Rabbit's Foot Religion

A long time ago one of my senior pastors at Myers Park UMC, Gil Adams,  preached a memorable sermon on what some have called Christo-paganism, but Gil Adams called it, rabbit’s foot religion.  It stuck with me, and the longer I have lived, and the less Biblically literate the church has become, the more rabbit’s foot religion I have seen.

You know about the old rabbit’s foot.  You keep one in your pocket, and maybe you rub it, and it brings you good luck, and maybe even something you’ve really longed for.   There are a lot of people in this world, and sadly, a lot of people in the church that treat God this way.  They attempt to manipulate God in various ways to get what they want in life.  But alas for all this,  God will not be manipulated.

We cannot say to God, as the Godfather once said to one of his Mafia lackies “I will make you an offer you can’t refuse.”   God, is in charge,  and his arm cannot be twisted.  Remember the parable of the rich fool and its context in Luke 12?  There is a debate going on between two humans over money or property, and one of them wants Jesus to intervene on his side of the dispute.  Jesus’ response is unequivocal— “who set me to be arbiter/judge over you and your dispute?”   Jesus refuses to be used, especially for petty purposes.

The basic definition of magic is the use of objects, rituals, rites, in an attempt to force some kind of divine action.  Sadly, even prayer has been used this way.   Yet no matter how pious our prayer, no matter how sincere our prayer, no matter how correct the form of our prayer, praying with all faith and in the name of Jesus,  if we are asking for something that is not God’s will for us,  we can pray until we are blue in the face, and what we want to happen will not transpire.   God will not be manipulated.  Prayer is not about our getting God to do our will,  it is about God getting us to do his!

It is true that there are some examples of rabbit’s foot religion in the Old Testament— for instance laying out a fleece to try and figure out what God’s will is in a certain circumstance.   What the New Testament suggests about such practices is that this was seeing through a glass darkly, and Christians should be beyond such immature practices which are indeed manipulative.     Remember the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 18-19?   God’s will could not be discerned in the earthquake, wind or fire. No natural phenomena, not even natural disaster provided a clear glimpse of God’s will.  It was only by listening intently to God’s voice, his Word, that God’s will could be discerned.

But the practitioner of rabbit’s foot religion is impatient.  He wants an answer, indeed he wants an outcome right now!   God however is not our cosmic bellhop and he does not exist to fulfill all the wishes of our materialistic little hearts.   The health and wealth Gospel is a travesty of the real Gospel, precisely because it not only denies the value of suffering and the call of Christ to take up one’s cross and follow him, it also tries to manipulate God to give us ‘the desires of our hearts’, whether they are good for us or not.   To these sorts of requests, God has an answer—-NO!   A loving God,  like a loving parent will not give us things that will spoil and destroy our Christian character.   And by the way— NO is definitely an answer to prayer.   The wrong sort of prayer.

Have you seen rabbit’s foot religion hopping around in your church or parish?  Why not share some of your experiences here.

  • http://www.tillhecomes.org/blog Jeremy Myers

    Yep. It’s everywhere I look. One guy in my church is trying to fast for 40 days and nights right now. Why? So that God will strike dead a man at his job who said that Christianity is just a bunch of myths.

    Nice, huh?

  • Teluog

    I often see or hear of people using fasting as some sort of method to get God to answer a prayer or, as one person on campus told me, to make worship seem more lively. I can’t remember any other specific examples off the top of my head but I frequently hear of fasting being done in this type of way.

  • Greg Van Dussen

    I sometimes hear people say that prayers must be very specific in order to “work.” A general prayer doesn’t have the same horsepower.

  • http://foresight-of-hindsight.blogspot.com/ Peter Yates

    In Matthew 6:7,8 followers are told that “your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.” Matt 6:9 then indicates that all you need is the Lord’s prayer. This may be a ‘passage’ that is open to interpretation. If so, what is the correct interpretation? Does anybody know? On the other hand, it seems to be very specific to me, and doesn’t appear to be an instruction that should be ignored.

  • http://deeperwaters.wordpress.com Nick

    I think I’ll share a positive that I’ve shared before.

    My wife and I pray together every night. When we were dating (And of course not sleeping together or anything like that) right up to the night before the wedding even, we’d call each other and ask “How may I pray for you tonight?” and then we’d share our prayer requests for each other and we’d pray together.

    Doing this every night before bed I think really brings home what prayer is about. We’re able to put everything throughout the day behind us. We review it and celebrate what happens and when we have suffering, we thank God for it because we know he’s going to use it for his will. (I’ve been unemployed for nearly 9 months now, had something stolen from me in our parking lot, and even had surgery within the time we’ve been married, so we know about suffering)

    This is the way prayer is meant to be and when we pray together, I believe God is pleased.

    Also, we read a chapter of the old and new testament as well. I think every married couple should do this.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Thank you all for sharing, and especially thanks to Nick. You are right prayer brings us together and brings us closer to the Lord. Just as we talk to one another to further deepen our relationship with each other, so we should talk with God. The Lord’s Prayer is a model prayer telling us the types of things we ought to pray for and praise God for. It is not however a talisman or blank check, so that if we pray it sincerely God will be required to give us whatever we desire.


  • http://orthodoxcolvinism.wordpress.com Mark Colvin

    Ben – great post. I recently heard a sermon where one kind of idolatry was defined as using God to get what we want. The health and wealth gospel seems to be even worse in that they teach that “faith” is a spiritual substance that we can access without having to go through God to get it. It’s kind of a Star Wars “use the force” type power. I don’t think that most of the WOF adherents would couch it in those terms, but it does seem to involve things quite close to magic.


    Mark Colvin

  • Maty

    While my child had an illness and was going through some heavy things, I had been told that I have to pray and light candles at certain churches at certain times to certain saints, and tell certain details of my child so that someone could use them to make a talisman via some old aramaic gematra or something similar. I was also given a book that basically said I had to ‘claim’ healing for my child. I guess they had good intentions, but suspect methods… I resisted these things (I use to tell some people that there are two types of magic uses, good and bad, and both are forbidden as we should rely on God).

    I do remember saying in my prayers that I don’t understand whats going on, that I trust Him, that I know He loves us and that His will shall be done whether now or in the resurrection. I also remember being angry in my prayers towards Him, but He is a big loving God He can take it all.

  • Heni

    Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of you.” I don’t recall anything about “The more people you gather together and the longer you pray, the more likely I am to listen.”

    And yet, there seems to be a fairly widespread assumption that “bigger is better” when it comes to prayer. Lengthy prayer is seen as more effective than a brief, heartfelt petition. A large group of people all praying at once is supposed to be much better than one praying alone or maybe with one or two others. It seems to me that this is the logic behind many prayer groups and chains, though there’s also the point that it can let people know that someone is in need and that can have benefits of its own.

    I have to wonder when members of some prayer groups allude to the “amazing results” that they’ve had. There’s someone at my church who does that. To me, that implies that they have “the formula”. But that might just be my odd way of looking at things.

  • Cleveland Dawsey

    I receive those “forward this prayer to 24 people and your prayer will be answered in 24 hours” type e-mails from time to time. Always delete them.

  • reasonable

    Hi Dr Witherington,

    You mentioned in your blog that “The basic definition of magic is the use of objects, rituals, rites, in an attempt to force some kind of divine action…It is true that there are some examples of rabbit’s foot religion in the Old Testament— for instance laying out a fleece to try and figure out what God’s will is in a certain circumstance. What the New Testament suggests about such practices is that this was seeing through a glass darkly, and Christians should be beyond such immature practices which are indeed manipulative…But the practitioner of rabbit’s foot religion is impatient. He wants an answer, indeed he wants an outcome right now! ”

    What about the New Testament story where the Apostles casted lots to see what was God’s will in choosing the 12th Apostle to replace Judas?

    Was it inappropriate for these apostles to do so?

    Were the Apostles (they are imperfect human beings after-all) being impatient & perhaps in a sense manipulative, trying to force some kind of divine action in their attempt to figure out what God’s will is in a certain circumstance?

    Thank you.

  • Ben Witherington

    Good question, Reasonable. And the answer it would have been inappropriate after the Spirit of guidance fell on them at Pentecost. Acts 1 shows they are still operating in a pre-Pentecost mode.


  • Danny D

    Also to note about the apostles casting lots in conjunction with what BW3 said – notice that it is the last time that this method is used or mentioned.

  • http://thegospeloferik.wordpress.com/ erik

    Hey Dr. Witherington,

    I really appreciate what you have done and are doing for the body of Christ , and I enjoyed the post, mostly. One thing that bothered me a little bit was the “look at those health and wealth gospel preachers!” canard.

    We all know of certain TV ministers that have manipulated people through emotion and gimmickry, but we need to be careful here. Jesus preached blessed are ye poor, but he also said that he came to preach good news to the poor and a huge part of his ministry was healing the sick. I believe that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. In trying to distance ourselves from excess, we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. If something is in God’s word, whether it be material help or healing, we should ask for it and expect God to be true to his word. Faith is not a rabbit’s foot, but it’s not passive, hoping that God might say yes to what he’s already promised but being OK if he doesn’t. A bad parent would spoil their child, but a bad parent wouldn’t hold back the power to heal or provide if it was in his/her power.

    And there are many scriptures throughout the bible that cause the believer to expect financial or physical blessing. Caveats regarding covetousness apply, of course. I guess I just think we as Christians too often have fallen for this gnostic (or perhaps platonic) idea that materiality and embodiment is a bad thing. The full gospel seems to affirm the whole person. Too often Christians have fallen into these faulty, dualistic ideas about soul and materiality, spiritualizing biblical texts that tell us Jesus came to preach the gospel to the poor (Luke 4:18-19) and that Christ became poor so that through his poverty we might be made rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). The right balance needs to be struck, meaning we should avoid this gnostic view that substance and material is bad as such and understand that God wants to bless us financially and physically, while simultaneously holding to an ethic that values the sharing of wealth above the mass accumulation of possessions to satisfy individual lust.

    But let’s stop dissing those who preach that God wants to meet our material needs, or that God will heal the sick as heretics. Or at least lumping them altogether with the wackos we see sometimes on Christian TV.

  • http://thegospeloferik.wordpress.com/ erik

    “A bad parent would spoil their child, but a bad parent wouldn’t hold back the power to heal or provide if it was in his/her power. ”

    I meant a good parent wouldn’t hold back…Oops!

  • kentuckyliz

    Hey, rabbit’s foot religion is fine, if you worship a Santa-God. heh heh heh

    Jesus teaches us how to pray–and those seven petitions teach us what to want for ourselves–what God wants for us.

    “Thy will be done!”–the same prayer of Jesus in the Agony in the Garden. I’ve prayed this a lot–not being invested in any particular results–just desiring God through whatever He wills for me. (I’ve beaten three primary cancers so far.)

    So few Christians understand this. Just today I was speaking with a colleague who is praying for me (among many–awaiting tests to see if I have a cancer recurrence). I thanked him and said, “God is good, no matter what the results! He is with us forever!” He about broke down and cried. His faith suffered when his adulterous first wife left him–he thought he’s a good Christian man, if he had faith and prayed hard, she’d repent and come back. Didn’t work out that way. (That’s like turning faith into a work!)

    I pointed out that his prayers did not go unanswered–but God wanted more for him than he was asking. His new wife is true, and sincere, and Christian, and a lovely person–and their infant daughter is a blessing. God has blessed him far more than if he got what he prayed for.

    Fasting to curse another is a sin. We are not allowed to use God to curse others. Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD in vain. Cursing others in the name of the Lord is a sin and so contrary to Jesus’ teaching, I wonder if the guy doing this is truly a Christian. Seems really untransformed by Jesus’ teaching.

  • http://carlaalo.wordpress.com/ Carla

    thanks for this!
    - carla

  • http://www.bestfinance-blog.com AudreyAlvarado

    Have no a lot of cash to buy some real estate? Worry no more, just because that is possible to take the personal loans to work out such kind of problems. Hence get a commercial loan to buy all you want.