I’ve been remiss: for some time my article “A New Age of Miracles” has been in Christianity Today Magazine. It draws on my book Miracles so if you absolutely refuse to buy the book you can read this short piece for free and get something from it. It’s online here.
Posts Tagged ‘miracles’
In case you are interested, here is a nice review of my book Miracles.
This morning I did a skype interview with Patheos.com, which is using my book Miracles for a book club. The last question in the interview was a familiar one: What do you say to someone whose prayers for a miracle are not answered?
I blathered on for a while about the kingdom of God and miracles as signs pointing to it. I believe all that wholeheartedly, but it’s not a very emotionally satisfying answer.
This afternoon I attended a Scripture meditation, in which my friend Linda Albert led us in meditating on the story of Lazarus. I think I found a better answer.
For Lazarus’ experience is a parable of unanswered prayer. His sisters ask for Jesus to come, but Jesus doesn’t arrive (as they know he could) and Lazarus dies. What do you say to those sisters? Simply the truth: “Jesus is coming.”
He comes, on his own time, to heal Lazarus from death. As he will come to each of us, to offer resurrection forever.
For those whose prayers for a miracle are not answered, we can only say: “Jesus is coming.”
My son Silas, who is trying to make the Olympic rowing team, sustained a rib injury last week. For rowers this is an exceptionally bad problem, because rib injuries are very slow to heal. He’s dedicated four years of his life to this quest, and it’s awful to think of his losing it all because of an ill-timed injury.
My inclination is to pray for miraculous healing. I believe God can fix this problem in a second, if he wants to. And I want him to, very much! However, that prayer raises questions for me. What would make God want to heal this and not that? Why would he heal Silas’ rib cage and not my friend Karen’s knee? Or my friend Chris’s cancer?
A sports injury intensifies these questions. If Silas is healed and able to row in the Olympics, he will push aside some equally hard-working athlete. And why, really, should God care who goes to the Olympics? It’s only a game.
My only answer is that I care about it. I want Silas to heal and to be able to compete. Is that good enough?
In writing my book Miracles (coming in July) I was struck by the thought that we pray for miracles whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. In heaven there is no sickness, no pain. Our bodies will work perfectly there. So even Presbyterians like me pray regularly for miracles, because we pray that what is true in heaven would be made true on earth.
God ultimately wants Silas’s body—all our bodies—to work perfectly, as they were designed to work. Praying for his ribs to heal is aligning ourselves with what we know God wants.
But is it that simple? Is praying for a miracle always simply asking that God’s kingdom come? The answer is, “No!” At least one Old Testament miracle—asked for and received–is clearly labeled, “Not God’s Will,” and “Do Not Repeat—Ever!”
That is the incident of Massah, when the thirsty Israelites demanded that God provide them with water. (Exodus 17:1-7) God acceded to their demands. Moses struck the rock and water came out. However, this place of miracle became a byword for quarreling with God. Psalm 95 strongly warns against similar behavior, as does Deuteronomy 6:16, which Jesus quoted when he was tempted by Satan. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Luke 4:12)
God surely wanted to provide water for his people at Massah. He had not brought them there to let them die. But he had his own time, and his own ways. We will never know what those were, because the Israelites were so keen to have him meet their needs in the way they expected him to, no matter what.
Thus I pray for a miracle—that Silas would be instantly healed. But I try to tune my mind to be more interested in seeing God’s kingdom come, than in seeing it come the way I envision it.
So far, Silas has not been instantly healed. A physical therapist and a chiropractor have helped him, and there’s hope he’ll get well fast enough to be able to compete. His coach’s response has been most encouraging. Contrary to all expectations, he was willing to give Silas time off to heal. That seemed to have some miraculous qualities, at least to Silas!
Observing Silas deal with this, I’ve seen signs of an awakening spirit. That encourages me, as an answer to my deepest prayers. One way or another, may God’s kingdom come!
Sunday I preached at my church. We’re doing a series on the Kingdom of God, and my topic was signs and wonders. If you’re interested, this is a good introduction to my book, Miracles: A Journalist Looks at Modern Day Experiences of God’s Power. Due in July. Amazon, B&N, Christianbook.com.
My favorite part is talking about the usefulness of signs–the kind you see along the highway, that is.
The Function of Miracles—Part 9
“Once when I was ministering in Southern California,” writes Bill Johnson in The Supernatural Power of a Transformed Mind, “a mother brought me a child who was tormented by devils. The child scratched and clawed at me while I prayed and bound and did what I knew to do—and yet my prayers had no apparent effect. The mother looked at me and said words I will never forget: ‘Isn’t there anyone here who can help me?’ Why did that mother bring that child to me? Because I represented someone—Jesus—who is absolutely perfect, knows no lack of power, and is absolutely willing to bring deliverance.” 
Johnson asks whether we should conclude that it was God’s will for the child to be tormented. No, he says, though that is the theology “many people embrace during times of uncertainty.”
He concluded that he needed to spend more time in prayer and fasting, so that he had a reserve of deep intimacy with God. “My inability to bring the needed deliverance to the child has driven me to the throne. I must have more!!” Then he would be able, like Jesus, to see heaven “erupt into the natural world at a moment’s notice.”
“We may find ourselves facing problems and not knowing where the tools are to bring about the solution. But that doesn’t mean the problem is insurmountable. There is power in resolving in your heart that God is good all of the time, and that His will for healing and wholeness does not change, despite what we see in the natural.” 
Without bitterness, without resignation, we are to keep on trying. We may not understand why our prayers are ineffectual, but we should never draw the conclusion that the problem is meant to be permanent, or that God isn’t interested in healing.
I think that’s true. The Father of Jesus Christ will bring about healing, not just for each one who seeks it in the name of Jesus, but for the whole universe. At the same time, I want to hold on to the words of Peter: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ….” (1 Peter 4:12-13)
“But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:8,9)
We should never lose sight of the Kingdom, and always pray for God to do “on earth as it is in heaven.” But we should also be patient, and remember that God can do a great deal of good for us as he guides us through the painful (and slow, by our accounting) renewal of his creation. Johnson’s emphasis on trying harder may suggest that any failings are our responsibility. Really, though, God is in control. He has his own sense of timing. And his renewal of creation is not wrapped up in healing diseases. That may, in fact, be at the bottom of his to-do list. In my reading of the New Testament, he seems more concerned about character and love, which can and do grow in times of perplexity and strain.
The Function of Miracles—Part 8
For those who, like Bill Johnson [The Supernatural Power of a Transformed Mind], urge us to seek miraculous healing, a favorite verse comes from Psalm 103:3: the Lord “forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases.” Add that to Isaiah 53:5: “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Those who believe in healing miracles draw the implication that in Jesus’ victory on the cross not only are we saved from sin, we are saved from every destructive force of mind and body. It’s total. All your diseases are healed.
I have two comments. First, the statement “he heals all your diseases” is empirically true in my life. All my diseases have been healed—innumerable colds, flus, measles, chicken pox, mumps, running sores, skinned knees. Right now I am recovering from a broken clavicle, and God is healing it. God has made a universe that heals itself, by natural processes, and he deserves full credit for it. Why focus on the (relatively few) diseases that will ultimately kill or cripple me? This is a healing universe and God is a healing God.
Second, I agree that salvation is total. I’m not sure that Isaiah 53:5 means to say this, but the New Testament certainly claims that Jesus defeated death on the cross. (1 Corinthians 15:55) Death is total, both physical and spiritual. Jesus’ redemption ushers each one of us into a new reality where “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.” (Revelation 21:4) God will heal all my diseases, even the ones that here and now manage to cripple or kill me.
The question is, when? I don’t think you can miss the tension throughout the New Testament between the coming Kingdom, where all is healed, and the present age where we sometimes suffer and die. Jesus has won the war, but the battles are still being fought.
Bill Johnson helps us lean into that coming Kingdom through his triumphal emphasis on God’s healing power. But I wish he were more forthright about the parallel reality of a sin-sick, disease-stricken world. That, too, is Bible truth, and Christians should always be realists.
Tomorrow I’ll close this series with a report on what Bill Johnson says about those times when he prays unsuccessfully.
The Function of Miracles—Part 7
I’m sure Bill Johnson doesn’t think miracle healings are the most important thing on earth, but he certainly places a lot of emphasis on them. He believes they offer “immediate, irrefutable proof” of what God wants to happen on earth. “Aren’t you tired of trying to carry out the Great Commission without offering proof that the Kingdom works?” 
He insists that the church has mistakenly neglected miraculous healing prayer. Jesus healed routinely; his disciples were sent out to heal; the first-century church certainly experienced healing miracles, according to the New Testament. We should too.
Arguments like these have changed the church in my lifetime. When I was young almost the only churches that publicly prayed for healing or laid on hands were Pentecostal. Now many churches of different denominations offer special prayer services. They often invite people to stay after worship services for healing prayer. The church has become semi-charismatic.
But the “semi” part is this: it’s a measured, cautious affirmation of God’s healing power. There’s little fervor, and little expectation that healings will become commonplace, as Bill Johnson says that they are in his church.
Healing miracles are unquestionably part of the New Testament reality, but it’s worth noting that they weren’t as prominent or significant there as they seem to be in Johnson’s thinking.
–Jesus healed, and got tremendous attention for it. However, the gospels show that it made little lasting impact on people. If Jesus’ miracles “prove” something, they didn’t prove it to ordinary Israelites, who rejected and crucified Jesus.
–The expectation of suffering permeates the New Testament, far more broadly and deeply than the expectation of healing.
–The New Testament letters almost never urge God’s people to pursue healing. There are references to signs and works of power, and no question that God is active and powerful. But something else matters far more urgently: love and unity between Christians, exemplary living before the world. Healing prayers don’t have a very high profile, in fact almost no profile at all.
I’m left to wonder what motivates people to place such high importance on healing miracles. Shoot, forget about other people, what makes me long for it? Could it be an attempt to compensate for our powerless status in society? Could it be we are beguiled by the prospect of doing powerful deeds? Might we want irrefutable proof of God’s power because it is so much more difficult to embody God’s existence in a loving church?
I’d love to hear other’s take on this. What do you think? Does the semi-charismatic state of the church today represent a good balance: open to God’s power in healing miracles, but humbly aware that God may have other things in mind? Or is this rather a mealy-mouthed lack of faith? Need we press on to a fuller, deeper appropriation of the kingdom of God, confidently expecting miracles “on earth as it is in heaven?”
The Function of Miracles—Part 6
About midway through his book The Supernatural Power of a Transformed Mind, Bill Johnson tells the story of a young man who fell and broke his arm at church. “The healing of broken bones, even the ones from decades ago that healed incorrectly, had become commonplace,” Johnson writes. “I ran back and found him laid out on the ground, his arm clearly broken. I got down on the ground with him, put my hand on his arm, looked at the break—and suddenly fear stole into my mind. I forgot every miracle I had ever seen, and I said, ‘Let’s call the doctor.’” 
Johnson says he wouldn’t fault anyone for doing the same. “For most it would be the proper thing to do.” But he clearly regrets that he thought of it himself—let alone acted on it.
I can’t think of a better context to raise the issue of realism. I’m not impugning Johnson—I don’t know him and haven’t heard any negative reports. I’m raising an issue that dogs all reports of miracles.
In his classic critique of miracles, David Hume points out what everybody knows: people exaggerate. They love to gossip and pass on juicy stories. Their reports expand reality, and as the stories get passed along, they expand even more. (That’s why hearsay evidence is not admissible in court.)
So it is entirely sane—not faithless, but realistic—to doubt reports of miracles. One can believe in God doing miracles but still think that most reports of miracles are bogus. I am a lot more likely to take reports of miracles seriously when they come from people who acknowledge that skepticism is justified, and often accurate.
Bill Johnson doesn’t acknowledge that, at least in this book. Healing broken bones is commonplace in his world, and that’s all he has to say.
Count me as skeptical. Not skeptical that miracles are possible or that, indeed, some astonishing healings have happened at Bill Johnson’s church. But skeptical that they happen so often that calling the doctor would be superfluous.
There’s a basic stance here. Bill Johnson wants to see only the kingdom of God. He acknowledges that his prayers aren’t always answered as he thinks they should be, but his response is not to try to make space for realism. Rather, he wants to keep leaning into the possibilities of “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Personally, I opt for realism. I am going to call the doctor. I’ll pray, but I honestly don’t expect that broken bone to knit together before the ambulance comes. Miracles are rare. I pray to see one, but my first responsibility is to care for that boy with the broken arm.
Johnson wants my mind transformed, though, so that my first impulse is to seek that miracle power. There’s tremendous vitality in this Pentecostal mindset. But I also see problems.
I see churches that are in denial. They believe in miracles, and they continually talk about those that occur. They don’t acknowledge the many situations where they don’t. There’s more hype than reality, which in the end makes people try to live as though they don’t notice what actually goes on.
That’s why people talk about “crazymatics.”
All the same, I see where Johnson is coming from. Who wants to be an expert in why God doesn’t answer prayer? What’s the value of telling people that they shouldn’t expect too much when they pray?
Here’s my question: how do you lean into the coming kingdom, and still keep your balance? Is there a way to live realistically in a world where miracles are rare, and yet still have a mind transformed by faith in God’s power? How does one do this balancing act?
I don’t think Johnson believes in balance. And he expects that miracles aren’t supposed to be rare. In fact, they’re meant to be normal, routine.
The Function of Miracles—Part 5
After a long break, I’ve finished reading Bill Johnson’s The Supernatural Power of a Transformed Mind. For a while I thought he was going to lose me with his enthusiastic triumphalism, but in the end he didn’t. It’s a good book. He has some keen insights, and he makes a good case for a Pentecostal/charismatic way of thinking about miracles.
I’ll be blogging about this for the next few days, and I thought I would begin by listing the various inputs Johnson describes as essential for becoming miracle-minded (which is what he means by “a transformed mind.”)
Revelation. “It is absolutely impossible to live the normal Christian life without receiving regular revelation from God. The Bible does not say, ‘My people perish for a lack of miracles,’ or lack of money, or because of bad relationships or bad worship leaders or insufficient nursery staff…. It says, ‘My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.’ (Hosea 4:6)” 
Reckless Pursuit. “Few people I know receive substantial revelations or visitations of God without reckless pursuit. Most people I know who receive revelation cry out day and night for the fullness of the Holy Spirit. Casual prayer gets casual revelation.” 
In short, Christians need to fervently seek God’s personal direction so they will know when, for instance, to stop a stranger in the parking lot and offer healing prayer. It’s not one-size-fits-all. It is directed by God on a case by case basis.
Teaching that leads to expectation. “Why is it so easy to be fully convinced when we pray for someone to be saved that our prayer will work, and yet when we pray for healing we find it difficult to believe they will be healed? Because salvation, as it pertains to a born-again experience, has been embraced and taught continuously by the Church for centuries, while the revelation of healing has not been widely embraced, and has even been fought….. What would have happened if centuries ago Christians had embraced the power of the gospel to bring healing to the physical body, to the emotions, and to the mind? …. We would pray in power without one iota of doubt.” 
Johnson believes that we are seeing an escalation in belief that will lead to huge increases in healing miracles. In other words, welcome to the charismatic era.
Experimentation. “At our church, the only way we know to learn is to experiment. We fail a lot and occasionally we get it right. But we are light years ahead of where we would have been had we not tried at all.” 
Pray with Confidence. “[Pharisees] insist that you pray, but also insist you should have no hope of God answering. Theirs is a Russian roulette God: spin the chamber and maybe you’ll get an answer…. Or maybe not.” 
Assume control. “Most people’s ministry involves trying to get God to fix problems on earth… We should see situations from heaven’s perspective and declare the Word of the Lord—and watch heaven invade.” 
In other words (though Johnson doesn’t take up this phrasing), don’t pray “If it be your will.” Declare what you know (by personal revelation) to be God’s will. Don’t ask God whether he would be willing to stop the wind (or not). Command the winds and the waves to be still, just as Jesus did.
Listen with your body. “God’s first language is not English. He communicates with us in various ways, through impressions of the heart, mental pictures, feelings, emotions, and physical sensations. When we ignore our bodies, we are at least sometimes ignoring the voice of God…. I’ve spoken with people who get a tingling on the back of their heads, or a fire in their hands when God begins to move….My left hand gets hot.” 
I can offer all kinds of questions and quibbles about Johnson’s approach–and I will. But I lay out these comments as a mosaic, describing the kind of life—the transformed mind—that Johnson would endorse. It’s a life of utter conviction, a faith that won’t take no for an answer. It’s doing its best to lean into the kingdom of God.
Here are a few questions I want to raise in future posts:
–Is there a balance between confidence and realism? (Or do you have to be a little bit crazy to be a charismatic?)
–What happens when it doesn’t turn out the way you believed? (Or, what does Bill Johnson preach at funerals?)
–Why are miracles so important? (Or, can we talk about love in the transformed mind?)
–What’s your eschatology? (Or, do we have to wait for Jesus to come for the healing of all things, or is that just lack of faith?)