Bridges seem to be the emblem of existential stress for Romanians. In the face of a difficult situation, even Romanian folk wisdom recommends: “Make a pact with the devil until you have crossed the bridge.”
This proverb communicates the despair of moving to a state of normalcy. The compromise that fraternising with the devil implies is reasoning taken to an absurd degree. Is the bankruptcy of our condition so great that even the devil can be of help? Or do we think that we are so skilled that we could, if need be, fool the devil?
We might have hoped that, with the adoption of Christianity—which testifies to the victory of the Son of God over evil dominions and forces—superstitions would have been overcome.1
Instead, they seem to have been “baptised” along with the believer who used to hold them. A cross hangs from the car mirror. We make the sign of the cross, even using our tongue if we cannot do it with our hand. We say the Lord’s Prayer several times to heal from “the evil eye”. We wear a handkerchief that touched the walls of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem in order to ward off misfortune. We make pilgrimages to holy tombs, and say a prayer in front of a shrine in order to solve a family problem, or to “undo our wedding vows.”
All this seems to suggest that, although Christ overcame evil, the Christian still feels apprehensive, and tries throughout his life to accelerate divine intervention by his own methods.
The charms of religion
The tendency to call for divine intervention in the face of evil is a result of the way we were created. In the beginning, God created our world out of nothing. As the pinnacle of earthly creation, God created man to be a reflection of Him, and with the purpose of representing God in the world, continuing the organisation of his newly created home.2
But when man was enchanted by Satan’s proposal to ignore the Divine and to decide his own morality, his being in the world was emptied of the presence of the Creator. Its influence, instead of being one that supports creation, has become one of destruction.3 We have learned to call this effect “evil”, something that is against divine intentions—and against the order of creation.
When man sinned, the consequence was a return to his state before creation: from the dust you were taken, to the dust you will return.4 Nothingness erodes existence, and the order of creation is attacked by dissolution. As long as the chaos of un-creation happens quietly and almost imperceptibly, man can afford to pretend that all is well and wear an apron made of fig leaves, like Adam and Eve after their banishment from the garden. But when chaos completely disturbs existence, and the balance of life is lost in disease, chronic failure, or major crises, man feels a deep dissonance between himself and the world, as if something is “wrong” but beyond his power to control. Then, man tries to tame the effects of the reappearance of chaos, to limit it.
The search for normalisation takes place so far from the divine presence, like Cain’s groping in the wilderness. For example, in order to obtain a rich harvest, humans invent bizarre fertility rituals to awaken the “languid forces” of the barren earth.
The Bible reveals that the zealous tendency to try to accelerate divine intervention does not bypass anyone. Even those who knew God very closely tried to “assist” God.
Abraham thought that he could fulfill God’s promise of an heir by conceiving a son with his wife’s handmaid. Although she knew God, Rachel, Jacob’s wife, venerated her father’s idols to overcome infertility, sought plants to increase her fertility, and offered her husband one of her handmaids as a surrogate mother for her son.
People can easily become superstitious in search of opportunities and success.
It appears that the personal world needs personal order, and the creative God seems too far removed, too inaccessible for these trivialities, and too morally demanding—He demands too much obedience. An easier approach seems desirable and arouses our interest: an object that changes our fortunes, a formula, or a routine prayer that invokes divine influence according to our personal needs.
But the exorcism of evil is not a ritualistic process. It is not a process that ignores the intention and will of the “patient”, or the spiritual and moral quality of the one who prays for divine intervention. For example, the Jewish exorcists in the New Testament who, in the name of the Jesus, preached about by Paul, tried to fight against evil with a faith that they did not possess. They did what they did on the model of mere magical thinking, or material religion, which assumes that there are formulas which work regardless of the agent’s faith. The Bible shows us how hilariously this approach fails: the demon does not recognise the intervention and offers them a “proof” of authenticity: “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” (Acts 19:15). The violence with which they are then treated by the demonised demonstrates the inefficiency of superstition, which can be worn easily, like a garment.
Cracked vessels, candlesticks without light, and bridges to nowhere
The darkness of ignorance seems convenient, even to those with the responsibility of knowledge, as is apparent from the way Sceva’s sons mimicked the effective knowledge of God without truly believing in it.
The essence of superstition comes from searching for our own solutions to the problems of distance from God, but in the terms that we, the victim, not the Doctor, would like.
We notice that the essence of superstition is seeking our own solutions to the problems which resulted from moving away from the Divinity—but on terms that we, the victims, not the Doctor, would like. And for the least biblically informed, there will always be those who ignobly profit from them, like the sons of Sceva, insinuating themselves into the divine solution.
However, the light of the knowledge of God—the salvation of man from the conflict between good and evil through the victory of Jesus Christ—nullifies the power of superstition. Through a living connection with God, the evil in the believer’s life is made powerless. When man returns to God, fear is replaced by security; shame by dignity; and innocence is restored. By assuming His divine principles, God determines in the life of the believer a series of positive consequences—the effects of repentance—and man regains the meaning given to him at creation—to reflect the divine. This does not mean the annulment of the effects of the evil which surrounds us, nor total invulnerability. Paul, although afflicted in many ways, was not deterred by persecution, disease, the presence of demons, or religious conspiracies. But he was indeed martyred.
Prayer: man getting in tune with God
While superstition seeks to domesticate the unseen realm, and achieve pragmatic benefits, directly approaching God through prayer seeks to restore man’s relationship with God. Through prayer, man makes himself available to God for His purposes. Superstition, on the other hand, will try to manipulate the divine to its advantage, ignoring God’s revelation, will, and intentions, and always prioritise the personal, selfish worldview. In prayer, however, the believer seeks to harmonise himself to the divine will. When man is the channel through which God communicates with the world, evil is defeated, but at a price. It is the price of self-sacrifice, as both the Son of God and the testimony of the apostles show us in the pages of the Holy Scriptures.
Laurenţiu Nistor is a pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and a doctoral student in theology.