We had almost finished dinner at the restaurant when a man in a black suit approached us and asked whether he could perform a few magic tricks for us. I politely declined his offer.
He then quite happily made his way to the next table. I couldn’t help but to curiously watch him ply his tricks there, and what he did was quite amazing. He threw a red ball into the air and it simply disappeared! The look of surprise and fascination was evident on the faces of everyone seated at that table. “Is seeing believing?” I wondered.
A friend of mine once lamented that he had never seen any miracles in his life. He implied that our belief in what really matters might be enhanced by being witness to some supernatural act. The Bible lays claim to dozens of such events. For example, we read of an axe head floating on water, oil from an empty jar, fire from heaven, seas parted, and people healed as well as resurrected from the dead. It’s easy to think that our lives today are quite mundane when compared to the heroics of the past—I certainly haven’t seen anyone turn water into wine!
It’s easy to think that if only I could see a miracle—an irrefutable act of divine intervention that cannot be adequately explained by any natural, physical laws—my faith would be strengthened. Well, consider: Didn’t the magician do just that? He really had me fooled when he apparently made a coin disappear into his arm. Everyone gasped when he made a white dove appear out of thin air. I left the restaurant wondering how he did his tricks. Of course, I knew they were just tricks, but still I wondered how his sleight of hand so easily fooled me.
Did you know that Jesus told a story which illustrates that even the most awe-inspiring miracles are still insufficient to convince an unbelieving heart? A rich man stated his opinion that if someone were to rise from the dead, then his five unbelieving brothers would be convinced to change from their evil ways. The rich man, however, was told quite bluntly that his brothers should be listening to the words of godly teachers: “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31 NKJV).
According to Jesus, the emphasis on attaining a strong and enduring faith is based more on hearing than on seeing or experiencing. So how do we make sense of this? There are ample Scriptures that direct us toward finding a strong and true basis for our beliefs. For example, we read that “Faith comes by hearing the word of God” (Romans 10:17). The emphasis in this verse is on hearing (as opposed to seeing).
Jesus distinctly appealed to our capacity to listen, recorded in Revelation chapters 2 and 3, when he said, “He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” This overture is further supported in God’s appeal to us when he says, “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says: Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts . . .” (Hebrews 3:7-8).
So, is there any place for the visual/experiential? An interesting “out of this world” experience occurred when Jesus took his closest disciples, Peter, John, and James, high up a mountain. He then became “transfigured” before them, shining like the sun, and talking with Moses and Elijah. Before the disciples could get a grip on what this experience meant, a cloud enveloped them and a voice from heaven said, “This is M y beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear him!” (Matthew 17:5 NKJV). The disciples were no doubt amazed by this visual and auditory experience, and yet the voice that spoke to the disciples distinctly told them to listen to Jesus.
According to the Scriptures, faith and understanding are obtained and established by hearing rather than by the visual. God wants us to be persuaded of his existence and his purpose by hearing his word as opposed to seeing certain manifestations.
A couple of real life examples may help. In the Garden of Eden, God told Adam and Eve not to touch or eat of a certain tree. Notice how Satan then used visual appeal to deceive Eve: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate” (Genesis 3:6 NKJV).
Satan used the same ploy, thousands of years later, when he tried to tempt Jesus. He showed Jesus stones and suggested he turn them into bread. Jesus resisted, relying on the strength of God’s word: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Satan then showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth, a temptation embellished by a dizzying, heightened experience, to which Jesus again responded: “You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve” (v. 10).
Satan knows how to utilize our visual references to completely fool us. One of Jesus’ disciples, John, warned about the “lust of the eyes” (1 John 2:16)— the risk of placing undue emphasis on physical and desirable “things.”
Knowing and understanding come from hearing. Jesus said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (John 10:27 NKJV). An intelligent, cognizant relationship with Jesus is not based on visual experience alone, but on hearing, listening, and weighing those words. God appealed to an ancient people who cherished and valued materialism over the value of really listening:
“Why do you spend money for what is not bread, And your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, And let your soul delight itself in abundance. Incline your ear, and come to Me. Hear, and your soul shall live; And I will make an everlasting covenant with you . . . ” (Isaiah 55:2-3 NKJV).
The question remains, do we know what it is to really “listen”? How much peace and quiet exists in your busy, multimedia-enhanced days? Have you ever switched off the radio or television, put away the headphones, and just sat on the verandah to enjoy the setting sun with nothing more than the song birds in the trees? Have you ever allowed yourself total silence— where you are comfortable with your own thoughts and meditations?
Do you really want to find and know God? The secret is in “listening” for him. Take quiet time every day. Learn to pray. God will listen to you, for God hears our prayers.
Words are powerful. Apparently we’ll be judged for every idle word we speak (Matthew 12:36-37)! James exhorts us: “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak . . .” (James 1:19).
Of course, not everything we hear should be denied common sense scrutiny! The secret is in listening, and knowing that our eyes fall prey too easily to deceit. So, if you happen to meet a magician making red balls disappear into thin air, or pulling rabbits out of hats, or predicting the future with a pack of cards, count yourself lucky if he later confides in you that “Looks can be deceiving.” His words will be truer than his art.