We did not eat sugary breakfast cereal when I was a kid, so I never acquired a taste for the oh-so-healthy bowl of fancy shapes known as Lucky Charms.
In college, I began to play roller hockey and was introduced to the fanaticism that some hockey players have for a different sort of lucky charm. Some professional hockey players have been known to have pre-game rituals bordering on a religion: they always put the left pad on first, then the right pad, left skate first, then the right; they might give up shaving during playoffs and always eat the same meal before a game. An article that discusses this phenomenon makes the point that rituals and superstitions are attempts to make the uncertain certain, to control the uncontrollable.
I have never known anyone to take it seriously, but most of us are aware of the tradition of the lucky rabbit’s foot: if you carry the hind foot of a rabbit, it will supposedly bring you good luck. (Of course, this completely ignores the fact that the original owner of said foot doesn’t seem to have been so lucky!)
Rabbit’s foot aside, there are people who take charms and fetishes very seriously. Our church recently hosted a visiting missionary who works in tribal areas where animism and witch doctors are the norm. Animistic cultures often have rituals and superstitions that can range from the intriguing to the tragic. For example, in some cultures, mothers who give birth to their first-born child never touch it, but rather birth it into a shallow grave and bury it alive. There are deeply held fears and beliefs that make it hard to persuade new moms in such a culture to break with this terrible tradition and to receive their firstborn as fully human.
The missionary was not speaking specifically about issues of grace versus legalism. Rather, he wanted to make a point that believers in general may not be so far above tribal animism as they think. He said something like, “when you think about it, if I make an extra effort to pray or do my devotions on a given day hoping that God will reward me with an extra blessing or a special answer to prayer, I am basically doing the same thing: I am performing a good-luck ritual hoping to gain supernatural favor.”
In his book Transforming Grace, Jerry Bridges quotes from another author: “Grace ceases to be grace if God is compelled to bestow it in the presence of human merit…. Grace ceases to be grace if God is compelled to withdraw it in the presence of human demerit…. [Grace] is treating a person without the slightest reference to desert whatsoever, but solely according to the infinite goodness and sovereign purpose of God.”
Bridges adds his comment: “Note that [this description] of God’s grace cuts both ways: It can neither be earned by your merit nor forfeited by your demerit. If you sometimes feel you deserve an answer to prayer or a particular blessing from God because of your hard work or sacrifice, you are living by works, not by grace. But it is just as true that if you sometimes despair of experiencing God’s blessing because of your demerits — the “oughts” you should have done but didn’t, or the “don’ts” you shouldn’t have done but did — you are also casting aside the grace of God.”
The jarring ramification of this is that if we let our devotions, quiet times, times of prayer, acts of service to God, or our attention to obeying certain principles become like rabbit’s feet, that is, lucky charms which we hope will enhance our chances of God blessing us, then we are “casting aside the grace of God.” Ouch!
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.