In the very influential article by Paul Hiebert “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle,” Hiebert uses a case study of an Indian pastor named Yellayya in Muchintala whose village had an epidemic of smallpox. The village elders decided a water buffalo should be sacrificed to appease the angry Goddess of Smallpox. A crisis developed when the Christians in the village refused to chip in for the cost of this sacrifice and when a Christian girl became sick herself. Hiebert reflects on his prayers for healing for this little girl:
Church and mission must guard against Christianity itself becoming a new form of magic. Magic is based on a mechanistic view — a formula approach to reality that allows humans to control their own destiny. Worship, on the other hand, is rooted in a relational view of life. Worshipers place themselves in the power and mercy of a greater being.
The difference is not one of form, but of attitude. What begins as a prayer of request may turn into a formula or chant to force God to do one's will by saying or doing the right thing. In religion, we want the will of God for we trust in his omniscience. In magic we seek our own wills, confident that we know what is best for ourselves.
The line dividing them is a subtle one as I learned in the case of Muchintala. A week after our prayer meeting, Yellayya returned to say that the child had died. I felt thoroughly defeated. Who was I to be a missionary if I could not pray for healing and receive a positive answer? A few weeks later Yellayya returned with a sense of triumph. "How can you be so happy after the child died?" I asked.
"The village would have acknowledged the power of our God had he healed the child," Yellayya said, "but they knew in the end she would have to die. When they saw in the funeral our hope of resurrection and reunion in heaven, they saw an even greater victory, over death itself, and they have begun to ask about the Christian way."
In a new way I began to realize that true answers to prayer are those that bring the greatest glory to God, not those that satisfy my immediate desires. It is all too easy to make Christianity a new magic in which we as gods can make God do our bidding.