“The voice of the Lord calls out to the city (and it is wise to fear your name): ‘Pay attention to the rod and the one who ordained it.’”
— Micah 6:9 ( CSB- Read the chapter)
One of the basic assumptions humans have always made about the world is that there’s more to it than we can see with our eyes. The unique phenomenon of modern atheism aside, the general belief about the nature of the world that every human culture has held since there were thinking and reasoning humans walking around on the planet is that there is a spiritual world we cannot see and it has an impact on our daily lives. The exact understanding of the nature of that impact has varied rather widely, but the belief that we are foolish to ignore it has not. And while this largely manifests itself as various superstitions, what we see right here reminds us that it isn’t all superstition.
Superstition is a funny thing. One of the definitions Google offers of it is this: “a widely held but unjustified belief in supernatural causation leading to certain consequences of an action or event, or a practice based on such a belief.” Translating that back into plain English, a superstition is a belief that there is a supernatural explanation to something happening. This is often paired with the belief that the final outcome of that happening can be affected by a certain action on our part.
Perhaps the most common superstition I see even among church people is the phrase “knock on wood.” This, more than just about any other superstition I can think of, has become a part of our linguistic habits. We say it without even really thinking about what it means. What it means, though, is that we believe knocking on wood will somehow prevent something undesirable from happening. We don’t very often follow through by knocking on said wood, but the expression is common all the same.
In the larger analysis, people have never believed things happen without cause. And, when we see something happening that doesn’t appear to have an immediate cause—especially something bad—we begin looking for a cause. In pagan cultures, the assumption was that one god or another was behind whatever it is. Where Christianity moved into pagan cultures it tended to drive away superstition, but not necessarily the tendency to make them up. Sometimes Christians have been fairly accused of simply consolidating superstitions into God.
As people committed to following Jesus and therefore opposed to the idea that there are good or evil spirits or gods lying in the background of everything that happens (although we still believe in a spiritual world), what should we do with of all this?
Well, for starters, we reject superstition of every kind. Whatever professed Christians have believed in practice over the centuries, there is no power to any superstition. That’s simply not how God works. The notion that knocking on a piece of wood or doing anything in a certain way, place, sequence, or time has any meaningful outcome on anything is just silly. It is magical thinking—the belief that we can exercise some kind of power over the world around us by our word or action or thought. And magical thinking has no place in the life of a Christian. The various guys who contributed to the Scriptures are explicitly clear about that.
Yeah, but what about that one time you did it and then things happened the way you wanted them to go? That’s the thing about magical thinking: It seems to work sometimes. It’s like gambling or playing the lottery. There’s a chance, however remote, that things may happen the way you want at a time that lines up with your action such that it appears your action had some impact on the outcome. It didn’t, of course, but it looks like it. And that remote chance is just big enough to keep people coming back and doing it.
The reality is that things happen as a result of the choices we make or don’t make. God has created us with the ability to make meaningful and consequential choices and He is absolutely committed to honoring the gift even when we make choices that are foolish to the extreme. If some outcome seems incredible or highly coincidental, keep in mind that with more than 7 billion people on the planet all making choices, even the most wild outcomes begin to fall within the realm of possibility.
The other thing that makes superstition defunct is that God doesn’t work on some sort of a retributive cause-and-effect principle. The Buddhist notion of Karma isn’t actually a thing. We do reap what we sow, and that sometimes seems to give Karma some credit, but the truth is we serve a God who is just and He makes things right on His time. Because He is also a God of love, though, we very often don’t get what we deserve in a given moment. Instead, we are given the chance to repent, put our hope in Christ, and receive what He deserves. That’s not superstition; that’s grace, and it’s way better.
That all being said, there are times that we need to pay attention to the kinds of things that are happening in our lives, especially when they aren’t good. When hard things are happening we need to take into account what Micah says here and for two reasons.
First, God was actively telling the people to pay attention to the hard things that were happening in their lives. Now, yes, He was talking to the people of Israel and not us, and, yes, they were under a very different set of circumstances than we are in, and no, we can’t apply this directly to our lives, but the principle is what matters. If God told them to pay attention once, we do well to pay attention in our own lives. In context, God was announcing judgment for their sins, and He wanted them to learn the lesson He was trying to teach them.
The bigger principle (and the second reason we need to pay attention) is that God does sometimes allow hard consequences to get our attention that the path we’re on isn’t a good one. This isn’t the same as the kind of judgment He was telling Israel was coming their way, but the opportunity for lesson-learning is there for us all the same.
Now, hear me well: This doesn’t mean by any stretch that every bad or inconvenient thing that happens is God trying to tell us something. Sometimes things we see as bad are happening because of the choices other people have made and the lesson is for them to learn, not us. At the same time, it does mean that when life seems to be falling apart or is otherwise much more difficult than usual, we should at least pause and ask the question: Am I making choices that are not leading me to a good place? Is this God giving me the chance to experience in the small what will blow up in a big way if I continue on making these kinds of choices?
In this place there is no superstition that will affect the outcome of our situation. What will make a difference is repentance and following once again the path of Christ that leads to life. We serve a God of grace, but one who is willing to let us experience some of the hard consequences of our poor choices so that we can set ourselves aright again with His help. We’ve just got to listen and follow. Let’s get to it.