Closing the Gap between Scripture and our Experience5
We just concluded our second national Convergence conference here in OKC and witnessed a multitude of healings. As people send in reports of what happened, I’ll share them on this blog.
In my first message at the conference I addressed the problem of the gap (indeed, the vast chasm!) that often exists between what we believe the Bible teaches to be true and what we have personally experienced. We are always quick to believe and embrace what reinforces and confirms our experience. But when the Bible teaches some truth or calls us to some action that we haven’t yet experienced, we instinctively react with pushback or skepticism. Worst of all, we simply find a way of reinterpreting the text of Scripture or even explaining it away so that the discomfort it creates can be overcome.
It is emotionally and spiritually and intellectually agitating to find ourselves confronted in Scripture with some truth that simply does not or as of yet has not found expression in what we can see and hear and experience in real life. This is especially the case when it comes to healing. There are three ways of responding.
First, we can go back to the biblical text and read it differently or interpret it differently. By differently I mean we reinterpret the text to make it conform to our experience. We simply conclude that we obviously didn’t understand the Bible correctly in the first place. When we do this, we are subtly subordinating Scripture to our experience.
When applied to the subject of healing, this approach takes the view that whatever we once thought the Bible taught concerning healing, it does not intend for us to believe that the ministry we see in Jesus and the early church was intended by God to continue into our own day. Why do we conclude this? Simply because in our experience we haven’t seen physical healing occur the way it did with Jesus and his disciples. Therefore, our initial understanding of the biblical text must be wrong.
We try to convince ourselves that the healings Jesus performed were solely designed to bear witness to his deity or they were the confirmation that the kingdom of God was breaking into human history. But we shouldn’t think that Jesus was giving us a model for our ministry today. And the references to healing in the book of Acts and the Epistles of the NT were designed to launch the church age. But we shouldn’t expect that the practices of the early church were designed to provide us with a model for the practices of the church in subsequent centuries, like our own.
This perspective is most often found among many, if not most, cessationists. In doing this the cessationist has very conveniently closed the gap between what Scripture says and his/her own personal experience. The reason I don’t see many healings today, says the cessationist, is because the Bible never intended to give me any hope or expectation that they would continue beyond the time of Jesus and the early church. This is quite convenient, is it not? Now I no longer have to feel emotionally strained or under pressure to reconcile what the Bible says with my own lack of experience of healing.
I hope you can see what is happening here. The frustration of not seeing the miraculous happen leads many cessationists to create theological systems and rationalizations as to why God doesn’t do that anymore. And that leads to cynicism and prayerlessness. They create doctrines and theological systems that either eliminate altogether or greatly reduce the possibility of disappointment and the disillusionment that it breeds. They default to those systems and ways of thinking because it is the easy way out. It’s psychologically safe. You don’t have to wrestle with the question, “Why hasn’t God healed.” You answer with a simplistic: Because he doesn’t do that sort of thing anymore; or if he does, he does it with such infrequency that we should never actually expect him to.
Second, there are those who find themselves at the opposite end of the spectrum. These are the people who tinker with their experience so that it appears to look like it conforms to Scripture. This leads either to manipulation, deceit, or outright denial. In the interests of our own mental health and psychological well-being we reconfigure our experience so that it at least appears to look like what Scripture says. We see this all too often in certain evangelists and ministers who fabricate healings to make it look like what Scripture says is coming true. Or they make promises or tell stories that aren’t true. Often this takes the form of telling stories about alleged healings but then failing or refusing to provide medically documented evidence that the healing has actually occurred.
Those who take this approach often embrace some version of the “name it and claim it” gospel. This would include most advocates of the “health and wealth” gospel. I applaud them for maintaining that the NT gives no evidence that what happened in the ministry of Jesus and the early church had a built-in obsolescence. They are correct in insisting that Jesus does provide us with a model for ministry and that our expectations for healing should remain high and hopeful.
But the way they close the gap between the NT and their experience isn’t by reinterpreting the Bible but by reinterpreting their experience. That is to say, they make it appear that what Jesus did, they are doing. They manipulate, and sometimes deceive people into thinking that more healings are taking place than actually are.
To be fair, in the case of most, there is no intentional manipulation or deceit. They have figured out how to convince themselves that healings have occurred. They don’t intentionally lie or mislead about whether some alleged healing has occurred. They simply find a way to banish doubt from their minds. It’s as if they work hard to tell themselves, “Hey, this healing really did happen. It must have happened. After all, God wouldn’t mislead us about this in the Bible. And if I’m to remain true to what the Bible says I have to banish from my conscious thought any possibility that it didn’t happen the way I hope it did.”
And in this way many charismatics and pentecostals do very much the same thing that cessationists do. They effectively close the gap between what the NT says and what their experience indicates. And thus, just like the cessationist, they no longer have to feel emotionally strained or under pressure to reconcile what the Bible says with their own lack of experience of healing. The reason is that their experience bears witness to healing.
Needless to say, I refuse to embrace either of these attempts to bridge the gap between the teaching of Scripture on healing and our experience, or lack of experience. There is, in my opinion, only one legitimate option for Bible-believing Christians.
Third, I am persuaded that neither of the first two options is open to the Christian who both embraces biblical authority and is committed to authenticity and honesty in ministry. So what is left? Simply this. We believe the Bible is telling us the truth and we persevere in obedience to it even if our experience does not always live up to the high standards and expectations that it sets forth.
If I am persuaded that the Bible says it is God’s purpose to heal people when they fervently and faithfully pray, and yet my experience does not as yet measure up to that purpose, I refuse to manipulate either the biblical text or my experience. The only option left to us is to hold firmly to our belief in the Scriptures and its promises at the same time we pray that God will elevate our experience to conform to what he has said in his Word.
So, do you see how these two groups both resolve the conflict? Both groups find a way to resolve this tension, but in radically different ways. The cessationist reinterprets Scripture while the charismatic reinterprets experience.
Is there another way? Yes. The other way, the only biblically permissible way, is, first, by staying true to what Scripture teaches and not performing theological gymnastics to evade its clear teaching on healing. Then, second, we refuse to make more of our experience than is actually true. We need to be honest on both points. Yes, Scripture establishes a very high bar of expectations concerning what God can do when we pray for healing. Yes, our experience often fails to measure up to the high bar that we find in Scripture concerning healing.
I can only speak for myself, but I am committed to being honest about my experience and my frustration with not seeing as much healing as I would like. And I am committed to being honest in my interpretation of the biblical text and not finding sophisticated but unpersuasive arguments for denying that the Bible is our model for how to pray and minister to the sick and afflicted in our day.
I would rather ground my confidence in the immutability of God's character and the truthfulness of Scripture as I lay prayerful hands on the sick with the unfailing assurance that whereas the church may have changed, God has not, and then live with the mystery of unanswered prayer until Jesus returns.