When people aren't healed or we don't see God move in ways we expect, it can be easy to get disillusioned.
In 1978 when I was a student in Birmingham I attended a large rally in the centre of the city led by a visiting healing evangelist. There was a lot of enthusiasm in the room and much expectancy. The evangelist spoke about the way Jesus healed all who came to him, gave lots of examples from his own ministry, then talked about the necessity of stepping out in faith. He encouraged everyone in wheelchairs to stand up and those around them to hold them up as an act of faith while he prayed for their healing.
"It was too embarrassing."
Three rows in front of me was a man with no legs. The two men either side picked him up and held him as the evangelist told all the lame “to walk in faith”. I sat there and watched this man frantically move his body as the evangelist and the crowd yelled their encouragement. It was horrible. He tried to move faster and faster until he was literally thrashing around and red in the face with the effort.
Some in that arena did get out of their wheelchairs and walk much to the delight of the cheering crowd. Not my man. After what seemed like an eternity of effort he ran out of faith and energy. The two guys quietly placed him back in his wheelchair. The meeting ended and people began to head for the exits. I stayed in my seat watching him. He sat there for a long time with his head slumped forward. Everyone averted their gaze. It was too embarrassing. After quite a while he maneuvered his wheelchair to the exit and left.
"Our response... is often lacking in Jesus’ compassion."
To this day I hugely regret not trying to talk to, or even sit next to, that man. We left him on his own; it was just too excruciating. I made a vow that night that I would never ever have anything to do with any event or ministry that would do that to a human being. I desperately wanted to see more of the miracles and healings that had taken place that night, but not at the price paid by that man. I’m sure the motivations of the ministry and people heading up this meeting were in the right place. But that incident left me with a permanent aversion to meetings that appear to be more about the love of power than the power of love; meetings where some are healed and blessed and yet no one knows what to do with those who are still broken. It’s so unlike Jesus. He was tender, merciful and kind to everyone, especially those that the rest of society often rejected. He would never have humiliated anyone who came to him in need. The woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years, the sinful woman, the man with a legion of demons, the little man who climbed the tree, the tax collector who threw a party for him and became his disciple, the widow of Nain… the list goes on. Jesus did not ignore the people we in society often forget. Instead he went out of his way to minister to them.
Our response when someone isn’t healed is often lacking in Jesus’ compassion. We find it so uncomfortable that we tend to blame it on one of three things: lack of faith, secret sin, or a demon. What a burden to add to someone’s load! Of course faith biblically seems to play a part in healing. God seems to love it when he finds faith in his people. It pleases him. Indeed, Jesus could do few miracles in his hometown “because of their unbelief”. And yet even good theology taken to an extreme can come very close to heresy or at least become destructive on a pastoral level. If we say that healing is solely based on God’s response to our faith, we’re saying it’s all about us and not about our loving, heavenly father! I know of many people who have immense faith, have confessed all their sins, definitely don’t have a demon, and still struggle with illness and injury. That’s not because of something they have or haven’t done, it’s because we are still waiting for the day when the Kingdom comes in its fullness. That will be the day when we see the lion lie down with the lamb and when EVERY tear will be wiped from our eyes. The fact that kingdom is ‘not yet’ means tears still exist, and many of us shed them regularly. On the day that Christ returns, sickness will be banished. For now we still have injury and pain. But we mustn’t forget the kingdom is also ‘now’. We see bits of it breaking through; we see signs of the coming glory. We’re told to pray “Your Kingdom come” and to live as ambassadors of that Kingdom. We long for more of his kingdom; we pray for more; we live for more. When we preach the gospel, we rejoice when men and women are born again, but not everyone who hears comes to Christ. When we pray for healing and deliverance, some people are gloriously set free, but some are not. When we fight for justice and feed the hungry, we are in a meaningful way being agents of the rule of the King. But there will still be injustice. Until, that is, he returns.
"we need the glory to fall again"
We need to grasp this tension of the kingdom ‘now’ and ‘not yet’ so we don’t fall into the trap of expecting everyone to be healed, or expecting no one to be. We need to go back to the ministry of Jesus and remember he called us to follow his footsteps and do the things he did. The early church not only spoke the words but performed the deeds of Jesus. Healings, miracles, signs and wonders were in abundance. Those who were sick were brought to Peter so that when Peter’s shadow passed by they would be healed. “Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed.” (Acts 5:16 NIV). When the Samaritans saw all the miracles Philip did, they paid close attention to what he said. “With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed. So there was great joy in that city.” (Acts 8:7-8 NIV). Yet Paul’s eyesight remained poor and his “thorn in the flesh” was not taken away, Timothy still had to take a little wine for his stomach and Epaphroditus was so sick that Paul was concerned he might lose him. The kingdom was ‘now’ and ‘not yet’ but they kept going, kept praying and kept seeking.
There was great joy whenever the power and presence of the Lord were manifested. And I believe we need the glory to fall again. And by that I mean the manifest presence of Jesus as mediated by the Holy Spirit. Jesus told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came upon them so that they would have power to be witnesses. They had just spent three years in the best Bible college there has ever been and they still needed the power of the Spirit. And we need his power today too. A lot of us have been sickened and disillusioned by the excesses, the exaggerated claims and the preoccupation with certain “manifestations”. And some of us have questioned what the point of it all is when there’s a world outside our church doors that needs concrete love, hope and action. But I’m really concerned that in our questioning we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, the focus on roaring and shaking and laughing inside the church, was, on reflection, insular and immature. But God did some amazing things in the midst of it. People were healed emotionally and physically and, perhaps most importantly, they grew in their love and relationship with Jesus. That’s where we need to get our focus back on: not the messy manifestations, but the changed lives that can result from an encounter with the Holy Spirit.
"many have settled for a “charismatic light” expression of Christianity"
I’m starting to think that partly because of the excesses, many have settled for a “charismatic light” expression of Christianity. We sing modern songs, we raise our hands, we sometimes clap and we have altar calls. But it is all fairly carefully scripted and well timed. We are in control. We set the agenda and God is invited to bless what we do. What a shame. I dream of another way: A church that is “naturally supernatural” and walks in the manifest presence and power of the Spirit, without being weird. A church which isn’t about the charismatic celebrity with the white suit on the platform but about the whole church involved in the whole ministry of Jesus. Ordinary people talking and praying for their friends and seeing God move in response. A church where no one is under pressure to succeed because we understand that we are just the servants and our job is simply to be obedient. He leads, we follow. “I only do what I see my Father doing”, said Jesus. Now that’s a good model! We become like waiters and waitresses in a restaurant. We take the order from the customer and then take it to the chef. Only the chef can make up the order. But we get to play. We get to be involved. Just like in the feeding of the five thousand, he can do the miracle with what we have in our hands. As with the wedding feast in Cana, Jesus turned water into wine but he asked the servants to carry the jugs. Ordinary servants played their small part.
Some years ago there was a lot of talk about “power evangelism” where we would seek to preach the gospel with our lips, serve the poor with our lives and reach out our hands to pray for blessing and healing for those who were sick in body or heart. I have heard people say it was an experiment that failed. I honestly believe it has not really been tried in any sustainable way. Not since the early church at least. When we get hurt or disillusioned the temptation is to walk away. But surely the antidote for something done badly isn't to not do it; it's to do it well. Perhaps the time has come for us to open up our hearts again, not to humans and their plans but to the Father and his Spirit. So what if we laid aside our past frustrations and disappointments and started again? A marriage of his power expressed through our humanity, his treasure in our cracked pots, his strength in our weakness. A marriage of choosing to be faithful to his word and to honour his Spirit, not as an insipid compromise between the two, but as a genuine quest for the radical middle. A commitment to follow the unpredictable, wild awesome and transcendent God in a culturally sensitive and appropriate way void of a charismatic subculture that excludes rather than invites. What if we managed to get the balance right between looking up (to the one our hearts yearn for), looking to one another (in love and grace and genuine community) and looking out (to a world that has lost its way without him)? What if we could use all the gifts and tools he gives us to reach this broken world with his love? It could transform the lives of our friends and colleagues…
The thing I love most about the summer events we run each year is seeing young people commit their lives to Jesus. The next best thing is seeing those young people, who’ve maybe been Christians for less than 24 hours, praying for their friends. It’s incredible to see thousands of young people standing with their youth groups, praying for healing, asking God to speak and being equipped by the Holy Spirit to go back to their churches and towns ready to serve him.
"they were just desperate to be available to God."
A few years ago I received a letter from a vicar whose youth group had come to Soul Survivor the previous summer. He wrote about how he struggled to see his church move on, and that he was worried people were becoming comfortable with their faith. Once the youth group were back from the events he asked them if they could share what they had learnt. One of the young people got up and said: ‘One of the things God showed us was how much he loves this church and how much we love you too. The Holy Spirit met with us as people prayed for us and we would like to do the same for you’. The youth group asked everyone to stand and invited the Holy Spirit to come. This vicar wrote that after 15 minutes there wasn’t a dry eye in the church. He then commented: ‘Everything changed in our church that day. What I hadn’t managed to do in 3 years, the Holy Spirit managed in 15 minutes. Six months later I can write and say I have a different church!’
That story isn’t about Soul Survivor or the events we run. That youth group could have gone to any number of events, services or just prayed together in the church hall. The point is that they were just desperate to be available to God. The result was a transformed church congregation.
But the Holy Spirit obviously isn’t just so we can transform our church or find personal healing; he’s our most powerful tool in reaching those outside of church and yet we so often neglect him in our witness.
I have a friend called Matt. He’s an interesting lad, as he quite often actually lives out what he believes. A few months ago Matt was having a drink in a pub when he felt like God spoke to him about a woman who’d just entered the bar, saying she had a problem with her toes (Matt had obviously never been told it’s not wise to ask a woman if she has bad feet). Matt obediently approached the woman and her group of friends, explaining he was a Christian and that he thought God had told him to ask her if she had a problem with her toes. The woman was amazed. There was no way Matt could have known, but as she pulled off her shoe and sock, she revealed what Matt described as “very skanky toes”. She let him pray and the toes visibly improved. Then one of her friends told Matt that his arm still hadn’t fully recovered from the time he broke his collar bone. He said he couldn’t raise it more than 90 degrees. After they prayed the man could move his arm all the way up! They were amazed. They told Matt they were atheists who were now having a rethink!
"we need to be prepared to learn, to change, to be obedient"
On another occasion Matt was at the same pub with a friend from church, Luke. Two men walked in and both Matt and Luke sensed the Lord telling them to go up to them and speak to them. They went up to these two strangers and offered to buy them a drink; not something you’d do everyday! But the Lord was in it; the two men accepted the offer and a friendship was formed. Now one of those men has given his life to Jesus and worships at our church.
If we can learn to invite the Holy Spirit into the very mundane, everyday aspects of our lives – if we can learn to be naturally supernatural – then I have no doubt that we’ll see our churches, and the lives of people we meet, completely transformed. But we need to be prepared to learn, to change, to be obedient and to step out in faith. I’ve been with Matt when he’s thought he’s heard from God but the person he’s approached has shot him down and walked away. But I’ve also seen what’s happened when he’s been right - people have been healed, changed and have given their lives to Jesus. It’s incredible. We need to be challenged by people like Matt, to let go of our disappointments and not get disheartened or give up. We need to grasp that we live in the kingdom now but not yet, and remember that the more we step out in obedience and faith, the more likely we are to see God’s kingdom come. We need to learn to be naturally supernatural.
Soul Survivor are running a Naturally Supernatural conference from 13th – 16th February 2013 in Watford, UK. For more information look at the Soul Survivor Website. You can also get FREE recordings of the teachings from 2012's Naturally Supernatural conference!
This article first appeared in Christianity Magazine. Used by permission of Soul Survivor and Mike Pilavachi.