Consider two similar scenarios with me.
In the first, imagine a soldier far away from home. He carries a picture of his wife with him everywhere he goes, and before going to sleep each night, he pulls it out, whispers, “I love you,” and gives it a quick kiss.
In the second, imagine a Christian who carries a small crucifix with him everywhere he goes, and before going to sleep each night, he pulls it out, whispers, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and gives it a quick kiss.
Now the question, would you classify these acts as devotion or superstition? I would postulate that most people would see the first as an act of devotion to the soldier’s wife, but that the second would generate more controversy with some labeling it as superstition.
Are these labels accurate?
The soldier’s actions have no direct affect on his wife. She has no way of knowing if her picture is in her husband’s pocket when he is away or not. She has no way of knowing what his actions with that picture are. We can also envision this scenario occurring and the wife never knowing about this act of devotion.
What effects do his devotion have? It is arguable that it has an effect on the husband. By these actions he is reminding himself each day of his love for his wife, even if he has limited ways to tangibly express it to her. He is working to “keep the flame alive” in his heart for her. This devotion—if it does have this effect—will have results that the wife will realize. When her husband returns, he will have been faithful to her and will be happy to be reunited with her. He may be more loving (however we choose to define that) to her upon return than if he had not kept up this devotion.
The one way in which this might become unhealthy is if the soldier is professing that he is performing this devotion to his wife. This could be an attempt to somehow manipulate or give a false impression to his wife. It would also highlight any other shortcomings he may have. It is not a stretch to imagine a wife in such a scenario saying to such a husband, “That’s great, but how about…” and listing any number of shortcomings.
I don’t think any of this is controversial, and I think the parallels to the second scenario are fairly obvious. There is one significant difference, however. Jesus is able to know when the person with the crucifix prays. Whether it is the vocalized prayer or the act of a kiss, Christ knows that it is happening. So all of the “benefits” of the soldier’s act of devotion are present plus the object of affection—in this case Jesus—actually observes, actually receives the affection. The same caveats apply to this second scenario as well. If this person is telling others of his “private” act of devotion, we may rightly question his motive.
Devotion, like prayer, is largely about what it does to us, for us, and in us. The goal of religious life is not to bend God to our ways, but to mold ourselves to his. If I thought I was somehow obligating God to me through an act of devotion, that may be superstition. If I am doing it as a tangible reminder of my relationship to God, a way to keep him ever before me, it is devotion.