Question: A Christian friend recently asked us if it is wrong to burn wood and use it to heal people. She says that her father used to do it in Morocco—he was not a believer. Apparently, the idea is to burn wood, then extinguish the flame and apply the burned part to wherever the aches and pains are. We advised her not to get involved in this, as it isn’t biblical, whereas the prayer of faith in James 5 is what God has shown us. Do you have any knowledge of this practice of burning wood to heal?
Response: Ritualistic burning of wood and other objects for healing/cleansing or other purposes is a pagan practice. The ancient Nordic (Scandinavian) pagan religious practice of putting ashes on one’s forehead was believed to invoke the protection of the god Odin. It is said that this ritual then entered Europe during the Vikings’ raids and conquests. The ashes were applied on Wednesday, the day named for Woden, the Germanic deity that is the equivalent of the Norse god Odin.
Catholics and other groups are perpetuating a form of this practice through “Ash Wednesday” observances. We are never told in Scripture that this is something we should do. Ash Wednesday, which is a part of Lent, is practiced by most Catholics and even by some Protestant denominations. According to the website Catholic Online, “Ashes are a symbol of penance made sacramental by the blessing of the Church, and they help us develop a spirit of humility and sacrifice” (emphasis added).
The burning of wood for “smudging,” is most often thought of as a Native American practice, but the “spiritual” ritual use of rising smoke has been seen in many cultures for thousands of years. Smudging is the burning of wood, herbs, or incense, with the goal of causing a desired change in one’s thoughts, emotions, dwellings, circumstances, or reality. Hindu texts acknowledge that this was practiced thousands of years ago through the burning of incense. Egyptian records speak of purification by smoke, burning aromatic resins in their various religious ceremonies.
In contrast, we read in the Old Testament that although the priests were to burn a specific mixture of spices and frankincense on the golden altar of incense (before the Holy of Holies) every morning and evening, this was a part of worship and not a healing methodology. Moreover, God forbade the use of that same incense outside the tabernacle for the Israelites’ own purposes. If they disobeyed, they would be cut off from their people (Ex 30:34-38)!
There are also examples in Scripture of the use of ashes (sometimes translated “dust,”) often accompanied by sackcloth to indicate repentance or mourning. “Jacob rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son [Joseph] many days” (Gn 37:34). After the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon, “The elders of the daughter of Zion [sat] upon the ground...: they have cast up dust upon their heads; they have girded themselves with sackcloth…” (Lam:2:10). At the rebuke of Elijah for the death of Naboth, “Ahab…rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly” (1 Kg 21:27). After David’s sin in numbering the people, “Then David and the elders of Israel, who were clothed in sackcloth, fell upon their faces” (1 Ch 21:16).
Among the pagans, the King of Nineveh, hearing the preaching of Jonah, “arose from his throne,…laid his robe from him,…covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes” (Jon 3:5-9). Jesus noted in Matthew:11:21, “Woe unto thee, Chorazin!...Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
The point is that although dust or ashes could reflect repentance or mourning, “smudging” and similar rituals are pagan in origin and are man-devised methodologies. In direct contrast, for the people of God, the Lord will “give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified” (Is 61:3).