Tuesday with Michael Spencer

Infinituak gara denbora mugatuan. Photo by Jaione Dagdrømmer at Flickr.

Note from CM: Whenever the subject of the Holy Spirit comes up, as it does in even the most traditional churches during the time of Pentecost, questions regarding “second blessing” theology, miracles, spiritual gifts — especially those involving supernatural manifestations such as speaking in tongues and prophecy — healing, and “God speaking” directly to the believer arise. Here is one post Michael wrote on the subject.

• • •

Tuesday with Michael Spencer

A good and dear friend recently updated me on developments in her recent spiritual journey.

Let’s stop here. If you’re reading this, here’s a question for you: What do you expect to hear now?

Thought about it? Good. Let’s go on.

Most of what she told me about would go in the category of signs and wonders.

A prayer was answered with the sudden appearance of a rainbow, and so on. Mystical, personal stuff in the realm of answered prayers and personal experience. Her entire spiritual life is not studying scripture, but about what she describes as a “deep, personal experience of God” that includes His very real activity to show His hand in signs and wonders.

Scripture isn’t absent, but my friend’s journey is one where experience is leading and scripture is following. My friend is immensely happy, by the way, and closer to Jesus than ever before.

I had to immediately admit that this isn’t my journey and isn’t likely to ever be. I’m honestly afraid of anything in the category of “signs and wonders.” I’m very suspicious of any and all personal religious experience of this sort. I’m a skeptic when I hear most testimonies of miracles or signs. I tend to think that it isn’t true, is exaggerated or won’t last.

I’m ruthless to preachers in this regard. When I preacher talks off into a story of a miracle, sign or wonder, I’m wearing a helmet that says “Don’t try that stuff on me.” I’m kinder to regular Christian folk, but I’ve still got a skeptical attitude that the devil himself would admire.

I believe that religion, as a human phenomenon and by its very nature, creates a world where people believe that things happen that haven’t happened. The line between fact and reality goes very thin and takes a good bit of the week off.

I don’t find it at all unusual that a guy like Todd Bentley can say the last three rows at his meeting were all in caskets dead yesterday or that angels are tossing elephants around in the green room. And I’m not surprised that people believe him and defend him.

Now I won’t argue with you that there’s a problem with me in this area. (If you haven’t noticed.) Christianity is a religion of miracles that are essential to its existence. While I would stand by my frequent assertion that the number and frequency of miracles in the Bible is generally over-emphasized and exaggerated, I’m all signed up to affirm that the Bible is a record of miracles, signs and wonders.

I know that the Christian worldview is open to the intervention of God. I’m not a deist. I pray for God’s intervention all the time. I’ve experienced it. My family was once awakened from a sound sleep to discover our house on fire. How? By a noise in the street that I just happened to get up to check out….and thereby discovered the laundry room on fire. I’ve seen God answer prayer for my wife, my children, my mother and the ministry where I work.

But there’s no doubt that I have a bias in this area. Is it an over commitment to logic? An inevitable part of the Protestant use of the Bible? Residual damage from being a Calvinist?

There was a time, when I was a very young Christian, that I was part of a Charismatic prayer group that did little other than sing, pray for miracles and talk about miracles. When I left that chapter of my journey, I didn’t leave angry or hurt, but I wonder if I left feeling superior? Convinced I- at that time a dispensationalist- knew more than those kinds of people?

Have I spent so many years preaching, that I’m convinced God works by argument? By debate and verbal persuasion? How did I get so biased against the many other ways that God certainly uses to wake us up, draw us to himself and assure us of his presence?

Am I frightened by the unordered, uncontrollable aspect of God the Holy Spirit? Have I fled to the security of God working through chapter and verse so that I can understand him? Does my skepticism give me the illusions and delusions about God that keep my feeling safe and in control?

My friend’s spiritual journey hasn’t made her a raving loon. She doesn’t claim to hear voices or see visions. If she did, I don’t think it would turn her into someone bizarre and embarrassing.

My friend Pat had two heart transplants before he died a few years ago. When he came back from his first one, he was profoundly changed by a vision of Jesus on the cross, there in his hospital room. He told the story many times, with obvious and sincere emotion. It assured him of God’s love and salvation. After years of alcoholism and living far from God, he loved the cross of Jesus, and he believed he’d been taken to it that day.

I know a dozen explanations for what happened to Pat. Doctors can explain it to you. So can most psychologists and more than a few counselors. But the thing is, Pat didn’t see Jesus all the time, like Harvey the Rabbit. He saw the cross once, in a vision, and his life was changed. It was “outside the Bible,” but it was very much inside the Bible, too.

My friend’s journey isn’t an exposition of Romans. It’s a discovery that God is out there, beckoning her own to another chapter of loving God and loving neighbor. She’s sane as a judge. And she believes a rainbow appeared out of nowhere, just for her.

I’m the skeptic, and I assure myself that my skepticism makes me a believer in what God has said in scripture. (I mean, I have an ESV Study Bible!) But I have to face the fact that I’m often an unbeliever in the God beyond the page. I’m a skeptic about experiences happening today like those I read in the life of Abraham, Jacob and Moses.

Somehow, I sense that for all the theology I’ve imbibed, by faith and my connection with God are smaller. And while some will say that my friend and others have walked away from the Bible, I’m wondering if they have taken the Word into the Wild, where the God who surprises with signs and wonders still lives.

44 thoughts on “Tuesday with Michael Spencer

  1. It seems to me that defining “miracle” as “an impossible thing done by God” runs into two difficulties.
    Firstly, a thing that is impossible cannot by definition happen, so the very fact that something does happen means that it can’t have been impossible and so wasn’t a miracle. (This is a logical trap first set by David Hume.)
    Secondly, absolutely everything in the last analysis is in fact done by God, even if only by his first and greatest miracle of creating and sustaining existence itself and operating its laws.
    I would suggest that, rather, one should fall back onto the older concept I of a miracle as a “sign” – as being not necessarily apparently without material or natural cause (itself a tricky concept) but rather an event which expressly and unequivocally demonstrates God’s existence, power, action and intervention within the world.
    This may not in fact make it any easier to say whether a thing is or is not a miracle, but at least restores the focus to what it reveals or does not reveal about God, rather than complicated efforts to explain or explain away the physical, material nature or details of what has occurred.


  2. I am an avid believer in miracles and I think they are occurring everywhere all the time but not in my immediate environs all the time.


  3. I think just about EVERYTHING is ‘miracle’ when you realize that God ‘created’ all that is seen and unseen ‘ex nihilo’

    He is the God of the Natural World and also of the Supernatural World


  4. being ‘twice blessed’?
    oh I don’t know,
    think about Lazarus:

    “After one moment when I bowed my head
    And the whole world turned over and came upright,
    And I came out where the old road shone white.
    I walked the ways and heard what all men said,
    Forests of tongues, like autumn leaves unshed,
    Being not unlovable but strange and light;
    Old riddles and new creeds, not in despite
    But softly, as men smile about the dead
    The sages have a hundred maps to give
    That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
    They rattle reason out through many a sieve
    That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
    And all these things are less than dust to me
    Because my name is Lazarus and I live ”

    (G.K. Chesterton, ‘The Convert’)


  5. I don’t know what constitutes a miracle and what doesn’t. I figure it’s enough if I can be thankful to God each day for the good in it, however it gets there.


  6. Modern intellectuals, and those who identify with them, otoh, yea, a large contingent of them are disenchanted.


  7. While we rarely agreed on matters of faith, I love the way Michael Spencer wrote, and thought. I am incredibly grateful to Chaplain Mike and the others who preserved and continued this internet community, and the commenters who contribute to it.


  8. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky has Satan say to an hallucinatory Ivan that it is ironic that, though he has nothing but the best intentions, all his actions nevertheless result in evil.


  9. I don’t think that moderns live in a disenchanted world. They subscribe to all kind of metaphysical beliefs, and most people I’ve ever know do not believe that death is the end. I would say that Americans are as religious or more religious than they’ve ever been before, they just have disconnected or are disconnecting from organized, traditional religions; and that would include the Nones, who are by no means all materialists.


  10. >On the other hand, my family owned a horse that happened to; twice.

    Maybe miracles, even repeat miracles, are not just for humans.


  11. But Fundys DO tend to take it and see how far they can run with it.
    No matter what “it” is.


  12. Part of my point.

    I think the certainty piece of some varieties of Christian teaching can be connected to the Disenchantedness and the philosophical/religious mindset we have inherited.



  13. I don’t recall ever seeing this post before, but boy oh boy… it’s classic Michael Spencer, isn’t it!? He was so good at describing his own skepticism with something (in this case, signs and wonders), yet also careful to make sure that the reader understand he might not be right. His closing paragraph is pure Michael Spencer genius.

    “Somehow, I sense that for all the theology I’ve imbibed, by faith and my connection with God are smaller. And while some will say that my friend and others have walked away from the Bible, I’m wondering if they have taken the Word into the Wild, where the God who surprises with signs and wonders still lives.”


  14. –> “Is God behind all of those signs?

    My ever-morphing walk with Christ has led me to believe that we often attribute things to God that He actually has no hand in, that we don’t attribute things to God that He was intimately involved with, and that we have no real way of knowing which is which… and if we THINK we know, we’re likely wrong.


  15. Your story makes me wonder if God reserves His miraculous healings mainly for those who can handle it.


  16. Anon, that’s not at all what I’m talking about. It’s about our mainly Protestant (all kinds, not just Fundamentalist) Christian culture’s split level of comfort with “the miraculous” and why I think that’s the case. Please read again. Thanks.



  17. I think in the U.S.A., fundamentalists have never been associated with the charismatic gifts. That’s my take anyhow.


  18. Marge and I always had a running argument about miracles. She was an easy believer. When someone was healed or a serious problem was solved as a result of prayer, it was a miracle. She never tried to explain or rationalize — she just believed it. Someone prayed for something, even something simple — and an answer came, to her this was a miracle.

    To me, this was a trivialization of the meaning of “miracle”. But to her, anytime God answered prayer, a miracle occurred.

    I’m a reluctant believer in miracles. But they have occurred often enough in my life and in the world around me, that they sometimes overcome this reluctance. They come most often in the realm of healing. Someone with cancer is suddenly well after prayers offered in church or by individual believers.

    When I was ten years of age in 1948, this happened to my dad when he was diagnosed with colon cancer. The Methodist Church we had attended until we moved had prayer vigils for him. One man, uneducated, poor grammar, but a man of prayer and faith prayed for hours, expecting God to heal him.

    My father’s cancer was advanced and one of the doctors who observed this advised the surgeon to sew him back up and send him home to die. However, the surgeon, being a friend of my father, went ahead with the surgery. In a very short time, he was out of the hospital, went back to work, and never had a recurrence of cancer.

    I could give some more examples of what I qualified as a miracle, but they are so personal and beyond explanation, that speaking of them seems almost to betray or trivialize. But to me, they are signs and personal testimony to the power of God. When I’m having trouble with belief and my faith has disappeared, usually I remember these times, especially one of them.

    To me, a miracle is when that which is common in God’s Kingdom, but uncommon on earth breaks through the veil that separates the two and takes place in our lives. They aren’t a reward for our goodness, but a sign of the grace of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is near at hand. Sometimes it is even nearer. Heaven is a place of healing and wholeness. God’s salvation will be made complete. A miracle is the common grace of the Kingdom breaking through the common unbelief and rationalization of our daily lives in order to give us a sign of that Kingdom.


  19. rock-bottom fundamentalism: and you get the wife abusers, the child beaters, assorted hate-groups to please all types of crazy, no end to the contempt and derision

    schizophrenia? psychosis too, and a heck of a lot of mean bullies


  20. One could spin that a bit darker: “I’m convinced God works by rhetoric”. As the vast overwhelming majority of the “arguments” are trash.

    If he wins, it cannot be from pulpit.


  21. Sounds like a Miracle to me; and I’m pretty darn cynical about such things.

    On the other hand, my family owned a horse that happened to; twice.

    I find it as illuminating as the event itself whether or not someone is Aggressive about such experiences; the degree to which they insist I concur with their narrative [ as if I matter? Take the win! you’re wife,lover, friend, child, or parent is alive, home, etc… Let’s dance. ]


  22. I think God sometimes allows us to see and experience the workings of his providence. Most of the time, for various reasons (most unknown to us), his working is hidden.

    I spent time in both the Dispensationalist and the Charismatic rooms off the Great Hall. On reflection, I think our culture and our Christian culture, both having been derived from the English Puritans and the Enlightenment Deists, resist the Classical Christian idea that we can trust that God is working in and through a sacramentally materialist grounding in our relationship with him, and if he “works miracles” besides, it’s all good (scare quotes a concession to our current way of thought). American Christians are schizophrenic about this: we “believe in” miracles, and at the same time our (supposedly) rational, scientific approach to life and education makes us very skeptical. It’s the dualistic, two-storey-universe, Disenchanted (see R. Beck) soup in which we swim. My experience has been that the lower down the liturgical candle one goes, the greater the schizophrenia, and the greater the psychological need (unacknowledged because of antipathy toward psychology) for “signs and wonders.” I’ve observed plenty of folks at the “high” end of the (Protestant) liturgical candle who are completely skeptical and Disenchanted despite their liturgical motions.

    Is God behind all of those signs? I don’t think he’s behind all of them; the more they are presented as subjective thoughts or feelings inside a person, the more skeptical I am. But I do suspect he’s behind more of them than our rational minds want to admit – because he is good and loves mankind and meets people where they are. (In other places in our world where people are not so Disenchanted as we are, they certainly maintain that it happens much more often.) So I’m willing to believe he made the conditions for a rainbow to happen for Michael’s friend, and he can be praised and thanked for it.



  23. Where did we get the idea that Satan is a skeptic?

    Listening to too much Isaac Airfreight?


  24. I know of a similar experience when I was attending Azusa Newman Center (RCC) circa 1980. Stage 4 cancer, disappeared after a session of Prayer and Anointing of the Sick (what used to be called Extreme Unction/Last Rites).

    At the next appointment, the oncologist found no trace of what had been Stage 4 cancer, and responded “I think I’d like to meet your priest.” He (the oncologist) later spoke to us at the center, saying he classified what happened as “spontaneous remission of unknown cause”.

    I lost contact with that group when I moved out-of-county, so I do not know if the remission was permanent. As the patient was middle-aged at the time (almost 40 years ago), I doubt she’s still alive or in any condition to comment even if I was able to track her down.


  25. I think if we knew how frequently and in what ways God gives us ‘breaks’, we would be overwhelmed. So, maybe it is a blessing that we DO take too much for granted, but the trade-off of that leaves us not knowing to whom we are indebted for the thousands of graces gifted to us and that leaves US unthankful for the good we do not recognize as such.

    There is a ‘blindness’ that shields us from a light too powerful to bear in our present condition . . . . that blindness was lifted from the observers of the Transfiguration, yes, for a moment.
    But what we cannot ‘see’, we must still ‘sense’ spiritually at times. The cloud lifts, the fog thins, and something of grace comes through, undeniably, when least expected, to be ‘with us’ for a time, and that too is blessing, is in its way ‘miracle enough’ if only we realized it. Embracing the blessing as blessing, or taking it for ‘granted’ in our ignorance, we are being cared for with an infinite love.


  26. I like the phrase: “But I have to face the fact that I’m often an unbeliever in the God beyond the page.” I, too, have this issue, and say that our God is a God of miracles, but run far away from believing in actual, real-time God intervention in daily life. I struggle between my “common sense” and God’s power, and I admit, most of the time, my view of how God acts wins over most miracles that people claim. I think it like giving money to a street beggar, I don’t want to give because I feel I’m being lied to, and that’s how I am with miracles — I don’t want to feel like someone pulled a fast one on me.


  27. Where did we get the idea that Satan is a skeptic? He’s so credulous he’ll believe anything. He’s the Prince of Lies, remember?


  28. “Have I spent so many years preaching, that I’m convinced God works by argument? By debate and verbal persuasion? How did I get so biased against the many other ways that God certainly uses to wake us up, draw us to himself and assure us of his presence?”

    We tend to picture God in ways that make the most sense to us – even if what makes sense to us is warped from a biblical perspective.


  29. I see the Bible’s records of miracles much the same way I would see a chronicle of a great war – it’s a top-down overview of the Big Battles and the narrative tying those events together. But from the perspective of your common foot soldier, being in one of those Big Battles is a once-in-a-lifetime event – the other 99% of the time, you’re marching, drilling, eating stale food, sleeping in a leaky tent, and wondering, if you get to the Big Battle, if you have what it takes.


  30. I have never really spoken about this to others but here we go. My wife had stage four thyroid cancer and had already been operated on once and was preparing for her second surgery. We prayed by her bedside and I anointed her with water we had gotten from the river Jordan a year earlier. The surgeon opened her up and found not a trace of cancer. That was 13 years ago. The doctors could not explain it. A miracle ? Did God intervene? How about all the times he does not. Whatever it was I still call it a miracle from God for my wife.


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