Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. -James 5:14-15 (NIV)
The mere suggestion that God may not work a miracle, or does not very often, would rock many people’s faith. “Pentecostals believe in religious experience the way electricians believe in electricity,” writes Earl Creps in his book Off-Road Disciplines -Spiritual Adventures with Missional Leaders, “without it, we have no reason to show up for work. The Spirit moves in profound and observable ways, and our heritage teaches that most everything else just takes care of itself.” A very open and honest admission by a guy who has taught in the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary and I’m told pastors a church these days.
He follows that with something akin to a bombshell when he speaks about his experience pastoring a church: “Our congregation’s story failed to line up with what our movement’s culture taught us to expect. At one public rally, for example, the only ‘testimony’ from two years of renewal came from one person who thought he might have quit smoking.” (p.12)
As this account shows, miracles haven’t always happened when we expected them to. Let’s admit it. People have had their faith rocked. Why didn’t God always come through? Why do miracles seem random?
And what those outside the church don’t always realize is that God has seemingly ignored one prayer while answering another. In fact, God ignored prayers in the Bible occasionally, AND answered others miraculously. As you can probably guess, there was always a reason. Here in the book of James, the Bible tells us to do one thing, but does it mean God will always, always, always answer with a miracle?
What do people think when church leaders proclaim with bravado that God has answered a prayer, or brought a miracle or WILL do wo-when in fact the prayer is not answered and the miracle never arrives? The simple answer of “God works in mysterious ways,” or “God answered no” does not fit with the stuff we were saying when we were so sure of ourselves and so sure God would do something miraculous. Compared to what we said beforehand, those statements seem like lame excuses.
However, our insistence God does what we want… well what does that seem like? Selfishness? Arrogance that we could demand things of our Creator as if He were simply an employee of ours? Even in this Bible of ours, God has refused to listen and answer prayers before, with good reason.
They have returned to the sins of their forefathers, who refused to listen to my words. They have followed other gods to serve them. Both the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken the covenant I made with their forefathers. Therefore this is what the LORD says: ‘I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them. -Jeremiah 11:10-11
Even James, the very same guy who wrote the verse at the beginning of this post which details what to do when someone is sick and needs healing, also happened to write this:
You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. -James 4:2-3
So even James, in context, wasn’t giving us a blank check. I know, I’m just as disappointed as you are.
But don’t think for a second that people haven’t been driven away from God or turned their back on salvation because their very faith in God’s existence and the truth of Christianity was shaken because God didn’t do what they asked. It has happened. Most atheists in fact would cite something along these lines when explaining why they don’t believe in God.
More people than we care to admit believe Christians are delusional because we believe in miracles that don’t happen (according to them) and no one is currently walking on water to prove them wrong. If they did, I’m sure 20/20 or Dateline NBC would discover they were being held up by invisible cables…
Americans long for something real, something tangible, that speaks of a greater power than what we have on this earth alone. Our enjoyment of “Super-hero” movies even as adults speaks to this. Our emphasis of it in religion is evidence as well. The popularity of magicians and illusionists such as David Blaine and that “Mind Freak” guy who seem to do the impossible give further proof. The popularity and curiosity directed toward medium John Edwards cannot be overlooked. John claims to speak to the dead and draws crowds by the thousands all over the nation while managing time to write books, appear on news programs and produce his own television show.
We want the miraculous. Not just Christians or atheists, but people from all walks of life and all backgrounds. The miraculous gives us proof we hope, or at least some assurance that there really is something else, that this life isn’t all their is.
With all of the charlatans, illusionists, and dubious claims made without tangible proof, Christians, with our seemingly random miracles, get lumped in with the people who actually believe David Blaine levitates, John Edwards speaks to the dead, and the city of Atlantis was real. Much of the world thinks we’re just another group of people who chase after ghosts. (For the record, I like the Ghost Hunters TV show as much as the next guy. Those dudes are cool.)
We probably deserve the stereotype because we have built for ourselves a Christianity which emphasizes “Me” instead of surrender and submission to Christ. Instead of preaching what Paul and Barnabas preached in the Bible: “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said.” –Acts 14:22, we have preached a Gospel that presents God as our personal Cosmic Assistant.
Can I give you an assurance here? The Word of God, the Bible, when looked at closely with hard questions, reveals itself as more reasonable, more rational, and more true than ever. The literal truth it turns out, was there all along but often we were reading our own views into it, or ignoring something else that didn’t jive with what we believed. Nevertheless if we are courageous enough allow the Bible to speak and explain itself, you will find the answer to your question. As a person myself who needs/requires something rational, who looks for evidence, who argues with atheism because without the Bible I would have joined their ranks long ago, I have come to appreciate the comfort in knowing that my answers always seem to be right there in the Word. I have occasionally been forced to change my opinion or previously held interpretation influenced by my own traditions, but I’m glad. My faith is stronger because of it. Any time the Bible comes into clearer focus, unaltered and unobscured by the things “we’ve always believed,” we end up stronger spiritually because of it.
So I dare you to look at the Bible for the answer to this question. What you will find is Joseph went to prison unfairly after his brothers sold him as a slave. Lot’s wife was killed. Rachel died giving birth. Aaron’s sons died for one mistake. Daniel was captured, shipped off, probably made a eunuch, and sentenced to death twice. Jesus was tortured and killed. James was beheaded. So was John the Baptist. Paul was stoned, dragged outside and left for dead. He and Silas spent a night in the deepest part of a dungeon, still wounded from the scourging they had received. Many times the greatest men of the faith had to hide or run for their lives.
Why? Because God does not relieve suffering for the express reason of making someone’s life better. I realize we teach the opposite quite often. We point to the miracle of feeding the 5000 and say Jesus came to feed the hungry. We point to a verse nearby and say, “Look! Doesn’t the Bible say Jesus had compassion on the crowds and then healed their sick?” Yes, it does, but God has often allowed his people to cry out to him for hundreds of years before he acted. The reason Jesus healed them was bigger than just to relieve their suffering.
Even King David said after praying for his newborn son who died: “While the child was alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who can tell whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” –II Samuel 12:22-23
Paul would write later about a friend, “For indeed he was sick almost unto death; but God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow.” –Philippians 2:27
So there’s always that hope, but notice that in both of the verses above, there is an inherent admission that we are at God’s mercy, not the other way around. God acts as it serves Him, not because it serves us. If God served US, then every prayer should be answered, every person should be healed. God however, acts or doesn’t act in order to glorify Himself, and testify about Himself. Jesus came performing miracles not for the sake of our suffering, but for the sake of His message and the salvation of the world.
“…for the works which the Father has given Me to finish—the very works that I do—bear witness of Me, that the Father has sent Me.” –Jesus (John 5:36)
That’s why he fed 5000. That’s why he healed. That’s why he walked up to the pool of Bethesda, surrounded by many who needed healing and picked out ONE guy who was lame. It was after healing this man that Jesus said the words I’ve pasted above. He healed to testify about himself, not for the express purpose of making people’s lives easier.
Now that leads to some sobering thoughts. If my Christianity is focused around God doing things to help ME, then I will be sorely disappointed. God does what he does for His glory, His honor, and His purpose. He is not my personal cosmic assistant, quite the contrary, it is I who serves Him.
This is why you can read in the book of Acts, chapter 14 that Paul and Barnabas perform some great miracles, but in the end Paul is stoned, dragged out of the city and left for dead. If God can heal and perform mighty works, why didn’t he protect Paul? Because God uses the miracles to promote his message and not to keep his people -or even his Son for that matter- from suffering. No, God actually uses suffering as much as he does the miraculous.
The line by Richard Gere in “First Knight” fits the attitude of the people in the Bible toward God. Speaking to King Arthur played by Sean Connery, Gere said, “…if my life, or my death, serves Camelot, take it. Do what you like with me.”
The great men and women of the Bible had the same attitude toward the Lord. They followed. They suffered. And living or dying, they glorified the God in Heaven. When Christ came to earth, he was the epitome of this.
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
And as Paul would later say:
For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. -I Corinthians 4:9
Doesn’t sound like the boasting we often hear from today’s preaching does it? The problem as I see it is this: We often have become Christians and follow Jesus under the pretense of reasons that are selfish. We have married Christianity to our own selfish desires, and continually rebel against the idea that God may want us to suffer. We would say to King Arther:
“if my life can serve Camelot, then take it. Bless it. Give me life abundantly!”
What does Jesus say? Now read this one close, it’s important…
“Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ “ -Luke 17:7-10
When did Jesus say this?
Right after he said if we have faith as small as a mustard seed, we see the most incredible miracles! So I guess that means in context….
God is in charge of the miracles. We are just the servants.