John MacArthur opened the Strange Fire conference, and then, for the second session introduced Joni Eareckson Tada as a friend and former member of his church. She was at the conference to share her testimony of living as a quadriplegic who has prayed for, but not received, a miraculous healing. As MacArthur said in his closing comments, if anyone has the faith to be healed, it must be her. In a sweet and spontaneous moment, Joni called MacArthur to the stage and, hand-in-hand, the two sang a couple of stanzas of “O Worship the King” together. I have been to a lot of different conferences, but that will now rank as one of my all-time favorite moments.
-Pastor Tim Challies
“Strange Fire Conference: Joni Eareckson Tada,” October 16, 2013
I’m also more or less “live blogging,” in that I’m writing as I’m reading, giving you my impressions as they occur. I want to be fair to MacArthur and I feel that, using Tim Challies as my source, someone who, as far as I know, should be sympathetic and supportive of MacArthur’s views, I am avoiding those bloggers and other pundits who tend to be “anti-MacArthur” to accomplish the purposes of this project.
All that said, being fair doesn’t mean I always have to agree with MacArthur or the other presenters at Strange Fire.
Joni Eareckson Tada
I assume that by having Ms. Tada present her testimony that MacArthur was attempting to refute faith healing in the present age. While I agree that there are just a boatload of charlatans out there who claim “the healing power of Jesus,” and who say they can cure anything from acne to brain tumors by the laying on of hands (and giving a bunch of money as a “love offering”), there seems to be more to Tada’s story:
Even today she often has well-meaning charismatics who come up to her and pray for her healing. Though she never says no, she does always ask them to pray for specific things and then highlights character issues. Will you pray for my bad attitude? Will you pray for my grumbling? She means to show them that she is far more concerned with indwelling, remaining sin than chronic pain and legs that do not work.
She went on to describe a trip to Jerusalem and going to the very place where Jesus had healed that paralyzed man so many years ago. And there, in a moment alone, she found herself praying to God to thank him for not healing her, because a “no” answer to her requests for physical healing had purged so much sin, selfishness, and bitterness. That “no” answer left her depending more on God’s grace, has given her greater compassion for others, has reduced complaining, has increased her faith, has given her greater hope of heaven, and has caused her to love the Lord so much more. She sees the joy of sharing in his suffering and would not trade it for any amount of walking.
What do we really want to be healed of, our physical problems or our spiritual problems? Do we need to be healed of cancer or given the “medical procedure” of a circumcised heart?
And they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the paralytic, “Take courage, son; your sins are forgiven.” And some of the scribes said to themselves, “This fellow blasphemes.” And Jesus knowing their thoughts said, “Why are you thinking evil in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—then He said to the paralytic, “Get up, pick up your bed and go home.” And he got up and went home. But when the crowds saw this, they were awestruck, and glorified God, who had given such authority to men.
–Matthew 9:2-8 (NASB)
Only God forgives sins and so I also believe only God can miraculously heal. Even if we say, as I can only believe MacArthur says, that the age of miraculous healing is done and that God does not heal anymore in a supernatural sense, I have a question. Why do we pray for people when they are hurt or sick?
Actually, I have no idea if MacArthur prays for the sick, although I certainly hope he visits them because I don’t think that type of kindness we see in the Bible was ended when New Testament canon closed.
I go to a fundamentalist Baptist church. I imagine MacArthur would be comfortable worshiping there. And yet, in the bulletin they pass out to me as I enter the doors of the church for services every Sunday morning, there is a multi-page paper containing many, many prayer requests.
At the top of the list, we are to pray for our President, our other Government representatives and so on. Then there’s a list of missionaries we should pray for. After that, there are multitudes of requests from people in the church about others in the church, family members, friends, and so on, most of whom suffer from terrible medical situations.
When I go to Sunday school after services, the teacher begins class by asking for prayer requests. Again, usually people’s medical problems are brought up, people facing surgery, people with chronic illnesses, people who are dying.
Why do we pray for them if we don’t, on some level, want God to heal them? Sure, sometimes we pray for someone’s salvation. Sometimes we pray for someone who is in a spiritual crisis of one kind or another, but most of the time, we pray for people who are sick.
I know from my own experience, that most if not all of the terminally ill people I have prayed for have died. I know that’s cruel to say, but that’s my experience. Why did I pray for them? What was the point?
I can see how the whole “faith healing” process has been hijacked and abused and I most certainly don’t advocate for frauds and hucksters who prey upon the illness and weakness of others for financial gain, but I do take exception to the idea that we aren’t supposed to pray for people who are hurt (and I’m not quite sure MacArthur would actually advocate that position). I also take exception to the idea that God can’t or won’t heal someone supernaturally.
I don’t say these healings occur regularly or we can predict when they will happen. If they happen at all, they probably do so infrequently and without any way to know when a person will or won’t be healed. And yet we hope. And yet we pray. And yet we rely on God to have mercy, and beg Him to heal, if not the loved one who we know is about to perish, but our grieving soul when we are left behind and alone.
Yes, as we read Matthew 9:2-8, above all, God desires to heal the soul, to forgive sin, to bring about redemption, to circumcise the heart of stone and give the sinner a heart of flesh.
None of that means we like to see our loved ones suffer physically. None of that means we aren’t compelled to pray for them, to ask and even to beg God to cure a four-year old little girl of leukemia or some other horrible, life-threatening ailment.
Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done? While the child was alive, you fasted and wept; but when the child died, you arose and ate food.” He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows, the Lord may be gracious to me, that the child may live.’ But now he has died; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”
–2 Samuel 12:21-23 (NASB)
It’s a terrible thing to think that God would cause a newborn baby to die because of the sins of his father. I’m not sure how else we can interpret the events about the child David and Bathsheba conceived together in the shadow of adultery and murder. But while the child was alive, David prayed and fasted and wept, but the child died anyway.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed by the name of the Lord.
That has to be one of the most bitter prayers recorded in the Bible, and yet it is reflected in the grief of David and in the grief of anyone who has lost a loved one.
How can I not pray from the “brokenness” of my heart?
I think Ms Tada’s point was well made. I know that living with a long-term and severe medical problem can actually bring a person closer to God, can make the relationship stronger and more intimate. I’ve seen such a thing happen to a man I know. But it’s still a bittersweet thing. That doesn’t mean God doesn’t want to heal the injured or comfort the grieving. That doesn’t mean that sometimes, in accordance with His will, God doesn’t provide us with what we need, and even what we ask for out of His abundant grace, power, compassion, and pity.
I don’t know what MacArthur was trying to accomplish by presenting Ms. Tada on stage at his conference. What he accomplished, at least for me, is to remind me of how fragile life is and how we all rely on God to help us when our problems are so much bigger than we are. If MacArthur meant to indict the Pentecostal church for false advertising, I missed that part of the message.