By David F. Watson
Since the 1700s, it has been commonplace in Western Christianity to question, or even reject, the veracity of claims about miracles, or what theologians refer to as “special divine action.” Sometimes, God acts directly in ways that transcend the normal course of events in nature. When we recognize such divine action, we call it a miracle.
Enlightenment philosophers and the theologians they influenced have at times argued that, if there is a God, this God does not enter directly into the goings-on of creation, exercising agency to change what would otherwise be the natural course of events. In the wake of two World Wars, the Holocaust, the detonation of atomic bombs over Japan, and countless other atrocities throughout the twentieth-century, many theologians simply regarded miracles as a non-starter. No, they said, the unavoidable conclusion is that we can no longer believe in the God of the Bible who so readily enters into the goings-on of our lives.
The problem is, there are so many cases in which Christians actually see miracles happen. They witness them in their own lives and the lives of those they love. There are simply too many accounts of God’s action in the world for us to ignore them. Miracles happen. They are in some senses shrouded in mystery, but the evidence for them is overwhelming.
Nevertheless, there remains much skepticism of miracles throughout the academy and segments of the church. Moreover, in parts of the church where miracles are generally accepted, there can still be considerable misunderstanding and irresponsible teaching. Thus in 2011, Professor Craig S. Keener published a two-volume magisterial work, Miracles: the Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic). At almost 1,200 pages, this work is an indispensable scholarly investigation into claims of special divine action, not only in the New Testament, but today as well. This book may be a bit much for the non-specialist, however. Not everyone has the time or inclination to make his or her way through such a weighty scholarly tome, valuable as it may be. Keener is aware of this, and has therefore provided a much briefer and more accessible volume, Miracles Today: The Supernatural Work of God in the Modern World (Baker).
The book consists of seven parts which are divided into relatively short chapters. Part 1 is called “Perspectives on Miracles” and asks the question, “What is a miracle?” It then provides a few answers, dealing in the process with some skeptical responses to claims of the miraculous, and particularly that of Scottish philosopher David Hume. In Part 2, Keener discusses witnesses to miracles. Are there many of them? Do people other than Christains report them? Is healing a new phenomenon in the history of the church? He then offers a few testimonies of healing. With Part 3, “Videos and Doctor’s Reports,” the book becomes a bit more testimony-heavy. Keener deals with cases in which healings are captured on video and medically-attested healings of such conditions as severe brain injuries and cancer. Part 4 describes healings of conditions such as blindness, deafness, nerve damage, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, and leprosy.
Many Christians find faith healing to be plausible, and even pray for it. The next two sections, however, will likely be harder pills to swallow. Part 5 deals with the raising of the dead, and Part 6 with nature miracles. Keener provides documentary evidence that the prayers of the faithful can even raise the dead. In fact, he provides testimony of this phenomenon from within his own family. He then goes on to discuss what are often called “nature miracles,” such as the calming of storms or the multiplication of food through the prayers of the faithful.
Part 7, “Kingdom Mysteries,” takes up more philosophical and theological matters related to healing and deals with some common objections. After discussing some miracles that he himself has witnessed and experienced, Keener addresses some questions that many inquisitive readers will ask. Why don’t we see more miracles in the West? Correlatively, why do these reports seem so commonly to come from the “mission field”? How should we understand occasions when we pray for miracles and they don’t happen? Why do conditions that God heals sometimes return later?
Following this seven-part discussion are three appendices: (A) Did Prayer Make Things Worse? (B) Some of Hume’s Other Arguments, and (C) False Signs.
Even in this briefer volume, Keener’s descriptions and theological account of miracles are substantial and compelling. He marshals considerable evidence in support of his primary claim, which is that God acts in miraculous ways today, just as he did in the time of the Bible. He offers testimony after testimony of miracles of various kinds. These testimonies are drawn from historical and contemporary sources, including people he knows personally. He even offers his own testimony in a few places.
Testimonies can help to build faith, and I found my own faith strengthened as I read. The quality of the research in these testimonies is impressive. These are not the equivalent of Bigfoot sightings. They are the thoroughly researched accounts of a meticulous scholar.
Keener doesn’t dodge difficult questions, either. While most of the book consists of testimonies, particularly in the latter chapters Keener deals with some important objections and problems related to belief in miracles. One objection he addresses, which I often hear as well, is that accounts of miracles seem to come much more often from faraway places than from the United States. Does this not diminish their credibility?
Keener addresses such questions adroitly. First of all, he provides numerous testimonies throughout the book of miracles occurring in the West. Further, he argues, the U.S. contains only about 5 percent of the world’s population. It is only natural that more miracles occur outside of the U.S. than within it.
Additionally, “when miracles happen here, our antisupernatural mindset often renders them invisible to us because we grasp at other explanations,” he writes. “Since miracles are therefore less meaningful to us, they are less likely to happen.”
Keener also suggests that “God usually performs dramatic signs either when people desperately need them or when he is getting people’s attention for the good news of Christ’s love in a special way.” In Africa, for example, which is the world’s second most populous continent, there is only one doctor for every ten thousand people. There are also many people in Africa who have yet to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. God wishes for these people to have the opportunity to know and love him. In this context, miracles are more prevalent.
Dr. Randy Clark, founder of Global Awakening, has seen miracles firsthand all over the world. He once told me, “The way of healing is the way of the cross.” What he meant was that a healing ministry can be a painful one because people are not always healed. The compassion that motivates one to engage in a ministry of healing necessarily leads to heartache over those who are not healed.
Keener discusses cases where a person is healed for a time, but then the same condition returns and takes his or her life. He also discusses cases in which people are not healed. A particularly moving account involves the death of his friend Nabeel Qureshi. Nabeel had a prominent ministry, and thousands of people were praying for his healing of stage-four stomach cancer. Keener even prayed that he himself might die in Nabeel’s place. “I felt that I had already accomplished enough for one life, if need be, whereas Nabeel had many years of fruitful ministry ahead of him.” God did not heal Nabeel in this life, though. “Toward the end of his mortal life,” Keener writes, “Nabeel suffered terribly.”
Many Christians know the pain of praying fervently for someone who nevertheless dies. Many know the pain of being with the sick through their last days of life. These can be a gut-wrenching, traumatic experiences, and we may understandably wonder why God did not heal in these cases. It may make no sense to us. Keener remarks, “After Nabeel’s death, I felt that God was saying we would understand this matter someday. It is beyond me to understand now, but I trust that God does know and understands much more than I do.”
Miracles Today is a sensitive, well-researched, theologically sophisticated work. I have seen miracles in my life. In fact, I have prayed for people who subsequently received healing. Yet reading through page after page of these testimonies of God’s goodness was a great encouragement to me, particularly after these two very difficult years of dealing with a global pandemic. I also learned a great deal from reading this work. Keener is one of the finest scholars working today. He is both a faithful Christian and a first-rate intellect. I give this book my strongest recommendation. It is a treasure.
One final note: in many ways, the postmodern West is returning to the kind of pluralistic environment in which the first Christians found themselves. Their milieu was permeated by all manner of religions and philosophy. To those early Christians amid the religiously chaotic world of ancient Corinth, the Apostle Paul wrote, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:4).
Paul knew that it would be the visible power of the Holy Spirit that would bring that generation to faith. In our day, so very chaotic in its own ways, it can be hard to get a hearing for the faith, regardless of how wise or persuasive one’s words may be. We are once again going to have to rely upon the power of the living God and believe he will reveal himself through miracles of various kinds for his name’s sake and for the salvation of the lost. In recovering this kind of faith, we will need guides along the way. Professor Keener is one we can trust.
David F. Watson is Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is the author of several books, including Scripture and the Life of God (Seedbed), and lead editor of Firebrand (firebrandmag.com).
I have made a wonderful, new discovery in my prayer life. It is best defined by one of the many injunctions given in the Bible, “Blessed are those who listen to me, watching daily at my doors, waiting at my doorway. For those who find me find life and receive favor from the Lord” (Proverbs 8:34-35).
Though rarely spoken of today and yet so desperately needed in our stress-torn society, this life-giving reality is the ancient experience of waiting on God. It seems as though there is so little time put aside for such waiting in our slick, fast-moving world. The difficult, yet so rewarding, experience of coming into God’s presence, and by the grace and empowerment of the Holy Spirit becoming calm, quiet, and receptive to his presence and voice is the essence of all growth in grace. Is not the result of spiritual growth a growing awareness of God’s presence and hearing his voice?
The life of prayer has so many marvelous facets and different methods, according to our need at the time. “Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge” (Psalm 62:8). The pouring out of our soul to God is because of agitation, turmoil, and unrest. We have to get things off our chest, and tell him exactly how we feel. There certainly can be no calm, quiet receptiveness until we communicate our needs or those of others.
The power of intercession, pouring out our anguish over a situation or person is part of the asking and seeking of Mathew 7:7, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Tragically, however, we often fail then to wait on God. We do not allow him time to speak to us, to comfort us, to correct us, or to be present to us. We often fail to hear his response to our cries. Waiting allows God the opening or opportunity to manifest his wondrous presence.
Our fast-moving schedules keep us so nervous and overloaded that we find it difficult to sit down and relax and let go, to sit quietly and focus on one thing. We are accustomed to doing ten things at once!
Yet I believe a new dimension of spiritual reality is released if we will wait on the Lord. The psalmist David said it so well, “One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple” (Psalm 27:4).
Waiting on God is not natural for us; it is not easy for us; it isn’t always “fun” for us, but it is a profoundly transforming experience of spiritual growth. It is not for people of casual Christian living. It is for struggling, yearning Christians who want to be more like Jesus, and for those who want to be more fit channels through whom God can flow out to others in love and power.
Our guide is Jesus. He knew to the core of his being the absolute necessity of waiting on God. In his classic book called Waiting on God, Andrew Murray says about Jesus, “He had such a consciousness of God’s presence that no matter who came to him the presence of Father was with and upon him.” Jesus’ own night-long waiting on the Father as recorded in Luke teaches us how important the waiting was, because it allowed the Father to be totally dominant and in total control of him, to the extent that God the Father was the most real presence in Jesus’ life.
The first account of Jesus waiting on the Father, in Luke 4, is followed by testing. Each time we wait on God, no matter how long or short the period, Satan will be present to pull us away. He does not want our physical needs met in a godly way, but in our own way. Satan does not want us feeding on God. Waiting on the Lord allows the Holy Spirit to feed the inner man, and strengthen him (Ephesians 3:16). As we wait, we partake of the Divine nature, and are sustained, changed, and healed.
A second hindrance that comes as we wait is to let something else or someone else be our center instead of our Lord. It could be career, children, education, money, or pleasure. Waiting on God allows the Holy Spirit to teach us how to worship and love only him with all our heart, soul, and mind, and others as ourselves.
Yet a third hindrance is to use God’s power in foolish ways, to take what we get from God and use it for our advantage. Waiting on God daily allows him to cleanse our self-will and self-seeking. He develops a reverence in us for his holiness and power. We tremble before him and honor him as we wait.
Jesus waited on God to bring him forth from the grave (the seed falling into the ground as John 12:23-32 teaches). Waiting produces great confidence in God. It is a form of dying to self, and out of death comes God’s life.
But perhaps the greatest example of Jesus’ waiting is what he is doing now. As Hebrews 7:25 says, “ … he always lives to intercede for them.” As Jesus intercedes, he awaits his return to the earth as Lord where he will receive his bride – the Church. In other words waiting is a part of divine providence and therefore it must be a part of our lives.
If Jesus is waiting on God the Father to bring forth the ultimate will of God, how much more do you and I need periods of quiet waiting and listening.
I can remember as a high school student often talking with my father, a United Methodist minister, about wanting to know how to grow in grace. I knew that I had my part and God had his, and that the basic ingredients of prayer, Bible reading, and obedience were essential to growth. However, I kept feeling there was an added dimension of spiritual understanding involving responsiveness to his presence that would greatly enhance my growth. I did not understand at that time that this involved protracted periods of waiting on God. This waiting included listening to God, a calming of the inner person, and an altering of the capacity to be aware of God.
Waiting on God should teach us a more reverent receptivity; a quieter, less self-willed listening; a calmer repose and collectedness which opens the door to knowing God better, because we can hear him speak and respond to him in conversation and in our will.
Our difficulty lies basically in the feverish, frantic way we have with very little time spent in God’s presence. Our dilemma centers around not knowing the value of spending time in the presence of God nor really understanding how it is done. Waiting is a totalitarian experience of body, mind, and spirit. This includes relaxing the body when it has been agitated and tense, focusing the mind on God when it has been scattered over many interests, and getting in touch with the inner spirit when we have lived externally rather than internally.
The Scriptures are full of invitations to come into his living presence. Matthew 11:28-30, Isaiah 40:29-31, and Proverbs 8:34-36 are just a few.
There are several principles to follow in order to enter into the presence of God. These are not difficult but require time and patience to experience the actuality of them. The lives of Christians throughout history, regardless of their station in life, have involved these great principles.
1. Find a quiet place in your home that will be without outside distractions, noise, phone, TV, and music. You will quickly discover that it is not nearly as difficult to eliminate the exterior noises as it is to eliminate the interior noises. These distractions hinder our ability to focus due to darkness and the unknown within us. This takes courage to persist, but it is not impossible.
2. It is important to ask the Holy Spirit to guide and teach us (John 14:26). We must refer to him!
3. Return daily to this same place, which the Old Testament refers to as the tent of meeting and the New Testament refers to as the place of abiding in Jesus. Regularity aids us in accustoming ourselves to coming into the quiet. We may begin to enjoy it!
4. Sit in a comfortable chair poised, alert, respectful, and anticipating an encounter with God.
5. Relax your body and mind. Avoid trying too hard, or trying to do it perfectly. Relax, let go, this is your time to cast your burden on him.
6. Waiting on God involves the whole person, spirit, soul, and body. Give him your mind that you might receive from his mind. Give him your body, its energies to be refreshed by his life. Give him your emotions, all your feelings, to be cleansed by his love. Give him your will that you might know and love the will of God. Give him your human spirit so that he might reign as Lord of your spirit.
7. There are two ways to realize God’s presence. First through the Word of God, such as taking a single thought as Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God,” and meditating on each word. The second way is through using our minds and imaginations. In your mind’s eye see yourself talking with Jesus, look at him face to face, and listen to his response to you (2 Corinthians 3: 18).
8. Know that you will experience mental distractions and be prepared to wait even though your mind is unruly. Speak gently but firmly to your mind and bring it back to Jesus.
9. Use the name of Jesus often, repeated softly; or use the “Jesus prayer” to keep yourself collected and focused. A form of the Jesus prayer is, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me.”
10. Keep reaffirming during this time that you are there to know the Lord better and to wait on him.
11. Take 10 to 15 minutes at the end of your devotional time and listen for his voice and presence.
In Waiting on God, Andrew Murray says to stay positive and believe you can and will wait and that God will draw you into his presence.
There are several crucial aspects of the Holy Spirit’s ministry that become ours as we spend time in his presence. In evangelical circles we tend to mention, almost exclusively, only one side of the Holy Spirit’s marvelous work – the miraculous and instantaneous – as in our rebirth and the subsequent infilling of the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, these two supernatural landmark experiences radically change our perspective and inner attitudes. Though we may have sought God for days, months or years, the actual spiritual transaction frequently happens in a matter of minutes – even seconds!
I believe a grave danger lurks here, a misconception that is foreboding in its consequences. We are apt to think it is God’s only way of handling important, life-changing events. We begin to rely too much on our big experiences, neglecting to give him time each day to perform miracles equally powerful and exciting. Let me share with you just a few of the benefits the Holy Spirit continues to provide as we learn to wait on God.
• The miracle of becoming like God, being transformed into his image. For us today this means a growing dependency upon the Father, even as Jesus experienced when he says in John 5:19 “… the Son can do nothing by himself.” This means that we do not take the initiative to run ahead of him in any area of our life (Romans 8:29 and 1 John 3:2). . .
• The miracle of cultivating with God a friendship so real and so satisfying that, of all our friends, we know him best (John 15:14).
• The miracle of a growing helplessness and dependency on God so we live not out of the flesh, but by his power and strength. He flows out from us to others, yet we come more and more into who we are in him. As we wait on God he will reveal to us his direction for our lives. For each of us, the uniqueness of our individuality in him will begin to come forth (Galatians 2:20).
• The joy of learning to listen to God’s voice to recognize when he is speaking to us. Because his voice is so real we can truly converse with one another. God guides us and gives us his wisdom in all of our interactions (John 10:4-5, 14, 27).
• A growing humility as he reveals our true self to us. As we see how desperately we need God in all areas of our life, the experience of waiting on him helps us to face ourselves under the loving gaze of Jesus (Psalm 51:6).
• A daily conviction of our sin, bringing us to repentance and confession. This is important so there are no barriers of sinful pride before him. Sin is dealt with honestly each day (1 John 4:9 and John 16:7-13).
• A marvelous peace as we allow God to take more and more dominion over our thoughts and our emotional life. The fruits and gifts of the Spirit begin to express themselves through us (Isaiah 26:2).
• A greater ability to pray in line with the Father’s will because, as we wait on him, the Holy Spirit searches out the deep things of God, and prays the will of God in life’s challenges. To find his will takes time, and waiting on God affords that leisurely relationship with the Holy Spirit from which he is able to manifest God’s will (1 Corinthians 2:6-16).
• A glorious comprehension of just how real and eternally precious the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are to me. For many people, the Father God is detached and impersonal, but as we wait on him we begin to experientially know him as our heavenly Father (John 14:20, 21, 23). Our rebirth and indwelling by the Holy Spirit are more sweetly and fully realized and lived out in our daily life. God goes about changing and renewing our inner spirit as we submit to his day by day ministrations to us. While we draw nigh to him he draws nigh to us.
If you have never experienced the joy of waiting on God, I pray you will be strongly impressed by the Holy Spirit to begin that great journey of deepening your receptivity to him. You may find it to be the hardest part of your quiet time, because it requires stillness and quietness, a collecting of every thought around Jesus as preparation for hearing his voice, but it will be the most rewarding of your prayer habits.
“Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him” (Isaiah 30:18).
Margaret Therkelsen (1934-2014) was a teacher, counselor, and author of The Love Exchange and other books. For many years she was a treasured devotionalist for Good News. This article originally appeared in the July/August 1992 issue of Good News