It has been a great debate upon the topic of claimed testimonies or personal stories of miracles since the Strange Fire conference last October in 2013.
I have been interested in looking for a Christ-centered way to look at this fierce debate between the camps of the charismatics and the cessationists. The conference triggered a new wave of theological debates surrounding this topic. This provided me a great amount of information revealing a lot about their viewpoints.
I wanted to focus on one issue in this post- the experience of claimed visions and travel to ‘heaven’.
In the conference, they spoke against these and doubted the authenticity of some of the experience. I think they put an argument like this based on the claimer’s purpose of sharing the experience. There are a few of the claimers used the experience to publicize themselves and made a fortune for an extravagant lifestyle. Therefore, the speaker denied the authenticity of the experience altogether- as the claimer’s character is questionable.
While the purpose and character of some claimers are undoubtedly questionable, I think the argument is not complete. It somehow inevitably altogether denied the possibility of miracles, including those that are not arise from personal Spiritual gifts. This might have well stepped over to the topic of the sovereignty of God.
In my opinion, God can provide personal encounters to people in order to do good to their Spiritual growth. When these people are not boasting about it for the sake of boasting, fame or material gain in sins, but for the sake to share how God has sanctified them and turned them away from sins as a personal testimony; sharing is justified and God-glorifying.
We logically cannot deny the existence of miracle encounters only by how people dealt with them, especially those who are fallen or lost. God gave manna to Israelites, the Law to the Pharisees and Spiritual gifts to Corinthians; but all of them made use of the gifts with a wrong attitude.
I therefore think, the only way we can deal with this issue is to show people the God-pleasing way to share the gifts of God rather than to authenticate them by our own efforts. When people have the biblical attitude towards the gifts of God- all kinds – no matter it is material, realistic, surreal (now even the term supernatural is tinted by the charismatic circle as a derogatory term) or providential; we really do not have the direct need to prove or judge the authenticity of that experience belonging to others not ours. Judging the authenticity of a third-party experience is not the correct direction in this theological debate, but rather, judging the attitude towards them.
The reason not to put focus on judging the authenticity of a third-party experience is overt and plain. Experience is always lean on the subjective side and it is a form of circumstance. Worse still, surreal experience has no visible evidence to outsiders apart from the recipient of it. Therefore, God told us to judge the tree by its fruits (Matt 7:16-20, Luke 6:43-44, James 2:18). Targeting on subjective experience always results in hostility and vain arguments. Instead of drastically denying a third-party experience, we can provide the biblical ways to test if a providential encounter is from God or not. There are biblical criteria and examples in the Bible which pronounced conclusions can be made upon Godly encounters, for example:
1. They are redemptive to one’s Spiritual condition- they direct the recipients back to God’s will and thus holiness (Jacob’s hardship at Laban’s house, Job’s lesson to interrogate with God before restoration, David lost his firstborn with Bathsheba etc).
2. They are providential to equip the recipient for God’s work- by providing wisdom, developing skills and virtues for the good influence of both the church and the lost (Joseph went through hardships before becoming Pharaoh’s assistant, Daniel learnt in the exile Babylon etc).
3. They are a provision in desperate situations or dire weakness of the believer. God graciously shows the recipient of His strength and mercy due to a macroscopic plan to use that situation as well as the person to bring the Gospel further. That will not harm the recipient’s Spiritual health which is always God’s priority for a believer (Elijah rested under the tree, Paul escaped from the prison, Noah survived the flood etc).
4. They are directional which might turn a believer’s way in order to fulfill God’s plan with unexpected circumstance (Paul’s unexpected visit to Galatians due to sickness, John’s exile at Patmos, Mary and Joseph went to Egypt to avoid Herod etc).
If our heart is to lovingly restore the lost and the strayed sheep, we have to focus on God rather than the sheep themselves. We have to put the focus back onto holiness but not magnifying the blatant errors- in another words, to spread the correct Words of God thus restoration, but not to further spread the damage. We can rightly and biblically deal with errors in a way that Christ demonstrated in the early times. We can be bold, but gentle; firm, but in grief hoping to restore as the aim of speaking truth into them. Therefore, we have to do that in His mercy and grace.
It is dangerous to make claims saying miracles do not exist, which may be a confusing claim to many believers who actually received them out of the four mentioned reasons. I think, if the commentators can emphasize on how believers should respond to the experiences, more good can be done and more of God’s will can be displayed in front of both the believers, the strayed and the lost.