The Naked Church – Chapter Seventeen
The Naked Church – Chapter 17 – Where Has All the Power Gone?
For the kingdom of God is not a matter
of talk but of power.
The Naked Church – Chapter Seventeen – Whether or not people liked Jesus or agreed with him, the thing that most impressed them was his sense of authority. Even his enemies marveled at the power that flowed from his life. And that is an amazing statement about a man who had no wealth, political clout, or wide following. Jesus drew his authority from a far deeper well.
People saw it in the synagogues where he taught simple lessons: “They were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority” (Matthew 7:28,29).
They saw it when he cast out evil spirits with just a word. The people wondered, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him” (Mark 1:27).
They saw it when he rebuked the violent storm on the Sea of Galilee and immediately it grew calm. “What kind of man is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Matthew 8:27).
Jesus had authority where it counted. It didn’t reside in his mannerisms, volume, or charisma, but in this simple fact: What he said and what he did made a difference.
Scripture makes no suggestion that Jesus was a flamboyant orator. Yet his hearers knew they were being addressed at a level that no one else had ever approached—not the scribes in all their wisdom, not the Pharisees in their arrogance, not even Pilate in his regal court. Jesus’ recorded messages were only simple stories and direct challenges.
The Naked Church – Chapter Seventeen – Yet his authority was evident in two aspects. First, he spoke the truth clearly and directly, with the conviction of heart that demonstrated to people that he fully believed and lived up to what he said. Though he spoke in love, he didn’t obscure the truth for fear of offending people. Everyone knew what he said and what it would cost them to believe him.
Second, he also made truth live. He said that God cared about people whom the enemy had crushed, and he showed it by healing a leper. He forgave sins, and lame people walked away healed.
There is no greater symptom of the church’s nakedness than its loss of this simple authority. While our theology may be sound, it is distorted by the fact that it doesn’t seem to make a difference in the lives of those who believe it. We talk about how much God loves people, and we trust that this knowledge alone is their help, instead of showing them how effective God’s love can be in changing their lives.
The victims that such a gospel leaves are many. When theology cannot be measured in human experience, people will quickly grow disillusioned and cold. How can we expect people to believe in God’s love if they never see any practical expression of it? Would we trust a friend who says he loves us if he never helps us when we are in trouble? Of course not. Love expresses itself in action, and we naturally expect no less of God until someone trains us otherwise.
Jesus gave his generation a gospel teeming with supernatural power. He committed that same thing to his disciples: He told them to go out preaching the gospel while healing the sick, freeing captives, and raising the dead. Would he ask us to offer anything less?
If he hasn’t, where has all the power gone?
A Loving God in a Painful World
Time after time, I have seen families and even whole communities unite in prayer for the recovery of a sick person, only to have their hopes and prayers mocked. I have seen the wrong people get sick, the wrong people be hurt, the wrong people die young.
The Naked Church – Chapter Seventeen – Though few would express it as harshly, I think most people have felt similarly at times. Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People was another attempt to answer a question that has nagged mankind since the beginning: How can a loving God be in charge of such a painful world?
Those who do not believe in God often cite this excuse as a swaying argument. Why did God allow the tortures of the Inquisition, slavery in the U.S., or Hitler’s holocaust? Does his inactivity condone apartheid in South Africa, persecution in the Eastern Bloc, or starvation in Africa? Closer to home, why doesn’t he prevent the tragedies and sicknesses that take our loved ones prematurely?
Nothing forces people to contemplate theology as much as suffering does. Is there a God? If so, what kind of God is he? One mother expressed this question in the frustration of dealing with her son’s violent behavior at school and home. He had been normal until his father had tragically died. “Why couldn’t I control Buddy? Anger ate at me. I was mad at Buddy. And myself. And the principal. And Paul, for dying. And God, for permitting it.”2 That’s where people usually think they find God—always in the background, either orchestrating, allowing, or at least ignoring. Even those who deny his existence will cry out in pain or crisis in hopes that they might be wrong. The odds may seem like a celestial lottery, but what have you got to lose when every other possibility has been exhausted?
Other people, a bit more confident in their relationship with God, approach God with greater expectancy, though often with no better results. If God is real, why doesn’t he take a more active hand in our crises? Three conclusions have been suggested.
1. God doesn’t exist. The atheist sees life as only the random action of matter. Some get the breaks, others only hard luck. You can’t expect God to bail you out, so do the best you can. Though such thinking makes life easier to understand, it doesn’t work. God is real. Not only did Jesus show us the reality of God when he was here, but most people when truly honest will admit to some moment in their past when they touched a presence greater than themselves. They may not have honored him as God, but they know he’s there.
2. God is not all-loving. He may exist, but he ignores our pain. Some people suggest that he is concerned with far greater things and that it is prideful for us to ask for his help. Others suggest that God is somehow restricted from supernatural intervention in this dispensation. But the most painful form of this idea is when it attacks the sufferer personally. God might help others, but he doesn’t care about me.
The Naked Church – Chapter Seventeen – No matter what disguise this philosophy appears in, it challenges the heart of God’s nature and leads to guilt and isolation. If God’s love cannot be expressed to us practically, how real is it?
3. God is not all-powerful. This is the answer that Kushner advances. Sin has brought so much chaos into the world that not even God can make order out of it. Kushner’s approach is a compassionate and pragmatic one; it tries to save us from the anguish of the false expectation that bad things happen only to bad people, and from guilt when our prayers for relief go unanswered. He concludes that God loves us deeply and will help us handle crises, but is powerless to change tragic circumstances.
Kushner’s attempt at compassionate pragmatism fails, however, because God is all-powerful. I, too, sympathize with those whose confidence in God’s justice is devoured by their pain and whose security in his love is thwarted by unanswered prayer. But giving them a loving though powerless God certainly can’t help.
The Word paints a different picture entirely, and presents the reason why people expect more than this from God. The Old Testament is full of stories of God intervening to help people, and Jesus demonstrated a God who cared about each individual—his sin, his pain, his sicknesses. He even said that his miracles were proof that God’s kingdom had broken into human history for the express purpose of redeeming the anguish that sin has produced in our world.
But would this power continue after Jesus ascended to God? The scriptural evidence is overpowering. Throughout Acts and the Epistles miraculous signs and physical healings filled the life of the church. Peter, Stephen, Philip, and Paul performed great miracles and healings as part of their ministry.
We find the believers in Jerusalem praying for that power to continue even though it was beginning to bring them persecution:
Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus (Acts 4:29,30).
The Naked Church – Chapter Seventeen – Wherever the gospel spread it was accompanied with power. Miracles were recorded in Iconium, Galatia, Philippi, and Ephesus, to name just a few places. And in Paul’s writings to the believers at Corinth and Galatia he specifically encouraged them to expect this same power to work through their lives as well. The early Christians were not excited over a new theology, but over the reality of Jesus’ presence. He was alive among his people to share God’s love and power, and they viewed miracles as one aspect of that power.
So where is that power today? Though many people can give accounts of God’s healing or miraculous intervention in their lives, such occasions seem sporadic at best. And for every story of someone being healed, it seems that there are so many more of people who are not.
Even in segments of the church that expect God to intervene regularly, the problems are many and the results are not outstanding. One well-known charismatic pastor admitted to me, “Statistically, healings in American ministries today don’t even reach the placebo effect; those who are expected to get better just because they think they will. We don’t even believe it ourselves.”
Furthermore, where we do hear of healings today, not all the testimonies pan out. Dave Hunt cites a major healing ministry in the Los Angeles area where 80 people in the course of a service testified to miraculous healings. When a staff member did some follow-up on those people he found that not one of them had actually been healed.3 Some people may have faked it, while others must have experienced some temporary psychosomatic relief in the emotion of the moment.
Tim Stafford summed up well the disparity between the early church’s experience and our own: While the Gospels and Acts are studded with the supernatural, accounts of the church since the second century are at best sporadically miraculous. Miracles could hardly be called the everyday experience of the church.
Few would disagree with that statement, though the conclusions drawn from it can differ widely.
The Naked Church – Chapter Seventeen – Some say that God’s purpose for miracles in the New Testament was only to validate the authority of God’s Word. They see miracles not as an act of God’s compassion for hurting people, but rather a mere validation stamp and therefore not necessary today. I have a hard time with that. What a cruel trick for God to show us in New Testament times what he can do to meet people’s needs, but refuse to do so now because we already have the Bible! Many others affirm God’s ability to miraculously intervene today, but feel that it is a rare act of sovereignty which leaves us little basis to expect healing in any given situation.
Still others suggest that God wants to heal every sickness in every person, and that people remain unhealed only because of sin or weak faith, or perhaps because they haven’t taken the right steps.
All of these options leave me uncomfortable. Though I’ve witnessed many healings and outright miracles, I can honestly say that they don’t seem to happen consistently enough and in as many specific situations as Scripture would seem to indicate they should. But I consider this a reason to look for change and not to discount God’s intentions.
I am far more comfortable basing my expectations on the example of the early church than I am accommodating them to fit today’s circumstances. Nowhere does the Bible intimate that miracles would cease after the first generation. That interpretation seems to begin where people try to rationalize their own experience. In fact, Scripture directly encourages us to anticipate God’s pragmatic intervention in our lives—transforming, guiding, and even healing.
I know others disagree, but I’m convinced that the reason we do not experience God’s power in greater measure than we do is for all the reasons this book contains. I don’t think the church as a whole has lived up to its potential since the first century, but not doing so and not being able to do so are two different things.
Though we want to see the church as a consistently faithful structure which only occasionally runs into problems, the opposite is more accurate. For the most part the church has floundered in its ineffectiveness, losing sight of Jesus’ priorities for political, material, or personal gain. Perhaps when everything is said and done we’ll see that we have not differed at all from Israel under the old covenant, where periods of forsaking God were only occasionally interrupted by the likes of Moses, Samuel, David, Jehoshaphat, and Daniel.
The Naked Church – Chapter Seventeen – Today the worldliness that has filled our Christian institutions and reshaped our priorities could easily have robbed us of spiritual power. But if we can see that and turn from it, perhaps we can be on the verge of another interruption. Like Israel, the church also has had times of significant awakening and reformation that have called her back to her biblical roots. Most of such times were accompanied by demonstrations of supernatural power in a variety of forms. Even today testimonies of God’s miracle-working power dominate stories from overseas.
And at home, signs and wonders are taking a more prominent place in theological discussions. The charismatic and Pentecostal movements have encouraged this for years, but more recently even mainline churches have identified with a so-called “third wave” renewal, that accepts healings and miracles as part of God’s work today.
As encouraging as these trends are, they can also lead to an unhealthy preoccupation with only one aspect of God’s power, resulting in experiential extremes that subvert and discredit the genuine. Whenever God’s gifts capture our affection more than the Giver himself, we will be misled into a pursuit of ecstatic experiences that only excite the flesh and still leave us empty spiritually.
As wonderful as miracles and healings are, they are certainly not God’s only or even most important work in us. It’s just that their lack is more evident than other virtues which are more easily faked. If we can accept the New Testament example as valid today, it can be a great source of hunger that will call us to God’s presence with a desire to be made better vessels for him. That hunger should not demand that every need be answered according to our expectations, nor should it question the faithfulness of those who are not healed.
Likewise that hunger need not discredit the ministries of those who have gone before us who haven’t utilized such gifts. J. I. Packer poses a question which many people ask when contemplating miracles today: “In saying ‘power’ evangelism is normative, do they realize they are saying that the evangelism of John Wesley, D. L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham are sub-biblical?”
Though it may have been demonstrated more in spiritual conviction than in healing, there is no doubt that these men exercised tremendous spiritual power. Not all power is measured by outward miracles. God uses our changed character and our selfless acts of giving as well as our convicting words to reach out to those who do not know him.
But neither for that reason should we discount God’s desire to use a full arsenal through his church. Do we despise the soldier who takes a hill with just his bayonet because his gun jammed? Must we take every hill that way from now on to make him a hero?
Does God Want to Heal Everybody?
This question is asked whenever God’s supernatural power is discussed. To answer the question accurately, we need to take a wider look at God’s use of supernatural power. It can be summed up in this statement: God is still active in his creation, not for man’s amusement or entertainment, but for his redemption.
The Naked Church – Chapter Seventeen – We need to see supernatural power in that light. Certainly it is most obvious in healings and miracles, but his activities are no less miraculous when he saves a life, fills a distressed heart with peace, or gives us the grace to endure difficulties. Some who miss that point try to force us into choosing between a God who works within and one who works without.
There are many of us for whom the role model is Joni Eareckson rather than John Wimber. We see the powers of the kingdom operating, but mainly in regeneration, sanctification, the Spirit as a Comforter, the transformation of the inner life, rather than in physical miracles which just by happening prevent much of the other kingdom activity whereby people learn to live with their difficulties and glorify God.
Eareckson is a quadriplegic who teaches on how to cope with suffering and has even shared her own frustrated efforts to find divine healing. Both Wimber and Eareckson have had valuable ministries, but why should either be stereotyped and set up as a pattern for every person’s life?
God wants to make us whole people in every area. The Word makes it clear that God’s greatest concern for us is to transform us into his image. While this doesn’t exclude physical healing, it does set God’s priority. Those who seek God more extensively for healing than they do for freedom from sin aren’t sharing God’s desires, and probably not his power either.
I love my daughter deeply and will save her from whatever suffering I can, but I won’t do so to the destruction of her inner maturity. So while I will get a sliver out of her finger before it gets infected, I won’t seek the expulsion of a classmate who makes fun of her at school. I want her to grow up, and she needs to understand that suffering is part of that process in a selfish world, even if we’re believers.
That’s what God does with us. He doesn’t create our sufferings, but he is not bent on saving us from every little discomfort, either. Only a materialistic gospel forces us to make such an assumption. But those who confine God’s work to the nonphysical realm also cheat themselves. Outward miracles and divine healing both have a place in helping us to obey God’s will, in attesting to his reality, and in demonstrating his love. God didn’t just wind up his world and walk away from it. He is still active within it, able to affect the material realm as simply as he created it.
Two motives affect his use of power. First, gifts of healing—physical, spiritual, and emotional—are part of his work to reverse the devastation that sin and darkness have perpetrated on his children.
Second, miracles occur when God suspends the order of creation to advance his will. They simply attest to the fact that he who created is able to override that creation when it suits his purposes. For example, God created water to feed our crops and replenish our bodies’ fluids. Of necessity it needed to be a liquid, and he supplies it to us through rain clouds. For the most part this serves his purposes; he doesn’t need people walking on it, changing it into wine, or preventing the storms that bring it. Even though Jesus did all these things once, he didn’t take regular strolls across the Sea of Galilee or stop every storm that rolled over Judea. Even though he indicated that his disciples could expect to see God’s power work on their behalf in the same way, there is no recorded case of them ever walking on water again or rebuking a storm to save a church picnic.
They learned their lesson. Miracles are designed to advance God’s will, not satisfy our whims. Jesus was given the opportunity to use God’s power for his own convenience when he was tempted to turn stones into bread. He declined. Miracles were never intended to save us from all discomforts, but to give us what we need to follow Christ and be shaped into his likeness.
So does God want to heal everyone? Yes, both inside and outside—a process that will only be completed when we see him face-to-face. At each moment of our lives he knows the best way to change us. Either way, we need his power working in us to do it.
Though I look to affirm God’s power however he chooses to manifest it, there is a great lack today in outward miracles. I’m personally convinced that God wants to do more in this area than we presently experience. Paul said, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but in a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom but on God’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:4,5).
Does God want faith today based on anything less? We would do well to spend less time, effort, and money on apologetics and impressive programs, and instead turn our hearts to recovering the simplicity of wielding to God’s power.
Let’s Get On with It
The Naked Church – Chapter Seventeen – Such recovery will be impossible if we don’t see God’s active participation in our lives as essential to our transformation and the extension of the gospel. We’ll never pay the price necessary to find out how to let him work through us.
We’ve got to stop making excuses for ourselves and God, allowing us to coexist with the status quo instead of looking for change. By doing so we are like the naked emperor, who pretended that nonexistent clothing was good enough because at the moment that’s all he had. The other day as I walked across the campus of our local college I passed a young woman in a wheelchair. She was surrounded by her friends and was busily chatting away. My mind was drawn to Acts 3, of Peter and John and a lame man they sent home dancing.
How much would healing have said to this girl about God’s love? What door would it have opened to those nearby to show them how real Jesus is? I do know one thing: I couldn’t organize a more effective outreach than that one moment of spontaneity would produce.
I didn’t do anything that day, but one day I shall—not for everyone I pass in a wheelchair, but for the ones I see God touching in that way. That’s what Jesus is doing about suffering in our world: He isn’t standing idly by while people hurt; he wants to intervene in the world’s pain and bring redemption and salvation from the ravages of sin.
He showed us that fact when he was here, and he wants his gospel to still have that authority today—binding up broken hearts, healing blind eyes, delivering people out of darkness. All he awaits are vessels that will cooperate with him.
Produced with permission from Wayne Jacobsen.