Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Normal Churches Pray for the Sick, with Expectation

Image result for john piippo praying
(Praying for someone at Redeemer)

(I am re-posting this for my seminary students.)

If your loved one was sick, would you pray for them? If so, what would you pray? Perhaps, for them to get better?

At Redeemer we pray for sick people to get better. 

We view healing as comprehensive, and in this way very Hebraic. 

This comprehensiveness is seen in how Eugene Peterson translates Isaiah 53:3 in The Message:

 The fact is, it was our pains he carried —    
our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us.

"All the things wrong with us." The atoning sacrifice of Christ has covered all our bases. The Atonement covers sin, yes, and so much more (a lot of which is the logical outcome of our sin). 

This affects how "church" is supposed to happen. Since God cares for the whole person - body/soul/spirit - he gives the church spiritual gifts that edify the whole person, individually and corporately.

What should a church look like? Is there a model, a paradigm, for "church?" I believe there is. It is seen in the book of Acts, and the letters of Paul, the book of Hebrews, etc. If there has ever been a normal church, it is the early church. If a church measures itself against anything, it is the early church.

Much of the American Church seems far from this. It is beset with abnormalities. Many American churches feel like going to a tennis match, expecting to see racquets and fuzzy yellow balls and a court bisected by a net, but instead seeing people standing around reading essays about tennis. 

A Jesus-follower in the first century would go to church expecting prayers for the sick, demons being cast out, the spiritual gifts manifesting, and maybe even a dead person brought back to life. What they would see in many American churches today bears no resemblance to that. 

Why would such things normally be expected? Because...
  • Jesus did these kind of things
  • Jesus said his followers would do these kind of things
  • The Church was birthed in these things
  • These things were understood in relation to the Atonement, in which "all the wrong things with us" were borne, by Christ, on the cross.
If a Church does not experience miracles, signs, spiritual gifts, deliverance from demonic oppression, and wonders, then it is abnormal, in terms of the original template. Something is missing.

Theologian Roger Olson writes:

"Most contemporary American evangelical Christians only pay lip service to the supernatural whereas the Bible is saturated with it. To a very large extent we American evangelicals...   have absorbed the worldview of modernity by relegating the supernatural, miracles, scientifically unexplainable interventions of God, to the past (“Bible times”) and elsewhere (“the mission fields”)." ("Embarrased By the Spirit?")

Last Sunday we prayed for sick people to be well. I talked with a number of people who told me they had pain, and after praying for them the pain was gone. People were smiling, saying that chronic pain had been taken away. They were praising God for what only he can do!

I think this is good, don't you? This kind of thing should happen in church, right? How weird to be in a church where expectation is low, even nonexistent, even to be avoided, and there are no expectant, faith-filled prayers for sick people who are there. 

How bizarre if a church is embarrassed by doing this. What if, horror upon horror, we bring a friend to church and they see people praying for the sick, and are freaked out by it! Or, attracted by it?

Olson writes:

"We [in the American Church] pray for the sick—that God will comfort them and “be with them” in their misery. We pray that God will give their doctors skill as they treat them. But we avoid asking God to heal them. We avoid any mention of demons or demonic possession and strictly shun exorcism as primitive and superstitious—except when Jesus did it. We look down on churches that anoint the sick with oil and pray for their physical healing. We suspect they are “cultic” and probably encourage ill people not to seek medical treatment. We (perhaps rightly) make fun of evangelists who claim to have prayed for God to re-route hurricanes but never ourselves pray for God to save people from natural disasters. We have gradually adopted the idea that “Prayer doesn’t change things; it changes me” and, like Friedrich Schleiermacher, regard petitionary prayer as something for children."

I experience cognitive dissonance when 1) I read stories of the first century church in the Bible; and then 2) I am in churches where virtually nothing about the first-century church happens and, more than this, is dismissed as dangerous and "weird." Which is weird, to me.

Last weekend, during our worship experience, someone spoke in tongues, followed by an interpretation. As a young Jesus-follower, who had never read the New Testament, some people told me that things like speaking in tongues and prophesying and engaging demons were bizarre. This put me in a strange position, since the Bible I was reading said tongues and prophecy and healing were given to the church, by the Holy Spirit, for its edification. I concluded that the cessationists were wrong. I went one night, alone, into the sanctuary of the Lutheran church I was raised in, knelt at the altar, and prayed, "God, I want everything you have for me, including the spiritual gifts you have given to us."

Olson writes:

"My experience is that the richer and more educated we evangelicals... become the less likely we are to really believe in and expect miracles. We relegate the supernatural to the inner work of persons believing that God can change people's hearts, but we do not really believe God intervenes in the physical world. Yet the Bible is full of examples of God's interventions in the physical world, it commands us to pray for such, and evangelical (and Catholic) Christians in the Global South almost all believe in and pray for God's miraculous interventions - especially in healing the sick."

Many American Christians have given in - unconsciously - to a reductionist, anti-supernaturalist worldview. They say they live by biblical truths, while practically denying how those truths played out in the early church. Why? Not because of intellectual reasoning, but because they want their religion to be "respectable."

Are there abuses by Christian pastors on TV? Of course. But the following reasoning fails:

1) There are abuses by people who believe in the spiritual gifts.
2) Therefore, the spiritual gifts are to be avoided, or are even non-existent.

That is irrational. The baby is thrown out with the bathwater.

Next Sunday morning at Redeemer we'll pray for the sick. Underscore the word we. This is our "normal." The expectation level will be  high. 

The reality of God showing up in love and power feels biblical to me. It's beautiful. It's better than words alone. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk, but of power. (See here.)