The Abnormality of the World & the Sufficiency of Grace

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“My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”

                                                                                                   ~ 2 Corinthians 12:9

We had a time for healing prayer in church on Sunday.  After the preaching of the Word and the sharing of the Bread and Cup of Communion, we invited people to come forward at the end of the service to put their special prayer request cards in a little basket on a table under a cross and to be prayed for by a minister with anointing with oil and the laying on of hands if so desired.  This is always such a powerful experience whenever we do it as a church.  People are usually so busy trying to persuade themselves and to convince others that they’re just fine, that when they are given an opportunity to actually let down their guard and to be ministered to at the point of their deepest wounds and greatest needs, something truly grace-filled and powerfully healing happens.

One time, years ago, a church member actually checked herself out of the hospital in order to be able to attend one of these healing prayer services, and then immediately checked herself back into the hospital when the service was over!  We certainly didn’t encourage this, but we were greatly encouraged by it, and I remember the example of her determination and effort now every time we plan a time of healing prayer in our life of worship as a church.  My heart tells me that this is a really good thing to do for people, and with people.   It is an affectively powerful experience.  People are deeply moved by it.  But I find that it is a profoundly “meaningful” experience as well, which is to say that it is an act that also closely conforms and firmly adheres to the truth of the Gospel, and it has been my experience that good things tend to happen when head and heart come together in this way.  For me the experience of Healing Prayer is like the flow of the river of the Holy Spirit between the two banks of head and heart.

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The “heart” bank of this river of the Spirit consists of our life experiences and the emotions that they generate in us.  Our hurts and hopes with their joys and sorrows firmly fix the “heart” bank of the river of the Holy Spirit in Healing Prayer.  It’s what’s happening to us and in us that directs the Spirit’s flow in this kind of praying.  This is not praying from a book or using set forms of any kind, but a praying that is by definition sensitive and responsive, more like jazz than a carefully orchestrated and well-rehearsed symphony.  You just step into its current and let it carry you along.

The “head” bank of this river of the Spirit consists of the revealed truths of Scripture and the way that the church has historically thought and talked about them.  Two of the big Biblical truths that are hard at work in the experience of Healing Prayer are the abnormality of the world and the sufficiency of God’s grace.  Part of my preparation for last Sunday’s sermon and service was listening again to Jerram Barr’s lecture on the “Basic Bible Study Themes, III” of Francis Schaeffer from his course “Francis Schaeffer: The Later Years” at http://www.covenantseminary.edu/resources/courses/francis-schaeffer-the-later-years/.  He says –

God is not responsible for the brokenness of the world. The world is not the way God created it, and human beings are not the way God created them.  Everything now is abnormal and is distorted by sin. Do not blame God for the way things are.  Human sin has made things the way they are…

(But) I hardly ever hear Christians talking about the abnormality of the world. If we do not talk about the abnormality of the world, we have absolutely no answer to give to people who have problems with suffering and evil. We end up saying that “it is okay.”  Someone dying of cancer might come to us, and we say, “This is really fine. God will take care of it.  Everything is going to work out well in the end.” This is an artificial answer that simply does not meet the person’s needs and is not true. It is not faithful to Scripture. Unless we understand the reality of the Fall, we have nothing to say to the person who suffers. Scripture forbids us to heal people’s wounds lightly or to try to soothe them with emollient words that pretend that things are not as bad as they are. One of the wonderful things about Scripture is that it takes the brokenness of our situation really seriously. It says it like it is. That is why it tells you to weep with those who weep, not to heal their wounds lightly. Just go and weep with them. Jesus is described as a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. That is the way every Christian ought to be, those who really take people’s suffering to heart. We need to understand that people are having experiences that are abnormal. They are not the way God created them to be. Their reality and their experience of it is a broken one. Our call is to weep with them and have compassion on them rather than heal their wounds lightly.

And this big Biblical truth about the world’s abnormality has its direct counterpoint in the Bible’s equally big truth about the sufficiency of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  “The light shines in the darkness” is how the Gospel of John begins (1:5).  This is such good news.  There’s light and it’s shining on us!  But there’s darkness too, terrible darkness, and it’s this darkness that the light has been sent to penetrate and dispel.  70% of Christ’s public ministry reported in the four Gospels involved healing and exorcism according to the Rev. Jack Sheffield, an Episcopal priest with a ministry of healing from San Antonio.  Christ in Luke 9:2 said that we as His disciples are to preach the kingdom and heal the sick, and this is just exactly what we see Him doing throughout the Gospels.  Both by healing people’s sick and broken bodies and by forgiving their sins, Jesus Christ was God’s light shining in the darkness.  By actively challenging the abnormality of the world, Jesus Christ our Savior was forcibly pulling creation back into alignment with God’s original design, bringing wholeness to our bodies and souls.

The Biblical tension in all this is between the “already” and the “not yet” of it.   Just like the gap between D-Day and VE-Day during WW 2 in Europe, Christ’s work of dispelling the darkness has already begun but is not yet complete.   Our experience of it here and now is real but partial, substantial but fragmentary, and this shapes our believing and our praying.  Christian hope makes it clear that one day we will be delivered completely from the suffering of this world.  As Jerram Barrs puts it, “The whole goal of the work of Christ is to overcome the abnormality of this world.”  But our experience of this saving work will be incomplete until the consummation of Revelation 21 when God “shall wipe away every tear from our eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (v. 4).  And in experiences of Healing Prayer we feel this pull.  Even as we seek deliverance from the suffering that we are facing, we confess the truth that there will no permanent solution to the problem of pain until Christ returns, and so we ask for the hope that does not disappoint us that is born of the endurance in tribulation that produces godly character (Romans 5:3-5).

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The best illustration that I’ve ever come across of what this looks like is what the late Calvin Miller wrote in his fancifully imaginative book The Philippian Fragment (IVP – 1982).  In the style of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, Calvin Miller used the vehicle of an imagined correspondence between some fictional characters to explore some of Christianity’s important ideas.

In the fourth chapter of “The First Letter of Eusebius of Phillip to his beloved Friend Clement” the church’s ministry of healing was closely examined.  Eusebius met a travelling healer named Helen.  “She rarely does anything one could call a miracle,” Eusebius wrote.  “Last week she laid hands on a little crippled boy and was not able to heal him,” he explained, “but she did get him a new pair of crutches and promised to take him for a walk in the park” (24).  And then he wrote about the healing of an amputee that he witnessed.

Yesterday with my own eyes I saw her pass an amputee selling styluses.  She touched his legs and cried, “Grow back! Grow back!” In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, grow back!”  Well, Clement, I so wanted to see the legs grow back, but they did not.  Poor Helen.  What’s a faith healer to do with an amputee that refuses to grow legs on command? Well, she sat down with the little man, crossed her legs on the cold pavement, and began selling styluses herself.  Soon she was talking to him, and before very long they were both laughing together.  For an hour they laughed together, and by nightfall they were having an uproariously good time.  And when it was time to go, Helen’s legs were so stiff from disuse, they refused to move.  Her legless, stylus-selling friend cried in jest, “Grow strong!  Grow strong! Grow strong!”  Helen only smiled and staggered upward on her unsteady legs.  And then she looked down at her lowly friend and said, “I offer you healing, you will see.  It is only one world away.  Someday…,” she stopped and smiled, “you will enter a new life and you will hear our Savior say to your legless stumps, ‘Grow long! Grow long!’ And then you will know that glory which Sister Helen only dreamed for you.”  He smiled and asked, “Do you heal everyone this way?” And she answered, “It is better to heal with promises than to promise healing.” To which he replied, “You are right, Sister Helen.  But more than right, you are evidence that our Father heals the spirit of amputees – even when they will not grow legs.  And, once the spirit is healed, the legs can be done without.” (24-26)

And between the banks of head and heart the river of the Spirit flows in times of Healing Prayer.  I felt its current pull last Sunday when praying with people for their wounds and the wounds of those they love. Between the depth of their pain and enormity of God’s promise, we found that promised peace that’s bigger than our circumstances (Philippians 4:7) and experienced the way that nothing we are facing has the power to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ (Romans 8:38-39).  DBS+

 

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