We live in an age in which we pride ourselves on acting on verifiable evidence. While certain forms of magic are trendy in some circles, mainstream society—at least as influenced by the West—considers magic and sorcery to be matters of fantasy. Sadly, many of our religious expressions, if we are not careful, have fallen prey to a form of sorcery.
Ancient sorcerers sought to sought to manipulate supernatural powers by learning the correct rituals: chanting the appropriate words and using the necessary paraphernalia, etc. Having mastered these rituals, the sorcerer could repeat words or actions as a formula and the supernatural powers could be depended upon to respond in the expected way.
An example of this is recorded in Acts 19:11–20, where a group of professional Jewish exorcists sought to cast out demons by simply reciting the correct words: “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” Among these exorcists were seven sons of a man named Sceva, who took it upon themselves to employ this magic chant. Things didn’t turn out well for them. “The evil spirit answered them, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I recognise, but who are you?’” The exorcists fled, bleeding and ashamed. The result of this interaction is that “many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all.” It became evident to all that mere ritual—sorcery—did not ensure divine power.
We may not go to the lengths of the Jewish exorcists but we are also sometime guilty of holding a sorcerer’s view of Christianity. We might call it “formulaic Christianity.” It is the type of Christianity that believes we can secure God’s favour by simply going through the correct motions: ritualised prayer, consistent church attendance, regular Bible reading, generous giving, etc. It might be uttering the right words (“Praise God!” “Lord willing!”) or even behaving in appropriate ways for a certain amount of time. These things are good and necessary but not when practiced out of mere ritual. We do not—or should not—do these things in the hopes that God will notice and fulfil the desires of our heart.
The anonymous author of Psalm 111 wanted his readers to praise the Lord, but not out of a sense of ritual. He begins: “Praise the LORD! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation” (v. 1). Notice that: He exhorts his readers to “praise the LORD” and commits to himself “give thanks to the LORD” with the “whole heart.” He called for heartfelt, not ritualistic, praise and thanks.
We can probably list a number of reasons that we give in so easily to formulaic Christianity, but perhaps the deepest motivation is our desire for control. If we can manipulate God into giving us what we want through mere ritual, we can rest assured that, even though he is the one who gave it, we are the ones who secured it by our appropriate performance. God becomes controllable and predictable and we have achieved the sorcerer’s goal: manipulating a higher power into giving us what we want. Ultimately, however, it reduces our faith to mere ritual, devoid of any heartfelt devotion to the God who purchased our salvation.
Among the many lessons we learn from Psalm 111, let us be reminded in the day and the week ahead to be done with a sorcerer’s guide to Christianity and to instead praise and thank the Lord wholeheartedly.