Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Seeking Signs and Wonders

A dear friend just gave me a copy of Untamed Christian Unleashed Church by his professor, Terry Wardle. He is a professor of spiritual formation at Ashland Theological Seminary. Although Wardle is a committed Christian and a humble man, I am not at all pleased with his book.

Wardle starts by confessing, “I am bored in church.” Although many of us feel the same way, he tries to justify his boredom by pointing to the deficiencies in the church. He is bored because most churches do not manifest the dynamic presence of the Spirit:

·        We must have his Presence. We are little more than a tame imitation without his [miraculous] Presence…We will only be a force in the world when we are once again clearly, and dangerously [because the Spirit is supernaturally manifesting through us], the People of the Presence. The people…experience and manifest the power of the living God…I am desperate because I have tasted…and the power of the experience is beyond words. (17)

What should this look like? Wardle writes that “the supernatural should be natural for all Christians (24)”:

·        Not always proper, sometimes messy…Dangerous is what the church should be…the church should be un-tame to the core. (25-26)

However, this description seems to contradict what we find in Scripture:

·        The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. As in all the congregations of the saints. (1 Cor. 14:32-33)

In contrast to Wardle’s “un-tame” description, Paul argued that those who speak have a responsibility to tame their spiritual inclinations. Instead of a “messy,” disordered church, Paul argued that it had to be characterized by “peace” and order. A “messy” church fails to give accurate witness to the Master of the church – Jesus. Consequently, Paul argued that the church must be conducted in an orderly manner:

·        So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? (1 Cor. 14:23)

If a visitor sees chaos – rolling in the aisles, holy barking or laughing, or a cacophony of incomprehensible words – she will not be impressed by what she sees. Therefore, this is something to guard against, according to Paul.

However, according to Wardle, we are just missing it if we are not continually uplifted by supernatural manifestations:

·        There is something wrong when the church gathers and there is little [supernatural] evidence of the Spirit’s presence. (125)

But is there “something wrong” if we walk by faith and not by the sight of the miraculous (2 Cor. 5:7)?  Or should our lives in Christ be characterized by a steady diet of the excitement of the miraculous – just like the 1st century church? There is much to suggest that the typical Christian life is more accurately characterized by “groaning” (2 Cor. 5; Romans 8:23) than by unrestrained laughing - the ordinary rather than the extraordinary:

·        Now faith [not miracles] is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)

The faith walk should characterize our lives as we continue to hope and wait for things unseen. In contrast, Wardle states, “I am desperate for the Spirit to move upon me and through me” (17). While we should all be seeking the things of the Spirit, “desperation” shouldn’t characterize our loves, nor even the sense that we are missing-out if we don’t have regular tangible manifestations. Thomas had demanded a miracle, but Jesus corrected him for making such demands:

·        "Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen [miracles] and yet have believed." (John 20:29)

Thomas had been seeking the wrong thing. Although we can ask for miraculous encounters, it is wrong to demand or depend upon one, making it a pre-condition to come to the Savior:

·        He [Jesus] answered [the Pharisees], "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. (Matthew 12:39)

The Pharisees had already had enough signs. They instead needed to act in concert with the evidence. Perhaps Wardle is placing undo emphasis on signs and wonders. In themselves, they might cure boredom, but they fail to prove that God is in them. Instead, they may reflect the deceptive work of Satan:

·        The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders. (2 Thes. 2:9)

Perhaps, instead, it is our God’s purpose to give us a miracle-lean diet of trials:

·        You have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, (1 Peter 1:6-7)

Our faith is exercised when we have to endure lengthy trials without the light of miracles bursting out all over. Interestingly, the epistle of First John is “so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). Of the many criteria that John specified, he never mentioned any manifestations of the Spirit.
Miracles and ecstatic encounters might even prove counterproductive. Thirty-five years ago I had an ecstatic encounter with God in the midst of a life-threatening chainsaw injury. I lied dying in a pool of blood, when suddenly I realized, without any doubt, that God was with me. I was flooded with His love, joy and peace and nothing mattered anymore – not even death – because of His glorious presence. I knew that I was protected and loved and that even death couldn’t separate me from Him.

As I convalesced in the hospital, the surgeon warned that I would have to exercise my hand or I’d loose mobility. Instead, I was convinced that the God I had met was all-powerful. As He rescued me from death, He would also rescue my hand. So I didn’t move my hand

Sadly, my theology – my understanding of God – did not match my experience of God. I didn’t exercise my hand and lost mobility. I didn’t have the theological maturity to take away the right lessons from my encounter with God.

Unable to calculate the hidden costs, perhaps we are asking for the wrong thing when we demand a mountain-top experience.

I never again had an encounter like that one. It certainly wasn’t because I didn’t ask for them. I craved them! Nor was it because I displeased God! At that point, I wasn’t yet a believer. I didn’t even know who God was! (However, the encounter worked itself out to change all of that!) I trust that today, as a believer and God’s friend, I’m far more pleasing to Him now than I had been then (Romans 5:8-10).

Well, what went wrong? Nothing! I believe that my God can produce any miracle at any moment. However, I now trust that He knows what’s best for me. He knows my needs even before I ask. Nevertheless, as Wardle advises, I always ask Him for more, while I trust that He is giving just what I need. Although I would like to have miraculous evidence of His presence at every turn, I am now willing to wait and hope without it:

·        For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? (Romans 8:24)

Nevertheless, I agree with Wardle that some Christians are unwilling to trust God for the miraculous:

·        There are countless Christians who attend churches that go beyond minimizing the place of the power of the Holy Spirit – they discount it all together.

This is both unfortunate and unbiblical. God has not lost His powers since the 1st century. He remains a miracle working God. However, the “signs and wonders” theology does not recognize the fact that He purposely works in different ways at different times. When the children of Israel wandered in the desert, they were miraculously fed by manna. We aren’t today, but this doesn’t mean that God is at fault or even that we are at fault.

When the Holy Spirit was given (Acts 2), tongues of fire rested on the heads of the disciples and they spoke in tongues. I’ve never heard a report of this happening today, but this doesn’t mean that there’s a problem with God or with us. Instead, our God does different things at different times.

Right after the Lord saved me, I got a powerful impression that the Spirit wanted me to talk about Him to a young woman in my social work class. However, I wasn’t about to approach her and make a fool out of myself.

Instead, I proceeded to the administration building to take care of some business. I went to a men’s room on the top floor, away from all the student traffic. There, I again felt what I thought might be the Holy Spirit prompting me to talk to this woman. I prayed, “Lord, if You want me to talk to her, please make it very plain to me. Cause her to be right outside of this door when I leave this men’s room.” When I emerged, I was shocked. There she was, the only person in that wing, wandering around aimlessly.

I knew I had to speak, “You’re not going to believe this, but I was just praying about you…” We had coffee together, and I told her all about the Lord. That was the last time I ever saw her.

Although I’ve experienced other supernatural phenomena, nothing ever happened to me like that encounter. Why not? Had I fallen from favor? No! Did I stop trusting the Spirit for those kinds of encounters? Certainly not! It had been such a blessed experience that I prayed for others like it. What then? God has His timing and His purposes. Besides, this is a faith-walk, not a sight-and-wonders-walk.

We are not going to be satisfied here. We will never be fully satisfied with our church or even with our families. Our real home is elsewhere. Consequently, if we are bored with church, perhaps this is God’s prodding to more proactively minister to others?

Wardle observes, “I encounter Christians all the time who are dissatisfied with an information-based approach to faith” (54). He approvingly adds this quotation:

·        Christianity is not about propositions and beliefs, but about a love relationship with Christ. (134)

However, information is a critical element of faith. We are not saved by a mere feeling of faith but rather faith in a certain Person and information about the work that He has done and what He will do. Besides, “a love relationship with Christ” depends upon the knowledge of who He is. He does not want to be loved based upon our erroneous understanding of Him. Jesus affirmed that “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24).

We do not have the liberty to love Him in any manner that we choose. Our love has to be governed by truth, what Wardle calls “an information-based approach to faith.” Likewise, my love for my wife has to be governed by truth of who she is. For example, I am not free to love her because she reminds me of my first love. She wouldn’t approve of such a love!

Instead, Wardle’s faith seems to be based on a constant flow of miracles – a miracle-based faith. Even spiritual transformation depends on this:

  • God wants more, and has placed in the hearts of people a longing for more. And as we meet and pray for more, the Spirit will come. I am sure of it. He will come and frighten us, and exhilarate us. And do a transforming work within us. (140)
  • When you pray for the Holy Spirit to fill you, get ready, because things about to happen. You are about to change. You will very soon find that you have been supernaturally marked as a member of the People of the Presence. And as you say yes, you will embark on an exciting journey of transformation. (144)
Of course, God wants ever more for us. He will withhold no good thing from those who love him (Psalm 84:11). However, Wardle claims that this “journey of transformation” depends on supernatural manifestations. There is a secret, unspoken indictment embedded in these words. Since God wants to give us these supernatural visitations and since we don’t have them, well, the problem must be with us! Either we don’t really want the things of God or we’re not praying for them. Even worse, if we are without the supernatural manifestations, we are without spiritual transformation. This is a theology that condemns!

However, there are many verses about our transformation – our renewal into His image - that make no mention of manifestations:

  • Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2)
  • And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:17-18)
  • To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31-32)
  • Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory [transformation] that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Cor. 4:16-18)
Consequently, I think that any believer is “on an exciting journey of transformation.” Our Lord promises as much:

  • And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
  • Confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philip. 1:6)
Wardle readily admits that his proposal has a down-side, perhaps even many:

  • Some Christians, desperate to appear powerful, try to fake it…Others are reckless, failing to discern the difference between what is from God, what is of the flesh, and what is of the evil one. (126)   
These problems are endemic to the “signs and wonders” movement. Therefore, we have to wonder whether it is God who sends these manifestations and why he would give them to those who cannot make good use of them.

  • I have experienced Christians moving in gifts in the absence of love. It can be a real mess. Spiritual pride, showing off, self-righteousness, a critical spirit – it all shows up, and when it does, it’s nasty…In the end, far more people are hurt than helped. (142)
If this is the case, why does the “signs and wonders” movement continue to push people to seek the manifestations? Wouldn’t it be more Biblical and safe to instead,

  • Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)
Wardle also admits,

  • What starts out as a fresh move of the Spirit ends in a confusing and unproductive free-for-all of unbiblical spiritual excess…There has also been more than a little immaturity evident in these movements, which has not always ended well for the people or congregations involved…Not all people or congregations who have “caught the fire” [of the Spirit] have survived the experience. Individual believers, and in some cases local churches…experience division and in some cases destruction. (152-53)
This hardly seems like the Spirit’s work. If transformation results from the Spirit’s manifestations, it would seem that these congregations would become examples of spiritual maturity, but they clearly aren’t. Perhaps they have been pursuing the wrong thing? Perhaps instead they need to tone down their expectations and find satisfaction in their “daily bread!” Perhaps contentment is the virtue that needs to come first:

  • But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money [and perhaps also “signs and wonders”] is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Tim. 6:6-10)
Money isn’t an evil, but it becomes an evil when we expect too much from it. Perhaps we are expecting too much from miraculous manifestations? While many people might experience boredom with the humdrum of the more traditional churches, many seem to be experiencing shipwreck within the “signs and wonders” movement.

What has this movement brought to the Christian world? Are we now more respected or influential because of it? Has the church become a more loving or faithful place as the “signs and wonders” movement has grown? Many people are attracted to their promises, but a greater number seem to be crushed by the disappointments. I think that we need to be careful and Biblical about what we seek. Here’s a good place to start – with Jesus’ words:

  • So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:31-33)
Yes, I know that the “signs and wonders” preachers will insist that we ask specifically for miraculous visitations or we’re just going to miss out. Pastor John Arnott of the Toronto Blessing fame warns:

  • “If you play it safe with this thing, the Holy Spirit, you know what? You’re never going to get anywhere.” (Counterfeit Revival, 52)
I certainly don’t want to miss out on any of God’s grace, and so I pray in the manner of my Lord: “Not my will but thy will be done.” I don’t want my will anymore. I just want what He has for me. That might be the safe way, but the Holy Spirit promises to compensate for my failures to pray correctly:

  • The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will. (Romans 8:26-27)
I’m therefore confident that I’m not missing out! He promises as much!

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