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039  They're Not Incantations

You know, incantations. Like Harry Potter using the "stupify" curse in those movies. You utter the words in the right tone of voice and the right order, with the right attitude, and VOOM! evil things flee, people freeze solid and the Bad Wizard's wand goes flying. 

The words of the Bible are not incantations like this.

I wrote the title of this essay as soon as I decided to write this series about what the Bible isn't, but I've been putting off writing about it. I've been putting it off because it's mostly relevant to Charismatics (of which I'm one, sort of, but many of you are not) but more importantly because talking about using the Bible as incantations could mask a very important truth, one that I will have to explain in order to avoid sounding like I'm disparaging prayers for healing and related things.

The title comes from the sort of prayer exercises in which a cluster of believers is praying aloud for some person in need. Among Evangelicals, and especially Charismatic Evangelicals, you'll invariably hear one of them quoting some passage from the scripture (often loudly, and usually inaccurately) that purportedly says that when believers pray this particular prayer the thing that they're asking for has to come to pass.

For a common example, consider a group of believers gathering around a church-mate who is suffering a severe headache. One of the people praying will often start quoting Isaiah 53:5, "By His stripes we are healed," over and over, as though quoting the passage was going to make the healing occur.

It's as though we think that if we failed to quote the relevant legal authority the demons might not remember that they're supposed to stop tormenting us or, worse yet, God might forget what He promised. No, not every instance is that silly--lots of good people quote scripture for lots of good reasons--but we humans really are a superstitious bunch and we do some silly things.

The crucial truth that I'm stepping around is that believers do have authority, a great deal of it, and we should pray with full confidence that our prayers will be answered "Yes." We have authority to do things that we seldom use, mostly because we don't realize that we have such authority, and also because we're afraid of looking foolish if it doesn't work--which indicates that we don't really believe that we have it even if our theology says that we do.

Jesus told His disciples on several occasions that He was giving them specific authority to heal the sick, command demons to leave, and to perform all manner of acts of power to demonstrate that the Kingdom of God had come among humankind. Luke 9 and 10 show Jesus handing this authority first to the 12 disciples then to 70 others, and then encouraging them when they returned and reported that to their amazement it worked. Moreover, in John 20:21-23 we see Jesus giving the 12 authority to forgive--or to refuse to forgive--sins.

There used to be a class of Protestant believers called "Cessationists" who argued that that sort of authority only applied to the original 12 Apostles. Cessationists are still around but in smaller numbers than before. More common today are the sorts who won't say that God stopped doing those things, they'll just shuffle them into a "God's prerogative" bin where God can do whatever He likes if He catches a whim and wants to show off or something. It's like they're treating Him as a capricious relative who will help if He's in the mood, but mostly leaves us to fend for ourselves. I think they're insulting God, frankly.

The problem is that neither of those positions can be found in the Bible. God did give His disciples authority. Luke 9 and 10 were training missions for them to learn how to use that authority; Jesus described their success as "Satan falling from heaven like lightning." (Luke 10:18) Plus, God never intended that we stop doing those things. His instructions to the Apostles when He ascended into heaven were that whatever things He taught them to do, they were to teach their disciples from all the nations to do (Matthew 28:18-20.) So clearly we're still supposed to be learning what they learned in Luke 9 and 10.

The miracles of power don't happen most of the time because we don't command them to happen. When healings occur, Jesus is carrying out our instructions. "Look, whenever you make disciples and do what I taught you, I'm with you, even 'till the age ends." (Matthew 28:20) It's not God's prerogative at all. He's made it our prerogative. He claimed that He would back us.

And it won't do to ask God, "Oh, God, please heal Aunt Betty." He didn't say "Ask me and I'll heal." He told us to heal the sick. You walk up to them and say "Be healed." Peter and James walked up to a lame man in Jerusalem and said "We'll be happy to give you what we have: In Jesus' name, get up and walk." (Acts 3:1-11)

We don't do that anymore because we don't think we have what they had. So far as I can tell, though, we do. It never left; it just does no good if we don't use it. But we won't use it so long as we wonder whether we have it.

Now, I said all that to point out that we believers really do have authority to do some pretty amazing things, but they only work if we believe enough to take the risk and command it to happen. I started off talking about believers gathering around another believer who's sick in some way and reciting scripture as though the recitation will produce the healing. The relevant point for my series about "what the Bible isn't" is that if you have to recite the scripture to make yourself think that it's going to happen, you probably don't believe it; you're just trying rev up your faith and it doesn't work that way.

If you have authority, you have authority. You either believe it or you don't. If you command a healing and you have authority to do it, it doesn't matter what you say or how you say it. Loud, soft, scripture, poetry, or "Get well soon," if you have authority, you have it and that's that.

There's potentially a book-length exercise listing all the caveats related to this. Probably the most relevant is that when exercising the authority of the Kingdom of God, there's a competing kingdom (the domain of darkness, Paul called it in his letter to the Colossians) that will resist the attempt to undo their work. (People aren't suffering because of God's will, usually. Usually, it's because of the demons' will. Perhaps I'll write about that next.) I've read the testimonials of ministers who began to exercise their authority like I'm describing but saw no change in anybody for an extended period of time before it started working. John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard churches, started commanding healing and didn't actually see one occur until he'd been doing it repeatedly for 18 months. Bill Johnson, pastor at Bethel Church in northern California, has a similar testimony. I honestly don't know how to explain why the demons seem able to sit on their captives for a while until we persist in driving them off. In practice it seems similar to treating athlete's foot; you start treating it now, and you start seeing a difference 3 weeks from now--and then if you quit treating it, it comes back. (There's a cosmology here that only really appears in Dan 10:12-13, but Paul seems to echo it in Ephesians 6:12 and following. Like I said last time, there are true things that don't get spelled out in the scriptures.)

In addition to this, there's the question of making sure you're applying the right tool for the right situation. If you're trying to heal a cough and the problem is actually a demon, you can pray for healing all day and nothing will change. If you're trying to cast out a demon and the subject just needs to repent, nothing will change. You have to ask God what the real problem is, and then you have to listen to what He says.

Also, the power gifts seem to work a lot better when we're engaged in evangelism than when we're practicing on one another in the church. They also seem to work a lot better for mature, pure-hearted believers than for barely redeemed sorts.  And of course, God always reserves the right to tell us "No, not that one." Only, we're eager to imagine that He's saying that all the time, when in fact He hardly ever does.

There. I've opened a whole can of wiggly worms and they're all over the table top. I can only hope that somebody reading this gets the general idea and gives it a shot. What's important is not quoting just the rights words of scripture, 'cause we're not wizards using magic spells. You have authority in the spirit, and the spiritual world dominates our physical world. If you believe that, use it, and keep on using 'till you see it work. It will; if not immediately, then eventually. But you will never see it if you don't try it.

 

Phil Weingart

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