Posts Tagged ‘miracles’

Providential History

February 22, 2015

I am in the midst of writing a book-length journalistic history of Biblica, a 206-year-old organization. I won’t go into detail here—you’ll have to read the book—but suffice it to say that Biblica has gone through its highs and lows, its ins and outs, its days of triumph and unmitigated disaster. That’s probably true of any 200-year-old organization (there aren’t all that many) or for that matter any life.

My explicit purpose in writing this book is to tell the story truthfully but in such a way that a thread of purpose is revealed. That is to say, I am trying to marshal the facts in such a way that somebody who lived through them will recognize as accurate, while at least suggesting a note of redemption even in the catastrophes.

Some would look askance at the effort, as shamelessly manipulative. I grant you, it is not the same thing as an academic history, which ideally tells a story without fear or favor, as it were, and does not present God’s purpose except as an idea residing in someone’s brain. (Though even academic historians may look for themes to emerge from their telling of the story, and suggest what can be seen beyond the facts.)

But even granted that my purpose is a good one, it is not all that easy. Life is messy. Sometimes it appears to be a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The only thing I can prove is that Biblica survived its crises. Whether they had meaning, whether God was overseeing and protecting, and more importantly, how God was overseeing and protecting, I can only theorize cautiously and hopefully. It’s never absolutely clear. Sometimes you have to use considerable ingenuity to see some purpose in what happened.

I tell you this because it makes me think of an old and important question: whether there is such a thing as “providential history,” and whether Christian historians are obligated to write it. We have some very noteworthy historians who are Christians—George Marsden, to mention just one. But he, and many of his Christian colleagues, are sometimes assaulted by their fellow Christians for their failure to write “providentially” about subjects like Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening. That is to say, they don’t attribute what happened to God. They focus on the mechanics of events, the human activities, rather than the divine purpose that lies behind them.

I’ve always sided with the historians on this one, mainly because I like to make up my own mind about what God was doing. Just the facts, ma’am. But now I find myself writing a sort-of providential history, and it feels very reasonable to me. I’ve concluded, tentatively, that there are two layers to history, and that it’s possible to write one or the other with perfect grace and integrity.

I get this from something important I learned while writing Miracles: everything is natural and supernatural at the same time. People desperately attempt to separate them, demanding to know, for example, “Did God heal that boy? Or did the doctors do it?” I learned that is not an either/or question. God is involved in everything that happens, sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly. When it’s obvious, and surprising, we call it a miracle. But God is no less involved at other times. (Yes, this does lead us to the problem of evil. What doesn’t?)

At the same time, even what we call miracle happens at a natural level. It happens to stuff, which is composed of particles, and the behavior of those particles is a natural phenomenon subject to scientific description and analysis.

So with history: it is at the same time both natural and supernatural.

Just as it is appropriate for scientists to describe the behavior of some organism without ascribing purpose to the organism, so it is appropriate for historians to write “just the facts,” without bringing God into it. On the other hand, there is a place for writing history through the eyes of faith. This kind of history will always be tentative, for the only fully trustworthy providential history is in the Bible. (That is, it is for those like me who believe the Bible is inspired by God.) But those who bring faith to the facts may venture hypotheses about what makes sense of the facts. (That is how Hebrews 11:1 describes faith: “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”) The ultimate point of history is surely to make some sense of what happened. We can as well try that using the idea of God’s care as any other.

This applies to making sense not just of history but of our own lives. The unexamined life is not worth living, someone said, and whether or not that is true, there is beauty and nobility (and inevitability?) in trying to see some sense in your personal history. Is there a pattern? Is there meaning? Those questions will always lead to the question of God, in the end: is there one? Does he care? Is he involved? And can we have any idea at all of what he would care about, and how he might be involved?

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Interview with Eric Metaxas

November 5, 2014

My interview with Eric Metaxas is now online. He’s talking about his new book Miracles. He has an interesting take… for one, he doesn’t particularly focus on healings or other material happenings; he’s just as interested in appearances of angels or in voices directing someone out of the Twin Towers on 9/11. He understands miracles as irruptions of the heavenly realm into the earthly; and as such he pays almost no attention to “proof,” like X-rays before and after, and much more to the question of reliable human testimony. He’s basically saying: trustworthy people have experiences that suggest a wider reality than the purely physical. The nature of reality is more than what meets the eye.

Special on Miracles

May 13, 2014

My publisher announces that they have a special sale on e-book copies of my book Miracles.

On May 18 you can download it free. For two weeks after that–through the end of the month–you get it for $5.99.

Here’s the link to their special page:
http://bakerpublishinggroup.com/bethanyhouse/ebook-specials-from-bethany-house

They say the same deal is at most of the big book websites.

A New Age of Miracles

October 2, 2012

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.

Miracles Review

August 22, 2012

In case you are interested, here is a nice review of my book Miracles.

http://www.bookreporter.com/reviews/miracles-a-journalist-looks-at-modern-day-experiences-of-gods-power

When Jesus Doesn’t Heal

July 13, 2012

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.”

Praying for Miracles

March 1, 2012

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!

 

Signs and Wonders in the Kingdom of God

February 2, 2012

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.

Here’s the link to the sermon. You can stream or download. It’s just over 20 minutes.

When God Doesn’t Answer Your Prayers

September 10, 2010

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.” [1286]

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.” [1293]

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.

What’s Your Eschatology?

September 9, 2010

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.