Are we embarrassed by the supernatural?

May 2, 2015

I recommend Roger Olson’s blog post, “Embarrassed by the Supernatural?” to everyone, especially evangelical pastors like me.

In spite of the fact, Olson says, that we evangelicals “claim to resist over accommodation to the Enlightenment, modernity and secularity” and “claim to believe in and abide by the worldview of the Bible,” these claims are often not reflected in how we worship and practice our faith.

My claim is that most contemporary American evangelical Christians only pay lip service to the supernatural whereas the Bible is saturated with it. To a very large extent we American evangelicals and Baptists have absorbed the worldview of modernity by relegating the supernatural, miracles, scientifically unexplainable interventions of God, to the past (“Bible times”) and elsewhere (“the mission fields”).

This is obvious in how we react to illness among ourselves. We pray for the sick—that God will comfort them and “be with them” in their misery. We pray that God will give their doctors skill as they treat them. But we avoid asking God to heal them. We avoid any mention of demons or demonic possession and strictly shun exorcism as primitive and superstitious—except when Jesus did it. We look down on churches that anoint the sick with oil and pray for their physical healing. We suspect they are “cultic” and probably encourage ill people not to seek medical treatment. We (perhaps rightly) make fun of evangelists who claim to have prayed for God to re-route hurricanes but never ourselves pray for God to save people from natural disasters. We have gradually adopted the idea that “Prayer doesn’t change things; it changes me” and, like Friedrich Schleiermacher, regard petitionary prayer as something for children.

Olson’s words about praying that God would “be with” the sick in their misery convicts me. I’ve prayed a prayer like that far too often!

So if, like me, you think Olson is right, what should we do about it?

21 Responses to “Are we embarrassed by the supernatural?”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Not totally sure Olson is correct. First, I think we do pray for healing often enough–we just realize that one of God’s “agencies” for such healing is, in fact, the very medical community God has empowered with gifts, training, and equipment to help out in that regard. It would be silly, for example, to head out into a rain storm praying God won’t let you get wet (which He could do) rather than using that useful invention of an umbrella. God expects us to use the means he has provided to us to improve our situations.

    Beyond that, we very often don’t know whether God has allowed someone to be sick without any expectation of quick (“miraculous”) recovery, or perhaps any recovery at all, for some spiritual purpose (including entering the pearly gates). It may very well be that the best thing we should pray for is God’s peace as one goes through that trial.

    Also, I, as you may recall, am a bit skeptical as to God’s using the “miraculous” nowadays as he did in Bible times. Hebrews 2 says that God bore witness to those eyewitnesses of Christ who were proclaiming the Gospel with signs and miracles. At that time, with no NT scripture and no church (and, hence, no “established doctrine”), it was still necessary for God to “authenticate” those who were speaking ex cathedra (so to speak) as being from God and speaking on his behalf. As Nicodemus said, “Rabbi, we know you must be from God because no one can do the works that you are doing except God be with him.” Nowadays, “If they will not believe Moses and the prophets, neither will they believe if one rose from the dead.” We don’t “speak for God” in the same sense that the prophets and apostles did.

    Plus, to be frank about it, having lived in the mission field of South Korea, have attended church most all my life, and even visited charismatic fellowships and healing services, yet I have not witnessed anything that looked like a legitimate “miracle” (as in, raising someone from the dead, giving sight to someone born blind, etc.–i.e., the types of miracles Jesus and his Apostles are recounted as doing).

    • brentwhite Says:

      I agree to a large extent. A couple of thoughts, though: Olson himself describes a healing miracle that happened to him when he was a child. Do you think that wasn’t the work of God? Second, it’s the nature of miracles that they are extremely unusual events. It’s not surprising that you and I wouldn’t have seen one ourselves. We shouldn’t use our experience as the basis for believing in them or not.

      Also, I’ve heard from too many friends and acquaintances in ministry NOT to believe that the demonic realm also sometimes infiltrates or influences our realm. (I say this to make a point about the supernatural in general.)

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Perhaps I somewhat overstated my position. I do believe that God “intervenes” (including through angels, I at least imagine), as do demonic influences. What I have trouble with is the “miraculous,” by which I mean “startlingly” overriding natural laws. God can certainly “direct” our bodies to “heal,” but I don’t think he does so in a manner such as the instances I suggested; i.e., giving sight to the blind, raising the dead, causing a shortened leg to grow out to normal (I have read such a claim in a periodical I give little credence to), etc., etc. If some people want to classify as “miraculous” any “spiritual intervention,” then I agree that this occurs–I just don’t like to call those type of “typical” interventions as “miraculous,” reserving such a term to the types of things the Bible generally seems to place in such a category.

    • Josh Says:

      There are some good points here . . . and also some things that aggravate me. I agree that people should listen to the best medical advice. A lot of reasons for people being sick and unhealthy is that they don’t eat right. I can understand why God might say to a person, “I’m not going to heal your heart disease. You’re fat and you change your lazy lifestyle.” Many diseases and sicknesses are a result of sin – gluttony, laziness, lust, etc. Miraculous healing does NOT always come from instantaneous workings of God’s power. Many times, it comes when the roots of sin are dug up and done away with. This is a slow working of God’s power that is done in cooperation with a person’s will to be healed and delivered. Many modern day “healers” (people who have the spiritual gift – and yes, the Holy Spirit and his gifts are still with us) understand that truth.

      And I also agree that God is not going to do the big miracles all the time. I think there is a pretty clear pattern in Scripture where big-power is displayed at key moments – Exodus, the entrance into the Promised Land, the conflicts between God’s prophets and apostate authorities, the coming of the Christ, the outpouring of the Spirit, and apostolic mission. I don’t agree that this has stopped. And it’s because apostolic is still happening. The gospel is still entering into new places.

      Also, Jesus promised to us that he would give us what we ask for when we believe and follow him. The gospel has been the most advanced by simple people who simply believe him. I mean, look at who is bringing the gospel to the darkest places right now. Is it high tech, high IQ, highly educated North American white people (they’re too busy blogging, getting tattoos, and figuring out which pair of skinny jeans to wear)? No, it is simple people who simply believe the words of Christ. They have power – God’s power is with them.

      • brentwhite Says:

        I know that our brothers and sisters in Kenya, where I have spent some time, are far more comfortable talking about miracles that they’ve seen and experienced than we tend to be. And that’s a place in which the Holy Spirit is spreading the gospel like wildfire. They indeed have great power in their weakness.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Brent, a question. Did you yourself see any “miracles” happen while in Kenya. The “raised from the dead, blind received sight” kind?

      • brentwhite Says:

        I re-read my original reply and realized that it was unclear. First, I’ve never known anyone who’s claimed to have seen anyone raised from the dead. So obviously I haven’t seen anything dramatic. But I’m not sure I understand your point. I’m guessing that you don’t doubt that God can bring healing, sometimes outside of conventional medicine, even today. So if I (and others) lay our hands on someone, anoint them, and pray for their healing, and they get better (which I have seen), doesn’t that count as healing? Or are we to say, “Well, they would have recovered on their own, and in the same amount of time, whether we prayed or not”?

        I’m not willing to say that. All healing, from my perspective, comes from God, whether he uses doctors and medicine or not. But God certainly can respond to our prayers and provide healing in some cases. If you believe God ever responds to our prayers to provide healing to any extent, why be so skeptical? Again, do you think Dr. Olson’s claim to his healing was bogus? I don’t. I’ve known many people who’ve had those kinds of experiences.

      • Josh Says:

        I am a walking miracle. God delivered me from bad drug addiction (weed, meth, pills, alcohol), gave me a wonderful wife, two awesome boys (my oldest just received an honor in his school for having the second highest grades – only got beat by a girl!), put a calling on my life to pastor, gave me the chance to go back to school (where, with my remaining brain cells and God’s grace, I graduated from a top school in the nation with a 3.75 GPA – and also, debt free), and now I am doing great in seminary (3.7-3.8 GPA) and serving as a student pastor. I have seen God do all sorts of miracles in my years of serving and look forward to seeing more.

        I believe that you should approach God like a child. That’s what Jesus taught. If you see something bad, then pray that God would do something good about it. If someone needs healing, then pray for healing. If God gives, then praise the Lord. If you don’t see anything right then and there, keep praying. It’s not your honor at stake when you pray for something. God’s honor is at stake and it’s best to let him take care of his own honor. Just live like a child and believe the words of your Brother and your Father.

      • brentwhite Says:

        I resonate with your last paragraph. It’s God’s honor that’s at stake. Exactly.

  2. In the 1970’s, a psychiatrist at Duke Medical School, William Wilson, investigated the healing prayer and in the process was gloriously converted. He held a joint chair in both Medicine and Religion/Divinity, and started a healing ministry in Burlington, NC that I used as a resource in my law practice. Eventually the Medical School and then the Divinity School invited him to retire. It’s not clear which faculty was more disturbed by his crazy view of things.

    Duke is quite a bit more open to real christianity now.

    It looks like United is making a good start doing something about the problem you correctly point out. See:

    • brentwhite Says:

      I know! I’m excited about what’s happening at United. It is an official UMC seminary that has also become orthodox. That’s huge! I’m not sure how the dean (and whoever else) pulled it off, but I hope the same thing could happen at all our other seminaries. Just yesterday, I was at a meeting in Atlanta at which Kevin Watson, a new assistant professor in Methodist history at Candler, spoke: He is orthodox and evangelical. Such a small thing: one professor. But it’s a start.

      As for Duke, I have no idea. Richard Hays is orthodox, but he’s retiring. We’ll see.

      • Josh Says:

        What I heard from someone is a close friend with some of the faculty is that United was failing badly and most of the lib/progressives run off looking for financial security elsewhere. Those of an orthodox persuasion stayed on because they felt that God was calling them to stay put. After the libs/progs left, they said, “Well, it’s just us. Let do what we’ve always wanted to do.” And bam – God blessed it and it has become just as awesome place filled with goodness, life, and the Holy Spirit. I’m praying and hoping that’s what happens with the UMC.

        Also, they have a very good president who was just a wonderful woman of God. Many credit her for providing godly leadership through all of the transitions.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Are they becoming financially solvent? Are they going to make it?

      • brentwhite Says:

        Awesome! I’d want to go there if I had to do it all over again. On the other hand, having gone to a liberal seminary like Candler, I have paid for the privilege of criticizing them. I also made excellent grades. I have some “moral high ground” here.

        I can’t comprehend my colleagues who have recently enrolled in Candler’s new D. Min. program and are actually proud and excited about being there.

        To put it bluntly, I believe Candler is doing great harm, spiritually speaking—to our church and to many of the individuals who go there. Satan is doing great harm through Candler. And the students are like sheep to the slaughter—unless they are far better prepared to wage spiritual warfare than I was!

        I’m not exaggerating.

      • Josh Says:

        No, you are not exaggerating and I feel the same way. Many of those who graduate are going to be very ill prepared for ministry in the real world and probably going to drop out of ministry in a few years. That’s not speculation – that’s pretty much the norm according to the latest statistics.

        On a more positive note, have you had any interaction with Aldersgate Renewal ministries? They are the official charismatic wing of the UMC. I just had a group down to do a Lay Witness mission last year and it was awesome. I can’t tell you how good it did the people in my church. I’m having another event this year that focuses on discipleship. The people that I met in ARM are different from many American charismatics – they are not weirdoes or nuts but really passionate people who walk in the supernatural. They remind of John Wesley’s journal writing – open to God’s supernatural work but also discerning. I’ve made friends for life from there.

      • brentwhite Says:

        I have not! Never heard of them. I’m deeply sympathetic with and supportive of Methodists who are charismatics. I lean in that direction.

      • Josh Says:

        Here’s the website:.
        They are an official wing (whatever you call it) of the UMC. Frank Billman is head over it and he is also the author of this awesome book:
        I was a history minor in college and this book is extremely well done from a historiographical perspective. There office is in Goodlettsville TN – they provide all sorts of great teaching events (they’ll even com to your church for a weekend) and they also have several houses reserved for pastors who are burnt out and need some relaxation and renewal – and it’s at no cost! If you’re a UM pastor, just call and schedule some time for you and your spouse and your family.

        Check them out.

  3. Lauren Says:

    Brent, this is a question totally off topic of your post, but I thought you might be able to help me, as you wrote a post once on Tim Keller’s book on marriage. Do you do pre-marital counseling and if you do, what resources do you use? If you can help me out, thanks! Lauren

    • brentwhite Says:

      The last time I did a wedding (it’s been a while!) I had the couple buy the Keller book, and we talked about the important issues raised therein. I would recommend doing that. As for resources, I’m probably in the same boat with you: I don’t know much about them.

      No one listens during premarital counseling anyway. 😉

  4. Lauren Says:

    HA! That’s funny. I guess with people experiencing more before marriage, it might not seem relevant! Thanks for the info!

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