Tag Archives: spiritual gifts

Spiritual Parlor Tricks.

In about six weeks I’ll be going back to Kenya, and as usual God has been speaking to me about His Kingdom. Last week He revealed something to me that broke my heart; something about the western Church and about myself as well. I wanted to break this up into a couple blogs, but I don’t think that’s going to be possible, so I apologize in advance for the length.

This will be my thirteenth trip to Africa in the last eight years. When you go somewhere outside of your own culture, there are certain things that become impossible to miss. One of those is how closely the African Church, at least as far as I’ve seen it, mirrors the church in Acts, and conversely, how poorly the western church mirrors the early Church.

As Jesus was just about to go up to Heaven, he gave instructions. “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mark 16)

Largely this is what I see in Africa. I see the sight of the blind restored, the sick healed, the insane restored and their entire lives changed, addicts recover. I see people pray for what we would consider crazy and God answers it, and the list goes on, reflecting what Jesus said would happen as signs that would happen after the gospel is preached.

While I see some of that in America, I don’t see nearly as much of it. So why would that be? Well, that was what God spoke to me about.

There are a number of gifts of the Spirit of God that are listed in the bible, besides the signs that Jesus mentioned in Mark. There’s a somewhat comprehensive list of the more common ones in 1 Corinthians 12.

“There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works [e]all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills.”

There are largely two lines of thought on this in the west. Those who think that the gifts of the Spirit mentioned above are to be sought above all other things, and those who don’t think they exist anymore. So how do we get such polar opposite views in a supposedly singular Church? Well the answer to that question is where we went wrong, and where the African church can save us, because we’ve gone way off course.

I’m going to start with those who seek the gifts over all things. There are churches that will tell you that if you do not speak in tongues then you are not saved, or other similar statements about the gifts of the Spirit. But what are the gifts? If you look at what they are and how they are used, they not only display the glory of God, but more importantly they display the love of God to a lost world. It is no mistake that the next chapter in 1 Corinthians after the one about the gifts is the chapter about love, summed up in the verse, “And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

If we seek the gifts of the Spirit but do not love our neighbor, we only seek to perform spiritual parlor tricks. If we do not love our neighbor, who was created in God’s image, then we do not represent the God who created them.

The other side of the coin is those who say that the gifts of the Spirit died with the apostles, and that God no longer does these things today. Dispensationalism is the name for this doctrine for anyone that cares. I’ve heard prominent pastors engage in spiritual contortions in order to make this work in their own minds, going so far as to forbid these gifts. (How you can forbid something that supposedly doesn’t exist, I don’t know, but that’s beside the point.)

Here’s the problem; When those gifts start showing up, who am I going to believe, your preaching or my own lying eyes? Faith is the evidence of things unseen, but when God shows up in powerful ways and we still don’t believe it, that’s something straight out of hell.

But when we don’t see God show up in the ways He said He would, it’s easier to build a doctrine around how God has changed and not have to face the fact that we were unfaithful. You see, if we were faithful to love our neighbors as ourselves, as we were commanded to do; if we were to give of ourselves sacrificially to the poor and the lost, then the gifts of the Spirit would show up as a matter of course. If on the other hand we seek the gifts without doing what Christ commanded, then we are guilty of idolatry, worshipping the gifts rather than the giver.

So boiling it down, and this is going to make people mad, but so be it; the African church loves the lost, and we don’t. We don’t love the lost every time we turn a blind eye to the poor, every time we refer to immigrants as filthy criminals, every time we judge the addict because they “made bad choices and they’re just reaping what they sow. Shall I go on?

How do the Africans love their neighbors? By blessing people and praying the love of God over people even as they’re being beaten, by exercising gifts of healing over the son of someone who tried to burn down his house, by giving sacrificially to the needy, even in their own poverty. This is what the Church was created for.

As Jesus said when he started his ministry,

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

    because he has anointed me

    to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

    and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

We’ve, no, I’ve got so much I have to learn.

Photo of the woman who’s sight was restored after two years of blindness in Ethiopia.

Crippling Unbelief

A few weeks ago, a major denomination lifted their ban on speaking in tongues for their missionaries. For those who read this blog who aren’t Christians, just bear with me for a minute. Speaking in tongues may be viewed as one of the weirder things with Christianity to many people, but it was a big part of the early church, and is still quite common in many areas of the world. It is one of the spiritual gifts the apostle Paul speaks of, along with words of knowledge, faith, healing, distinguishing between spirits, and a number of other gifts. I’m glad they finally lifted the ban for missionaries, but that’s not the  main focus of why I’m writing today.  Beside the fact that the bible specifically says, “do not forbid speaking in tongues”, (not sure how they missed that one), it speaks to a larger issue that is the real reason that I’m writing this blog today.

The issue I’m writing about today is unbelief. In the book of Mark, Jesus disciples came to him after they were unsuccessful driving a demon out of a boy. Jesus drives out the demon, but also rebukes the crowd and his disciples as an “unbelieving generation”. He actually comes across as a bit irritated with his disciples and the crowd.  He also goes on to say that with faith as small as a small seed, you can tell a mountain to go throw itself in the sea and it will do it. People often read this as one issue, but I believe it is two. One is the issue of faith, the other is the issue of unbelief. Both are quantifiable.

I grew up in a church where I think more was preached about what God can’t do than what he can do. As in my first paragraph, speaking in tongues, and virtually all the other gifts listed in the New Testament of the Bible were things that are “not for today”. They would tell you proudly that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, then immediately go on to tell you the parts that no longer apply. As I’ve gone out into the world, as I’ve become a missionary, as I’ve seen more and more things, I’ve learned that what I was taught was an absolute lie. So why would there be an entire doctrine, “cessation doctrine”, that teaches that what the early church did is no longer applicable today?

It’s all tied to unbelief. The church I grew up in would tell you that God no longer heals miraculously, that there are no longer words of knowledge, that there are no longer any miracles. If they were speaking of their own church, they would be absolutely right. But why? It’s a shifting of blame. If these things don’t happen in my church or God doesn’t do them through me, then it must be because God doesn’t do these things any more. It couldn’t possibly be because of my own unbelief. Your faith the size of a seed might be enough that you go through the motions and pray for someone, but what good does that do when you’ve at the same time pulled up a truck load of unbelief embedded in your doctrine that’s already told you that God doesn’t do these things anymore? You’re not disappointed when nothing happens, because in all honesty, you never expected it to anyway.  So you go through your spiritual walk living out a life of cowardly mediocrity because you lacked both the faith and the courage to let God do the great things he said he would do. This is why the American church is faltering. We live out an ineffectual, academic, irrelevant, inbred version of Christianity that looks nothing like it’s roots, while in the developing world there is revival because they have none of the baggage that comes with telling themselves what God can’t do. They just do it. This is what I’ve seen, and this is what I wish I could fully convey to the American church, and I want to see it happen again here, as it has at various times and places.

So I’m very glad that the denomination I mentioned is going the direction they are, and I hope it’s a precursor of things to come. Oh, and the church I grew up in? They died out, and the building is now occupied by a church that practices the things my church told us we couldn’t do. I write this not because I’m happy about it. They were people who loved God, and I learned a lot from them, but frankly they were trying to walk with God with one leg tied behind their backs. Without faith what do we have? If our faith is eclipsed by our unbelief, what do we have? Let’s stop telling ourselves what God can’t do, and let him do what he said he would, and to be who he said he is.

As a side note, I’ve included a picture of a child I met in South Sudan a few years ago. She had malaria and was starving and feverish. I thought she was going to die within days. I could have left it there, but I pushed past my unbelief that God could heal this child and prayed for her anyway; not that God would help her in her suffering or some such thing, but that God would heal her. I didn’t see her again for two more trips, but a year later I barely recognized her. The same sister was holding her, but this time she was healthy and fat. Let God do what he said he would do.

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A little girl holds her deathly ill sister in South Sudan.

 

The Snake Woman And The Blind Man

A couple of years ago, I was in Juba, South Sudan. I heard of a recent ‘event’ that had happened in the city. The story was, that there was near panic in part of Juba, because a woman had reportedly turned into a snake. How this was supposed to have happened and why, I don’t know, but the fact was there that in addition to the panic, there were apparently a large number of people that came out to see the snake woman. Ridiculous we would say. To add to it, we’d probably go on to say that it was simple-minded people believing in superstition, if we were to speak out loud what was going on within our heads before we remembered it’s not politically correct to pass judgement on what anyone believes.

Now let me tell you another story. The same year, there was a semi-homeless man that I would run into frequently as I’d walk my dog in my hometown. I would occasionally speak to him, and got to know him a little. One day, I saw that he had a patch over one of his eyes. I asked him what had happened. He said that his retina had detached, and his doctor told him he was losing his vision. I asked him if I could pray for him, and he agreed. I prayed that God would restore his vision to him and heal his eye, and we both went on our way. About a week later, I saw him again, and he was no longer wearing the patch on his eye and could see out of it.  I asked him about his eye, and his response was, “My doctor says he misdiagnosed it.”

One culture believes in all things spiritual, the other believes in nothing spiritual. While faith is the evidence of things unseen, what do you call it when you see something with your own eyes and still manage to rationalize it away? We in the supposedly Christian west write off all things spiritual as superstition or the figments of simple minds.  The fact is, that in my experience, it’s only in the caucasian west that we manage to convince ourselves that all things spiritual are such figments of a desperate imagination.

Go to Africa, and you’ll find that even the educated believe not only that God is able, but that he WILL intercede if we pray and act on the authority given to us in the Holy Spirit. Most of the book of Acts, and a good bit of 1st Corinthians deals with the subject of spiritual gifts. Jesus says in the gospel of John, “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”

“Greater things than these” are the words used. So as Christians, do we believe this, and if not, why not?  I’ve seen things that would blow the minds of such deniers. We don’t believe, because we don’t want to believe. We would have to live differently. We would have to take God at his word on a lot of things we currently ignore. I hear the question a lot, “How do you know which religion is correct?”  When an entire Muslim family in Ethiopia is instantly and miraculously healed, they know what is correct.

When a doctor tells a man he is going to lose his vision, the doctor has to be pretty sure about his diagnosis. When I see a man’s vision restored anyway, I know what’s correct.

If we profess to be Christians, it seems to me that there is the choice to take the whole package or nothing at all. Why would we want to follow Christ if what he said was a lie?  There’s any number of liars I’m free to follow, and most of them don’t require such things as abasing the human nature and pride, or putting others before yourself, or any of the other myriad of unpalatable things Christians are called to do but rarely do. In fact, most of them tell you to follow your heart and do what feels good. The book of Proverbs speaks directly to this and says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” On the other side of things, if everything Jesus said is true, then why WOULDN’T we want to follow him? Yes, it requires a lot of you, but it’s so much better a way than the half-hearted, half-believing version of following that the church generally does now in America. Jesus says in Matthew 10, “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.”  That is the version of following Christ that I want.

A woman who received her sight back after two years of blindness while I was in Ethiopia.
A woman who received her sight back after two years of blindness while I was in Ethiopia.

Drowning Jesus

Faith and missions are two things that have been on my mind a lot lately, and particularly the way they interact with each other. I grew up in churches that had no fire, no power, no influence, and consequently made no difference. I no longer have time or patience for that kind of theology. We were taught as children that Jesus did miracles, and the disciples after Him did miracles and healings and all of the incredible moves of the Spirit of God that are talked about in the book of acts, but that after the disciples died, these things died with them. You can’t back that belief up anywhere in the scriptures, but we were taught it nonetheless. Why were we taught it?  Well I’ll get to that later.

In the book of Matthew is the following story. It takes place just after Jesus had preached to the multitudes and fed them all with five loaves of bread and two fish.

“22 Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away. 23 And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. Now when evening came, He was alone there. 24 But the boat was now in the middle of the sea,[a] tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary.

25 Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea. 26 And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear.

27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.”

28 And Peter answered Him and said, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.”

29 So He said, “Come.” And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. 30 But when Peter saw that the wind was boisterous,[b] he was afraid; Then Jesus began to sink under the waves………………….  Ok, if you haven’t figured it out yet, I changed that last bit. Here’s how it actually goes.

“30 But when he saw that the wind was boisterous,[b] he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!”

31 And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

So my alternate ending to this story is as ridiculous as what I was taught as a child, and what many are taught now. The fact is that my lack of faith doesn’t limit God in any way, it only limits what God will do through ME. Think about that. Hebrews 13:8 says, “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.” If we don’t believe this is true, we may as well throw the rest of the scripture out too. The world is not interested in a castrated, ineffective, impotent, watered-down, powerless, gospel, because that is no gospel at all. I’m not interested in it either. There is a lost world out there, and if you don’t believe that, I challenge you to get out and travel to a country that the name ends either in ia or stan.

We are not told the stories in the gospels and Acts to look back wistfully and say, “gosh, wouldn’t that be nice?” We are told these things as a reference for what we are expected to do today.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,[a]
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;”

So why aren’t we taught that today?  Why are we taught that God doesn’t do this anymore?   It’s born out of fear. If I choose to believe that Jesus still expects us to pray for the sick, to set the captives free, to go to the uttermost parts of the earth, to heal the brokenhearted, to give sight to the blind, (both literally and figuratively), to cast out demons, and even to raise the dead; if I believe these things then there is going to be a whole lot more required of me than just showing up on Sunday morning and putting in my hour. I might have to go and pray for that unsavory person on the street if the Spirit of God moves me to do it. It might require me to trust God to do what He said he would do. It might require me to go to a place where there is no Starbucks, or air conditioning, or paved roads, or even an assurance of safety. So if I go with the doctrine that God doesn’t do these things anymore, what I’m telling God is, “I would do these things, but you don’t do these things anymore.  It’s not me, it’s you.” Then we can be content with our “faith” that requires nothing of us. It’s as ridiculous as getting out of the boat to walk to Jesus, but when we see the waves and start to doubt, expecting Jesus to be the one who sinks instead of us. Think about it.

Missionaries pray for a sick woman in South Sudan.
Missionaries pray for a sick woman in South Sudan.

Spiritual and Other Gifts and Perspective

There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same[b] Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills.

27 Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually. 28 And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?31 But earnestly desire the best[d] gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way.

The previous verses come from 1st Corinthians 12. Paul goes into depth about spiritual gifts. I saw a video this week of a fantastic exercise in perspective; a piece of art by Bernard Pras. In this piece of art, he takes a large number of truly random items and places them in what initially seems like a completely haphazard fashion. It looks like a pile of junk on the floor, and walking by that is what you would assume it is. But walk to the right place, and look through a frame that excludes the extraneous distractions outside the  pile of junk, and you see that this seemingly random junk is in fact a beautiful piece of art. Here is a link. You may have to copy it into a new window, but it’s worth it.

I have heard people say, I have this gift or that gift. But it says in the scriptures, “earnestly desire the best gifts.”  This goes for spiritual gifts, but also for all gifts and talents. I know people, and I myself have been given or developed through God’s grace talents and gifts that at the time seemed random or perhaps even useless in the grand scheme. But nothing is left to chance with God. We are all unique and all useful in completely different ways because we each have a different set of gifts. They are only random until God lines those gifts up in such a way that the perspective suddenly becomes clear, and when we are obedient and step out in faith, we find out that the gifts we sought were only random because we lacked the perspective and fore thought that God has, who sees the plan from beginning to end.

So when we are told to earnestly desire the greater gifts, what we are being told is to make ourselves more ready to be used by God for whatever plan He has, even though we are totally unable to see it. So get up, pray for gifts of Prophecy, or knowledge, or wisdom. Get out there and learn a new language, or develop that skill that God has put in your heart, but you’ve always told yourself you were too busy to do, or that other things were more important. God wants to use you.

So in conclusion, in the words of the Neil Morse song,

“God can change the world with just one willing soul
Who will stand up for the truth and give him starring
role
So come into the fullness and open up the door
Maybe it is you he’s looking for”