Saturday, November 16, 2013

How God works: A Sunday short

How God 
Oral Roberts 1958, UPI
and helps

“God spared my life for a reason,” Dave testified following a close brush with death by a tornado.*

“My husband’s not expected to live; please pray,” pleaded Becky as she posted from her husband’s hospital room.*

            Christians have long believed in the power of prayer. Perhaps it is better theology to say many Christians believe in the power of God to cause a change in people or in the natural world in response to prayer. Beliefs about prayer and how God works can make a difference; as I suggested in a previous post.

All God beliefs
In classical Pentecostal traditions, believers claimed divine healing as a right. Something guaranteed by God to those who believed. As a boy, I went to a tent meeting put on by Oral Roberts not far from my home in Southern New Jersey. I recall lines of people waiting for a miracle. Throughout history, some people seemed to have a spiritual gift of healing. Naturally, people rejoice when their pain and discomfort disappear. People toss crutches and get out of wheelchairs. Dramatic to say the least. But people who were not healed were made to feel horrible. Perhaps there was unconfessed sin in their life. Maybe they did not have enough faith. Rarely did people consider it wasn’t God’s will. And sadly, some died.

All nature beliefs.
Some Christians believe the miracles reported in the Bible were just for a special time or purpose. We live in a natural world governed by the laws of nature that God set to work thousands or millions of years ago. People should still pray that God’s will be done on earth. But there is no place for personal prayer that God would do a miracle in one’s life.

God and nature.
In more recent years, Christians pray for healing but they also pray that God would guide the hands of surgeons or give wisdom to physicians so they can make the correct diagnosis or recommend the best treatment. When people get well, God gets the glory. People rejoice and are thankful. When people continue to do poorly or die, some feel betrayed by God. Some are deeply saddened but eventually learn to accept, what happens is God’s will. In this view, Christians do not see God and science as incompatible. God is present and heals in different ways.

On Tuesday, 12th November, I illustrated these approaches for a class I teach by using a table. In the left column are three common attributions people make about the cause of healing or protection from death—was the healing by God, by nature, or by God and natural means? In the other three columns are labels for correct or erroneous beliefs. Each conclusion of correct or error is based on a combination of a theological belief about how God really acts and personal beliefs (attributions) about how people were healed. Of course, we may wonder how does anyone really know what God did?

God acted alone
God acted through
God did not act
by God
by nature
by God+ nature

I suspect these ideas might apply to other faiths as well but I think it best for those in other faith traditions to offer their contributions to understanding how people view healing and God.

Mental health is different.
On Thursday, 14th November, I spoke with a psychologist colleague, Matt Stanford, of Baylor University. At a local forum, he presented some of his research and ideas about how Christians take different views of mental health compared to general health. I was reminded of one friend who said Christians need to get over the idea that we are different above the neck than below the neck. Mental health is different for many Christians. Conditions like depression and anxiety are not illnesses. Instead they are the results of personal sin or spiritual failure. The cure is prayer and bible study.

            I actually addressed some of these issues in a previous post about religion and health. Matt Stanford reminded me of the statistics. I reported a study from LifeWay on 18th September when Rick and Kay Warren spoke about their son’s suicide in an interview with Piers Morgan. Almost half of all conservative Christians (born again, evangelical, fundamentalist) agree that Bible study and prayer ALONE can help people with a serious mental illness such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Anecdotal evidence indicates many have been advised to stop taking their medication or stop seeing a psychologist or counselor.

Some concluding thoughts
  • Understanding the official theology of a particular Christian faith may not help understand how individual Christians believe and act.
  • Christians have different beliefs about how God acts.
  • Christians who depend on God for all their needs can come across as super-spiritual-- sometimes revered as saints and sometimes viewed as nuts.
  • Christians who view God as having set up the universe but not active in daily affairs are not viewed as true Christians by evangelicals unless they make efforts to quote scripture to support their beliefs.
  • If you have a mental illness, your odds are about 50% that a conservative American Christian will believe you only need prayer and Bible study to get well.

I see no compelling reason to find beliefs in God are incompatible with scientific evidence. As I have posted before, I view people in a holistic manner having five interactive dimensions, which includes the spiritual dimension. And we live and act in a social environment. It may be helpful for some to include God as a part of their total social environment. One who is present through time and across settings.

* Fictitious characters created for illustration only.

1 comment:

  1. Good post. These are some of the things I think about on a regular basis. It is sometimes a struggle to reevaluate some of the things I have always taken for granted as far as my Pentecostal faith, in light of what I learn about nature/human nature.