Ambivalent Reflections on Miracles in Missions

Previously, I had done a post on “Ambivalent Reflections on Spiritual Warfare.” Although I am ambivalent on Spiritual Warfare, I tend to view it negatively as it relates to missions (because of its generally negative tone, and the tendency to be built on a syncretized animism). However, I have a more positive view of the miraculous. Some would argue that spiritual warfare and miracles are nearly synonymous. But I tend to make a functional distinction.

Jesus Moses Elijah
Jesus Moses Elijah (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For me, Spiritual Warfare is offensive (in multiple senses of the term). It is about tearing down the enemy. Personally, I believe God uses LOVE and TRUTH as spiritual offense more than miracles (again, generally, in my view). However, miracles (as I am using the term) is a positive sign or proclamation. I will develop this idea later.

But first, consider three very basic views on miracles today. These are CAN’T, MUST, and MIGHT.

CAN’T.  God can’t do miracles in this view. Historically, this could be a Deist viewpoint. or in some circles, a Pantheistic view. However, within Evangelical Christian circles, this is more likely a Cessationist view. That is, God stopped doing miracles after the first century of the church. (Miracles as I am referring to them here are limited to “big” stuff, not simply God interacting in the world.)  I don’t care for this view. I am not impressed with the Biblical argument for this view. Additionally, there seems to be some level of continuity of the miraculous through church history.

MUST. God must do miracles… or more particularly, the miracles we want Him to do. Some argue this from the verse that God is the same, yesterday, today, and for ever (Hebrews 13:8). Some take strong statements in the Bible of God promising to answer our prayers as supporting this viewpoint as well. The Hebrews 13:8 passage is a very weak argument. First, the passage seems to be more about character than action. Second, it is pretty obvious from the Bible that God’s actions DO vary at different times and places. Much of the rest of the book of Hebrews talks about how God has changed in actions in different times. Regarding prayer, a solid analysis of prayer from the Bible shows that God maintains His role as God. He does not hand that over to others. When we ask in Jesus’ name, we are acting on His behalf, acting according to His will. God does not subjugate His will to ours. So I don’t believe that God MUST do (showy) miracles.

MIGHT. I believe a balanced view is that God MIGHT do (showy) miracles. “Might” implies “Might not.” As such, God retains control. But why would God do showy miracles at times and not at others?

I have talked to evangelists and churchplanters who work in places where the church is NOT. Their experience is that God does showy miracles as one enters an unreached community or people. Once the community is effectively entered, the miraculous goes away. This suggests that miracles are primarily meant as  SIGNS. That is, they demonstrate the entry of God’s kingdom into a new community.

This seems consistent with the Bible. While there are times when showy miracles were done in the Bible when the idea of community entry (as a sign) does not apply that well (Elijah and Elisha are strong examples), miracles tend to be clustered in places where they act as a sign of God doing something new in a new place (miracles of Moses and of Jesus are strong examples of this). Other times, miracles were few and far between. Israel was often reminded to look back to the miracles of Moses as support for their love by God as His people.

This also seems to be consistent with early church history. The early church fathers (such as Ireneaus) note that miracles had not disappeared, but there is a strong indication that miracles had long since lost their “normalcy.”

So suppose miracles are primarily a SIGN that God uses to enter a new territory, what does that imply for missions and ministry?

1. Recognize that God seeks to have His church reach all peoples.

2.  Entering a new territory, I am not sure that we should EXPECT miracles, but we should be ready for them as God gives a positive sign of entry into the community.

3.  Where the church is established, showy miracles probably should not be expected, and certainly should not be “conjured” up, either through fakery or through over-hyping.

4.  Missions and Ministry is God’s work, not ours, and empowered/steered by Him, not us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s