December 16, 2017

Am I the Unbeliever?

A good and dear friend recently updated me on developments in her recent spiritual journey.

Let’s stop here. If you’re reading this, here’s a question for you: What do you expect to hear now?

Thought about it? Good. Let’s go on.

Most of what she told me about would go in the category of signs and wonders.

A prayer was answered with the sudden appearance of a rainbow, and so on. Mystical, personal stuff in the realm of answered prayers and personal experience. Her entire spiritual life is not studying scripture, but about what she describes as a “deep, personal experience of God” that includes His very real activity to show His hand in signs and wonders.

Scripture isn’t absent, but my friend’s journey is one where experience is leading and scripture is following. My friend is immensely happy, by the way, and closer to Jesus than ever before.

I had to immediately admit that this isn’t my journey and isn’t likely to ever be. I’m honestly afraid of anything in the category of “signs and wonders.” I’m very suspicious of any and all personal religious experience of this sort. I’m a skeptic when I hear most testimonies of miracles or signs. I tend to think that it isn’t true, is exaggerated or won’t last.

I’m ruthless to preachers in this regard. When I preacher talks off into a story of a miracle, sign or wonder, I’m wearing a helmet that says “Don’t try that stuff on me.” I’m kinder to regular Christian folk, but I’ve still got a skeptical attitude that the devil himself would admire.

I believe that religion, as a human phenomenon and by its very nature, creates a world where people believe that things happen that haven’t happened. The line between fact and reality goes very thin and takes a good bit of the week off.

I don’t find it at all unusual that a guy like Todd Bentley can say the last three rows at his meeting were all in caskets dead yesterday or that angels are tossing elephants around in the green room. And I’m not surprised that people believe him and defend him.

Now I won’t argue with you that there’s a problem with me in this area. (If you haven’t noticed.) Christianity is a religion of miracles that are essential to its existence. While I would stand by my frequent assertion that the number and frequency of miracles in the Bible is generally over-emphasized and exaggerated, I’m all signed up to affirm that the Bible is a record of miracles, signs and wonders.

I know that the Christian worldview is open to the intervention of God. I’m not a deist. I pray for God’s intervention all the time. I’ve experienced it. My family was once awakened from a sound sleep to discover our house on fire. How? By a noise in the street that I just happened to get up to check out….and thereby discovered the laundry room on fire. I’ve seen God answer prayer for my wife, my children, my mother and the ministry where I work.

But there’s no doubt that I have a bias in this area. Is it an over commitment to logic? An inevitable part of the Protestant use of the Bible? Residual damage from being a Calvinist?

There was a time, when I was a very young Christian, that I was part of a Charismatic prayer group that did little other than sing, pray for miracles and talk about miracles. When I left that chapter of my journey, I didn’t leave angry or hurt, but I wonder if I left feeling superior? Convinced I- at that time a dispensationalist- knew more than those kinds of people?

Have I spent so many years preaching, that I’m convinced God works by argument? By debate and verbal persuasion? How did I get so biased against the many other ways that God certainly uses to wake us up, draw us to himself and assure us of his presence?

Am I frightened by the unordered, uncontrollable aspect of God the Holy Spirit? Have I fled to the security of God working through chapter and verse so that I can understand him? Does my skepticism give me the illusions and delusions about God that keep my feeling safe and in control?

My friend’s spiritual journey hasn’t made her a raving loon. She doesn’t claim to hear voices or see visions. If she did, I don’t think it would turn her into someone bizarre and embarrassing.

My friend Pat had two heart transplants before he died a few years ago. When he came back from his first one, he was profoundly changed by a vision of Jesus on the cross, there in his hospital room. He told the story many times, with obvious and sincere emotion. It assured him of God’s love and salvation. After years of alcoholism and living far from God, he loved the cross of Jesus, and he believed he’d been taken to it that day.

I know a dozen explanations for what happened to Pat. Doctors can explain it to you. So can most psychologists and more than a few counselors. But the thing is, Pat didn’t see Jesus all the time, like Harvey the Rabbit. He saw the cross once, in a vision, and his life was changed. It was “outside the Bible,” but it was very much inside the Bible, too.

My friend’s journey isn’t an exposition of Romans. It’s a discovery that God is out there, beckoning her own to another chapter of loving God and loving neighbor. She’s sane as a judge. And she believes a rainbow appeared out of nowhere, just for her.

I’m the skeptic, and I assure myself that my skepticism makes me a believer in what God has said in scripture. (I mean, I have an ESV Study Bible!) But I have to face the fact that I’m often an unbeliever in the God beyond the page. I’m a skeptic about experiences happening today like those I read in the life of Abraham, Jacob and Moses.

Somehow, I sense that for all the theology I’ve imbibed, by faith and my connection with God are smaller. And while some will say that my friend and others have walked away from the Bible, I’m wondering if they have taken the Word into the Wild, where the God who surprises with signs and wonders still lives.

Comments

  1. CowBell4484 says:

    New to the site. Great blog, iMonk!

    As one whose faith journey has taken him from Methodist to Baptist then back to Methodist then (very) briefly Anglican and finally to the Roman Catholic Church, yeah I echo your reservations about these “signs and wonders”. But then I also always step back and ask myself jut why I’m skeptical – why I doubt. Sometimes it’s for good reasons, but other time I confess that my default position seems to be skepticism. And for someone who chose to join a Church which professes (and who himself whole-heartedly affirms) transubstantiation and multiple Marian apparitions, this is admittedly to an extent hypocritical. This is, of course, even without mentioning the miracles recorded in scripture.

    One line I like from my Catholic teachers is that God may have bound himself to the Sacraments, but he is in no way bound by the Sacraments. In other, more cliched words, God works in mysterious ways. May he grant us eyes to see and ears to hear his many great and glorious wonders, as well as the humility and discernment to know the difference between the true miracles and the misinterpretations/hoaxes.

  2. Michael: Balance is the key. I do believe that God works in the way your friend has described. I believe I have experienced it more than once in my Christian life. The experiences are not to trump the Bible nor are they to contradict the Bible. The Bible is the final authority, but experiences can lead to a deeper understanding of what scripture is teaching. It solidifies that we are on the right track in what we believe, and that God is really, personally with us.

    Satan doesn’t go the opposite way of God as many believe, he takes the things of God and perverts it. Such as a Todd Bentley, or even a Benny Hinn. He perverts marriage, such as those living together, gay marriages. He perverts the beauty of God invented sex numerous way. Satan isn’t very inventive. Look what he did in the garden of Eden. Used the very tree that God planted to bring sin into the world.

  3. I forgot to add. No you are not an unbeliever. God works personally, different in each person. I do not seek nor want a private prayer language, but I believe he gifts some with it.

  4. Great post Michael! I’m too often an unbeliever as well, but there’s something biblical about that…I believe, help my unbelief.

    Our culture makes us skeptical of anything that can’t be verified in a laboratory. Our church culture makes us skeptical…if you visit this site, then you’ve probably been burned by that culture to some extent. I think watching debate videos between atheists and theists have made me skeptical since the god the theists argue for is often very deistic.

    I’ve experienced miracles though. If I outlined them for everyone, I’m sure that some would be skeptical based on other presuppositions, but their still very real to me. At the same time, if someone else on here outlined miracles in their life I’d be skeptical as well simply because we’re shaped to be that way by our Western culture.

  5. I think I understand the kind of skepticism you’re talking about. It’s my default reaction when people talk about prophecies, not so much miracles. I know prophecy is Biblical, but when I hear people who I don’t think are “qualified” or “in a position” to prophecy (quotes because I don’t exactly know how I would even define those) it makes me think of those fortune tellers who say generic things that could apply to almost anyone. I have a feeling that it’s wrong for me to jump to that conclusion, but as you wrote – the Todd Bentleys of the world drove me to my skepticism.
    Like CowBell said, may God grant us humility and discernment.

  6. I was a couple of weeks out from a marathon, and the plan was to run 22 miles that day. Around mile 16, I hit the wall. Part of the reason I was even running the marathon was because I knew I couldn’t–I wanted to do something that I needed to rely on God for. But I felt I had failed. I was on the Maxwell AFB golf course, headed toward the River, and I felt like I could barely take another step.

    First, I “felt” permission to finish the loop I was on and head back to the gym. I didn’t even have to jog, just walk, but I wasn’t to turn around and take the short cut. I obeyed and headed down the hill. When I got to bottom of the hill, I was surrounded. Butterflies and dragonflies were everywhere. It was absolutely beautiful.

    Was it a direct blessing from God for obeying a “spoken” order? Or just a bunch of bugs? I dunno. All the same, I have “heard” God on occasion, but I don’t ask for signs like that too often. Frankly, it scares me.

  7. On the other hand, if you just landed on earth in a space ship, looked around a little, then turned on a little TBN, or Daystar . . . you might get the impression that Christians on planet Earth were not skeptical enough.

  8. I doubted until I saw a few of those signs and wonders for myself. I can relate to Thomas; he wasn’t willing to believe any of that resurrection crap until he had seen it himself too.

    Even though I’m surrounded by fellow pentecostals, I still take many of their miracle stories with a grain of salt. Frequently we pentecostals are too gullible. We want miracles so badly that we’re willing to accept shoddy evidence, iffy stories, and people with lousy reputations who exaggerate or lie in order to look impressive. The devil fakes miracles too, mainly to discredit the real ones. But that still leaves plenty of real ones.

    I would be a lot more particular about my signs and wonders than your friend is. When you pray, and immediately afterward see a rainbow, that is not a sign. That’s an omen, and omens aren’t God, but augury, superstition, and baloney. It is only a sign when God assigns the interpretation to nature—like the original purpose of rainbows (Gen 8:13) or something out of the ordinary, like a baby in a manger. (Luke 2:12) If God told her, “Here’s a sign to confirm My promise: You’ll see a rainbow in a cloudless sky,” then we’re talking a sign. Otherwise we’re talking about someone who wants a sign so badly that she’s making ’em up, and drawing her hope from fabrications instead of God. God forbid she decides to take drastic steps based on self-made “signs.”

  9. the hard part is when you’re open to these things (in spite of being a calvinist), make a hard decision based on what you think was a vision from God, and all that results is a charlie foxtrot.

  10. Michael, I’m pretty much with you.

    I believe in miracles– I’ve heard some amazing stories, and I believe them. But I also believe that they are miracles and therefore, by definition, don’t happen nearly so often as some folks claim.

    And I think that a lot of Christians have a definite confusion of causation and correlation, which leads them dangerously into magical thinking.

    Sincerity is important in the Christian faith– but sincerity alone does not create new phenomena. Religion based mainly on sincerity is certainly religion, but it isn’t the Christianity of the Bible.

  11. Tim,

    I had that happen to me once. I have heard what I believed to be the audible voice of God once in my life. Only once. He told me that my time of ministry at a particular church was done, and that he had something new for me at another church (One that I had no prior knowledge of).

    We left the first church, they actually had a time of prayer for us at our last service, and moved to the new church.

    It closed through quite a painful process 2 years later.

    We were left wondering. “What was that all about?”

    Yet it is only now, that we are involved in a third church that we are starting to see some of the wonderful ways that God caused the closing of a church to benefit so many of the people who were there. Our family, for one, are finally in a church that feels like home. This after 17 years of churches that felt like anything but home. Others have expressed to me how their new church (different to ours) has really been a blessing to them.

    Was it really the audible voice of God? I can’t say for sure, but as I look back, he sure seems to have turned something that looked quite bleak into a blessing for many.

    I have only had a couple of other interesting encounters with God like this over my life time. The other two were a lot more concrete that the one mentioned above. Once per decade doesn’t seem like a lot, but it keeps me from being a skeptic as to whether or not God is still doing “signs and wonders” in this world.

  12. There’s a lot of similarities between this post and the recent one concerning apologetics. There are a lot of people who don’t think they are smart enough to understand the bible; having a bunch of apologist wanna-be’s acting so much smarter than everyone else doesn’t help. I can see this leading people to more folksy, esoteric spiritual experiences, rather than objective, scripture-based faith.

    Having fundamentalism stereotype human reason as liberal and humanistic makes matters that much worse. If people can’t trust human reason, they must either pursue an irrational spiritual path or submit themselves to an authoritarian – potentially abusive – spiritual leader or group (e.g. Bentley).

    Luther proclaimed that he would not be convinced without scripture and plain, clear reason. Maybe he was an “unbeliever”, too.

    The reduction of the bible to a pragmatic cookbook also doesn’t help. People now go to the bible for moral, self-help advice. Where do they go to find God?

  13. After a stint in the Vineyard, I am pretty skeptical concerning most of that stuff. I consider all of the flamboyant televangelists to be obvious charlatans and scammers. I learned the hard way that its a wicked and adulterous generation that seeks a sign.

    That being said,I have had what appear to be miraculous answers to prayer. Many of my pastor friends have had amazingly miraculous things happen. But in our tradition, that stuff is usually kept on the DL.

    It’s wearying to be on that ‘miracle treadmill.’
    Alot of it is an attempt at spiritual validation.If God is performing miracles in your life you must be “in.”

  14. There’s no question that God sometimes works outside of the laws of nature (which He created). As recorded in scripture, these are incredible extra-natural events, like raising someone from the dead or the congenital blind seeing. He can do those today if He wants.

    However,

    1) If you define “miracle” as something that God does outside the natural laws of physics, human physiology and etc.

    and

    2) you have a Dualistic perspective, that this physical, natural world (which God has made and thought was good) is inferior (possible even evil) when compared to the “extra-natural”

    and

    3) you really want to experience God,

    then you see “miracles,” even very soft ones, wherever you can and that is really important to you.

    But if you really sense that everything this side of absolute nothing, was God breathed (not counting evil, but speaking metaphysically) and is therefore a miracle, then it is not so important for you to experience the extra-natural “miracles.” I believe that this is reflected in Einstein’s statement, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

    I believe that God is there, He created the universe therefore the whole freaken universe is a miracle.

  15. I understand the pull towards a simple faith based on personal experience, but like you I can’t go there myself.

    I’m a Christian, but I’m a Christian because I believe it’s more than simply a “feeling” or “signs and wonders.” Virtually every religion that has ever existed has had adherents who believe God(s)/supernatural forces give them special “feelings” or miracles that guide them to truth. Since I believe Christianity is the truth, the vast majority of people throughout human history must have been tricking themselves into thinking their “feelings” and “miracles” were real. Thus, I’m always conscious of the fact that I have the capacity to trick myself into believing in things that just aren’t true.

    In the end, I would rather be sad in the truth, then happy in ignorance. But this does seem to keep me from the “child like faith” that I seek.

  16. @ Debbie Kaufman: I totally agree with you; balance is the key.

    Is not the ultimate desire of a Christian to be with the Almighty? I certainly want to experience Him physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. Whatever taste of any of that I can receive in this life; I want it, I’ll pray for it, and I’ll be attempt to be aware if and when it occurs. I will also pray for the gift of discernment so I will know when it is God.

  17. Did god get out of the miracle business and I missed the memo? There is a vast difference betwen having an open mind to the Hand of god and being a blasted fool. Some of us were raised in a school so intent on not being fooled we closed our mind.

  18. I’m with Michael in that I have a general skepticism about such things. But I know people who have had visions and signs, that have profoundly affected them. So who am I to say? The question ultimately is, what is the fruit of the event? Does it draw the person closer to Christ Crucified, or does it send them off into some loopy world further from the revealed Faith and its Author? In other words, I think certain signs can be written of as junk based on their tendency to sow discord, disobedience, heresy etc. But those that don’t, but rather promote faithfulness? I guess to those looking in from outside, the best we can say is, dunno. But to those for whom the gift was intended, I suggest they milk it for all the grace it contains, give thanks to God, and move on loving Him and neighbor.

    I presume my skepticism probably means I would never “catch” the gift, were I graced with being given one.

  19. As a good Bapticostalic (I was saved in a Baptist church, am ordained with a Pentecostal denomination, and spent four years as a monk with the community founded by John Michael Talbot. Hence, Bapticostalic), I follow your line of reasoning completely. But I do believe that God still works miracles like those in the Bible (I’m not a good Calvinist or dispensationalist. Sometimes, I don’t even think I’m a good Christian, but that’s another matter).

    However, any time those miraculous experiences become the main issue in a person’s life and distract one from focusing on Christ, I get concerned. Your friend is right to have continuing updates on her spiritual journey. We all should. Be if those “updates” lead us away from God and we start worshiping our experiences, then we’ve obviously missed the purpose of the experiences.

    Just thinking out loud.

    Blessings,

    Jim

  20. So many of us have seen such nonsense foisted as miracles and the work of the Holy Spirit, That we have reverted to a “Father, Son and Holy Bible” mentality, yet this is not the triunity of God. We are so afraid of the false witness of the kook and the charlatan that to avoid false testimony we have closed the court.
    Of course God can make us aware of a rainbow, a bird call, a wind, even an audible voice! We were promised by Jesus that He would not leave us alone, but would go to send the Comforter, the Guide to help us. Would we limit the ways this Personal of the Godhead is allowed to work?
    If the Holy Spirit has never put a burden on the heart, brought joy in sadness,convicted us of sin, revealed God’s will to us, or reassured us of His presence, then can we be sure we are in a relationship with Him?
    The Spirit will never contradict the Scripture, or add to it, or lead into sin or folly. Is there a biblical reason why He could not use any part of His creation, the wind, the rainbow, the birds, the sun beams, or one people, to bring a point, or conviction, or His love to us?
    I once threatened to picket a Baptist church with a sign that read, “Equal time for the Holy Ghost”.
    [That protest did not work out for me.] It is too bad that the Holy Spirit is indeed a ghost to many churches. Charles Stanley’s “A Wonderful Spirit Filled Life” is a good read by a good man.
    We are in a relationship with a Supernatural Being, should we not expect a bit of Super Natural events in our lives?
    Woe to those who witness falsely of the Spirit. That warning about blaspheming the Holy Spirit being the unforgivable sin might mean just what it says, not only not believing in Christ.

  21. Interesting thing happened to me once. At about the age of 18 (I’m 46 now) I went to a charismatic healing service (I am Baptist). The speaker (well known)called out a specific ailment I had while I was at the alter praying along with probably 30 other people. I didn’t identify myself as being the one with the ailment (tooth and jaw pain) but he then stood in front of me and whispered in my ear, “Your the one with the pain, aren’t you?”. He then lay his hands on my head and I experienced a warm sensation rushing through my whole body as the speaker said the Holy Spirit is all over you. I then experienced what is know in charismatic circles as being “slain in the spirit” fell back and experienced what I can only describe as the most perfect peace I have ever known. HOWEVER,I was not healed as I expected to be, the pain didn’t go away and later had to have extensive dental work to take care of the problem. Was it a move of God? Some type of hypnosis? I really don’t know. I do know that I am still skeptical of spiritual “experiences” but know I can find God in scripture and believe scripture must validate any experience we have.

  22. I too share the IM’s skepticism. Perhaps it’s my scientific training that preceded my theological training, but I’d like to think it’s what I’ve learned from the Scriptures. Yes, the Bible is a record of some pretty amazing miracles, the resurrection of Jesus being the pinnacle. But the biblical record is over some 1400 years of history (I exclude Gen 1-11 here). The number of miracles divided by the number of years suggests that miracles might be exceedingly rare. I also note that the book of Acts ends on a rather non-miraculous note, with the leading apostle of the church under house arrest but the Word of the Lord continuing to spread.

    Miracles are, by definition, unexpected, unpredictable, and untamable. Were they to be expected and predictable, they would cease to be miracles but would become the ordinary way. If you can “expect a miracle” it isn’t one. Also, if you look at the miracles of the Bible, many if not all of them are presented as evidence for the unbeliever, not as spiritual bene for the believer.

    Oscar Cullman in “Early Christian Worship” makes a compelling case from the Gospel according to St. John that the ongoing miracles in the Church today are Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which I believe are the “greater works” Jesus gave His disciples to do.

    Finally, an observation from Soren Kierkegaard: Faith based on miracles needs miracles to keep it going.

  23. “My friend’s journey isn’t an exposition of Romans. It’s a discovery that God is out there, beckoning her own to another chapter of loving God and loving neighbor. She’s sane as a judge. And she believes a rainbow appeared out of nowhere, just for her.”
    “Her own”? Should that be “His own”, or is this another edition of The Shack?
    Great post IMonk. You raise some very provocative questions.

  24. Addendum: Having said the above, I personally know of several Muslims who converted to Christianity because of a vision of Jesus who revealed Himself to them to be the Merciful One. I have no reason to doubt such a manifestation. As I said, miracles and visions seem to be for the benefit of the unbeliever.

  25. Nice thoughts, iMonk. I think, perhaps, that it’s the Catholic Theology of worship that opens your friend up more to see “signs and wonders.” When you view the gathering together as stepping into the throne-room scenes in Revelation it tends to change one’s perspective on life in general.

    I’m with you, it took me years to get over the abuses of the TBN-version of “signs and wonders, and that was even with my having a Theology Prof who was both a Patristics scholar and Charismatic, High Church, Anglican. While I recovered, I experienced just enough of “those moments” that kept my wonder alive – I’m still hugely skeptical, but I’ve had moments where the world seems to go still and the Holy Spirit says, “Shut up and listen.” Ironically, being a baptist pastor, I’ve gone the opposite route – these moments are being brought back into worship, rather springing out of worship. We Protestants do things backwards.

  26. I’ll just chime in to say I’m skeptical of the whole thing, when good people continue to die too early and children bear the sins of their fathers, and a million other things overbalance the minute few, subjective “miracles” of experience. I just don’t buy it.

  27. Even though I’ve had some very unusual spiritual things happen, I tend to be skeptical myself. If a person is spooked by the experience and tends to keep it private, I’m more inclined to think that it is probaby from God. If it encourages people toward loving God and loving people, then probably from God.

    If it points more toward a human, then chances are that it isn’t from God. If something that is said, contradicts the Bible, then it probably isn’t from Him.

    It is too easy to be looking for things and to find only things that are going in the direction that you want them to.

    In cases like these, I am very comfortable with the position that the Catholic Church takes. All of them, even the well documented ones such as Lourdes, are considered private revelations. That means that no one is obligated to believe in them.

  28. I have had many miracles in my life. I’m with St. Paul in that I was knocked off my “horse” — albeit an atheist steed — as a young man and the Lord showed me who He was. That changed my life, but the mere storytelling can convince no one without a real demonstration that can be witnessed in my own behavior and attitude.

    What I believe about these things was in the daily Gospel of the RC Church today. Happened to overhear it as the local Catholic TV channel was on while I was still dozing this morning. It is from the first chapter of Mark when He healed a leper and then “warned him sternly” that he “see that you tell no one anything, but go and show yourself to the priests and offer for your cleansing what Moses described; that will be proof for them.” Of course the man went off and told about the miracle to everybody who would stand still long enough to listen. Because of this Jesus could no longer go into any town for the crowds that came for miracles. And the priests didn’t get the proper message, which would have been that, although Jesus had completely healed the man, declaring him “made clean,” He still sent him to them to follow the required priestly “cleansing” Moses prescribed.

    Sounds to me that what Jesus wanted, at least in this case, is the balance you’re talking about.

  29. For a brief time I attended a Vineyard. There congregation members spoke of their time in Africa, and how it was no trouble getting the locals to believe in the supernatural, because with their orientation in witchcraft and voodoo, they saw paranormal happenings everyday. Thus when the Christians came in, signs and wonders flowed more freely because the people had an expectation that they could happen. In contrast, in the West, even believers were so trained in a skeptical mindset, that it was harder for miracles to take place and be accepted as such. In a bit of irony, the pastor at this particualar Vineyard was trying to downplay signs and wonders because of recent abuses of them among Vineyard churches.

    At the church I attend now, the leaders have stated that they do believe that all of the gifts of the Holy Spirit are for us today. And that’s it. It’s all kept in theory. They seem to be so afraid of abuses that they never let the authentic take place, at least not that I have ever seen (although it was revealed to me, early on, by what I would say are amazing means, that this was to be my church.) So God is not necessairily bound by the fears of leaders.

  30. I guess I am just too cynical to see it.
    first I agree with Patrick that I consider all of the TV guys and girls to be hucksters.
    I have had what I beleive was divine intervention in my life but it was pretty quiet and known only to me.
    I wearied of friends telling me that things like,”at just that moment a hawk flew overhead and knew God wanted me to buy new shoes.”
    Of course I’m being over the top there but you get the point. The Hawk was going to be there anyway.
    BTW this all applies to setting out fleeces as well.

  31. But sometimes it is what we want to see in hard situations

    My wife on Christmas went to the hospital with a heart attack (although not diagnosed at the time). We went home.

    My daughter, the next day, went on a long trip to a youth conference, which she never would of done if she thought her mom had just had a heart attack. She spent 3 days sharing life and witness to an attender of her youth group who is not a believer.

    Now, did they misdiagnose the heart attack because that is fairly common to do with 46 year old women who have no reason to be having one, or was it because my daughter had an appointment set by God to witness to a non believer?

    I would like to think the later

    David

  32. (Michael) Now I won’t argue with you that there’s a problem with me in this area. (If you haven’t noticed.)

    Now, Michael you’re making me want to send you off to study I Corinthians 12.

    Questions:

    (Michael) While I would stand by my frequent assertion that the number and frequency of miracles in the Bible is generally over-emphasized and exaggerated, I’m all signed up to affirm that the Bible is a record of miracles, signs and wonders.

    1. Above, are you saying that people (today) over-emphasize and exaggerate the the number and frequency of miracles actually recorded in the Bible? If not, what do you mean, there? Who or what is doing the exaggerating? I hope my question is clear.

    2. Is Todd Bentley the person who recently mentioned on BHT — one associated with glitter and oil? Usually, I’d look up something like this for myself, but if it is him, I don’t want to see more. I was disturbed by what I watched, and by some of my own thoughts while watching.

    (Patrick) After a stint in the Vineyard, I am pretty skeptical concerning most of that stuff. I consider all of the flamboyant televangelists to be obvious charlatans and scammers.

    3. Patrick, does it ever scare you when you find yourself thinking that way? I ask, because that’s my default setting too, but then I wonder if/when/how I’m denying any true experiences of the divine, and if in doing so — if I’m blaspheming the Holy Spirit or coming too close to doing so.

    4. The few experiences I have had have been quiet ones, but very real to me. Michael, I don’t know if you’re interested in seeing the topic go that way, and I don’t want to overstep. What’s okay with you, as far as this conversation goes?

    Commentary

    (K.W.) I would be a lot more particular about my signs and wonders than your friend is. When you pray, and immediately afterward see a rainbow, that is not a sign. That’s an omen, and omens aren’t God, but augury, superstition, and baloney. It is only a sign when God assigns the interpretation to nature—like the original purpose of rainbows (Gen 8:13) or something out of the ordinary, like a baby in a manger. (Luke 2:12) If God told her, “Here’s a sign to confirm My promise: You’ll see a rainbow in a cloudless sky,” then we’re talking a sign. Otherwise we’re talking about someone who wants a sign so badly that she’s making ‘em up, and drawing her hope from fabrications instead of God. God forbid she decides to take drastic steps based on self-made “signs.”

    K.W., although I’m not someone who has had many supernatural experiences, and know what you’re saying might be right some of the time, I think there’s a more charitable way of looking at these things, at least sometimes. I suggest this because of the way Michael described his friend: “Scripture isn’t absent, but my friend’s journey is one where experience is leading and scripture is following. My friend is immensely happy, by the way, and closer to Jesus than ever before.

    In other words, it seems to me that Michael, who seems to me to have been gifted with knowledge and possibly discernment, is saying he recognizes the fruit in his friend’s life.

    I know a couple of (good, faithful) people like the friend Michael describes, and I can’t deny their fruit even though I experience God quite differently than they do. Now, they might choose a word like sign to explain their experiences, but they aren’t necessarily giving the word the conscious weight you seem to be. Let’s take a hypothetical person who is prayerfully going through something. Seeing a rainbow may have meaning — not in a cooked up way (or in a kooked up way), but simply because she’s hidden the Word in her heart, and when she sees a rainbow, it’s a profound reminder of God’s faithfulness. That may be the answer she needed to hear (regardless of the one she wanted to hear).

    I don’t know if this is making any sense, so I’ll stop now.

    [Okay, apparently I can’t let it go at that because I’m a terrible pedant. The rainbow given as a sign of the Noahide covenant appears in Genesis 9:13, and it’s set in the clouds, not a cloudless sky. Really done, now. Carry on.]

  33. Rob — Who would I be to say to anyone that God didn’t send the hawk to tell your friend to buy those shoes. I might be more likely to question it if your friend then said that a goat in a turban told him to throw his shoes at the President.

    But either way someone else’s supernatural experience related to me firsthand verbally or third or fourth hand ornately bound and bundled in Scripture has no real power in and of itself to convince anyone of the intervention of the Transcendent Godhead in the lives of individual human beings. Paul talks repeatedly of the Holy Spirit bearing witness to the Truth. It wasn’t until the Spirit was given that the Apostles understood anything that Jesus did or said. The “Spirit bearing witness with our spirit” is the individual convincing epiphany — the gift of Faith, moment of clarity, etc. — that leads anyone to actually believe anything.

    Otherwise, I’m inclined to ask what a hawk knows about shoes, anyway ….

  34. And even with the action of the Spirit to speak to individual spirits, there are two reactions:

    1. I just heard the Voice of God.

    2. It thundered.

  35. Above, are you saying that people (today) over-emphasize and exaggerate the the number and frequency of miracles actually recorded in the Bible? If not, what do you mean, there? Who or what is doing the exaggerating? I hope my question is clear.

    I believe what Michael is saying is that the Biblical narratives are by nature selective, and so are not meant to be taken as normative in a common sense.

    As someone else said above, miracles are not the norm, if they were we would call them something else, like “Tuesday”. 🙂

  36. True story. Sorry that it’s long:

    When I was in college, after I got saved, I fell in love with a Christian sister. I was reluctant to pursue her without a “say-so” from the Lord. So I prayed for the Lord to give me a sign. Sure enough, He did. I prayed again, and another sign came. (By sign I mean a coincidence that seemed nearly miraculous.) Eventually I worked up the courage to tell her my feelings for her. She was kind, but made it clear she wasn’t interested.

    So I prayed about it more, and was given the clear indication from the Lord to be patient. Eventually the time would come when He would put us together. And there were more signs, as well as inward leadings that she was the one, and that one day my love for her would be reciprocated and we would be married. Praise the Lord!

    This went on for years, after we both graduated from college. Despite being in different cities, the Lord would give me signs, and give me an inward sense of peace when I would pray for her. My own interpretation of His speaking to me was “just be patient, the time will come.”

    Eventually I found out that she was going to do something that would mean we could not be together. So I contacted her, and found out yet again that she was not interested. It was clear to me then she never would be. I was devastated, and even felt like my faith had been irreparably damaged. What about all the answered prayers? What about all the signs? What about all the inward speakings?

    Shortly afterwards, I found out that a different Christian sister was interested in me. We began dating, and now she is my wife. We are happily married, and we match each other and compliment each other in ways that could only have been designed by the Lord. I’m certain that if I had married that other sister, it would have been a disaster.

    And over the years, I have learned of three other Christian brothers who went through the same thing. All three of them at different times believed that the same exact sister I was once in love with was the one that God had prepared for them. They all went through the exact same experience – prayers, signs, leadings, confirmations, and then disillusionment. All three of those brothers are now married (not to that sister). Sadly, that sister remains unmarried.

    So I learned a lesson: Never confuse your own subjective feelings and emotions for the Lord’s leading. Never look at a coincidence (that you are longing for) and assume that it is a miracle from God.

    But on the other hand, my love and infatuation with that sister preserved me, so that when the right time came I could begin a relationship with my future wife. Perhaps the Lord was working those things out after all. Who knows?

    But I’m very wary of signs and wonders personally. I believe others can experience them and get a lot out of them. But I do not trust my own discernment, and have vowed never to be so subjective again. Our emotions are not spiritual or trustworthy.

  37. My friend’s journey isn’t an exposition of Romans. It’s a discovery that God is out there, beckoning her own to another chapter of loving God and loving neighbor. She’s sane as a judge. And she believes a rainbow appeared out of nowhere, just for her.

    This is said respectfully. If someone came up to you having read one of the Puritans or Jonathan Edwards and seemed to have been powerfully shaped by that spiritual tradition you would be able to praise the positive and discern the negative (see your essay on Wretched Urgency).

    Do you feel unable to comment on your friend because such experiences are outside your immediate ambit? I would suggest that general principles could still be used to critique/comment on spirituality of this sort.

  38. Imonk:
    “I know that the Christian worldview is open to the intervention of God. I’m not a deist. I pray for God’s intervention all the time. I’ve experienced it. My family was once awakened from a sound sleep..”

    This is different from the rainbow how?

    “And she believes a rainbow appeared out of nowhere, just for her.”
    And you believe in a supernatural smoke detector? I’m missing the difference. The rainbow is nice, your story is life saving.

    BTW, check your batteries, don’t tempt God.

  39. My two cents:

    I think what makes us skeptical is the great number of miracles that turn out to be hoaxes, Christians who insist that such-and-so anti-biblical doctrine is true because of a sign and/or wonder, surefire experiences that end up leading us in precisely the wrong way, and so on.

    How can you not be skeptical?

  40. (Chris) I believe what Michael is saying is that the Biblical narratives are by nature selective, and so are not meant to be taken as normative in a common sense.

    Thank you, Chris.

    Also, please disregard my question #2, above. I remember Todd Bentley. The glitter and oil person I was thinking of can be found here.

  41. Interesting stuff Michael. I do think there is a bit of “unbeliever” there. Not that you are trying to not believe God or what He can do, but just that for whatever reason, you have a hard time in certain areas. It’s fairly common in this day and time. We are cursed by the Enlightenment. Were we all that “enlightened”? Well, by what? To what? I’m not sure.

    This seems to be common too, but you go very quickly from some sign from God or “wonder” here, to Todd Bentley over there. A lot of people see these things as necessarily synonymous. I don’t think that’s the case. I spent quite a few years deep in the bowels of independent Charismata, and you’re right, there are some crazy folk in there. There just are. They have been driven crazy by not having enough of a healthy boundary around them. That would really take too long to unpack, but basically, if anything goes and everything someone says is God, IS God, then you’ve got trouble.

    BUT – we can’t be despising prophecies because of all the ignorance. Or any of the other legitimate ways God may be working in our midst, in our hearts and minds, bodies, etc. In this vein, I have often said that I was a “post-charismatic” because I don’t like the over-emphasis on gifts as a label. But, that I technically still am “charismatic” because I haven’t jettisoned those things of the Spirit that are often lumped into that camp. I believe God wants us to have a very intimate and personal relationship with Him – that He wants to interact with us on an everyday, real level – lead and guide us, talk to us, etc. And not only by way of us reading His book.

    The Scriptures are given to us as part of that boundary I was talking about earlier. So, I believe, is the Tradition of the Church. We have that skeletal structure that keeps us standing upright and not behaving like jelly. But God’s not just after an intellectual connection with us, such that we just read His Word and believe the right things, or even then, do the right things. He’s after recapturing a living, dynamic, holistic relationship with us – the kind of relationship we read about when we read the Scriptures. That wasn’t just for them, so they’d have cool stories to tell, but for us too, because that’s just part of the deal.

    Our relationships with one another, especially with those we are closest to, aren’t totally logical, aren’t always based on empirical data. We grow in knowledge of them, and in our relationship with them, through experiencing them, by interacting with them on a daily basis. We can have this, to an extent, with God as well. And more and more as we are transformed into the kind of people who are able to have this kind of relationship.

    It’s hard for us to be open to things that don’t make sense. We’re not programmed for that. But we can be re-programmed for it. We have to be. The Kingdom Life we have been introduced to, initiated into, is a different order of life than what we have known.

    Just an afterthought? Where did your “calling” to preach come from? How did you “hear” that? How did you “know” it was from God? It wasn’t from the Bible – not to you specifically, and not to others. I know I don’t have to convince you of that – I’m just using that as an example of what I’m talking about. Anyway, gone on too long as usual. Once again, interesting stuff – needed questions. Peace to you.

  42. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    I look upon bona-fide miracles as a subset of paranormal phenomena; they happen, but they are very rare. (And like a lot of other paranormal phenomena, they almost never happen to those who specifically seek them.)

    And just like people read the face of the Virgin Mary into the scorch-stains on a tortilla or alien motherships into any unusual light in the sky, a lot of what are not true miracles get mistaken for them. Then a lot of wishful thinking gets mixed in, and there’s always a con man waiting to cash in on the mugus.

    I have never experienced a recognizable in-your-face miracle. I’ve had two or three strange experiences that could have been (mostly coincidence futzes), but nothing obvious or blatant.

  43. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Is Todd Bentley the person who recently mentioned on BHT — one associated with glitter and oil? — Cindy

    Go onto YouTube and search for “Todd Bentley” or “Lakeland Revival”.

    He’s the bald bearded guy who looks like he should be in the Pro Wrestling ring and tatted like a Yakuza who caused all that media stir a few months ago in Lakeland, Florida (before he went down in a sex scandal). Claimed to have visited Heaven (in Percy Collet detail), raised the dead, had gold dust and angel feathers drift down from Heaven. Best known for prophesying people up onstage for “healing” and kicking them in the nuts to make sure they went down “slain in the Spirit”. (No confirmed healings, despite the after-kick testimonies.) Claimed to channel a personal angel named Emma who was his direct line to God. And a female sidekick known as “Shaking Stacy” because she’d work herself into such a frenzy her head would whip about like something from The Exorcist.

    Had followers who BE-LEEEVED everything he did (at least until the sex scandal) Was Of God and Lakeland was a Great End Times Outpouring Revival — Touch Not Mine Anointed! Do My Prophet No Harm! And a LOT of opposition who KNEW He Was Demon-posseseed (and quoted chapter-and-verse to prove it).

    My writing partner (a burned-out preacher with professional stage magic experience) checked out some of Tatted Todd’s footage on YouTube. His conclusion? Not God’s Anointed, not Demon-possessed, but a con man working a crowd into a frenzy using stage mentalist techniques and tricks.

  44. Michael, thanks for modeling rigorous self-examination for us. When it comes to the entirety of what Scripture has to say, we are all unbelievers (in action if not in thought) in one way or another.

    I have personally experienced charismata and also personally experienced the abuse that comes from people and churches who over-empasize the same. When something strange happens that could be characterized as a sign or wonder, I put it through this filter: 1) is it consistent with Scripture 2) does it glorify God, and 3 (from 1 Corinthians) has it been given and used for the benefit of others?

    Because so many prosperity preachers also use the stage tricks of charismata to fleece their victims, it is understandable to be very wary. Acting like a particular gift is prima facie evidence of salvation is a non-starter too, as is the over-emphasis of a sign as against the One the sign is pointing to.

    But I cannot deny that even today God sometimes chooses to bless His people in this way. It is kind of like romantic love- we can let the horror stories stop us from ever pursuing love and we will never get hurt, but if we do we have to know we are also forgoing a chance at something wonderful.

  45. As a Pentecostal, I enjoy when people start taking a good hard look at what the Bible says and what that means for today. The simple question is, Does God still intervene in the World today? My answer is yes.

    I have seen a girl crippled with arthritis get healed. She left her crutches as a trophy at the altar. Two or three YEARS later I asked about her. She was still walking.

    I have prayed for $200, exactly, to pay my bills because I’m unemployed and can’t find a job. I did this at home, alone. Then a member of my church said God told him to give me some money and handed me $200.

    I know missionaries in Africa who would tell you stories most of you wouldn’t believe.

    Here in the West, we so deeply doubt the existence of miracles or make the definition so broad as to be meaningless (creation is a miracle, changed lives are miracles). We lack faith, even actively have faith against seeing God move in signs and wonders. Then we don’t see signs and wonders and point to that lack as proof of the rightness of our unbelief. It’s a never ending cycle. I don’t believe in miracles because I don’t see the miracles that I don’t believe in.

    Conversely, you do have those whose god IS the signs and wonders. They will accept anything told to them if something even close to a miracle happens. I think most of us have heard of someone being deathly ill and, after prayer, recovering…sometimes instantly. More than once I have heard this refered to as “raising the dead” even though no one was dead yet….because a healing isn’t good enough???

    Let’s call fake or exaggerated what it is but let’s also give credit where credit is due.

    DD

  46. This is something of a struggle for me at this point in my Christian walk. I was raised in the Charismatic movement, and I have to say, “singing and praying for miracles and talking about miracles” is a pretty accurate description of my experience with that. Add in “talking about demons and demonic influence that makes people sick and/or do bad things and constantly casting them out” and you’ll hit it on the nose.

    Now I’m 35 at a point where I’m not really sure what to believe about the extent of the Holy Spirit’s personal involvement in our lives. I definitely believe He’s there, and that He can and does do miracles. I’ve had my own personal experiences with that, and so has my husband. But I’ve also watched again and again as people have claimed miracles and then lost them, or prayed and believed for them and never gotten them, and their struggles with disappointment in God, or self-flagellation over not having enough faith. Constantly in my church growing up, I’d hear a praise report one week about how someone was miraculously healed of some illness, and then a prayer request the next week for that same person’s relapse.

    Some of the conclusions I’ve come to are that 1) God does still perform miracles, signs and wonders; 2) they are tools for HIS purposes, not our own; and 3) true miracles last, and bring lasting glory to God. Nowhere in the Bible is there an example of someone losing their healing because they lacked enough faith, or for any other reason.

    My own experiences served to prepare me and my family for my dad’s sudden, violent death, and to comfort us afterwards, and has left me with an unwavering testimony to God’s peace. My husband was healed from cancer–it wasn’t a showy healing after a visit to a tent meeting or a Benny Hinn concert; just the cancer quietly going away on its own when his doctors were trying to convince him he needed a second round of chemo and radiation. This all happened 10 years before I met him, and I believe he was healed because God still had use for him. For one thing, he’s had a profound influence on my faith, inspiring me to dig deeper into scriptures and truly attempt to know God’s will, when before I was content to go through the motions and accept whatever my pastor said at face value. I’ve grown more as a Christian in the four years I’ve known my husband than I did in the previous three decades.

    So I’m skeptical when I hear about showy miracles that seem more about showing off the receiver’s great faith than about God’s glory and righteousness. I’m skeptical about 99.9% of the prophecies I hear, too, even though I believe in the gift of prophecy. Most of the ones I hear just sound more like Republican wishful thinking than anything else.

    Anyway, I’ve rambled, and I’m sorry for using your space to think out loud about this. But this discussion has been a help to me. Thank you.

  47. Memphis Aggie says:

    Very interesting post Michael! I think you may be overly skeptical but that there’s a good place for skepticism when it comes to mystical claims. I’ve had what we Catholics call a “consolation”, not a vision but a clear sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Just once, although I’d love to experience it again. Maybe if I were stronger in the faith by myself I might not have needed it, but it helped me enormously, and yes I fully understand it may make me sound crazy to some.

    In any case, when I signed on to Christ I accepted the most incredible claim , that the Most High God loved me as I was in all my ugliness and failures. Accepting a few minor signs and wonders is easy by comparison. What’s that phrase about camels and gnats?

    Surely you don’t believe the Bible is the very last word of God to men do you? God is extraordinarily and intricately involved in His creation: every hair on my head is numbered (much easier these days) and no sparrow falls without notice. He’s active through the Church and His people and through ways and means we can’t explain.

    Not all visions are of God of course. Some are delusions, some are scams and some are from lesser evil powers. Here’s where skepticism is really important. Perhaps we can never tell for certain what is real and illusion. Faith and doubt are inseparable; only certainty removes doubt and then belief is no longer a matter of faith but of evidence. However we can know or learn through investigation whether a vision is good or not by the results or fruits. Your friend becomes closer to Christ after his vision, thus his vision bore good fruit and so I’m inclined to believe it was from God. Whether God simply tickled your friends neurons to induce a vision of the cross or He transported his soul to see it is unanswerable and irrelevant. What matters is his reclaimed life. Look at the behavior of the visionary. Are they cashing in or repenting? From that you have your answer.

  48. Bob Sacamento says:

    Treebeard,

    True story. Sorry that it’s long:

    That was a great story. Heck, tell it again and make it longer! And contact all the Campus Crusade chapters in your state and tell them you are available for group meetings, weekend retreats, and one-on-one counseling. I’ll be your manager and we can figure out some reasonable fees to charge. There are sooooo many college weenies out there who need to hear what you said.

    Michael et al.,

    For what it’s worth, this is one facet of the central struggle I have always had in my faith. On the one hand, if there is nothing in my life that needs God as an explanation, then what basis, really, do I have for faith? But on the other hand, how far do I take that thinking before I wind up believing the blatant falsehoods of the prosperity gospel?

    Someone prays and gets healed and doesn’t die. That’s great! I’m sure it happens! But I have lived long enough now to see other people who were just as good and praying just as hard, who didn’t get healed and aren’t with us anymore. What do I do with them?

    Right now, I’m thinking that there are three sides to the Christian life. (If what I say has any validity, I’m sure it’s not original. But here goes, anyway …) The doctrinal, the moral, and the mystical. If one gets neglected, or dominates the other two, then you’ve got problems. And it’s difficult to explicitly state what the balance has to be, because as soon as you try to do that, you are putting yourself right into the doctrinal camp, at the exclusion of the other two. The balance eventually has to be “found”, not “derived”, and “lived”, not “described.” Or maybe I’m full of it. Oh well.

  49. I think it would be worth studying why Jesus refused to perform signs and wonders on demand. So often the attention is taken away from Christ and placed on the signs.

    To me, it really is a question of which side of the epistomological bread you put your butter on: is ultimate truth objective, in the canon of scripture and in the sacraments, or is it subjective, in personal emotions and experience? The two are not contradictory, but one must be foundational, the other supplimental. Pardon me for digging up an illustration from “The Four Spiritual Laws”, but emotions and experiences are the caboose on the end of the train. One should not place the subjective cart in front of the objective horse.

    I don’t believe miracles died out with the apostles. I don’t see why God couldn’t perform a personal miracle through a rainbow.

    But “my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness” (Edward Mote). If ones hope is in feelings and experiences, then it will be blown around everytime God doesn’t seem to deliver on that next miracle.

    Saint John of the Cross’ “Dark Night of the Soul” has a lot to say on the subject. Dobson’s “Emotions: Can you Trust Them?” is also another good book.

  50. Imonk you expressed my thoughts exactly on this subject. I have had many friends who are into this thing, and while I confess it is arrogant for me to argue with somebody’s subjective experience since it is non-falsifiable, I recognize the ability of all fallen men to interpret events through the perspective of desire. If somebody told me that they had seen a rainbow that had appeared just for them as a sign from God, my gut reaction would be to think that, while we know the scientific causes of rainbows and could rationally assume that the rainbow could have been there apart from him/her being there to see it, it WAS still possible that God caused a miraculous intervention. But not that likely. My concern for my friend would be for them to have the discernment to tell whether they are being emotionally or spiritually led. Because we all know what dangerous trouble most of us have gotten into by being led of our emotions. Me especially.

    I personally have more experience with the leading of God in my life to be exactly AGAINST what my emotions would tend to indicate. The miracle that I experience is when God radically reverses my emotions to desire seemingly unnaturally what it is that He wants most for me.