Believing What We Want

I once read a fascinating story about something that was said to the magician Houdini. According to the book The Secret Life of Houdini,

In February, both [the actress Sarah] Bernhardt and Houdini found themselves playing Boston at the same time. She invited him to visit her at her hotel, where Houdini entranced her with more than a half hour of close-up magic. The next day, she rode in a car with a magician and watched him free himself from a straitjacket while being suspended sixty feet in the air. The previous year had been rough for the French actress; ten years after a serious injury, her right leg was finally amputated and she was continuing her stage career with the assistance of a wooden leg.

On the way back to the hotel, the Divine Sarah suddenly embraced Houdini. “Houdini, you are a wonderful human being,” she purred. “You must possess some extraordinary power to perform such marvels. Won’t you use it to restore my limb for me?”
Houdini was shocked when he realized that she was dead serious.
“Good heavens, Madame, certainly not,” Houdini sputtered. “You know my powers are limited and you are actually asking me to do the impossible.”
“Yes,” she said, leaning closer to him. “But you do the impossible.”
“Are you jesting?”
“Mais non, Houdini, j’ai jamais ete plus serieux dans ma vie.”
Houdini’s eyes welled with tears.
“Madame, you exaggerate my ability,” he said.

This is such an interesting response to Houdini’s magic from someone who got to experience it more intimately than most. Yet how would we describe Sarah’s question to Houdini? Was it childish, or naive, or ignorant? Perhaps, but I think something more simple is happening: Sarah believed what she wanted to be true.

She wanted to be healed, and it opened her up to believe that someone who could do what Houdini did must be able to do it. We do the same thing all the time. But when we believe things that are factually inaccurate we open ourselves to delusion. We can do this in a number of ways.

  1. When we think we are a better driver than others when statistically this doesn’t make sense.
  2. When we judge ourselves by our intentions while simultaneously judging others by their actions.
  3. When we believe the people around us are just as they appear on social media.
  4. When we assume others don’t struggle with the things we struggle with.

Some of these cause us to think more of ourselves (1-2) and some cause us to think less of ourselves. You may react that examples 3-4 cause us to diminish ourselves and we therefore would not want to believe them. But the reason we believe in the myth of celebrity is that we secretly want to be one of them too. And each of these beliefs produces distortions to reality.

When it comes to our beliefs about God, I’ve found we tend to believe too little. Namely, we end up justifying all sorts of things about God that if we honestly evaluated we would have to admit make God appear to have quite a few issues. I suspect we do this because for centuries Christians have focused on how depraved we are and how disappointed God must be with us.

Upon an initial reading of the Bible, one could easily assume (and many do) that God is violent, God hates a lot of people, God is insecure and chauvinistic and controlling, God seems to be pleasure-adverse and completely comfortable with God’s own creation suffering, and God has a bizarre need to punish people who don’t agree.

But here’s my argument to this: the Jesus-looking God we find in the Scriptures is better than we can imagine, not less. Therefore, whenever we find ourselves thinking it would be great if God was something different than we actually believe God to be, we should stop and evaluate how we’ve come to imagine a better version of God than the one we may actually be following. If you can imagine a more loving version of God than the one you think is real I’d challenge you to rethink your theology and have a conversation with Jesus about it. And yes, this conclusion comes from believing that as God’s creation made in God’s image, we inherently have beauty and value.

As the theologian David Bentley Hart argues, “I am fairly sure that it must be a wicked thing to give one’s intellectual assent to something one cannot help but find morally repugnant.” In other words, it’s sinful to believe something about God you find morally repulsive. When it comes to God, what we truly want to believe as true is ultimately a reflection of the infinite God of love that created us. Let’s believe that God is that good.

If you can imagine a more loving version of God than the one you think is real I'd challenge you to rethink your theology. Share on X

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Jeremy Jernigan

Speaker | Author | Founder of Communion Wine Co.