Blogging the Gifts – The Word of Knowledge

Blogging the Gifts – The Word of Knowledge March 16, 2006

I have spent more than thirty years of my life in charismatic churches, and these reflections try to summarize that experience. This particular series is not an attempt to justify the continuation of the gifts theologically as I have done that elsewhere and in my debate with Dan Phillips. Nor is this post intended to persuade you – I want you to be persuaded by the Bible, not mere experience! Instead, here I want to simply answer the question, “What do the gifts look like in practice in places that claim they exist today?” I did, however, begin the series by looking at the context of 1 Corinthians 12 in five posts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of
wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.” 1 Corinthians 12:7-11

These days my blog is focusing in largely on one subject. It is always like that around here. A few months back it was Bible translation; right now it’s the Holy Spirit. I won’t be on this forever, but I will be for awhile. I will try and vary the diet, but there is a lot of material in the back catalogue; if this doesn’t interest you, actually by now you are probably somewhere else in any case!

The next post in my Blogging the Gifts series is due to be about the word of knowledge. I have thought long and hard about this, but have decided to go with telling you a few stories of the gift being used. These stories are all ones that I have personally witnessed, been directly involved in, or know personally someone involved in the case. My reluctance to identify the person exercising the gift in each case is partly to protect the identity of the hearer, and partly to prevent an unhealthy focus on the individuals involved. The main points of each case are true, but some minor details will be changed, again for anonymity.

A word of knowledge is usually defined within charismatic circles as the report of a specific piece of information that a person could not possibly have known naturally. They are usually limited in the understanding of most people I have met to verifiable pieces of information that are not predictions, i.e. they are things people can test immediately to see if they are true or not. These can sometimes be ‘accidental’ in the sense that they come without any real awareness of God having been the author of the thought.

During a sermon on honesty, the preacher pointed out a member of the congregation and said something like this: “Let’s take you – suppose your name is John and today before you left for church you had a big row with your wife, Linda. You were really upset by this. At the door someone greeted you and asked, ‘How are you, John?’ You lied in your reply and said, ‘I’m fine, thanks.’ God does not want us to behave like this.”

The man singled out for this hypothetical example exclaimed out loud, interrupting the sermon: “That is exactly what happened; how could you possibly know my name, my wife’s name, and what happened to us?” It was only at this point that the preacher realised that they had been given a word of knowledge.

Similarly, someone was speaking with visitors just before an Alpha course was due to begin. As they were speaking with one visitor who had clearly been dragged in by their friends, the subject moved to alcoholism. The visitor asked, “How does someone become an alcoholic? I passed someone in the street the other day and wondered – How does someone end up like that?”

The Christian then found themselves answering in what seemed, even to them, to be a slightly odd way. “Well, its like this – let’s just take you as an example. Let’s just suppose that you were the kind of person who had been sleeping around a lot for awhile, but that last week you met someon

e and you felt that they were the one for you. Let’s suppose that person gave YOU the cold shoulder, and unlike normally, you were unable to shrug off the one night stand and move onto the next. In fact, you were so devastated you decided to get really drunk. Then, right now today, you stand at a kind of crossroads and it is like you have a choice to make: go on drinking every night and become an alcoholic or stop . . . .”

All along the Christian speaker was aware that what they were saying sounded strange, but somehow they just kept going. Meanwhile the visitor’s jaw was dropping to the floor. Near tears, the visitor looked actually quite scared and said, “But how could you possibly know all that? How could you know exactly what has happened in my life this last week?”

In another case, at a Christian meeting someone interrupted the worship and said something like this: “There is someone here and you are planning to commit suicide tonight – you have even worked out how to do it. God would stop you, and quite literally save you.” Sure enough, the person repented and their life was saved in more ways than one that night.

One unwritten rule of most responsible charismatic churches is: Absolutely no prophecy or words of knowledge which involve “hatch,” “match,” or “dispatch” (i.e. predicting births, marriages, or deaths). There are, of course, too many possibilities for error and damage to the recipients in such predictions. I have certainly known of exceptions to that rule, however, where a powerful impression has occurred that could not be suppressed. I know of one time when during prayer for a childless couple a strong sense of an imminent answer was being granted, so much so that the praying person felt the pregnancy might even have begun or would begin very shortly. Exactly nine months later a baby was born to the childless couple. This, of course, was perhaps more of a word of prophecy, but problems of classification do demonstrate the overlap that seems to be present in these gifts.

Examples abound in my recollection of people being identified by name or other personal details identifying them during a time of sharing prophecy. I know of one such word of knowledge that was, in fact, never shared publicly that identified two people present in a church by certain personal details as being in the middle of an affair. The recipient simply prayed for these individuals whilst knowing their impression may of course have been wrong. Due to the persistence of the impression it was shared with the pastor of the church later that week, who quite amazed, exclaimed that a couple who matched those descriptions had gotten in touch with him that very week to repent of an affair and set in motion a resolution of their sinful condition.

A word of knowledge is often associated with healing. A woman arrived at a meeting stiff with Parkinson’s. When the call was given for those with Parkinson’s to respond for healing she went up, and later left the meeting with a smile on her face for the first time in years. (The disease prevents facial expressions.) Interestingly, subsequent history and follow-up revealed a remarkable degree of improvement in what is not a relapsing and remitting disorder, and a significant reduction in the dose of medical treatment was possible, to the amazement of the treating doctor. The illness was not, however, totally cured.

Countless times I have known of examples where people describe experiencing pain or tingling in a part of their body, or a mental image of a certain ailment. Even in a small congregation, people have replied saying, “That’s me!” At times these images can be quite specific, e.g. involving the mode of injury that someone suffered – in one case someone described how an individual present had fallen off a ladder at work and injured their knee cap and it had never healed.

For me, one of the mysteries of this whole area is that not everyone singled out in such a way for healing prayer has been healed at that moment. Perhaps at times we are simply deficient in faith, but maybe sometimes we err in assuming that a piece of information has always been given so that the ailment can be healed. Perhaps at times the information is given precisely because God has another plan for that person to receive prayer that will affect them in a specific way unconnected with their need for physical healing. I have observed that the respondent is often greatly touched by God irrespective of whether they are healed, and a whole different area (perhaps emotional need) is addressed during the prayer. The person may go away not physically healed, but still filled with thankfulness for the fact that God loves them enough to single them out. I have, however, seen examples where specific physical healing follows a specific word of knowledge.

John Piper describes an example of what I would call a word of knowledge that occurred during one of his own sermons (see the list of links below). Spurgeon was well known to operate in this way, although he probably would not have called it this, and I will leave it to my readers to recall some of the examples that abound of him singling people out in the middle of his sermons.

Words of knowledge can easily be abused, of course, and especially in larger meetings it is possible for people to ‘fish’ with general words that become gradually more specific. But I have seen enough of the more dramatic examples I have given to know that the odds seem against so many of the specific words of knowledge being so accurate – even given the ones I have seen to which no one responded. There certainly seems to be a supernatural power at work in this way in many charismatic churches.

The question I would have for my cessationist brothers is how we can explain this in any other way than God granting specific non-theological revelation to individuals for the benefit of the Church? I know our theology should not be based on our experience, but it should, however, be capable of explaining our experience. I find it hard to believe that through our desire to know God and see His kingdom extended, my friends and I have somehow opened ourselves to a demonic influence, especially when Jesus Himself said in Luke 11:13:

“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

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