering outside the stratosphere, listening in on my words. God’s presence is felt by us in our spirit. That is, we worship in spirit and in truth. He who dwells in us is easily found if we are quiet, and believe that He is. Before I pray at all, I go silent and wait on Him. Knowing that He is pleased to live in me gives a pleasure to prayer that eluded me for a long time.
- God is on my side. I don’t mean that He agrees with me on everything, but that I don’t have to convince Him of my needs. I simply ask and trust. I grew up in a home that thrived on debate. When I needed something, I needed to make a case for it. I had to prove I was right. As soon as I begin debating with God, I lose sight of who He is and I am back in performance mode, rather than relational mode. I am not a desperate orphan; I am a daughter of the King and a Father who cares deeply about me and my needs.
- God wants to let me in on what He is doing. I distrust prayers that shout at the devil. Why talk to him? The devil is just a liar. If God is not answering my prayer, I can go to Him and discuss it. Sometimes He lets me know that it will happen in His timing. Sometimes He says it won’t, but not to worry. But God rarely leaves me hanging because I know that He wants to speak to me as badly as I want to speak to Him. The God of the universe wants to talk to me. His conversation fills the earth in the revelation in nature, the revelation in scripture, and in the revelation of His presence dwelling in me. No room for superstitious fear and control when we are filled with the Holy Spirit.
For the record, printed prayers can be beneficial. I find The Book of Common Prayer profound. Even Jesus gave us a formula; that is the key points of things we should keep in mind while in prayer in the Lord’s Prayer. Keep in mind that one of the major points in that prayer is Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. God’s will in my life as it is in Heaven. What is God’s will for my life in Heaven? Eternal joy, eternal communion with Him, eternal life.
The best way for me to keep my prayer life from becoming carnal is to remember that I am seated in the heavenlies with Christ. Eternal life has begun; communion is here; joy is available now. “There is no fear in love,” says John the Apostle. The more that love draws me in, the fainter the superstitious, performing part of me becomes. So forget about the right words, the right rituals, or the cultural amenities we like with our Christianity. It is impossible to be superstitious when the Holy Spirit has set you on fire.