I received Miracles in the mail this week and despite being in the middle of several other books, this one sort of jumped my book queue. The topic and tone of this book really resonated with me. I would describe myself as a disgruntled charismatic. There is actually no form of spiritual manifestation which I in principle think cannot or does not happen. I believe in tongues, in prophecy, in healing, in the sometimes strange (to our eyes) nature of the Spirit’s work, but I have also seen too much hype, heard too much hearsay and experienced too many charismatic meetings where the manifestations of the Spirit seemed more like mass hysteria and auto-suggestion than any genuine move of God. So I am a believing skeptic when someone describes miracles in their life. I want to believe with them that they have seen the hand of God at work, but I also want some sort of foundation for belief in the miracle they describe.
Tim Stafford, in his capacity as a journalist for Christianity Today has interviewed many Christians around the world about their experience of miracles (i.e. healing, various signs). Stafford is clear that miracles by definition do not imply the cessation of the natural order (if we could understand the physics behind miraculous phenomenon, we could describe it); rather miracles are times when God breaks through in surprising ways, often through natural means, but with impeccable timing. Thus when someone prays for healing or for God’s intervention in their life or the lives of others, that healing or answer to prayer should be described, reliably as a miracle even if it could also be described through natural processes. This avoids the ‘god of the gaps’ problem where the supernatural is always what is beyond the natural and not pervading all that is.
I think this is significant and Stafford is even-handed in his description of miracle.s He gives examples of those he sees as trustworthy and those he remains skeptical about (though he doesn’t dismiss those out of hand either). He suggests that we evaluate each miracle on the basis of whether or not the testimony about the miracle is trustworthy and that we remain cautious about repeating miraculous claims which cannot be verified.
I appreciated Stafford’s brief survey of miracles in the Bible. Stafford observes that in the Old Testament miracles never disappear but there could be centuries between their occurrence with no necessary link between the ‘faith of the Israelites’ and miracles. There are examples of faithful witnesses like Jeremiah who didn’t see miracles in his lifetime or those who returned from exile. The Israelites in the Exodus did not have more faith yet they saw miracles galore. This does not sever the link between faith and miracles but it does mean that we should not necessarily conclude that ‘the lack of miracles’ means a lack of faith. It may mean that, but it may not and we should not be crass about our pronouncements. When he examines the miracles of the New Testament, Stafford observes a shift from public signs (parting of the Red Sea) to primarily personal miracles which were most significant to those they involved (i.e. healing of individuals and Jesus’ instruction to keep it quiet). These were signs of the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom–signs of the Resurrection (Christ’s and our future resurrection). Stafford concludes that there is nothing in the New Testament to suggest that miracles ceased though they are not described after Acts 19 or in the later books of the New Testament.
Stafford also discusses Miracles in church history, the revival of miracles in Pentecostalism and the global Pentecostal movement (particularly miracles in the two-thirds world). While Stafford does not describe himself as a Charismatic or Pentecostal Christian, he is gracious with them, even while offering a gentle critique. He describes at length interviews he had conducted with the late John Wimber. He describes Wimber in positive and glowing terms, even though he clearly had concerns about how Wimber and the early Vineyard movement had a tendency to over-report miracles which it could not verify. He sees a similar tendency with Bill Johnson’s church, Bethel Church, in Redding California, though he does affirm that real healing has happened in both the Vineyard and at Bethel (one of the central examples of healing throughout the book involves a youth from his church who was healed at Bethel).
Stafford discusses if it is possible for scientists in our materialist age and culture to believe in miracles. This isn’t a book that will convince a true skeptic that miracles happen but he does show that it is at least reasonable for a scientist to remain open-minded about them. He also talks about what happens when you pray for miracles and they don’t occur (i.e. you pray for healing for your loved one, and they still die). This can be heart wrenching but Stafford reminds us that in the Bible miracles are never the point, they are signs of God’s presence, care and the in-breaking of His Kingdom. Thus we should pray for miracles on behalf of our loved ones, but regardless of whether they occur we should entrust them to God’s care.
This book has a lot to say that is instructive about how we should be expectant and affirming of miracles and God’s work in our lives, but still thoughtful about when and where they occur. I highly recommend it. Stafford is a thoughtful guide and I think this may be a great book for what Stafford calls a ‘semi-believing doubter’ demonstrating that you can affirm miracles today without being naive. Miracles are rare, but they are real, and real people have witnessed them. Even this disgruntled Charismatic.
I received this book from Bethany House Publishers in exchange for this review.