A Guide for Miracles

Miracles are weird, they disrupt our world, they make us vulnerable, they renew … and their presence in the history of a church that believes in God, in a God who in the Bible (at least) displayed powers in such a way that everyone thought they were miracles, and we believe in a Lord Jesus who seemed to do a miracle a day. Just read Mark 1. Yet, apart from the charismatic types, who do claim more miracles than many of us are comfortable with, most of us don’t do or see miracles. Back again, we claim to follow Jesus and Jesus did miracles and we want to be disciples and the original disciples did miracles. So…

What do you tell people when they ask you why most don’t experience miracles today?

Is there a guide? Jordan Seng, in a book from IVP, Miracle Work: A Down-to-Earth Guide to Supernatural Ministries, provides a guide and the book is filled with stories of miraculous events/experiences.  And he has an explanation of why there are so few miracles: “groups of believers frequently figure out how do to supernatural ministry, but they have a hard time figuring out how to live with the ministry. Revivals come with great exhilaration and fruitfulness; downturns come when people tire of the level of weirdness, vulnerability and sacrifice that supernatural ministry demands” (26). That how you’d explain it?

Irenaeus witnessed miracles; Origen did; Athanasius too (St. Anthony was his example); Augustine dismissed them and then experienced them…. John Wesley… Jonathan Edwards… Francis Asbury…

Seng says some are more oriented toward the conservative preservation while others are more open to the new and powerful.

His words: “Kingdom work has always been more about devotion than expertise, and the pursuit of God’s empowerment always draws us into God’s heart” (30).

Seng says it’s about power not about methods and techniques. Growth in power is his witness to supernatural ministry. He has (admittedly cheesy) formula:

Authority + Gifting + Faith + Consecration = Power.

He has a wonderful story, odd to boot with an abundance of dry – ahem, sarcastic – wit, and I’d say this book is the charismatic power book of the decade. Impressive. Best book on miracle working I’ve ever read.

Now some advice of his for pastors:

1. You can’t lead supernatural ministries from behind.
2. It’s about developing God’s powers.
3. Use small groups for practice and training.
4. Avoid telling secondhand stories.
5. Be open about mistakes and failures.
6. Create a culture that honors risks.

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  • Andrew Dowling

    I believe in what could be called lower case ‘m’ miracles; I believe the power of the Holy Spirit can nudge people and things into various directions, and at times even heal physical afflictions. But I don’t believe in capital ‘M’ Miracles that blatantly overturn the laws of the natural world. I think those types of miracles described in the Bible stories have much more metaphorical/allegorical intentions than usually recognized.

    There is a reason that accompanying the major advances of science following the Enlightenment you had a major decrease in reported miracles (and today, a huge gap between miracles reported by educated people in developed countries and those in the Third World). I think a discussion that just says “well, it’s because we lack childlike faith” or “aren’t properly conducting our supernatural ministries” frankly puts one into Peter Pan territory.

  • Phil Miller

    Talk of the miraculous does seem to be the one thing that makes people a bit squeamish. The one thing I’ve noticed, though, is that once you sit down and talk to people, there are a lot of people who’ve had experiences they might call miraculous but they simply don’t talk about it all the time for fear of being labeled a nut. The thing is that signs and wonders have always been something that have been part of the Church, and they aren’t something that can simply be ignored.

    I picked a book of John G. Lake’s sermons from Amazon the other week. Lake is a fascinating character to me. He started the “healing room” movement in Washington State back around the turn of the 20th century. He came from a Methodist background and founded the Apostolic Faith Mission in South Africa. By all accounts, he was a brilliant man. At one point in is his life, he was independently wealthy from his business dealings. But he eventually left the business world to pursue ministry. In some ways he could be compared to some of the faith healers of today, but in other ways he seems way more grounded. The only reason I mention him is that he kind of doesn’t fit the mold of the faith healer of being an anti-science zealot.

  • Rory Tyer

    You need to read and digest Craig Keener’s book, “Miracles,” before making a judgment like that so confidently.

  • I may pick this book up at some point. Speaking from my own experience, I can affirm that experiencing miracles can have a destabilizing effect, both for good and for ill, though mostly for good. Seeing God do things that can’t be done brought his imminence to bear on all my life and thinking. I wouldn’t say it shattered all my paradigms, though it made them all a little weak in the knees, and they shrunk dramatically in comparison to the One. As a long-term matter, if our gospel is that “Jesus is Lord” I don’t know how we proclaim this as well as we should and simultaneously stiff-arm practicing the miraculous.

    But yes, shocker, I can also affirm that I don’t always want so much imminence in my life or in this world. It can be unnerving. On the other hand, one can become infatuated with any experience, and that’s especially true of the miraculous. But I would say that that is as much a reason to avoid the miraculous as it is to avoid getting married. I can be (and have been) infatuated with my wife in a way that no doubt offends the greatest commandment from time to time. And that’s not helpful to anyone. And there are no shortage of thoroughly failed marriages. But that doesn’t make marriage a bad thing. It’s a good thing, a gift even, that we can handle poorly. The miraculous is very similar in that way.

  • I agree that there are many “laws” that God himself made, like gravity, that he’s generally perfectly happy to let do what he had in mind for them to do. But certainly the Spirit *can* do a great deal more than nudge people and at times even heal, no? Also, I don’t think the metaphor/allegory idea works so well for the gospels or Acts, nor do I think these letters belong in the literary genre with Peter Pan, yet they do speak clearly of supernatural ministries by Jesus and many others who followed him.

  • Tom F.

    I hear what this author is saying; and being in a moderately charismatic church, I want to be open to this. Hostility towards miracles is probably cultural, and I am very much a child of modern sensibilities in this way. So I’m (sort of) philosophically open to this…

    I think one of the biggest barriers for me is the unease from charismatic folks that often accompanies questions related to science or social science. (I haven’t read this author, so of course, I’m speaking in generalities.) For example, our church sometimes has people experience “words” that are meant for the whole congregation. These “words” are sometimes solidly grounded in scripture and based around truths that of course we could all be reminded of (God loves us, God wants us to find rest in him, God wants us to reconcile with others and God, ect.) This all really good, and I like that we are open to trying to discern for the congregation, not just individuals.


    Sometimes these “words” are to particular groups, such as the “depressed” or the “sad” or the “hopeless”. There are well documented finding from psychology that suggest that these general words are likely to convince people that they are part of a group that they are not really part of or have personality traits that they really don’t. (Forer effect: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forer_effect) Furthermore, the official prayer training simply is too close to the “cold-reading” as practiced by psychics and so-forth. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cold_reading). Now, I think the motives are entirely different, obviously. But still, my overall question remains: how reliable can these ways of hearing from God be?

    Now, I haven’t really talked to anyone about these things because there hasn’t really been a good opportunity. But I would love to hear about how some more charismatic folks integrate these sort of social science/psychological findings so that their discernment is not thrown off by what are demonstrated idiosyncracies in people. (Or, more bluntly, ways to hack people’s brains.)

  • Andrew Dowling

    Many of the healings and associated dialogue (eg making the ‘blind see’), the stories of walking on water, feeding of the multitudes, turning water into wine . . .you don’t see the literary/theological metaphors located therein? To me they scream out in the text and aren’t there as simply transcribing historical supernatural happenings. Ditto with Acts.

    Rory-I haven’t read Keene’s book, but looking at reviews the major thrust of his argument seems to basically be saying that tons of people, especially in poorer countries, report miracles. That from a scientific standpoint means nothing. You know how many thousands of people have reported seeing Bigfoot in the United States alone? And again as I state in my first post it depends on what type of miracle we are talking about. Someone having an extremely fortuitous encounter/rescue, for example, is very different than reporting that someone levitated off the ground.

  • Phil Miller

    I’ve heard supposed words of knowledge and prophecy that were most certainly bogus, but I’ve also experienced the real. And I guess that’s the thing – the counterfeit only exists because the real is authentic. I’ve personally experienced a few times where someone has had a word of knowledge about something and it’s been spot on. It was way beyond any type of generalized cold-reading. They were very specific details. The person who gave it these instances had no motive to trump something up – they weren’t doing it in public, and I didn’t have any desire to hear something. I wasn’t specifically trying to hear from God at those points.

    So as far as them being reliable, I’d say they can be reliable, but I think everything needs to be taken reasonably. People have to realize that we can get things wrong.

  • Tom F.

    Thanks for your comment, Phil. Those are some good rules of thumb, even in your comment.

    Summarizing those:
    1.) Detail they couldn’t know about
    2.) (Reasonable) lack of motive for gain
    3.) (Reasonable) lack of you trying to hear something specific

    The problem with 1 is confirmation bias, or some variant. You will remember the times when people got details right and ignore the times when people didn’t. That doesn’t mean that God never spoke in any of these times. But, conversely, at least some of the time, people will have not heard from God and gotten lucky, no?

    2 and 3 seem like wisdom to me though.

    Certainly, when talking about reliability, we are talking about reliability *compared to what*. No one has a foolproof way of hearing from God: scripture can also be misinterpreted, and so on. So, great point about “reasonably”.

    I guess what I am saying, is that if we know some of the ways “we can get things wrong” from psychology/social science, why not integrate those into the discernment process? Where is a charismatic leader who has looked at the social science and said, “Hey, we should be aware of these findings and they should change our practices like X.” I guess that’s what I’m asking.

  • Andrew,

    If you’re saying that the gospel writers (and Luke for Acts) were intending to tell the stories of Jesus’ miracles (and those of his followers), not as things that happened, but as allegories, then, yes, I disagree. If you’re asking if I see lessons/points in these stories as well as history, yes, I do.

    Again, for me the climactic act sets the context: Jesus rose from the dead. If we see that as allegorical as well, then I totally see your point. If, though, we believe that Jesus, in fact, rose from the dead, then why would the rest necessarily be allegorical? And I don’t see the stories of Christ’s death and resurrection–at all–as allegorical, though it’s a story with powerful lessons and implications.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I think in ancient oral culture history and mythology fused in a way we aren’t very familiar with b/c in modern times we place them in separate baskets. To Mark, for example, whether a certain miracle had actually occurred in a certain place and time is subservient to the larger lesson/meaning of the story. Did he believe they had actually occurred? I don’t know, but I do know like other ancient biographers he (and Luke) saw no problem in creating additions/using hyperbole to get his larger points (and lets remember these are theological points) across.

  • Marshall

    Personally, I think that The Main Thing for Christianity is to understand/experience that God acts in the world from graciousness. Having gotten that far, no serious problem with the rest of it. I kindled the book … Don’t know about doing healings in a clinic situation as described; smacks of testing God to me, but maybe that’s just me.