Divine Empowerment to do Evil

BACKGROUND STORY

Today I have reached my 11th anniversary on this webpage. A few months ago I figured out that if I took all my my writing, removed the images from it, and then published it as a standard hard-cover book, it would be over 2000 pages long. That is a lot of writing. Today, I am breaking a record that I have had for years. I have had more views of my website in 2021 (as of October 25th) than I have had in any other year. That is not hugely impressive. I don’t get huge numbers and that is fine. But I have now passed 2016 as my formerly biggest year as well as 2013.

Those two years, my relatively high numbers came from people doing bad things. In 2016 there was a Russian ponzi scheme (apparently) that had the initials “MMM,” like my site. The 2013 stats was even a bit more disturbing. In 2012 a self-styled prophet declared all sorts of bad things happening in the Philippines. One of those predictions seemed to come true— a typhoon came through the Visaya region of the Philippines and did great damage. A moderate earthquake in Bohol seemed to reinforce his predictive skills.

Many Filipino Christians began rallying to the support of this (again, so-called) prophet of God. They began looking into his prophecies for more guidance as to the future, despite this man’s poor scorecard in other parts of the world. I wrote a couple of posts where I took his predictions and tried to come up with an overall score for him in the Philippines. I could not do a straight-up Yes or No on many of the prophecies because of their overall vagueness., The Philippines is among the most prone to natural disasters in the world, so almost any natural disaster (earthquake, typhoon, volcanic eruption and such) will come true somewhere in the Philippines. So I gave weighting to different predictions based on their level of fulfillment as well as their specificity. I came up with a score of 35%. Truthfully, I was very generous in that number.

I found it strange that many Filipino Christians wanted this man’s predictions to be true. He claimed this was God’s judgment for Filipino Christians not being on fire enough and judgmental enough. I have known some people talk of the judgments noted in Revelation with a certain glee, so I suppose it is not that strange— especially for those who embrace a war-metaphor understanding of the the Christian faith.

So here is what happened. I kept hearing about there being a flesh-eating bacteria in Pangasinan. I live less than 2 hours from Pangasinan and heard no such warnings, so I assumed it was over-enthusiastic followers of this (still so-called) prophet. That is because that man had made two predictions that were quite specific. One was a flesh-eating bacteria that would begin in Pangasinan and spread around the world. The other was a skin disease in Cebu that would cause skin to turn black, and it would spread around the world. This second prediction was not promulgated much, perhaps because it could be seen as having racist overtones (Filipinos have more than a bit of a post-colonial preference for lighter skin tones). The Pangasinan plague was pumped up on line. Then one day, a major news source in the Philippines put up a report about a flesh-eating bacteria spreading in Pangasinan. This proved not to be true. Perhaps an overzealous reporter took these rumors of the plague shared online by followers of the “prophet.” In a matter of minutes after that news piece came out, my little blog post was inundated by people trying to find out what was going on.

REFLECTION #1: Can a true prophet be a bad prophet?

My first thought on this story is the classic test of a prophet. A prophet who says something that is not consonant with Scripture or not consonant with truth is a false prophet. I rather wish that more American Christians would embrace this simple truth when it comes to so-called prophets predicting the results of the 2020 election incorrectly.

But then I got thinking— That may be the test of a false prophet, but is it an adequate test of a good prophet. Note, I am separating “true prophet” from “good prophet.” The Bible has false prophets, like Hananiah, who foretold based on what tickled the ears of his patron. However, the Bible does appear to have many true prophets who were flawed, and at least one who was downright bad. Balaam appears to have been a true prophet. Some may disagree with this, but our only interaction with him as an oracle showed him accurately giving God’s revelation to others. However, the Bible looks at him as being bad— opposing God’s work.

I have heard preachers dance around this issue in a number of ways, but I believe there is support elsewhere for recognizing Balaam as a true prophet who was not on God’s side.

REFLECTION #2: Can a true miracle worker be not on God’s side?

We, of course, see fakes in the Bible, and we see those who at least might be doing the miraculous works through demonic empowerment. The miracle workers who opposed Moses and Yahweh may be frauds or may be using demonic empowerment. Ultimately it does not matter. But if a miracle worker does do something by God’s empowerment, does it necessarily mean they are on God’s side? We know, of course, the Scripture (Matthew 7:21-23)where Jesus talks of those who have done miraculous things in God’s name (prophesying, exorcising, and doing mighty deeds) but end their life with the very clear statement, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” This seems to suggest that a person who is not a follower of Christ may be able to successfully take on these roles (prophet and exorcist at least) successfully. However, there is wiggle room as far as whether these roles were divinely empowered. An example of this may be Judas Iscariot who appears to have been able to do divine healing and teaching Christ’s message, while still being identified as the “Son of Perdition.”

This suggests that some people may not be on God’s side, and yet still do miraculous works (presumably empowered by God).

REFLECTION #3: Can a good and true follower of God do something evil with divine empowerment?

An interesting tiny story is found in Luke 9:53-55. In it, Jesus and His disciples were rejected and sent packing from a Samaritan village. James and John asked if Jesus would want them to call down fire from Heaven to consume the village. Jesus rebuked them. In essence, James and John asked Jesus permission to use God’s power to destroy a village. Jesus said NO. But are there other times where a sincere follower of God “lost it” and reacted with wrath— where God did not disempower them? I have written on Elisha and the bears before. While I have heard valiant attempts to put this story in a better light, I feel the best light is that Elisha was young (newly taking on the mantle of Elijah at least) and impulsive and reacted with malevolence to some detractors. The fact that God did not stop him does not necessarily mean that what he did was good. Peter with Ananias and Sapphira could be another example. While, again, some have tried to put it in a positive light, Luke appears to respond negatively to it in noting that the church was filled with fear after this event. Moses lashed out in anger on a number of occasions. On one occasion God carried out a necessary miracle due to compassion for the people even though Moses disobeyed God. It is hard to be dogmatic whether every miraculous thing that Moses did, was God approved.

But if God would not stop someone from doing wrong by disempowering them, why would this be? I can think of at least a couple of reasons. First, it can help give maturity to the servant of God. “Be careful what you wish for” may be useful guidance for children, but it is important for us as well. I like to think that Elisha and Peter (two volatile men) were better stewards of their gifts afterwards. Second, we need maturity as well. Jesus did not simply say, “I am doing miracles so you must accept everything I say and do.” While it was clear that one of the reasons He did it was as a sign, it was clear that He actively tied His ministry to the Hebrew Scriptures, as consistent with them, in character with the God revealed in Scripture, and as fulfillment of them. Miraculous power is simply not enough.

REFLECTION #4. So what about us?

I am not a miracle worker. I don’t foretell the future. In fact I am pretty sceptical of people who do. I doubt their power and I doubt their motives. However, we are all given power. God gives us spiritual gifts and talents. He gives us passions and interests. He gives us experiences and spheres of influence. God also gives us open access to the throne of God through prayer. These are divine empowerments. Are we able to use these empowerments for evil? Certainly. People argue about why God would place “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” inside the Garden of Eden. The garden (paradise) was a hedged-in place. That is, it was a protected place. Yet, the tree was placed, prohibitions and all, inside the protected zone. Adam and Even were empowered by God to do evil. We can ask why this is, but we would also need to ask why God has given us empowerment that can be used for evil? Why doesn’t God stop us?

For me, as interesting a question that is, I rather take a different response…

“KNOWING THAT IT IS GOD’S WILL TO EMPOWER ME TO DO WHAT IS GOOD, WITHOUT CONSTRAINING ME, NECESSARILY, FROM DOING WHAT IS BAD, I SHOULD FOCUS MORE ON SEEKING GOD’S CHARACTER, HEART, AND WISDOM, RATHER THAN HIS EMPOWERMENT.”

“The Customs of Heaven” Quote of James Martineau

“The universe, open to the eye to-day, looks as it did a

James Martineau, 1805-1900

thousand years ago: and the morning hymn of Milton does but tell the beauty with which our own familiar sun dressed the earliest fields and gardens of the world. We see what all our fathers saw. And if we cannot find God in your house or in mine, upon the roadside or the margin of the sea; in the bursting seed or opening flower; in the day duty or the night musing; in the general laugh and the secret grief; in the procession of life, ever entering afresh, and solemnly passing by and dropping off; I do not think we should discern him any more on the grass of Eden, or beneath the moonlight of Gethsemane. Depend upon it, it is not the want of greater miracles, but of the soul to perceive such as are allowed us still, that makes us push all the sanctities into the far spaces we cannot reach. The devout feel that wherever God’s hand is, there is miracle: and it is simply an indevoutness which imagines that only where miracle is, can there be the real hand of God. The customs of Heaven ought surely to be more sacred in our eyes than its anomalies; the dear old ways, of which the Most High is never tired, than the strange things which he does not love well enough ever to repeat. And he who will but discern beneath the sun, as he rises any morning, the supporting finger of the Almighty, may recover the sweet and reverent surprise with which Adam gazed on the first dawn in Paradise. It is no outward change, no shifting in time or place; but only the loving meditation of the pure in heart, that can reawaken the Eternal from the sleep within our souls: that can render him a reality again, and reassert for him once more his ancient name of ‘the Living God.'”

<From his sermon “Help Thou My Unbelief. ” Quoted by William James in “The Varieties of Religious Experience.”>

Wondering about Signs and Wonders

A statue in the Cave of Elijah. The cave is lo...
A statue in the Cave of Elijah. The cave is located on Mount Carmel, Haifa, Israel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was writing an article on crisis care within the context of the story of Elijah. It occurred to me how generally useless is miracles (as they are popularly identified). There are different ways to define “miracle” of course. However, I am using the most common, although doubtful, definition. That is, a miracle is a supernatural and visible demonstration of power that cannot be explained by “natural” (predictable/repeatable) means.

One problem with the definition is that any well-crafted paradigm can come up with an internally feasible explanation for nearly anything, so the definition above can mean nearly anything or nothing depending on who one is talking to. In other words there is likely no possible phenomena that could not be “explained” by the naturalist, or any other well-developed, paradigm (regardless of the validity of the explanation).

A second problem is that it implies that certain phenomena are more from God than others.

The definition above for miracles certainly seems to apply quite well with the story of Elijah – fire falling from heaven consuming a sacrifice drenched with water in a highly public event. Lightning or a meotorite strike stains credulity. Perhaps only the parting of the Red Sea fits this view of miracle better in the Bible. One is left with either attacking the historicity of the story, or assuming that chicanery is involved.

To me, however, the more important question is the long-term results of miracles. The writer of the Books of the Kings appears to give an ambiguous answer. The immediate response of the people bowing down to Jehovah God appears positive. However, there seems to be no general change in the trajectory of the people of the Northern Kingdom in their move toward idolatry. Additionaly, the king and queen (Ahab and Jezebel) appear to be unmoved by the event. Elijah runs off in fear feeling as if he is a failure. He runs to Mount Horeb (aka Mount Sinai where God presented His power to Moses). There, God does present Himself in power to Elijah and yet the writer appears to emphasize the ineffectivity of the show of power. First, it is mentioned that God was not in the powerful displays but in the gentle whisper speaking to Elijah. Second, the writer notes that Elijah’s feelings and complaints are identical before and after the “signs and wonders.”

That got me thinking. How effective were signs and wonders in the Bible? Again the evidence is ambiguous. Generally, miracles appear to be valuable in two basic roles:

  1. Miracles have value primarily in the direct result. The parting of the Red Sea achieved the direct goal of allowing Israel to escape from the Egyptian army. This was important and necessary at the time. Christ’s healing was most importantly a compassionate reponse to illness.
  2. Miracles get people’s attention, initially. Miracles get people to pay attention, but without a clear message to respond to, the miracle becomes lost.

However,

3. Miracles do not appear to inspire long-term change. Love and truth inspire long-term change.

4. Miracles (as defined above) appear to be intentionally non-normative. This is a fairly obvious result of of reason #2 above. Miracles that are common-place no longer get people’s attention. As far as reason #1 above, one might imagine that miracles could always have value in direct result, but so many other means exist that better achieve the same result (Christians acting out of Christ-like sacrificial love is an obvious one), so, again, miracles only make sense if they are non-normative.

5. Miracles (even as defined above) are hard to identify. The main reason is that there is a vast gulf that cannot be bridged without faith. I am not talking about religious faith. Rather, it is the gulf between something being believable and it being compelling.

Lewis Carroll wrote “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles,” about the fact that syllogistic logic cannot be compelling. Any attempt to take logic to the point of being compelling without a leap of faith requires an infinite (never ending) regression. Douglas Hofstadter repeats and extends the idea in “Gödel, Escher, Bach.” Within the Christian understanding of faith, Søren Kierkegaard in “Fear and Trembling” repeats the same idea. Logic and evidence can only bring us so far. Logic and evidence can get us near the truth, but we ultimately need a “leap of faith” to embrace divine truth. Some feel that faith is only a religious thing, yet faith is needed (on some level) by everyone about pretty much everything because no evidence is inherently and completley compelling.

That is a problem with miracles. They don’t compel belief. In fact, their value appears to be pretty limited in this. Jesus did many miracles, yet few seemed to have been compelled to believe because of them. The Twelve appear to have followed Jesus because He had “the words of life,” not that He was a miracle worker. Many disciples fell away because of His words, despite His miracles. The skeptics kept asking for more signs and wonders, without becoming believers. In fact, Jesus did not do miracles on certain occasions when miracles were most sought after by the public.

Pentecost found the church growing from 120 to several thousand. There was a miracle involved, the ability to speak in languages that one had not previously learned, yet the value appeared to be its direct use… making the message of the gospel intelligible to people who have a different heart language. The miracle in itself appeared not to compel belief. After all, there was no way an outside observer could verify that it was miraculous. If someone began speaking in Farsi, I would have no way to be sure the person was speaking in Farsi (if I did not know the language), and I would have no way to know how the person came to speak Farsi in the first place (if I did know the language).

The early church did do miracles at times. The Bible text seems to downplay their role. The text that speaks most of signs and wonders (I Cor. 12-14) actually attempts to provide limits and perspective to their role. The post-NT church even gives a lesser role, only rarely mentioning them in the writings of the church Fathers.

Why does this matter? There has been a lot spoken on signs and wonders as an appropriate (or even necessary) method of missions outreach. I don’t see that as Biblically or logically sound. Some suggest that it is useful or necessary in animistic cultures. If it is true in animistic cultures then it is probably true in most cultures since folk religion in most cultures has a similar focus on manipulation of supernatural power for personal benefit. So… if power encounter/“signs and wonders” is a necessary part of God’s witness in animistic societies, it seems like it would have been a more common (and more effective) witnessing tool in the NT Jewish and Hellenistic cultures.

I am sure there is a place for “signs and wonders” in Christian work. However, the direct benefit of miracles (the immediate corrective nature of the act) and getting the people’s momentary attention seems to be the key values here. Actual change and faith will not come from miracles. Rather they will come from evidence of God’s love and God’s word. I fear that the focus on signs and wonders as an evangelistic tool comes from our own lack of of characteristics of godliness that can be seen by others.

Living out our call as the voice, hands, and feet of Christ will always be our best evangelistic tool in any culture.