Doctrine Ch.14 - Miracles

Jesus said we can ask for whatever we want and that we only need the smallest grain of faith. So why aren’t miracles more common? Some missing words from these phrases provide the key.

One of my favorite pieces of Christian literature is the satirical novel The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass Aged 37¾. I particularly like Adrian’s account of his forays into the practicing of miracles. His desire to have faith that will move mountains sees him start out by trying to move a paper clip:
Had another go with the paper-clip tonight. I really took authority over it. Couldn’t get it to budge.
   Told God I’d give up anything he wanted, if he would just make it move half an inch.
   All rather worrying really. If you only need faith the size of a mustard seed to move a mountain, what hope is there for me when I can’t even get a paper-clip to do what it’s told?1

       While the account is fictional, it reflects the experience of many Christians whose heart may be in the right place, but whose theology on this point is somewhat adrift. God is not a vending machine with a slot into which you can put “faith” tokens to purchase miracles. We should learn from Simon “the magician” who was punished for trying to buy the ability to do miracles on demand (Acts 8:9-24).

       Yet Jesus did say: “Have faith. … If anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ … it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:22-24).

       Verses such as these have led people to think that miracles are a matter of commanding things to happen, so the only reason healing or other wonders fail to happen is that we don’t get the command right—perhaps we don’t have enough faith. Some unscrupulous “faith healers” have become rich by offering to pray in return for a donation and then blaming the donor’s “lack of faith” when it doesn’t work. But doesn’t this verse say it should work?

5-minute summary

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Faith in a person

It is helpful to remember that Christian faith is in a person: in God himself. In recent years, the meaning of the word “faith” has changed somewhat. We can now talk about having faith in ourselves as if faith is some kind of assertive willpower, but this is entirely different from its meaning in the Bible. One way to make sure we don’t misunderstand “faith” in the Bible is to always mentally expand it to “faith in God.” So, when it says, “have faith,” read it as “have faith in God.” Jesus even does that for us in the verse I’ve quoted above, which actually starts: “Have faith in God …” (Mark 11:22).

       When Jesus encouraged people to have faith in God, it sometimes sounds as if he was saying they needed this faith in order to be healed. For example: “Your faith has healed you” (Mark 5:34; 10:52). He meant that we need to have “faith in God”—that is, we need to trust him. The people who were healed in the Gospels sometimes had no faith. When the paralytic was lowered through the roof, Jesus noted that his friends had faith—but this isn’t said of the ill person himself (Mark 2:5). On other occasions the person being healed certainly had no faith—such as the Temple guard whose ear Jesus reattached (Matt 26:51; John 18:10). And in many healings (nine out of twenty-eight that are recorded) there is no specific mention of faith, except the implied faith of Jesus. When we understand “faith” as meaning “faith in God,” this all makes sense: Jesus attributed all healings to God, not to our faith. So when he castigated his disciples for having “no faith”—such as when their boat was sinking in a storm (Mark 4:40)—he was telling them to have faith in God, and not to conjure up more faith inside themselves.

       Like so many of us, the disciples didn’t understand this at first, so they asked Jesus to “increase” their faith (Luke 17:5). Perhaps groaning inwardly at their stupidity, Jesus explained that they only needed faith the size of a mustard seed—that is, the tiniest amount imaginable. Today he might say that an atom of faith is all that’s needed. There only needs to be enough faith to indicate the direction of our faith—because even the tiniest amount of faith directed toward God shows that our trust is in him. The size of our faith doesn’t matter because the power lies in how great God is, not how great our faith is.

Moving mountains

What did Jesus mean about throwing mountains into the sea? This teaching follows immediately after he made a fig tree wither because it didn’t have any fruit (Mark 11:12-24). The meaning becomes clear in the next two chapters of Mark if we bear in mind that “the mountain of the Lord” is a metaphor for the temple. It is used in this way about two dozen times in the Old Testament (e.g., Isa 2:2-3; 11:9; 40:4, 9; 56:7). Jesus cited one of those verses just before he threw out the money-changers: “my holy mountain … my house will be called a house of prayer” (Isa 56:7 = Mark 11:17).

       Mark 11 and 12 chart the growing opposition to Jesus (11:15-33; 12:13-40), Jesus’ prediction that the Jewish leaders would be thrown out of “the vineyard” (12:1-12), and his predictions that the Temple would be destroyed (13:1-27). Jesus then used the fig tree as an illustration of what was to come: “Now learn this lesson from the fig-tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near” (13:28-29). Jesus concluded that its destruction would happen within a generation (13:30-37)—which it did, in AD 70. He had called on God to do the impossible—to throw down his own mountain, his own fruitless fig tree—and it happened. Jesus wasn’t telling his disciples to make showy or frivolous demands of God by moving mountains. He was teaching them to pray for the things that God has already said he wants to do to advance his kingdom, even when they seem as impossible as the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, which had served its purpose.

       Another phrase that gets misunderstood is the apparent promise that you will receive “whatever you ask for.” In the same way that we have to mentally expand “faith” in the Bible to “faith in God,” we have to mentally expand the phrase “whatever you ask for” to “whatever you ask for in Jesus’ name.” John actually does this for us repeatedly (John 14:13; 14; 15:16; 16:23-26), though not every single time because it becomes rather repetitive. John frequently includes these extra words to explain what it means: when we ask God for something, we are asking as servants of Jesus. This means we don’t ask for whatever we feel like having: we ask for things that Jesus wants.

       In the ancient world, everyone understood this distinction because they knew how a servant should act—they saw slaves every day. Modern readers can perhaps imagine a personal assistant or a butler ordering a limo for a journey or a perhaps ordering a new car from a showroom. They order it in the name of their boss, not for themselves. If they started ordering such things for themselves, they’d soon be fired. Perhaps one reason why John added “in Jesus’ name” so often is that the early church needed the same reminder that we do: when we pray we are working in God’s service, not self-service.

Miracles on demand

Another thing that doesn’t come across in English is that prayer is a request, not a demand. In older English, the word “pray” still carried the connotation of asking or even begging, as in “pray tell,” or when Shakespeare’s Romeo says to the priest: “This I pray, that thou consent to marry us today.” So when we “pray” to God, it makes no sense to express it as a demand or a shopping list, because in that case it isn’t a “prayer” any more.

       A common word that’s often left untranslated in the Old Testament is na, which means something like “please.” The word na occurs so often in polite or reverential Hebrew that it would look silly to add “please” everywhere, so we don’t see it in English translations. One place it is found is at the end of the phrase “Hosanna,” which we should perhaps translate as “save us please.” However, translators felt there was no need to include “please” because this is implied by the fact that prayer is always a plea or polite request—it can never be a demand.

       So, when Paul prayed about his “thorn in the flesh,” he wasn’t disconcerted when God didn’t remove it (2 Cor 12:7-9). He simply prayed again, a few times. Probably this was a deteriorating eye condition, which would be disastrous for a Bible scholar (see Gal 4:15; 6:11). We’d expect it to be God’s will to heal it, but that didn’t happen. Similarly, Paul no doubt prayed for his coworker Epaphras to get better, and yet he continued to be ill and almost died, though he recovered eventually (Phil 2:25-30). The point is that although Paul had often prayed and seen God heal instantaneously (Acts 19:11-12), he didn’t presume it would always happen.

       Paul served God, not the other way around. When we pray for healing, we aren’t putting our faith in a vending machine or in an online order form; we put our faith in God. Usually we don’t know exactly what God’s plan is, like Paul didn’t when he prayed about his thorn. After praying three times he stopped—not because he lacked faith, but because he realized this healing was not part of God’s will for him (2 Cor 12:9).

       This acceptance of God’s will must have been really hard for Paul. He had perhaps seen blind people healed and knew that God could help him—and yet God left him with this thorn! Some have turned away from God in circumstances like this, and Paul’s simple acceptance of his illness in this way impresses me greatly. It’s easy to have faith in God when life is comfortable or prayers are always answered in the way we want. It is much harder to trust God when those prayers appear to be unheard. One day we will understand God’s reasons, but until then, like Paul, we should put our faith in God, pray in Jesus’ name, and patiently accept the outcome, whatever it is.

1^ Adrian Plass, The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass Aged 37¾ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987)., 19.

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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