Theological cynicism

In Surprised by the Power of the Spirit, former Dallas Seminary professor Jack Deere poses an interesting hypothetical situation: “If you were to lock a brand-new Christian in a room with a Bible and tell him to study what the Scriptures have to say about healing and miracles, he would never come out of the room a cessationist.”1 Deere believes that

no one ever just picked up the Bible, started reading, and then came to the conclusion that God was not doing signs and wonders anymore and that the gifts of the Holy Spirit had passed away. The doctrine of cessationism did not originate from a careful study of the Scriptures. The doctrine of cessationism originated in experience.2

Cessationism teaches that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit, such as speaking in and interpretation of tongues, healing and prophecy, ceased as legitimate, God-given gifts early on in church history. Theologically speaking, I consider myself a cessationist. Specifically (see the link at the beginning of this paragraph), I would refer to myself as a “classical cessationist.” That is, whilst I believe that God can and does still perform miracles today, I do not believe that he grants to any specific believer the ability to perform miracles at will. The ability of certain early believers to heal, speak in tongues and prophesy ceased relatively early on in new covenant church history.

The point of this post is not to defend cessationism or to raise debate with those who believe in the continuation of these gifts. Suffice it to say that my position arises from the conviction that God does nothing without a purpose. Given that his purpose in the miraculous gifts was the verification of the preached word (Mark 16:20), and given that the word preached today is confirmed by referring to Scripture and not by the performance of miracles, I do not believe that the miraculous gifts would today serve the purpose that they did in the early church.

This is not to deny that Jesus and the apostles performed miracles as a token of sympathy, in order to relieve suffering. The Gospel accounts clearly show how Jesus was moved with compassion at the suffering that he encountered, and that compassion often led him to heal those who suffered. Furthermore, I do not believe that God is any less compassionate than he was in the person of Jesus during his earthly ministry. I believe that God still can and does heal people out of compassion. I do not believe that he does so by granting individual Christians the ability to perform miracles. Similarly, I am not sure that I have any good reason to doubt reports I have heard of people hearing the gospel preached in a language entirely foreign to them and yet somehow understanding it. But this does not mean that he gives individuals the ability to speak in tongues.

I have, however, found that my theological position—and here I reach the point of this particular post—has led me to a form of evangelical cynicism. That is, despite what I have written in the preceding paragraph, I do sometimes find myself viewing claims of miraculous healings, etc. not with biblical discernment, but with potentially unfounded cynicism.

Let me explain.

Recently a young Christian adventurer whose blog I follow related how she had been diagnosed with dengue fever. Dengue fever, a tropical disease known fondly as “breakbone fever,” is an infectious disease whose symptoms include fever, headache, muscle and joint pain and skin rash.  Worst-case (life-threatening) scenarios also result in uncontrolled bleeding and circulatory fever. Simply put (in the words of our young Christian adventurer, it “has the distinction among tropical diseases of being the one you don’t want to get.

This particular young woman suffered with the condition for several days. The idea was simply to wait for it to pass. There is no treatment for the fever. But then something happened. A little under a week after she informed her readers of the diagnosis, she made a follow up post.

I did not follow the blog from the very beginning, and so I am not certain as to whether she ever posted her church affiliation. I gather from the opening paragraph of her post, however, that she is at the very least aware of the fact that her writing is potentially viewed by cessationists like me, if she is not in fact one herself. She began her follow up this way:

Something happened this morning that I’m not going to ask you to understand, or necessarily even believe. But I need to share it, especially since I know so many of you have been praying for me since you heard I was stricken with the dengue.

She then related how she had gathered with a small group of believers for prayer, and had requested prayer for her affliction.

I was sitting and leaning forward while Shennier, a guy in our DTS from Columbia, started to pray for me. (I couldn’t sit up straight because of the pain in my back.) He didn’t say anything spectacular, no special formula. He just called on the name of Jesus, and I felt something like a little rush of adrenaline along my spine. You know how it feels in your chest when you trip and nearly fall? Like that, only on my back. I sat there for a few more minutes, praying with all my heart that it was what I thought it might be, trying to work up the courage to sit up.

When I did, it didn’t hurt.

I ran my fingers along my spine, and where it had felt bruised and sore before, I felt nothing. I moved from side to side, and nothing hurt. I felt normal again. When I stood up to share with the rest of the class, I felt a tingling in my hands, and when I grabbed the microphone, it didn’t hurt either.

People, I am not even kidding here; I’ve been miraculously healed, and I don’t know what to do about it. My first response was just to start crying, because it’s pretty much the most overwhelming feeling in the world to know that God just reached into time and space on my behalf. And once I finished with that, I wanted to scream, to run into the middle of the street and stop every single mototaxi puttering past, to shake their drivers and tell them about what God just did.

But I’m not sure this healing extends to miraculous protection from rogue motorcycles, so instead I’m blogging. I’m putting these words out into the internet as a song of praise, as a shout of victory, and as an awed whisper in the presence of Power.

I received healing this morning, and I want to tell everyone.

On the surface, I have absolutely no problem believing what she wrote. My theological position does not prevent me from believing that God can reach down from heaven in answer to prayer and instantly heal a person of a physical affliction. In fact, what does James 5:13-15 mean if it doesn’t teach the precise reality of what happened to this young Christian adventurer?

But I am a theological cynic. As neatly as my doctrine is laid out before me, I still find myself doubting. You see, our young adventurer’s testimony of healing was made two weeks ago at the time of writing, and she has written nothing since. This in itself isn’t unusual, because hers is not one of those blogs that is updated on a daily basis. But the cynic in me has been led to wonder what has happened in the last two weeks. Did she perhaps wake up the day after her wonderful testimony to find that the pain had returned? Has she been in too much pain, or perhaps a little too embarrassed because of the return of her symptoms, to record how she has felt since her testimony? I’m a cynic at heart.

I’m not saying that it’s right to be cynical about this. Clearly it’s not. James 5 quite clearly tells us that God answers prayer and heals the sick. There is absolutely no biblical justification to doubt that God can reach down from heaven and instantaneously heal someone from a terrible ailment in answer to prayer. In fact, I have every reason to believe the account. It was not a case of faith healing. She did not have a self-professed healer lay hands on her and assure her that God would deliver her if she only had sufficient faith. She simply requested prayer and God answered. And the result was not another notch in some minister’s healing gun, but a spontaneous outburst of praise to a sovereign God. Is there any reason to disbelieve God’s willingness to simultaneously relieve the suffering of one of his servants, and to bring glory to himself in the process? Does that not sound like exactly the type of thing the God of the Bible would do?

Why, then, is there a tendency to cynicism? Why do I find myself doubting at the back of my mind whilst at the same time rejoicing at the testimony of one who wishes to give glory to God for a wonderful answer to prayer?

I suppose the only possible answer is unbelief. Oh, I have my theological ducks in a row. I am willing and able to verbally defend both my belief that the granting of miraculous gifts to individual Christians has ceased, and my assertion that God can and does compassionately heal people of physical afflictions today. But when the rubber hits the road, I find myself struggling with unbelief.

And then I find myself wondering if that is not why I perhaps don’t see prayer answered as I would like. Doesn’t James say “the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick”? Note: “the prayer of faith.” It is not simply the act of prayer that achieves answers. It is not a particular formula, or prayer from a particular person, that enjoys God’s power. It is the prayer that is prayed with faith in God. It is the prayer that believes that God will answer.

That, then, is the root of the problem. If I am honest I will admit that, whilst I rarely doubt God’s ability to answer prayer, I all-too-often doubt his willingness to do so. And that is a faith issue. It is the sin of unbelief. And it is a sin that manifests itself not in a theological position, but in practical, everyday Christian experience.

“I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

  1. Jack Deere, Surprised by the Power of the Spirit: Discovering How God Speaks and Heals Today (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 54.
  2. Deere, Surprised by the Power of the Spirit, 99.

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