Too often we have unreal expectations of God, and when he doesn’t meet them we get indignant. We complain when he doesn’t answer our every prayer in exactly the way we want; we complain when life throws a curved ball at us which catches us by surprise; and we whine: “God, why didn’t you do something?” Sometimes we pray for things that are reasonable and very important to us – for a child, say, and we’ve exhausted every means of having one; or the healing of a sick child or a dangerously ill parent; or the resolution of a serious problem in the church – but seemingly there’s no response from God. So we get disillusioned and instead of questioning whether our understanding is right, we question God and blame him. Why doesn’t he answer? He can, so why doesn’t he?
I’m not saying God doesn’t answer prayer in the most wonderful and astonishing ways – he does. I’ve had some lovely answers to prayer and I’m amazed at his loving kindness. And I’m reminded that I’m his child, purchased with the blood of the Only Begotten Son and adopted into his family.
God and the spectacular
But does God do “spectacular”? Of course he does. The bible is full of spectacular – creation is absolutely spectacular; the Ten Plagues of Egypt; the crossing of the Red Sea; the slaying of the Assyrian army as they lay asleep at night, encamped outside Jerusalem ready to raze it to the ground – there is so much “spectacular” in scripture. But does he do it in our time? Yes, of course, but not necessarily on the same grand scale as he did with, say, the exodus of his people from Egypt. He even does it for individuals today, and we can read some of these incidents in Christian accounts from history.
However, it is not for nothing that he gave gifts to the Church. “But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; To another faith by the same Spirit; to another gifts of healing by the same Spirit; To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues: But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will” (1 Cor 12:7-11). These spiritual, “spectacular” gifts were given to the Church so that it would be effective in the world and on the mission field. They were not limited to the period of the apostles but were given to the Church for all time; and we are commanded to desire them. The apostle Paul writes, “Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy” (1 Cor 14:1).
Spiritual Gifts in Pentecostal Churches
But I don’t think these spiritual gifts of the Spirit are being manifested or demonstrated biblically in Pentecostal churches. The “baptism of the Spirit” received by Pentecostals does not resemble that in the New Testament, which was given for power in witnessing. There is no mention in the NT of what Pentecostals refer to as “slaying in the Spirit” when they pray for Holy Spirit baptism. The “tongues” spoken by Pentecostals are gibberish, whereas the NT gift of tongues was known languages (Acts 1:4-11). Pentecostal prophecies are often just generalities which can be applied to any person at any time. For example, a pastor from one church gave the same prophecy I’ve heard in many churches; that the person they prophecy over is going to be a great man/woman of God, and they’re going to do great things for the kingdom. Pentecostal “words of wisdom” and “words of knowledge” also seem to be standard fare in their churches, that Jesus is swimming in the river and he wants the recipient of these “words” to jump in the river and play. And neither do Pentecostal miracles of healing resemble what happened in the NT. While people were healed when Peter’s shadow passed over them as he walked by (Acts 5:15), or when they had been given handkerchiefs touched by Paul (Acts 19:12), the norm for healing was stated by James: “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him” (Jas 5:14-15).
One of the lecturers who taught me NT Greek had, on occasions, visited Pentecostal churches here and there to test them to see if they could interpret “tongues”. He would say Psalm 23 in Hebrew or the Lord’s Prayer in NT Greek, and the “interpretation” would be irrelevant and meaningless gibberish, having nothing that even remotely resembled the Hebrew or Greek he had spoken.
But I don’t think these spiritual gifts are as frequent or matter of course as we’re sometimes led to believe. If you’ve ever watched Marilyn Hickey’s TV show you’ll be told that for a donation of so much you’ll receive a vial of oil that has been blessed by some of the well-known Pentecostal leaders, and with it you’ll be able to perform miracles. Of course, if you try it out and there is no miracle (and I’d be surprised if there was), it’s not the oil that’s at fault, it’s your lack of faith.
And if you take Joyce Meyer seriously you’ll be having conversations with God on a face to (invisible) face at any time of day. She’s always saying “I said to God…..God said to me……”, and she seems to have great old conversations with him (but who is she really talking to?). God doesn’t usually talk to us directly; he used to, but ever since the fall of Man into sin, he speaks to us through a mediator, who is none other than Jesus Christ (1 Tim 2:5). However, I’m not limiting God. He is sovereign and he can and does deal directly with his people when he sovereignly chooses to and when they need him to.
I’ve come across too many people who have been given wrong expectations of God through the teaching of Pentecostal Christians, and when he doesn’t do what they expect him to do they get angry, stop going to church, and fall away from him in disillusionment. But he remains serenely above all our pettiness. We can’t manipulate God; we can’t box him into a corner where he has to answer according to our will; we can’t “step out in faith” and box ourselves into a corner so that he has to show himself in the way we want him to and rescue us from our folly or save us from embarrassment. Too often we think of God as our fairy godmother who will grant us three wishes; or as a genie who must fulfil our every command and wish. But God is not like that. He is God. He is the potter, we are the clay. He is sovereign over all creation: “Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth” (Rev 19:6). When he answers our prayers, it is because of his grace and kindness; he answers according to his will; and he answers for our good. How often have we asked something that, whether we knew it at the time or not, would have ultimately been bad for us?
God uses everyday means
So, while God can and does answer in the spectacular, his normal way of working is through everyday means – and that is the way we should expect him to answer. For example, can we or ought we to pray for healing? Yes, most certainly. God has given us talented and caring men and women who work as doctors, nurses, dentists, scientists dedicated to research and finding cures for incurable diseases, and yes, even drug companies. These are God’s means for healing sickness, and we pray that he would guide the surgeon’s knife, give the doctor wisdom to diagnose the disease, bless the drug we take to the healing of our bodies. But can we pray that God would heal us directly? Of course we can; there is nothing wrong with such prayer, and God loves us to come to him in dependence and faith; he has answered such prayer many times. After all, he did give the Church the gifts of healing (1 Cor 12:9).
As a matter of fact, a few years ago, my mother had a serious problem with her neck which later required massive surgery, and it was necessary for her to wear a neck brace. She was almost in despair with the discomfort and pain. I suggested to her that she go to the Healing Service at the Anglican Church she attended. She did, and while her neck was not healed, it immediately improved to such a degree that she no longer needed her neck brace, and she was enabled to walk her dog every morning, an activity which she sorely missed because of her neck issues. But we should not shun medical practitioners because we think it is lacking in faith to seek help from them. We should also protect our health by balanced diet and exercise and by ensuring we get sufficient rest, and having the right balance in our lives between work and play. As for my Mum, she still needed and received an operation on her neck for degenerated vertebrae, but as a result of her prayer for healing, God gave her normal movement until that time.
On another occasion some years after that, she received healing through her own intervention, as it were, without prayer for healing from the church. She had been to a talk by an Anglican minister who had previously led the healing ministry in Sydney’s St. Andrews Cathedral. Her doctor had not long before this diagnosed her with early onset of Parkinson’s disease; hence her attendance at the talks on healing. The thing that caught her attention was when he said that God heals us when we forgive those whom we have never forgiven. My mother had held resentment against her mother ever since she was a teenager because of some issues between them, so immediately after the talk she went home and prayed, forgiving her mother for what she had done (even though her mother had died decades before this) and letting go all the years of resentment and unforgiveness. On the next Sunday, she stood before the congregation, held up her arms, and said that God had healed her. And there has never been a trace of Parkinson’s disease in her body since then.
Can we pray for God to get us out of our financial jam? Again, yes. But again, God uses means. He does occasionally provide unexpectedly and seemingly miraculously – he’s even done it for me – but his usual method of financial provision is for us to find a job in the workforce; and then we must use our money wisely. Jesus told the parable of the labourers in the vineyard in which certain men were gathered together to find employment (Matt 20:1-16); Paul urged the Thessalonians to work with their hands, and “that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you; That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing” (1 Thess 4:11-12; 2 Thess 3:11-12); and in Prov 6:6 we’re exhorted to be like the ant which gathers its food and stores up for the winter.
Walking by faith
And then, the ultimate means God gives us for everyday living is to walk by faith. Living as a Christian is a hard slog – St Paul says “And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many, they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch, Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:21-22).
Naturally we want life to be easy and whenever possible we’ll take the easy road; but the blessing is when we go through the fire and the trials. Peter encourages us “Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations: That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried by fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ: Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory: Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls “(1 Pet 1:6-9).
Ever since the fall of Man in the Garden of Eden, God has spoken to us through a mediator. Before that, he used to speak to Adam face to face (Gen 2:16-17; 3:8-21), but now he speaks to us through the bible, and our one and only Mediator is Jesus Christ (1 Tim 2:5).
That was an answer to prayer?
Let’s face it – life is hard. As Christians, we can be tempted to think that it would be easier if we just dropped the whole Christian thing and went back to how we were when we didn’t have to worry about how we behave, what we say, and all the countless “do’s and don’ts” that Christians are required to live by. But supposing you did drop it all – what then? Do you think your troubles would drop away as well? Of course they won’t. Life is hard, whether you’re a Christian or not; but as a Christian we have someone to whom we can go when the going does get tough – and he helps us. Whether he does it spectacularly or quietly, he still helps. Sometimes he does it so quietly that we wonder if it was really him or just circumstances; would the “answer” have come anyway if I hadn’t prayed, we wonder. But the bible and our experience tell us that God frequently acts mysteriously; sometimes it feels like we almost have to force the interpretation that God answered our prayer even though it seemed like it would have just happened anyway. But we do this because we know God, and we know he doesn’t lie. If he says he will answer prayer, then he will and he does. And if the answer seems open to interpretation, then we simply trust him and accept it as his answer. After all, if we prayed and received our desire, does it matter how it happened?
My own testimony
As the people of God, we’re called on to trust him every day. I remember a time a few years ago when the sect/cult to which I belonged wanted to establish a church in an outlying area of Sydney. They planned radio advertising, local newspaper ads, letterbox drops, handing out leaflets at a shopping centre in a notorious and strongly welfare dependent suburb, and our youth were to go to a local shopping centre as a group and approach shoppers. By the end of the first week all the activities had sufficient people to do them, except for handing out leaflets at the main shopping centre. I was planning on doing a letterbox drop, a non-threatening activity, and one which I could anonymously and unobtrusively get done quickly, and my duty was over.
As I was praying for the activities one morning a chill came into my heart; I knew that God wanted me to do the main shopping centre. I froze as I realised what was required of me, and peace left me. I tried to brush off the thought but I couldn’t. I knew that God was laying it on my heart and I had to respond. I did a “Moses” and tried to wriggle out of it but I couldn’t justify not obeying. I knew that doing a letterbox drop was superfluous as others had beaten me to it; and, Surprise! Surprise! it was the first activity to be filled. I knew that doing the shopping centre was far more significant because it was more confronting, requiring face-to-face contact with everyone to whom I would give a leaflet; and I knew that I had to do it because I was afraid of it. I concluded (very quickly) that if my faith wasn’t good enough to trust in a God who created and controls the universe, then it wasn’t worth anything. So I decided to do it and that it was a great opportunity to actually exercise my faith. I told my wife about what I had just been through and the resultant decision and, to my great joy and encouragement, she offered to come with me. So we did the deed, a story in itself, and I was so glad I had risen to the challenge. I would never have been able to look myself in the mirror if I’d let that opportunity slip by.
Another of the same…..
Another personal example of the necessity of faith is when I worked at the above-mentioned university. I was at a lunchtime students group, where the chaplain was advertising an upcoming evangelistic push on campus for a series of meetings in the week leading up to Easter where a Christian lawyer was scheduled to talk about the resurrection of Jesus. The chaplain was asking for volunteers to approach students around the duck pond area, where they congregated at lunch time, and do a three-question survey, and then invite them to the upcoming meetings. At that stage of my life I was overawed by university students because of the false impression I had that they were brilliantly academic and could make me look and feel stupid if I tried to tell them about Jesus; therefore, I had made a commitment to myself that I would never get involved with any evangelistic activities on campus. I had obviously been too long in my reclusive and comfortable “separated” church, where practically all we did was encourage each other by saying how apostate the other churches were.
As it happened, at the time the chaplain called for volunteers, I was reading through Eusebius’ history of the Church, and I had only just read where he was talking about the martyrs, and that the ones who made a point of telling others about Jesus were the ones who were able to maintain their faith, even to the death; while those who didn’t tell about Jesus were often the ones who caved in and recanted. With this warning ringing in my ears I decided to get involved. I saw it as a good opportunity to get some training in evangelism from people who were experienced and knew what they were doing. So I went around to the chaplain’s office and committed myself. There was a student there also who wanted to get involved and receive on the spot training. But to my horror I discovered that we were the only ones to have volunteered; now it would be the blind leading the blind, and I had to face my greatest fear.
The chaplain gave us copies of the questionnaire and sent us out. As I spoke to my new friend I realised that he was looking to me to take the lead, so I did, and off we went to the duck pond – after praying, of course. As I saw the students sitting and lounging on the grass in twos and threes, I picked out a likely couple and approached them. I asked if we could do a survey and they agreed. As I spoke I found it much easier than I expected, and at the end of the questions I was able to use them as a lead-in to tell them the gospel, then I invited them to the meetings. I was amazed at how easy it was and I realised that these students were just teenagers, fresh out of school, and respectful to a mature man. That day was a huge breakthrough for me and I learned a lot from it; about me, about people, and about God; and I still regard it as one of the more important experiences in my life.
As for the aftermath, the meetings were very well attended by a lot of students who had never been to a Christian students’ meeting before; the lawyer spoke well and showed how the bible evidence for the resurrection would be admissible in a court of law. He’s written a book about this entitled “Leading Lawyers Look at the Resurrection” (Ross Clifford, 1991), which seems to have been revised and entitled “Leading Lawyers Case for the Resurrection” (1996), unless this is the American title of the Australian book. He then went on to become principal of Morling (Baptist) Theological College in Sydney.
Exercising faith in our great God for every occasion is far more rewarding and satisfying than seeing the spectacular. While spectacular is exciting, it’s not necessarily always God who is behind it, and we can easily be led astray. I’ve seen this happen far too often. But trusting a God we can’t see, purely on the basis of his promise that he will always be there for us, is much better for us and glorifying to him. When we trust God, we demonstrate our love for him; when we refuse to indulge the flesh, refuse to take revenge, forgive those who have injured us, love because he is love, obey him in all things, this is far more precious to God. If we only ever have the spectacular we’re walking by sight, and that is no faith at all. It is by the exercise of faith that our character grows and we develop as individuals. The more we exercise faith and are vindicated the more we are inclined to trust him. But exercising faith will often be hard no matter how many times we’ve had answers to prayer, because each situation is unique and we are faced with “will I or won’t I?” every time; and the flesh will always be working against us. But God is there for us, every day – not in the wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in the still small voice (1 Kings 19:9-13) – he is the “every day God” because he is always there; and he is the “everyday God” because he works in the everyday, in the normal and the humdrum of life, and he generally uses means rather than direct action.
“Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths” (Prov 3:5-6).