When I was growing up, Mum and Dad were pretty honest with me about the origin of Santa. They were also pretty clear that things like ‘lucky numbers’, the Zodiac, and other paraphernalia around fortune telling held no power, and that they weren’t to be believed. Fortune cookies were delicious, and had fun messages inside that were just vague enough to almost apply to my life. Sometimes. But they weren’t to be heeded.
I still hold to all of those beliefs, and until recently, it had never crossed my mind that any other Christian would think otherwise. The ‘recently’ indicates change. It’s been a pastoral blind spot for me; has it been for you and your friends at church too?
In this post, I’d like to walk through an approach to thinking through modern-day mysticism. Doesn’t mean it’s the right one, or the only one – but it’s the one I would take, if your goal is to think about how to live more like Jesus.
What do I mean by Modern Day Mysticism?
Since this is supposed to be a short read, we’re not covering word origins. In this post, I’m talking about a variety of things that people use to determine their future – lucky numbers, horoscopes, palm reading, Chinese zodiac, fortune tellers, tarot, crystals, and the like. The list is a lot longer than this – the longer I think of things, the more I can think of. They use different methods to reach conclusions, but they have the same underlying factors.
Wait, this is a thing?
Yep. Although, this could just be me being the last person on earth to realise that we needed to think through how we understand mysticism. It’s worth noting cultural bias – I come from a small coastal town and a fairly conservative background. My family are also white Australians, which means that even if I haven’t come from a very long line of Christians, my family has lived through the age of cultural Christianity. If your story is similar, then your mental picture of mysticism might be that one shop in the local shopping centre that smelled like incense and had statues of crystals and fairies in the window. This is a pretty big contrast to, say, someone who’s migrated to Australia, or an ABA (Australian-born Asian), where maybe the culture dictated that you visited fortune-tellers and checked your Zodiac. Of course you looked up the birthdate of a prospective spouse – you have to know if you’ll go well together.
It’s easy to dismiss mysticism if you’ve already decided to not engage with it, but there’s actually stuff going on underneath the surface, so we should have a serious conversation about it if we want to see it as something serious, and not just a lifestyle aesthetic.
The Heart of Mysticism
Mysticism, at its heart, is about control. It seeks to understand what is unknown, and so be able to anticipate the future. The person engaging in mysticism is acting so that they might have some sort of control over the unknown, whether that be spiritual forces, other people, or the future.
Pursuit of mystic matters stems from fear (of the supernatural, of the unknown, of others) and its flipside, power (over the supernatural, over the unknown, over others). It’s easier to see in cultures where there’s a lot more tied to the supernatural, so white Australians and other people from Western cultures can be a bit blind to it.
These are all pretty big simplifications, so please feel free to do some further reading if you’re so inclined, but here at least we can see how mysticism fits in – it’s to do with a desire to master what is beyond the physical realm; managing fear by gaining power.
Why is this an issue we need to address?
Jesus has words for us in the face of the unknown.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?…
31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
There’s really so much in the Bible that tells us that Jesus will look after us (even when it doesn’t feel like it). The Bible won’t always have explicit instructions on a question (‘should I take this job or that job?’) but it is sufficient in teaching us how to answer our questions (‘this is the way I want to live, so I will choose a job that allows this to happen’). Which is sort of what you want, if you’re maturing someone in their faith.
On the flipside, Jesus tells us to trust him and only him.
‘Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
‘Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’‘
The Bible is pretty clear that things like divination and witchcraft are a no-go. Why? Because Jesus has already given us himself – everything. Seeking out mysticism when you call yourself a follower of Jesus is an action that says I know you’ve said that your ways are the best, but it’s just not enough for me. I need to know what to do, here. I need to know what to expect from this relationship. Not only that, but it’s seeking out information from a subpar source – if we believe that the spiritual realm is real, and are convinced that Jesus is King over it, then to consult another supernatural source who has less power doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Also, it’s important for us to remember that supernatural forces are a real thing. Not something to become paralyzed with fear over, but also not something to muck about with.
If it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, why do we need to walk with our friends through it? Can’t they just give it up?
Yes and no, for a few reasons. I like hearing people tell me things about me. I’m curious about unknown factors. I get anxious about unknowns. Maybe all of these things resonate with you, maybe it’s only one. Maybe you grew up in a culture where consulting the stars/the numbers/the cards etc was a part of your life. Maybe you got curious, and started investigating, and now it’s a habit. Maybe it’s part of the search for control in a life where it doesn’t feel like there’s a whole lot of that going on right now.
Whatever the case, consulting a fortune can pretty quickly become a habit. It’s understandable how one could think “Jesus is King of my life, but I still need to sort out the small details myself, and this is part of me sorting out the small details”. We do that all the time when we come to decisions and don’t check our Bibles for wisdom or pray about them.
Thing about habits is, they’re really hard to break. We are habitual creatures. If you or a friend wants to make changes in this area because they are convinced that doing so will honour Jesus, my hot tip is to find something to swap out visiting the fortune telling website. Change like this can’t happen unless we’re convicted that it’s the right thing to do, and change is easier if there’s something that can take the place of the thing that is changing. Over all of it, prayer is needed. Rules and behavioural stuff won’t change our hearts. Only God can do that.
Where would you go in Scripture to help think through things like our fortunes, or decision making? I’m a big fan of portions that remind me of God’s greatness (the last few chapters of Job and the Psalms), and the place of wisdom and decision-making (Proverbs, James, the back halves of Romans and Ephesians). I may not always understand what God is doing, but if he’s in control and is good, then I’ve just gotta work out how to be okay with the unknowns in the meantime.
Check on your mates. Maybe this has been pertinant to you, maybe it’s something you’ve never considered. We want to help our friends follow Jesus with whole hearts.
Keep following up. Trusting God is not an achievement you complete once and then square away. Continue to be convinced that Jesus offers us something better than an inescapable fate – a hope and a future.
This article first appeared on Brooke’s blog, here.