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Magical Thinking?

I recently finished a book called “Not Forgotten, the True Story of My Imprisonment in North Korea” by Kenneth Bae. The author, a Korean-American who had emigrated to the U.S. from Korea with his parents as a youth, is an evangelical Christian who was imprisoned by North Korea after a mission trip to that country.

The book is a mix of his prison story and the efforts to free him, and how it was all part of God’s plan. Almost every page recounts how God spoke to him and how God took care of him. It demonstrates a remarkable trust in God. Many, however, would call the story naïve and dishonest and Bae’s attribution of virtually everything to a continually meddling God “magical thinking.”

I prefer to withhold judgment. While I believe that God is perfectly capable of such intervention, I think it happens rarely. I believe God expects us to take as much control of our lives as possible, make adult decisions about ourselves and others and not depend on him/her for the daily living of our lives.

Ultimately Dependent on God

Judeo-Christianity teaches that we’re ultimately dependent on God for our existence and our ultimate fate, but not necessarily that God has a detailed plan for each of us and all we have to do is find out what that is and carry it out. That would impugn our freedom, in my opinion, and if God were continually intervening in our lives, he/she would deserve criticism for the bad things that happen as well as praise for the good.

The Bible is filled with references to God’s intervention in human affairs, of course, in both the Hebrew and Christian renditions, though Scripture scholars have pointed out that it happens in the Hebrew Bible less and less often when going from the oldest to the newest sections of the Hebrew canon.

And God intervened often in the lives of members of the early Christian church. According to the Acts of the Apostles, God knocked the persecuting Saul from his horse and converted him to a staunch ally, made the prison chains fall from Paul, Peter and Silas and brought death to a couple who cheated on their promise to contribute  to the early Christian community.

And no God intervention is more powerful and complete than that expressed in the Christian belief that God became a human being in the person of Jesus.

But even Jesus wasn’t continually intervening in people’s lives. He worked miracles, according to the gospels, but over the presumed three-year period of his public ministry, not very often when you consider that he travelled continually and met hundreds, perhaps thousands of people. That’s presuming that all or most of his miracles are recorded in the gospels.

Jesus didn’t appear to make life easier for his disciples, didn’t punish his critics or bring harm to the many who ignored him. He didn’t “call down fire from heaven,” as requested by his disciples.

So if God intervenes rarely, what should our expectations be when we pray?

The writer of the Letter to the Ephesians in the Christian Bible urges us to “…pray at every opportunity in the Spirit…that speech may be given to me to open my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel for which I am an ambassador in chains, so that I may have the courage to speak as I must.”

So the writer of Ephesians, whom Scripture scholars say is likely someone other than Paul, asks for inspiration, boldness and courage, not a magic bullet.

Sister Mary Kay Oosdyke, who teaches theology at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI, points out that many of us have prayed for God’s intervention to relieve illnesses, improve the weather, find a suitable mate, win a football game.

Not Sure How God Works

But, she writes, “In time we all face the question of whether we really believe our prayer changes things. We don’t doubt God; we are just not sure how God works with us in our world.”

I like what God is reported to have said to Solomon in the Hebrew Bible when God invited the new king to ask for something.

Solomon asked for wisdom and knowledge and, in The Message translation, God answered, “You didn’t grasp for money, wealth, fame, and the doom of your enemies; you didn’t even ask for long life. You asked for wisdom and knowledge…. Because of this, you get what you asked for – wisdom and knowledge….” He threw in the “stuff” as a bonus.

And so we who search for God are left with uncertainty, but also with the urging of the Hebrew Bible, of Jesus who taught his disciples to pray, and that of ancient Christians to pray despite our doubts.

Magical thinking? No, that’s faith.

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