My fourth grade class took a field trip into Chinatown. Our guide was well-suited for a bunch of nine year olds, starting off by telling us to keep our eyes peeled for a dragon. Not any old dragon, of course. Chinatown is full of dragons. No, this one would be golden, lying down with a ball in its claw. A special prize awaited whoever found the dragon first.
We all started looking around immediately, and one kid shouted “There it is!”
He was pointing at a picture of a green dragon standing on its hind feet with no ball in sight.
At our next stop the guide told us that there was a magical statue just inside the door; if you rubbed it and made a wish, your wish would come true. Everyone rubbed it on the way in. My wish? To be the first to find the dragon.
Our last stop took us into a little shop. We filed to the front and everyone kept their eyes on our guide as he explained something else unique to Chinatown. For some reason, though, I turned to look behind us.
“I see it! I see the dragon,” I said. It wasn’t a picture, but a statue about 8 feet long underneath one of the windows. Golden, lying on its stomach, a gold ball in its claw.
My wish came true. I haven’t the foggiest recollection what I ended up winning.
I’m careful about wishes. I don’t make them and I try not to use the word even as an expression. God isn’t a God of wishes but of hope.
But does that mean wishes aren’t real? It depends on what you mean by wishes.
If what you mean is that a nine year old boy who’s fairly observant and whose attention is focused on a goal might be able to spot the dragon before his classmates, and that his abilities and efforts and desires find their expression in a wish, then yes I think wishes have some substance.
Or if what you mean is that there is some sort of benign magic that comes into play, like a magical statue or a Fairy Godmother, I’m not so sure.
But if what you mean is that sometimes things happen for purposes beyond our ken, then I think you’re really on to something. Magicians – not stage illusionists but people who truly believe in calling up spirits and employing the supernatural – are delving into something as real as the food I had for breakfast.
“Do not believe every spirit,” John tells his friends, “but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” (1 John 4:1.) C.S. Lewis must have had that in mind when he wrote the dialog between his hero Ransom and the antagonist Weston in Perelandra:
“Look here,” said Ransom, “one wants to be careful about this sort of thing. There are spirits and spirits you know.”
“Eh?” said Weston. “What are you talking about.”
“I mean a thing might be a spirit and not good for you.”
“But I thought you agreed that Spirit was the good – the end of the whole process. I thought you religious people were all out for spirituality. What is the point of asceticism – fasts and celibacy and all that? Didn’t we agree that God is a spirit? Don’t you worship him because he is pure spirit?”
“Good heavens, no! We worship him because he is wise and good. There’s nothing specially fine about simply being a spirit. The Devil is a spirit.”
A Wish By Any Other Name
I don’t think that every time someone says “I wish …” they’re calling upon Satan’s powers, consciously or unconsciously. But to use the phrase does indicate a certain understanding about God. Or perhaps a misunderstanding.
You see, when we say we put our hope in God we are not saying we wish everything will turn out right. We are saying that we trust him.
We wait in hope for the Lord;
he is our help and our shield.
In him our hearts rejoice,
for we trust in his holy name.
May your unfailing love be with us, Lord,
even as we put our hope in you. (Psalm 33:20-22.)
The psalmist isn’t saying he hopes God is big enough and powerful enough and loving enough to help. He’s saying that God already is all those and more, and that’s why it is right to put our hope in him.
Hope: it’s not a matter of wishing for something to be true, but trusting the One who is true.
That’s better than a wish-granting statue.