Tim Stafford is a senior writer for Christianity Today and recently penned and published a book exploring modern-day miracles from a journalist’s point-of-view. He doesn’t claim to be an expert on any one subject, but for the past thirty years he’s written on a wide variety of subjects relating to all things Christian. His says his expertise is in asking questions, listening and then writing about what he learns. He admits that this book is more personal than his usual style because it is born out of his curiosity in a miraculous occurrence in the life of a member of his church.
I think I would have liked the book better had he dived rather than dabbled his way more fully into a personal opinion piece. As it is, the writing comes across too tentative for opinion and too mixed for journalism. Nevertheless, the subject is interesting, relevant and Stafford is a good writer.
In Miracles, Stafford examines what constitutes a miracle, if we can still expect to see miracles, how much of Scripture deals with miracles, hype over hoaxes, lack of authentication in cases of the truly authentic and the Pentecostal movement in the world today. He includes a chapter near the end on science and miracles which makes a couple of good points, but probably isn’t weighty enough to preach the truly scientific minded over to the choir of miracle believers. He closes with a couple of chapters that echo a few of my own thoughts on miracles and which come from an already believing and not very skeptical point-of-view. In what seems an attempt to point out that we Christians are not all gullible and can get embarrassed when others in the faith make questionable claims that only add fuel to atheistic fire, the book is also punctuated with stories about unsubstantiated miraculous claims he portrays as clearly bogus.
With that groundwork put down, the spark for Stafford’s book was first hand observation of a dramatic healing experience in the life of a young man in Stafford’s Presbyterian church which he describes as “a little traditional,” but which “tries to be flexible.” Stafford was puzzled by the reaction of the church when the boy’s mother stepped up to the platform and told the story of what had happened to her son. The crowd’s reaction was lukewarm. Why the subdued response to such good news for a young man they had all known and witnessed in his disability? This prompted Stafford to want to find out more about what other miracles, if any, were happening in the world and why people reacted as they did.
Later, Stafford interviewed the young man to hear his story first hand. “Jeff” had grown up in an active family that hiked and backpacked. When he started complaining of pain in his feet around age 9, Mom and Dad thought it was a shoe issue. His pain continued to increase and a subsequent injury brought swelling that would not dissipate. By age thirteen, Jeff was starting a period of multiple surgeries in his feet that brought no relief for him. Ultimately, he ended up in a wheelchair. His problem was not paralysis, but such intense pain that standing and walking was excruciating and impossible. The whole episode was a mystery.
As a junior in college, Jeff was playing on a wheelchair basketball team. While visiting another town, he and a friend went to a local church that invited anyone who wanted prayer to go forward. In an interview with Stafford, Jeff says he never would have gone forward except his friend urged it. As a result of the prayer for him, he stood up. That was not the miracle. It was something he could always do, but only for a short period time. This time he stood and walked and jumped without pain.
In the days that followed, he dealt with the weakness and sore muscles that resulted from newly working atrophied muscles, but the crippling foot pain he’d had for many years was completely gone. Three years later, at the time of Stafford’s interview, the pain was still gone. Jeff had never returned to a wheelchair and continued to live an active, athletic, pain-free life.
For Stafford, who travelled extensively, met many who claimed miraculous experiences and kept an open attitude when interacting with charismatic believers, this was the first time he had “been close enough to a miracle to be sure that one occurred.” He was hearing first hand testimony from a young man who had not been looking for a miracle, who was hesitant to talk about it and who was clearly happy to have moved on with his life. He was no attention seeker. Besides, Stafford had witnessed him in his church in a wheelchair in the preceding years and there was his medical history to boot. This was real.
Stafford’s natural next step was to visit the church where Jeff had received his healing. What he found there was a pastor and staff who were friendly, welcoming and undemanding. They were simply willing to pray lovingly and believingly for any who asked for prayer. They told stories of many occurrences like Jeff’s, but when Stafford asked for contact information of miracle recipients for the purposes of authentication, no information was forthcoming. Stafford makes no judgment as to whether their claims were exaggerated or whether they had simply made no efforts to keep records of their transient population
Most of us have heard similar claims. Even if we are believers in miracles, either by faith or by first hand experience, we tend to let the doors of our minds slam shut when we hear a story for which no proof is offered or when any money is involved. We’ve all seen the shameless televangelists, who “for your best gift now” will send you a healing handkerchief or pray prosperity prayers over a pile of unpaid bills. It’s a bit nauseating.
On the other hand according to Hebrews 11:6, “without faith it is impossible to please God.” Jesus himself chastised people and left towns without doing many miracles (Matthew 13:58) when he encountered a dearth of faith. He also marveled when he witnessed faith as in the woman with the issue of blood (Luke 8:43-48), the Syro Phoenecian woman expecting a healing for her daughter even though she was a Gentile (Matthew 15:21-28) and the Roman centurion believing Jesus would heal his servant (Matthew 8:5-10) without even entering his home. He told his disciples in Matthew 17:14-20) that if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, they could move mountains, or more specifically, cast out stubborn demons. In the face of a withered fig tree (Mark 11:22-24) he also commanded, “Have faith in God … whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” He demonstrated all of these things for his disciples and sent them out to do the same. In John 14:12 he also told them they would do even greater things. Faith accomplishes all sorts of things … salvation from sin, freedom from captivities and enslavements, provision for material need, physical healing (whether slow, spontaneous, medical or supernatural) that God in his wisdom chooses to give. It also brings grace to suffer when God in his wisdom withholds miracles.
Many modern day people have had some kind of encounter with the miraculous or supernatural, but as Stafford points out, they aren’t always talking about it. Either they fear trying to defend themselves before skeptics or they cherish the occurrence as something very personal and to be treasured within themselves. They may also not be sure whether faith requires them to always expect miracles. Perhaps that is putting God to the test or viewing him as a personal genie. For some, faith is recognizing God omnipotence and sovereign right to break in to earthly circumstances when and if he wills. They welcome miracles, but don’t seek them.
For the sake of launching discussion among the Internet Monks, I will confess my leanings, fearing (a little) backlash from skeptics and from those who get upset that discussion of supernatural experiences seems like spiritual bragging meant to demean those who haven’t had such experiences. I mean no such thing. I believe God interacts with each person in the Body of Christ for his unique and mysterious purposes. Sometimes we won’t immediately know why he does what he does and sometimes we won’t ever know.
I was raised going sporadically to a Presbyterian church with my mom. I spent almost as much time sitting in a Catholic church with my best friend. When I visited my dad on some weekends we occasionally went to an AME church because he liked the music. So I was a bit of stray pup theologically, but I began earnestly seeking God at a young age and had a supernatural experience that is so personal I won’t tell of it here. Suffice it to say, it was a rescue and I am here because of it. It was my first encounter with God’s power. I couldn’t explain or understand it, but it was the beginning of my belief that God does miracles today. Then, at fourteen, I became a Christian when my stepsister told me that Christ went to the cross so I could be reconciled to God … a miracle in itself for the clear turning point it represents to me.
During my married life I have spent time in a Baptist church, a non-denominational church and am currently worshipping in an Assemblies of God church, a part of the Pentecostal movement that Stafford describes in his book. I ended up there at the invitation of a friend. Since I haven’t been in any other AOG churches I can’t comment on its degree of charismatic demonstration, but it is probably on the reserved end of the spectrum. Visitors often don’t know it’s an AOG church for quite a while. To be honest, I am a quiet person, not given to public displays. I won’t say it’s the perfect place for me (or perhaps I am not the perfect person for that place), but aspects of it fit my quietly charismatic beliefs, which I fell into by experience more than by any steady denominational formation.
Years ago, before I was a conscious charismatic, I had just moved to a rural area and heard of a nearby family with a newborn baby. The baby had been born with visible malignant tumors all over his body. Doctors said they could only monitor his condition, as he was too frail for treatment. I left a note on the family’s front porch telling them I and another neighbor were praying for their child and offered to care for their dog while they spent their days at the hospital. Two weeks later, the new mom called me and asked to come to my house for a visit.
When she arrived with her baby, she told me she was not religious person but wanted to thank me for praying. The week before she had been dressing him in the morning for a visit to the children’s hospital for a consultation with an oncologist. She called her husband to say the baby’s tumors looked smaller. He told her it was her imagination. But when she got to the hospital and undressed her baby for the doctor’s examination, the tumors were no longer visible. His cancer was completely gone. Several subsequent tests confirmed this and the little boy grew up with no further medical problems.
My own third daughter was born long after my first two when I wasn’t expecting more children. At her first birthday, a routine exam with our pediatrician sounded an alarm. Looking into Emily’s right eye, the doctor saw an abnormality. The doctor was tightlipped but referred us to a pediatric ophthalmologist, the best in the Midwest. I pressed her for the reason. She suspected a malignancy. The few days we waited for the doctor to return from a conference were hellish. To our relief, the exam revealed no malignancy, but Emily was legally blind in that eye. The specialist commended our pediatrician for the good catch and told us our baby would be wearing glasses, an eye patch and need future surgeries to help heal her eye. We started with the glasses and were delighted with her obvious delight that she could see well for the first time.
A year later, the pediatrician found a significant heart murmur in Emily. “Don’t worry,” she said, “we can fix this.” We were sent to the same children’s hospital my neighbor took her baby to for his cancer. There we spent most of a day taking her through various tests and saw a cardiologist. In his opinion, the murmur was moderate but didn’t demand surgery. We’d watch it for a while.
With Bible verses taped all over Emily’s bedroom and me often sleeping in a bed near her crib just to pray, I could lie and say I did this as a ministry of loving intercession. It’s true, I did, but it was primarily driven out of personal fear. Those early days were filled with my anxiety over her life. I lived for each doctor appointment, so I could hear again that her heart was fixable and there really was no cancer in her eye. Every year, the ophthalmologist decreased the strength of her prescription lens and said, “No eye patch or surgery just now.” Each year, the cardiologist decreased the rating on her murmur a bit, or said, “I only hear it when she’s lying down now.” Then one year the ophthalmologist pronounced her right eye perfect and released her to an optometrist for annual exams. The following year, the cardiologist released her as well. Those healings were not instantaneous and both involved the medical profession. One intervened with corrective eyewear but not the anticipated surgeries or patches; the other monitored what was happening in her body without intervention. Maybe to some, these do not constitute miracles, but being a primary in the story, seeing serious infirmities made well and being the recipient of the comfort and presence of the Holy Spirit in the midst of crushing fear, I beg to differ.
What about information that comes in a supernatural way, but does not bring a miracle? I was once in a meeting at church with a man I barely knew. As we were finishing, I heard these words in my mind. He has cancer in his neck. I was supposed to tell him, but I couldn’t. I was completely shocked and didn’t know what to do. That night I couldn’t sleep and felt pressed by God to communicate this information. In the morning, filled with fear, I called the man’s wife, apologized for what I was about to say and explained what happened. I was surprised she took it seriously and they then visited their doctor. The man had a metastatic melanoma in his neck, not visible on the exterior. I have never understood why that knowledge was given to me, but no healing was given to him. His wife believes treatment prolonged his life and gave him two years with his children he wouldn’t have had otherwise.
A friend at church was recently devastated with an ALS diagnosis at the same time his wife learned she had breast cancer. One day at the end of the long, hot summer and at the end of his faith, he sat down on his back porch with a glass of iced tea and told God he could not face what was happening to him and his wife. On that hot perfectly still day, he felt the cool blast of a strong wind and the comforting presence of the Holy Spirit. Although he was not being promised a healing, he was receiving an outpouring of grace to face his suffering and he began to relax for the first time in weeks.
In another instance, a loved one was freed of a lifelong obsessive-compulsive disorder during a time she was undergoing a severe trial in her marriage and began to cling to Christ for the first time. Another loved one experienced a brief period of being able to discern the presence of angels and demons without knowing why.
These are a few of the unusual occurrences I’ve experienced or been told about in the years since believing Christ. I did not expect them or need them to continue believing Christ. In fact, it’s been a long while since anything of this sort has happened to me personally and there have been plenty of other opportunities I’ve experienced or witnessed where a miracle would be so very welcome, but suffering came instead. Still, I believe. I want to believe, not because I need miracles to increase my faith. I want to believe because faith pleases God and I want so much to please him.
So Monks, what your thoughts and experiences on this subject? Do you think God’s intervention into human life with miracles is in anyway predictable or related to us expecting them and praying for them? Or do you think he performs them in a way that seems random, mysterious and inscrutable? Are miracles more prevalent in circumstances of deprivation or suffering? If so, why? Does an absence of miracles indicate a lack of faith or could it also indicate God’s pleasure and trust that we believe without seeing?