Last week I got a comment on an old blog post. Since this subject comes up frequently, I thought it would be good to respond.
I hope you get some sort of update from comments posted on old posts.
Indeed I do! Thank you so much for taking the time to write in.
I’ve been trying to work through how I understand God working in the world and have felt pretty comfortable with saying that God doesn’t make things happen in this world. For me, that still allows for relational interaction with God but the one place that I am getting stumped on is miracles or even just praying for things that may be outside of personal introspection or transformation. I have never seen any miracles like the ones I’ve heard about by several very close people I know. When I say miracles I mean things like paralyzed people being healed and even people’s limbs growing back. I know it sounds crazy but I hear really sound people that I respect telling about how they have done these things. Now, I don’t want to discredit it just because I personally haven’t seen it. Then there are things like Jesus healing a blind man with mud and spit, was it psychosomatic? I don’t know how to approach these things.
The one thing I would say is that we have not taken the gospel stories about Jesus seriously enough. We look at them from a very mechanistic point of view: What was the product? What was the process? Can it be replicated? Are there measurable outcomes?
We get very focused on the byproduct or the outcome (healing) and miss the rich narrative and literary emphasis of the story itself. “Jesus healed a guy” I hear people say … “Yes but notice how and where” I want to respond.
The two things people often fail to notice is that:
- It was almost never in the same way twice. That signals to me that healing is neither formulaic nor is it reproducible. Something was going on in those stories that is tailored to that person and that time. I love the gospel stories of Jesus’ healings … almost as much as I hate it when people try to make healing standard and ritualistic.
- Those stories play a role in the gospels that they are found in. These accounts in John 9 and Mark 8 function in the narrative that both John and Mark give us. Synoptic studies are one of my favorite hobbies and one of the things you quickly learn is that those stories can not be lifted out of their gospel and simply cut & pasted into another gospel. The story is told a certain way and plays a unique role within the larger text.
The stories of Jesus’ healings don’t happen in a vacuum. That play a performative function with the gospel narrative and must be read within that context.
One of my first clues that this was true is that no one – even those of us who believe in healing – spit on the ground and put mud on people. Why? Because it is not a formula! Something unique was happening in that story and we all sort of secretly know that.
Just because Jesus walked on water doesn’t mean that you don’t need a boat!
The gospel stories about healing had to do with Jesus’ messianic claims and that is why the Bible is not a how-to play book or manual. The formulaic mentality around healing today is a disastrous byproduct of the Industrial Revolution … oddly the same era (thanks to Gutenberg) that allowed for mass-produced Bibles so that we can all read it for ourselves! But that is a different blog post.
The Secret Message of Jesus is the best book I have ever found for talking respectfully about the role that these healings play in their unique gospel accounts.
I have much more to say about this … but I need to get to your real question!
With this being said, if miraculous healing through prayer is possible (which I sort of hope is) my question would now be why does God only choose to heal some people and let others who are being prayed for suffer? Or why would we have to pray for certain sufferings to stop? Why isn’t it enough for a certain person to be suffering and need God’s healing? Do our prayers make God’s intervention possible in a way that he couldn’t do without? Let me know what you think and thanks for giving your time!
Let me begin by saying that you have perfectly asked the central questions of this difficult issue. This is why some people walk away from the subject all together and dismiss any accounts of modern-day healing. Even those of us who try to practice the way of Jesus and follow his example are often baffled and left either shaking our heads or shrugging our shoulders.
If God can heal and doesn’t …
If we have to be good enough …
or believe hard enough …
or pray long enough …
or pray good enough …
If this is in any way based on our merit … this seems like a problem.
On the other hand – if God can do something and doesn’t …
maybe it is for a larger purpose …
or maybe it is just ‘not yet’ …
or maybe we just look forward to our heavenly bodies on the other side …
or maybe God is really finicky.
These are all possibilities and actual things that I have heard people say.
Here is where I am on the issue: God is doing the best that God can do. I don’t believe that God is holding out or that God’s goodness will run out.
I have said before that I have become very comfortable with the possibility that the world as it exists is the best that God can do. I’m not saying that I believe that – just that I am open to that possibility.
- What if God is doing all that God can do in the world right now?
- What if God isn’t all-powerful but only very powerful?
- Or that God’s power is a different kind of power?
- What if God isn’t pretending or self-limiting?
- What if God is giving all that God has to the moment?
Once you move on from an ‘interventionist’ notion of God the whole world looks different. The word ‘supernatural’ is one of the worst concessions that modern christians have made. I believe in miracles (outside the ordinary expected) and I remind folks that the Biblical formulation of ‘signs and wonders’ is not the same as ‘super-natural’. These phrases get all mashed together by those who have taught this way. We need to take the Gospel accounts seriously enough to slow down and reexamine our assumptions.
There is no such thing as ‘super-natural’.
God’s work is the most natural thing in the world.
I do not believe in a realm (the natural) that is without God. As a Christian, I believe that God’s work is the most natural thing in the world. I am unwilling to concede the natural-spiritual split and then leave less and less room for God as science is able to explain more and more. The church is foolish to accept the dualism (natural-supernatural) and then superintend only the spiritual part.
Thank you so much for writing in! It has been fun to revisit this concept. You may want to check out my post on Prayer and Poetry and Dealing with Demons as well.
Let me know your thoughts or any questions you have. This is a difficult topic but a very necessary conversation.
November 6, 2014 at 11:46 pm
Due to a reaction to Sunday School, I was an evangelical atheist by 9, and my first degree is theoretical physics. I then switched to law and practised that for years, so I have a fine appreciation of cognitive biases and the unreliability of eyewitnesses. As a result, most of my formation is about as scientific rationalist as you can get.
And yet, at 15 I had a peak mystical experience (which I tend to describe as “better than sex, drugs and rock & roll”) and set off to try for more of that. You could now (rather a few years later) categorise me as a panentheist mystic with a largely Christian vocabulary and praxis.
So I have really major difficulty with any claims of the supernatural, but have primo spiritual experience.
I do think that healing may occasionally take place by mechanisms which science is currently rather substandard at identifying, and am wholly confident that what you think and what you expect (or pray for) can sometimes, but not by any means always, influence clinical results. But I still have problems with the idea of a physically interventionist God. Mentally interventionist on occasion – now that’s a different matter. That’s hard for me to deny, having been mentally intervened in… or at least that’s how it rather forcibly seemed to me.
But I then have problems as to why that happened to me and hasn’t happened to people who actually deserve something like that and/or have been praying for it for years (which, at the time, I most assuredly didn’t and hadn’t). Or to people who could really use some reorientation for the sake of the rest of us – though, possibly, I might have been one of them… who knows what I’d have turned out like absent a spiritual brick between the eyes at 15?
I think you’re on the right track that this world is the best that God can do, though I *hate* the “best of all possible worlds” tack (thanks, Leibnitz via Voltaire). I wrote some blog posts a while back under the general title “And God saw that it was Good” to that effect (and to the effect that if heshewhatever saw that it was good, the concept that humanity then had the power to mess that up is rather underestimating God). But I struggle to see *why* that is. And occasionally those around me who are magical thinkers (I attend a distinctly evangelical church, as they are the ones who do social gospel stuff around here) seem to have an easier time intellectually.
End of ramble. Like what you’re doing.