Superstitions and Luck: A reflection on Friday 13th
Today is Friday the 13th, counted by some as the unluckiest day of the year.
These superstitious types may be glad to get this day out of the way so early in the year (although January is a notorious month for depression, so perhaps not). They shouldn’t rejoice too quickly though. Another Friday 13th is in store in October. It is the first time in three years that there have been two such dates in the one year (yet I don’t think people would say 2021 and 2022 were especially ‘lucky’ years with the pandemic, war and economic challenges!) Every year has at least one. Some have as many as three!
The idea that Friday 13th is unlucky was first attested in the nineteenth century. It comes from the combination of two older superstitions. The reason for concern about the number thirteen could come from one of two major influences on European culture. It may derive from a Norse myth in which a feast in Valhalla was ruined when Loki, god of mischief who had not been invited, came as the thirteenth participant and arranged the killing of a more popular god, Baldr. Alternatively, it may be to do with the presence of thirteen people at the Last Supper. Friday’s supposed unluckiness is long attested – at least as far back as Geoffrey Chaucer – an idea strengthened by the fact it was the traditional day for hangings. The only exception was thought to be the Friday on which Jesus died, hence its label as ‘Good Friday’.
The origins of these superstitions may be at least partly in Christianity, but how should Christians think about superstition and luck? The short answer, I believe, is that we should be clear in rejecting these ideas but without denying their connection with spiritual powers.
The Bible is clear about the existence of Satan and evil spirits who deceive people through lies and temptation. Superstitions and fears of bad luck are undoubtedly used by these evil powers to achieve their ends. They trap people in fear and give the illusion of some ability to manipulate forces governing the world. As such, they appeal to both our tendency to idolatry (depending on forces or powers other than God to make up for our weakness) and to pride (confidence in our own ability to master our destiny). Superstitions are widespread across human cultures. When my Chinese wife and I were choosing our wedding date, some of her wider family wanted to advise us about auspicious dates according to the Chinese horoscope. We were pleased to be able to dodge the issue when their concerns dissipated because the date we had already chosen turned out to be fine by their calculations.
Realising these spiritual truths, Christians should not be too quick to dismiss superstition. This is especially true when it comes to things that are more associated with the occult. Christians should take seriously the openness to evil that comes from dabbling with things like Ouija boards, horoscopes and tarot cards. And, of course, Christians should avoid these things absolutely. Scripture is clear in its condemnations of witchcraft in all its forms (e.g., Deuteronomy 18:10-11).
We should also realise that many professing Christians are trapped in superstitions of one form or another. Syncretistic ideas and practices are evident in regions of Africa and Asia where Christianity has mingled with tribal religions (for example, people with an illness may ask for prayer from a pastor and visit a shaman or witchdoctor), but there is plenty of syncretism in Europe too. This is probably most obvious in folklore practices like using charms, which have coexisted with Christianity for many centuries. It is also there in Roman Catholicism, with superstitious ideas about objects like relics, consecrated places and using the right words the right number of times in prayers are widespread.
These superstitions are easy to spot, but superstition is there in more subtle ways in our wider culture. Christians can easily be swept along with those seemingly harmless superstitions like broken mirrors, black cats and not walking under a ladder (although we might see a logic to that one!) They may, unwisely I believe, allow their children to participate in Halloween parties and fancy dress. Even some practices like saying ‘Bless you, when someone sneezes, adding ‘God-willing’ or ‘DV’ after speaking of a plan, or even offering or asking for prayer for healing – things that are good in themselves and could express genuine faith – may become superstitious if we come to think harm will come from omitting to do it or that we will lose God’s favour if we forget.
This brings us to the heart of the matter. Christians should not be given over to any fear, other than the holy fear of God (1 Peter 2:17). Satan and his demons have no power over us because we belong to Christ. If we resist the devil he will flee (James 4:7). There are dark powers at work in the world, but they cannot harm us unless we believe their lies and one of their most subtle lies is to make us think they have power. But evil forces have no power God has not allowed them and he will not allow them any power over his chosen and beloved people. We are indwelt by the Spirit of God and covered by the blood of Jesus, so we are protected against evil.
Not all superstition among Christians comes from fear of evil spirits, though. The other root is a wrong understanding of what it means to fear God. When Scripture commands us to fear him, it means we must regard him as utterly holy and all powerful. We need a vision of his glory and majesty, which keeps us humble. But this fear must be combined with an appreciation for the perfect love of God, which casts out fear (1 John 4:18) and from which nothing can separate us (Romans 8:38-39). We are secure in God’s love. We do not need to do anything to keep his favour. We do need to act in obedience to him, but that does not mean we do things from superstition – as I said earlier that reflects idolatry (we worship the thing or practice) or pride (we trust our own ability to earn security). It means that we trust God, shun evil, resist the devil and follow the Spirit’s leading to obey the Word of God. We rest in God’s promises, which are not off and on depending on our actions, but are always yes and amen to us in Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 1:20). Superstition does not lead us to God, but away from him.
So much for superstition, but what about luck? Ideas about luck are pervasive in our culture too. It is commonplace to hear people wishing others ‘Good luck’ or saying something good was ‘lucky’. It is there in less obvious ways too, deep in the etymology in words like ‘happen’ and ‘perhaps’, which include the root ‘hap’, meaning luck. The Christian trust in God should cause us to reject such thinking. We trust in a God who is sovereign over all circumstances. We do not believe in a blink force – ‘luck’ or anything else – that governs what happens.
Trust in God’s sovereignty does not mean that Christians think everything is predetermined by him. It is clear that the sovereign God allows us real agency. We have real choices with real consequences. But he has set the limits of the impact our choices can have and he determines the ultimate outcome of human history. Our choices are within his limits. And he has a purpose for us, which must be the primary concern for Christians in making any choices, that we will become like his Son, the Lord Jesus, and help others to see and praise his glory. As we seek to do this, God provides what we need. As Jesus said, if we seek God’s kingdom and righteousness first, all we need will be added to us (Matthew 6:33). Of course, what we need may not be what we want, but we know that our good Father knows better than us (Matthew 7:11). The word that describes this activity of God’s sovereign purposes for the good of his people is providence. It is a beautiful truth, best summarised in Romans 8:28, which says: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose”. That purpose is to make us like his Son and no other power can thwart it (read on in Romans 8).
So, Christians should be concerned about superstition as a gateway to evil and we should avoid anything to do with it. In a culture rife with superstition and belief in luck, we should also testify to a different way of thinking. That will mean learning not to wish people luck or give credence to superstitions, but positively to speak instead of our trust in God and confidence in his promises. With Christ there are no lucky numbers or unlucky days. Every date is a gift from him to live and speak for his glory.