When I discuss healing and prophecy and the miraculous with Christians who have hesitations about those practices, one of the recurring objections is the concern that people who are sick or handicapped or the like not be blamed for not being healed, usually for lacking faith. This morning I was reminded of that as I was thinking through a few of the stories in which Jesus rebuked the disciples for having little faith in him. The first thing that leapt out at me as I thought about such stories was that when it came to the miraculous, it was so often his disciples — the insiders, the co-workers with him — whom he rebuked for lack of faith, not the needy folks coming to be healed. As I thought of the many times and ways Jesus did this, including when the disciples failed to cast a demon out of a person during his transfiguration, it dawned on me that Jesus does rebuke his apprentices for lack of faith (evidenced in a variety of ways), but never does he rebuke a person acutely aware of their need for healing. With those that are hurting or on the outside–the bruised reeds, the smoldering wicks–he may still discuss their faith, but he is much more gentle, even commending or praising the faith that he finds in such people. Think of the interchange which climaxes in the now famous “I believe; help my unbelief!” That’s as close as Jesus gets to correcting the faith of someone in a felt need. Of course, that interchange is so non-condemning, so honestly helpful, that it rivals if not outstrips his dealings with Thomas as the most loved among us doubters.
He was more blunt, corrective or even confrontational not only with his own students, but also with those who had more official training in the Jewish faith that didn’t believe, and with those communities who personally witnessed him doing signs and wonders but still didn’t believe him as “Christ.” The latter folks are given not mere correction but “Woes” and warning. But you never see Jesus being short or harsh with those who are about to lose their daughter, or just lost their brother, or in some other way are, in that moment, in the middle of experiencing some the real poverty of the human experience, even if their faith in him is weak. With them he is more gentle, even if still urging them, pulling them, to believe. It seems he is even more gentle with his disciples when they are personally experiencing loss (look at the Lazarus incident). Therefore, I think it is safe to say and teach that a practice of the miraculous that is modeled after Christ is not going to create any blame or burden for those who personally need healing or rescue from one of life’s tragedies. We might call this the “smoldering wick” principle and it seems to extend even to Christ’s disciples when he might otherwise be more blunt about their lack of faith.
But this led me to a second, related thought especially concerning his disciples. Clearly, Jesus wanted everyone he encountered, even the smoldering wicks and especially his disciples, to “believe” in him, and, what’s more, he expected their faith in him to include his power over death, over demons, over disease, over nature (and rebuked them for lacking it). And it goes farther still: he even commanded them to do the same things on his behalf and rebuked them and occasionally seemed exasperated when they lacked the faith to do it. But my question is this: Can we effectively argue (or should we even try) that Jesus wants us to have a materially different faith than that which he obviously sought to instill not only in the disciples, but in everyone he encountered? Can we read Jesus’ rebukes to the disciples and to the religious community of the day and exempt ourselves if we lack in our faith what they lacked in theirs? When Jesus tells someone in the NT that they have little faith or great faith, what exactly is the content of that faith that they lack and should ours be different?
It is obvious from the NT that Jesus wanted his disciples to have faith that went well beyond whether or not he forgave them (and whether they could forgive on his behalf). Yes, he does want us to know that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” and that “if [we] forgive anyone, they are forgiven.” But if Jesus himself or the gospel writers are to be believed, God seemed at least equally concerned that Jesus’ disciples knew that he had authority on earth [and they through him] over diseases, demons, death, and over nature, as well as forgiving sins. He wasn’t happy with their “faith” when it didn’t include any one of these things and when they lacked the faith to do the same things on his behalf. He summed it up in his final great commission to them: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me, therefore, make disciples . . . [.] His authority over everything (as God’s anointed, the “Christ”) as richly demonstrated in the gospels, is the basis of the Great Commission. Our “faith”, according to Jesus, needs to include not only his authority and willingness to forgive, but his authority over all things in heaven and earth, and in our authority from him to do the same things he did, as he said that anyone who believed in him would do. If our faith in him, and the actions that flow from it, should be markedly different than what he was so insistent on his first followers having, what’s the basis? I really don’t think that’s a search with a happy ending. We’d be better off, I believe, to let the gospels transform our faith and practice than justify our own. I’ll be posting the content of an upcoming local training on that topic soon.
In a previous post, I mentioned my view that the best way to look at healing is as a subset of love: love from a God that has the power to heal towards a world that needs it in all kinds of ways. I now want to say a very similar thing about the phenomena that I would put in the equally large category of prophetic insights (everyone go ahead and cringe at the word)–such things, whatever we call them, are best thought of as a subset of love from an all-powerful, all-knowing God of love on a mission of love.
To get the definitional issue out of the way, I put any kind of inside information however partial, or direct leading from God, even to take a non-verbal action, in the “prophetic” category. Paul seems to associate, in general terms, the gift of prophecy with insight and beyond natural knowledge. For example, Jesus got inside info on the woman at the well (about her past and present, not her future), to which she replies “I perceive you are a prophet.” At the risk of putting one of my own experiences next to one of Jesus’, I similarly once got a strong conviction to go ask a guy that I didn’t know a specific question that resulted in his immediate conversion from being a secular jew to a Christian. Even cessationists will report “feeling strongly led” to visit a friend at a specific time, which turns out to be truly critical. How did they know to go right then? The Bible didn’t tell them. The Spirit did. I’ll give many more stories in that vein later, but suffice it to say for now that the question I asked revealed a secret this guy had, and he concluded upon hearing it, much to his surprise, as Paul said people would, that God himself was really among us Christians in a powerful way. Prophets get information, however partial or incomplete, that is from God, and helpful towards his purposes in the world. As with healing, this is not a complicated concept, especially in light of God’s goals and abilities.
My concern here, though, is not that such leadings and insights be called “prophetic.” Frankly, I don’t care if we call these things divine insights or “feeling led” or just part of being intimate friends (even sharing the same Spirit!) and co-laborers with an all-powerful, all knowing God. Labels can be helpful. But in this area, in my opinion, the term “prophetic” has picked up so much lint from abuses and fears, it’s hard to see it anymore. Let’s go behind the labels. Let’s talk big-picture. Let’s intelligently discuss what it would intuitively and logically mean, to use a phrase above, to be “intimate friends (even sharing the same Spirit!) and co-laborers with an all-powerful, all knowing God” who is on a redemptive mission towards all people. Even before looking at the examples in the New Testament, which only strengthen the case, we can begin to imagine. If these three attributes–Love, Power and Omniscience–were all someone was told of God, what would they expect of the people, whoever they may be, who were the co-workers with and agents of this God? As a parent of young children (who have a knack for applying these kinds of big picture concepts together with startling clarity), I can tell you that they’d expect, at least something like divine insights and leadings, which is what we see throughout the New Testament as God works through and with his people.
When I talk about “Doin’ the Stuff” as a missional lifestyle, included in that is an openness or, better, an “eager desire” to get leadings and specific insights, even partial ones, that are shaped by God’s knowledge of what people need in a given moment, which, again, is helpful in loving them. What did it mean to the woman at the well for Jesus, as God’s representative, to tell her, in her words, “everything [she had] ever done”? What did it mean to her? It meant hope; it meant God noticed her, knew her, had her in his mind. And it meant God was pursuing her. The experience of being known in this way turned her into an instant missionary, leading her whole town coming out to see this Jesus for themselves.
If we can forget, for just a moment, the fears and unanswered questions we have about trying to discern God’s voice in this way ourselves, and just look both at the big picture of God’s attributes and mission, and the micro-view of this woman’s reaction, can we see the prophetic as a subset of love? Can we see how God’s immense knowledge, especially of us, can be so helpful in communicating love?
I’ll share more stories and some practical tips for practicing these things soon. If you want some tips in the meantime, you can think about doing some of these things as a way of life as you go about your day.