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"The Place of the Dramatic in God's Overall Plan"
by Richard Rice

Power-centered Christianity

I have always admired great physical strength … probably because I have been blessed with so little of it myself. My favorite athlete as a young man was not a baseball, football, or basketball player. It was a weightlifter, arguably the greatest weightlifter of all time, Vasily Alexeyev of the Soviet Union. A man of massive bulk, he was the king of the super-heavyweights. Back in the 60s and 70s he appeared regularly on the television program Wide World of Sports, breaking one world record after another. In a typical performance, he bent over the bar stacked with discs, carefully positioned his hands and feet, and suddenly, with a mighty bellow, propelled the bar, sagging with its immense burdens, high over his head. He stood there for a moment, staggering dramatically as the arena filled with cheers. Then, face flushed and body limp from the strain, he let the whole thing, all four or five hundred pounds, fall to the floor with a crash.

There is something fascinating about power. Given a choice, most of us would prefer more powerful cars, more powerful boats, more powerful jobs. And there is something fascinating about people who have great power. I attended a conference last October sponsored by the Templeton Foundation, and Sir John himself was present. I took a long look when we passed in the hallway of the hotel. It’s not often you see someone with that much wealth at his disposal. He gives a prize each year to someone who has advanced the cause of religion in the world. Each recipient gets over a million dollars.

People have always associated God with great power. This is the way Richard Swinburne, an influential philosopher of religion, identifies God. "What the theist claims about God is that he [has] power to create, conserve, or annihilate anything, big or small…. God is not limited by the laws of nature; he makes them and he can change or suspend them—if he chooses. To use the technical term, God is omnipotent: he can do anything." (Is There a God? [Oxford University Press, 1996], pp. 5-6.) Now, Swinburne isn’t saying that God happens to be powerful, or that power is one of God’s qualities alongside many others. His basic point is that enormous power, infinite power, is what makes God God. If we are going to talk about God, power is the place to start.

We are concerned in these meetings with religious movements that place a great deal of emphasis on divine power and its role in our lives. Their members believe that a vibrant Christian experience is one where the power of God is manifested in dramatic ways. Proponents of what "power-centered Christianity" maintain that there is a strong continuity between biblical times and our life today. They believe that the things recorded in the Bible were not restricted to that time in history. What God did in the past he is perfectly capable of doing today. And he will do it today if we cooperate with him and exhibit the sort of faith that makes such displays of divine power possible. They also believe that the work of the church has been hampered by a lack of expectation on the part of God’s people. If we opened our selves up to the dramatic working of God’s Spirit, he would accomplish marvelous things through us, just as he did in the lives of people in biblical times.

The experience of John Wimber is often mentioned in this connection. When Wimber was 29 he and his wife accepted Christ at a home Bible study. Christianity was entirely new to him. He started going to church and reading his Bible. "Church was tame, but the Bible was exciting. He read about a God who could do anything, even raise the dead. He noticed a dramatic difference between the church he attended on Sunday and the Bible he read every day. After weeks of reading a miraculous Bible and attending monotonous religious services, John walked up to one of the lay leaders and asked, "When do we get to do the stuff?" "What stuff?" asked the leader. "You know, the stuff here in the Bible," said John, as he opened the NT and pointed to the Gospels. "You know, like the stuff Jesus did—raising people from the dead, healing the blind and the paralyzed, you know, that stuff." "Well, we don’t do that anymore," the man said. You don’t’? No. Well, what do you do? asked John. What we did this morning. For that I gave up drugs? John Wimber wondered. He was incredulous that the experience of the people of God today was so different from the experience of the people in the Bible." (Jack Deere, Surprised by the Voice of God, pp. 22-23)

Faith and miracles

In the current context, many people believe that true faith and genuine miracles go together. If you have faith, you’ll experience miracles. And if you’re not experiencing miracles, it’s because you don’t have enough faith. This is particularly true, it seems, in the case of healing. As Jesus said to a woman suffering from an issue of blood, "Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering" (Mk 5:34).

Although people sometimes talk as if faith had a power all its own, there is nothing inherently valuable in faith. Faith links us to God and draws power entirely from its divine object. Faith is a condition of salvation, but it is not the source or the means of salvation. It is simply the vehicle by which we receive salvation. Its role in the plan of salvation is purely receptive. Faith is the empty vessel we lift up for God to fill with his grace and power. It is not the vessel but what it holds that delivers us.

For these reasons, it may be easier to specify what faith is not than to define what it is.

Faith is not the source of our salvation. Faith is not a power that produces miracles. Faith is not a virtue that makes us worthy of divine favor. Faith is not a remote control that makes God do what we want him to.

In its ideal form, faith is an expression of complete confidence in God. The people Jesus commended for having faith are the ones who trusted him without reservation. The centurion (Mt 8), for example, knew from his own experience that a person with authority can make things happen. He was confident that Jesus’ influence reached far and wide. He trusted Jesus to heal his servant from a distance. People with great power do not have to be on the scene to make things happen.

The very idea of miracles raises a host of challenging and fascinating questions. Many of them are philosophical in nature. What is a miracle, for example? How should we define "miracle"? Are miracles possible, given the nature of the universe? Or does natural law govern everything that occurs? Moreover, can we believe people when they say they have seen miracles?

For conservative Christians, of course, miracles do occur—at least they have occurred—and this raises some additional questions. Some of them concern God. If God is the perfect designer, then he set the world up right to begin with, and he doesn’t need to tinker with it now. This was the basic reason deists rejected the idea of miracles. They felt that miracles reflected badly on God’s intelligence and power.

If we allow that God does perform miracles today, we face questions about the morality of selective intervention. It is fair for God to intervene on some occasions and not on others? What factors determine when and on whose behalf God performs miracles? Is God simply capricious? Are some people more deserving of miracles than others? Is there a proper way to ask for miracles—which some people know and others do not? Do some people know how to ask, while others do not?

For our purposes the most important questions concern the relation of miracles to our religious life. What is the relation between miracles and faith? And should miracles play a role in the lives of Christians today?

Do miracles provide a basis for faith in God? On one level, the answer is obviously yes. John’s favorite word for miracle is "sign." It indicates that the miraculous deeds of Jesus—turning water into wine, healing the man born blind, etc.—were meant to direct attention to the significance of Jesus. Jesus spoke of his "works" as evidence of his special status. At the same time, Jesus was somewhat ambivalent toward miracles. While they provided evidence of that he is the Messiah, he spoke of them as an inferior basis for faith, almost as a crutch for the spiritually weak. "Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father in me; or else believe me for the sake of the works themselves." Jn 14:11. And he condemned those who demanded signs as "a wicked and adulterous generation." Mt 12:38-39.

The gospels record a number of miraculous cures, and several of them are specifically connected with the presence of personal faith. This creates the impression that people who have real faith can expect God to perform miracles for them. But this conclusion is misleading. While it is true miracles can happen and that faith plays an essential role in the miraculous, it is a mistake to think of miracles as the inevitable product of faith. Several things prevent us from drawing this conclusion.

1. We need to remember the comprehensive setting of these stories. The miracles of Jesus were not fortuitous manifestations of divine power to reward the faith of a fortunate few. They were signs of the kingdom. They were part and parcel of Jesus’ ministry as a whole. Their specific purpose was to show that God’s kingdom had arrived in the person of Jesus and his ministry and was breaking into the world.

2. We also need to remember that the kingdom has to overcome opposition. It isn’t established by simple divine fiat. Jesus instructed us to pray that God’s name be hallowed, his kingdom come, and his will be done. The fact that these are things to be prayed for indicates that they are still in the future. They are not yet fully realized. So, the miracles have what scholars would call a "proleptic" quality. They point forward, to a fuller reality that is still to come. Faith is not something that makes everything in life the way we want it to be. In fact, faith doesn’t even make everything in life just the way God wants it to be. The kingdom is on its way, and God is working to bring it closer, but it isn’t here yet. And faith means being willing to wait and work for its coming.

3. We also need to remember that miracles are always exceptions. For all their apparent frequency in Jesus’ ministry, his miracles were not everyday occurrences. People were astonished when they took place, because they took place so seldom. So, it is not true that true faith inevitably leads to dramatic events. A faith that requires a constant diet of miracles is not a strong faith. In fact, in may not be faith at all.

True faith means trusting when you don’t get what you hope for. The great faith chapter in the Bible, Hebrews11, contains a long list of men and women of faith. What distinguishes these people is not that they got what they hoped for, but that most of them didn’t. Twice, in fact, the author asserts that these men and women died in faith without having received the promises. And for his reason, "God is not ashamed to be called their God." God’s people are the ones who trust and hope and wait. They are confident that God will fulfill his promises, even though it may take a long time.

4. It is also important to notice that there is a pattern in the Bible to the way God characteristically works in the world. It runs from the more spectacular to the less spectacular. God often follows some miraculous display of his power with much quieter, less sensational way of working. And the less dramatic seems to be his preferred way of operating.

From more to less dramatic: the pattern of God’s activity

  1. From divine fiat to divine cooperation. In Genesis 1 and 2, God brings the world into existence and provides everything needed for human life to thrive. Then God turns things over to Adam and Eve to enjoy and to direct. From that point on God is less directly responsible for what happens in the world.

  2. From Egypt to Sinai to Canaan, from manna to vineyards. From the dramatic deliverance from Egypt and miraculous manna in the wilderness the Hebrew people took up life in Canaan, where they had to build, sow, plow and reap. The miraculous was the avenue to the less miraculous. If God wants to feed us a steady diet of miracles, why did he take the Israelites out of the wilderness?

  3. From Carmel to Horeb (1K 18 to 19), from fire from heaven to the still small voice.

    This dramatic transition in divine manifestations occurred during the ministry of Elijah, the great prophet. Some scholars believe this is one of the most important events in biblical history. "The tradition of Elijah on Mt. Horeb (1K 19) offers a dramatic turning point in the Hebraic theology of presence…. It opened the era of prophetic vision, where miracles of nature became miracles of character" (Samuel Terrien, The Elusive Presence [1978], p. 229).

    The appearance of God to Moses on the mountain lies in the background of this narrative. Elijah is commanded to stand on the mountain before YWHW, in the presence of YHWH. And behold YHWH passed by. 1K19,11. Three times, the negative statement dissociates the presence from the natural elements of nature in tumult, the wind, the earthquake, and the fire—the force that recalls the victory on Mr. Carmel (231-32).

    When Elijah heard the silence that followed the display of God’s absence, "he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave" (vs. 13). Though he recognized the presence, he did not see God. He only heard a voice, and it was the voice of commission." 236.

  4. We also see this transition in the NT. There is a shift in Jesus’ ministry from the mountain to the synagogue—from his feeding of the 5,000 in the wilderness to his sermon in Capernaum (Jn 6). Jesus’ synagogue sermon on the bread of life precipitated what some commentators describe as "the crisis in Galilee." Jesus’ popularity reached an all-time high after he fed thousands in the wilderness. People flocked to him by the thousands, many of them convinced that he was the promised deliverer. Then Jesus preached a sermon that leaves them completely disillusioned. He tells the eager multitudes that they have misunderstood the nature of the miraculous meal. Its purpose was not to assure them that Jesus would miraculously supply them with food on a regular basis. It was to signal the significance of his ministry. Something greater than the feeding of the Israelites in the wilderness was taking place before their very eyes and they were missing it. And when they realized that he was not going to provide a steady stream of miracles, they left him as rapidly as they had come.

  5. From the earthly life to the resurrection life of Jesus. During his earthly ministry Jesus was present to his disciples in a vivid, physical way. They could see him, hear him, touch him. After his resurrection and ascension to heaven, however, Jesus was no longer a physical presence. Yet he was with them nevertheless. In the great farewell discourses (Jn 13-17) Jesus assured his followers that he would be with them in the years to come just as surely as he was with them then. He would never leave them. In fact, his words suggest that he would be with them even more intimately in the future, because his Spirit would abide with them as a vivid, personal presence.

  6. From Acts of the Apostles to the pastoral epistles. The presence of the Holy Spirit in the church takes different forms depending on the situation. It starts dramatically and then assumes more subtle ways of working. In the case of the NT documents, we see a progression from the more to the less dramatic in the activity and concern of the apostles, the earliest Christian teachers. We read of signs and wonders in Acts (2,43). And Paul lists miracle-workers among the recipients of spiritual gifts (1Cor 12,28). But in the later books of the NT, references to the miraculous are missing. The emphasis here is on preserving continuity with the church’s past in doctrinal content and personal life. Jude 3 speaks of "the faith once for all delivered to the saints." In 2Pet (1,12) the apostle expresses the confidence that his readers are firmly established in "present truth." This implies that they have enough to go on—what they have is enough to establish them spiritually, so they don’t need to keep looking for something additional. It also implies that the basis of spiritual security is "truth." It is cognitive in nature. It is something we know, believe, accept. It is not a dramatic experience.

  7. From Ellen White’s early visions to later counsels. We see the same progression in the course of Ellen White’s prophetic career. Only her early visions were accompanied by dramatic physical manifestations. In time, public visions gave way to dreams and long books.

We are looking for the dramatic, the sensational, the inexplicable, for undeniable manifestations of divine power. Instead, God typically works through the unpretentious, the unimpressive, and the unspectacular to accomplish his purposes.

Why this transition from more to less dramatic manifestations of divine power? It seems to form a pattern. What should we learn from it?

The meaning of miracles

These two modes of divine manifestation go together, and the purpose of miracles emerges when we see their connection. The purpose of the more dramatic and sensational, even spectacular, manifestations of divine power is to awaken us to the more pervasive, constant and familiar manifestations of that power. The purpose of miracles is to "raise our consciousness." The power that dramatically provided food for the multitudes on the hills of Galilee is the same power that steadily provides for our needs on a daily basis. These miracles are vivid demonstrations of what it is, or who is it, that ultimately keeps things going.

Divine power, then, is no less responsible for the food we eat daily than it was for the manna that fed the Israelites. In a sense, the miracles of biblical times continue to benefit us. We continue to enjoy the blessings that they introduced into the world. The purpose of miracles, therefore, is to show that "the ordinary is extraordinary." God is at work in the world in unspectacular, unsensational ways.

MH 112-13. The Saviour in his miracles revealed the power that is continually at work in man’s behalf, to sustain and to heal him. Through the agencies of nature, God is working, day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment, to keep us alive, to build up and restore us.

To summarize, the purpose of miracles is not to generate enthusiasm for more miracles. It is not to fuel the expectation that God will do what we want him to if we get the formula just right, or manage to ratchet our confidence up another notch or two. Instead, the purpose of miracles is to awaken us to the reality of God’s presence in the world and the ways in which he constantly works to bless and benefit us. Miracles underscore the fact that God is always at work for our welfare. They reveal the extraordinary nature of the ordinary.

True faith finds expression in the words, "thy will be done." To pray in faith is to trust God to work in your life in whatever way he chooses to accomplish his purposes. To pray in faith is not to impose your will on God, but to yield your will to God. The confidence that true faith involves is not the confidence that God will give you whatever you ask for, but the confidence that God’s will will prevail, no matter how bleak the present prospects seem.

When we think of exercising faith, we typically think of getting God to bend his will to our will, to listen to our requests, and to give us what we want. But real faith means wanting more than anything for God’s will to be done. It means longing for the fulfillment of his purposes. As human beings, we naturally want God to take our desires and make them his. But real faith runs in the other direction. It means taking God’s desires and making them ours.

Jesus’ temptations: faith-events versus power-events

We see in Jesus’ own life the attraction of a power-based experience and the importance of turning away from it. There are many ways to interpret Jesus’ great temptations, but it is illuminating to view each of them as centering on power (Mt 4:1-11).

In the first temptation, the devil says to Jesus, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." This temptation presupposes that Jesus had the power to do what the devil suggested, or at least that he had reason to believe that he had such power. Why would this have been a temptation? Because Jesus was alone in the wilderness, on the verge of starvation, wondering perhaps just what God had in mind for him. Or wondering perhaps if God had forgotten about him entirely. The Gospel places the temptations directly after Jesus’ baptism, where a voice from heaven identified Jesus as his Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit. And what does being God’s Son involve, if it doesn’t involve claiming divine prerogatives and using divine power to transform your situation? So, the temptation here seems to be to lay hold of divine power and make use of it. Use it to solve your problems, to meet your material needs, to secure your place in the world. God is a reservoir of enormous power. If you are God’s Son you have that power. So, use it! That was the gist of the devil’s suggestion. Don’t starve in the wilderness. If you’re God, use your power to eat.

Jesus’ reply to the temptation reveals a completely different understanding of his role as God’s Son. Divine sonship does not follow the path of power. It follows the path of poverty, the path of submission, the path of trust and obedience. Jesus refused to claim divine power for himself. He doesn’t claim God’s power for himself, nor does he expect it to work for his personal advantage. Being God’s son does not mean that the course of his life will be more comfortable than that of other people. It will not provide an easy solution to the problems that all humans face. It will not protect him from hunger and thirst, from disappointment and loneliness, from hostility and death. His divinity is not a solution to the problems of everyday life.

The devil assured Jesus that his divine power would provide him a life of comfort and security. But Jesus’ indicated that his relation to divine power would not be to use it, but to submit to it. Divine sonship takes him not to the heights of supremacy, but to the depths of submission, subordination, even subjection. Being God’s Son means, not claiming God’s prerogatives, but yielding to God’s ways, trusting God to use him as he will. It is the path marked out in Philippians 2, from the heights of glory to the depths of suffering. No, Jesus will not claim divine power.

Any religious movement that promises us divine power as a guarantee of health and prosperity and a solution to all personal problems is a version of the first temptation. It is a subtle temptation. It is a plausible temptation. Surely God wants only the best for his children. Surely he has the power to provide it to them. Surely he will give us the desires of our hearts. When he brings us into his family, it is to provide us all the prerogatives of kingship. We become royalty. We become heirs of God and co-heirs of Christ, to quote Rom 8. We have the right to all the provisions of our Father’s house. In a sense, all these things are true. But there is a message that underlies all these assurances. God offers us first and foremost a place in his vineyard, a cross to bear for his glory. The material blessings are incidental to the greatest gift of all, the Lord’s companionship in a life of service and blessing to others. If you have this you have everything.

This is the basic flaw in the message of prosperity preachers. They offer divine power as an insulation from life’s difficulties, and in so doing they appeal to the natural desire we all have for ease and security. But the Gospel offers nothing of the sort in this world. What it offers us is God’s companionship on the path of suffering.

This brings us to the second temptation. The devil took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and urged him to cast himself down, trusting God to save his life. He even quoted a Bible promise to justify this dramatic request. ‘Throw yourself down, for it is written, "He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone."’ Just what was the devil asking Jesus to do and why would this request have been at all tempting or enticing to him?

In resisting the first temptation, Jesus demonstrated that he would not claim divine power for himself. He would trust God implicitly, whatever the risks this involved. Starving or dying, he would not use his status as God’s own Son to save himself.

In reply the devil seems to be saying, "All right, then, you say you are unwilling to claim divine power for yourself and determined to trust God completely. Let’s see if you really mean it. You will depend on God’s words for life itself? You will live by the words of God? Well, here some of God’s words to live by. Cast yourself down and his angels will bear you up. So, how much trust do you really have? Are you willing to stake your life on God’s care for you? Do you really believe that he will come through for you? If you do, then put him to the test."

What was the temptation here? And why would it have been at all enticing to Jesus? The temptation here is to do whatever it takes to get God’s power working for you. Sometimes there is a fine line between faith and presumption, between trust and manipulation. In recent years, people have often regarded faith as an avenue to power. Some people take a mechanical approach to God’s promises. If God put it in writing, then his reputation was at stake, and by claiming the promise you can force him to honor your request. If someone signs a contract, they reason, he has to stand behind its terms. The Bible is God’s contract with us. If the Bible states that God will do something, and you point to that statement, God is obligated to do what he said. You have a way to get God to do what you want him to do.

The strategy of this temptation bears some striking similarities to the word of faith movement, doesn’t it? If you get the formula of your request right, then God will do what you ask. He has no choice. Here again, the central issue is one of power. Only here it is not the claim that you have divine power yourself. It is the claim that you can get God’s power working for you. You can put God in a position where he has no choice but to honor your request. In refusing the claim the promise the devil offers him, Jesus says No to all divine manipulation, all promise-claiming whose basic objective is to get God to give us what we want.

The purpose of prayer is not to maneuver God into a position where he has to do what we ask. The purpose of prayer is to put us in a position where we are able to receive what we need. True faith is a matter of trust, not demands. Remember Hebrews 11. The people mentioned there are remarkable because none of the promises came true for them in the way they originally hoped and expected. Yet they "were still living by faith when they died." Faith trusts God’s leading, even when it contradicts our expectations.

Jesus’ response to this temptation raises serious questions about any religious movement that takes as its centerpiece the use of divine power. Jesus refused to use God’s word as a basis for demanding things of God. Faith doesn’t test, faith trusts. Like love, faith does not insist on its own way; it follows God’s way. It breathes the spirit of Jesus’ great prayer of submission, "not my will but thine be done."

The last of Jesus’ great temptations in the wilderness also deals with power. In this case, the devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor and offered to give them to Jesus, if he would but bow down and worship him. This is an intriguing temptation, because it seems so preposterous. How could the devil possibly have thought that Jesus would entertain the slightest thought of bowing down before him. After all, the first commandment deals with God’s exclusive claim on our devotion. A good Jew would never worship anyone other than God.

Has the devil run out of ideas here? Is he flailing away in desperation, like a boxer in the final round who’s way behind on points and needs a knockout to win the bout? Or is this the most enticing, alluring temptation of all? Perhaps this test reaches into Jesus’ thinking more deeply than all the others he faced. And we can understand why when we think of it in terms of power.

The kingdoms of this world, as the Gospel puts it, stand in sharp contrast to the kingdom that is not of this world—the kingdom that Jesus came to establish. And what is the major difference? The role that power plays in the way the are established. The kingdoms of this world come into existence through the exercise of force. Those who rule are more powerful than the ones they rule over. The devil was offering Jesus the opportunity to stand at the pinnacle of power, to impose his will on all the earth’s inhabitants, to have his desires fulfilled because his subjects had no power to resist.

This offer also included an attractive opportunity to avoid the path of suffering that Jesus’ mission involved. The kingdom Jesus came to establish could only become a reality through his suffering and death. It was not based on power, but on love, on a love that fully enters the human condition and wins allegiance by demonstrating service and care. The kingdom of God does not rest on a foundation of force. That is not the sort of kingdom that Jesus came to build. But the building of his kingdom comes at a very high price. It requires the king to serve and sacrifice for his kingdom. In fact, it ultimately requires the king to die.

The devil was offering Jesus something of a completely different nature. All he had to do was acknowledge the devil’s power and that power would become his own. The forcefulness of Jesus’ reply to this temptation indicates how attractive it may have been to him. If you have great power, you can do great good. And you can achieve your good goals instantly, without having to get people to agree or even cooperate with you. Yet Jesus was emphatic. "Get behind me Satan. It is written, You shall worship God alone." What does it mean to worship God? Among other things, it means to value the things that God values; to commit yourself to God’s way of doing things, to the sort of kingdom that he wants to build.

In this light, it is not hard to see the fundamental problems with power-based concepts of the Christian life. They stand in striking opposition to God’s way of working in the world, and the sort of kingdom that God is establishing. God does not achieve his will by exercising superior force. God does not impose himself on his creatures. He forces no one to enter his kingdom. He invites us to participate in his work. Surely Jesus does not offer us the sort of power that he himself rejects! When we accept a place in his kingdom, he gives us a cross instead of a crown, and he invites us to share the sufferings of the one who makes our sufferings his own.

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