21 September 2021

Fleshly supernatural.

1 Corinthians 13.1-3.

When Paul and Sosthenes wrote 1 Corinthians, specifically the parts about the supernatural, y’might notice they didn’t write about fake supernatural. They didn’t write about frauds, like people who pretend to be faith healers but actually do nothing, or “miracle workers” who are only doing impressive stage magic tricks, or “prophets” who are really practicing mentalism. Certainly they could’ve written about such people, because there have always been such people. Just about every religion in the Roman Empire had one—because their worshipers expected the supernatural, so the priests had to show ’em something. There are two particularly famous stories of frauds in the apocrypha’s extra chapters of Daniel, and you can read it here.

But the apostles didn’t write about the fake stuff. They only wrote about the real stuff. Their main concern was the Corinthians were doing ’em wrong. Because that’s what we Christians do: The real stuff, wrong.

And the main way we do ’em wrong is by being the sort of people who produce bad fruit—the works of the flesh. Yep, there are such creatures as fleshly Christians. Either they’re new to Jesus and still have a lot of growing up to do, or they’re longtime Christians who never did grow up, ’cause they think other things are more important. Or ’cause they learned how to make all their fleshly behavior sound like it’s really fruit.

Christians naïvely assume if God’s gonna empower us with gifts of the Spirit, he’s only gonna do it when we’re good. We imagine the supernatural gifts are like the hammer Mjölnir in the Thor movies, and if we’re not worthy like Thor, the gifts won’t come when summoned. But that’s not even how grace works. God grants us supernatural gifts because we need them, not because we’re worthy. If somebody needs to be cured of a dire illness, God empowers the miracle regardless of how good or evil the petitioner, and the recipient, might be. The supernatural is not God’s endorsement. It’s his grace.

But like I said, Christians naïvely assume otherwise. We think it’s all about karma. If we’ve racked up enough points in God’s great big MMORPG of life, we get a power upgrade! So if Christians can exhibit supernatural powers, it must mean God highly favors them, ’cause they’re good people… or when they’re clearly not good people, ’cause they’ve gained his favor in some other way. Learned a lot of bible trivia, maybe. Worked in ministry for 10 years with low pay, so God owes them one and gave ’em the power to prophesy. Something like that.

And it’s nothing like that. Sometimes the Holy Spirit empowers fleshly Christians.

Seriously? He trusts fleshly Christians with that kind of power? Well no he doesn’t, because he always controls the power, and always will. But yes, he’ll actually work with and through fleshly Christians. Like I said, that’s the whole point of Paul and Sosthenes writing these 1 Corinthians passages: Fleshly Christians were doing supernatural things, and doing ’em wrong, and the apostles had to set them straight!

So right after the bit about striving for greater supernatural gifts, 1Co 12.31 the apostles mention an outstanding way to do it, and then started talking about love. Because it’s the preeminent fruit of the Spirit. It’s the fruit which arguably generates all the other fruit. God is love, so it’s a character trait God’s kids absolutely should exhibit. And if we don’t, we gotta wonder whether these are even God’s kids at all; for anyone who doesn’t love, doesn’t know God. 1Jn 4.8

Many Christians, cessationists in particular, tend to pull “the love chapter” out of context and only focus on how it defines love. We forget it’s all about supernaturla gifts, and how love has to be part of their practice. Has to. It’s how the whole chapter begins.

1 Corinthians 13.1-3 KWL
1 When I speak in human and angelic tongues:
When I have no love, I’ve become the sound of a gong, a clanging symbol.
2 When I have a prophecy—“I knew the whole mystery! I know everything!”—
when I have all the faith necessary to move mountains:
When I have no love, I’m nobody.
3 Might I give away everything I possess?
Perhaps submit my body so I could be praised for my sacrifice?
When I have no love, I benefit nobody.

When I have supernatural abilities—tongues, prophecy, enough wonder-working power to shove literal mountains around with a word—but there’s no love in it, there’s no love in me, I’m doing it for the power, authority, prestige, acclaim, and maybe donors will send a whole lot of cash my way. But really I’m a noise. I’m nobody. I benefit nobody.

And while Christians might pay particular attention to the “I’m nobody” parts—“See, you gotta minister in love!”—we too often forget this hypothetical loveless apostle… is still doing the supernatural acts. ’Cause the Holy Spirit still lets ’em do it.

Bad Christians. Real miracles.

People take it as a given when there’s bad fruit or no fruit, the miracles must be fake. Sounds like commonsense, right? But I remind you: At no point in 1 Corinthians, despite their many and detailed critiques of Corinth, did Paul and Sosthenes ever say any of the Corinthians’ supernatural activities were fake.

Christians nowadays? Just the opposite. Cessationists claim every miracle Christians perform is trickery. Might be human, might be devilish, but always trickery. Even if they do sorta-kinda believe in miracles, their usual response will be, “Okay, there are such things as tongues, prophecies, and miracles—but you’re not doing them. You’re a phony. Your works are phony. You’re doing fake signs and wonders.”

Yet the apostles never said such a thing to Corinth. Never said they performed counterfeit miracles. Never claimed the Corinthians only thought they did tongues or prophecy or healing, but were actually doing them with demonic powers. All the usual go-to accusations Christians use nowadays? Not in the bible.

Well yes, they’re in the bible as accusations towards pagans. But the church of Corinth was Christian. If they’re legitimately on God’s team, they’re not working with devils. Might be tempted by them, as we all are; might be tricked by them, as we sometimes are. But devilish? No. Accusing them of being devilish? Don’t. That’s the mistake the Pharisees made when Jesus said they blasphemed the Holy Spirit. And plenty of Christians unwittingly commit this blasphemy every time they claim, “That’s not really God” because they have a hangup.

What we’re in fact seeing, is Christians behaving badly. As we do, all too often. Like the Corinthians, we’re doing it wrong. All their misbehavior, and ours, stems from not doing the supernatural in love. But it’s still the power of the Holy Spirit.

I know. It’s a brain-bending idea to many Christians, who still have an awful lot of karmic thinking wrapped up in our Christianity. “How’s that even possible? How could God bless—or partner with—such selfish motivations?” It’s completely contrary to what we Christians usually teach. It’s certainly contrary to popular culture. God only blesses worthy people, right?—never sinners nor evildoers. The rain falls on the just, not the unjust.

And it’s how we set up our criminal justice system. If the cops illegally search a suspect, they gotta throw out the case. If there’s one flaw in a logical argument, gotta toss the whole argument. If the fruit is poisoned, the entire tree must be poisoned, so cut it down.

But this one-flaw-spoils-all reasoning is human reasoning. Not God’s. Remember, Christianity teaches grace: God turns flawed, sinful, broken humans into his kids, and gives us his kingdom. Nobody, except Jesus, is perfect. The rest of us are seriously flawed. Yet none of us is so flawed God can’t work with us, and fix us. Right?

Yet we forget all about grace whenever the supernatural comes up: The only people who can perform miracles and prophecy are saints. Perfect people! Nobody else.

As if, besides Jesus, there’s any such thing as a perfect saint.

Nope, it’s not what the apostles wrote. Read verses 1-3 again. They wrote of a very flawed person, who lacked love. Let’s say this person is literally Paul of Tarsus, and he’s speaking from personal experience. (Probably was.) And sometimes people made it very hard for Paul to love them. Yet God wanted him to minister to them all the same. So, despite his own lack of love, the Holy Spirit granted him the ability to pray in tongues. Or prophecy. Or give words of knowledge. Or perform any kind of miraculous act. Or even something a little less spectacular, but just as Spirit-empowered… like a level of generosity which goes beyond reason.

All these things are supernatural in nature. All empowered by the Holy Spirit. The apostles’ point is sometimes they’re performed without love—and shouldn’t be. Even so, they’re performed.

But the absence of love takes all the mickey out of how God wants to bless people with these miracles:

  • Those with loveless tongues are annoying and distracting. (I know. I run into ’em all the time. Such dicks.)
  • Those with loveless knowledge are the know-it-alls in every church.
  • Those with loveless prophecy: Every time they stand up, you know they’re gonna rant about their pet peeves instead of God’s actual concerns. It’s all dark Christianity with them.
  • Those with loveless faith-healing: If the sufferer doesn’t get better immediately, they blame the victim for their lack of faith, and move along. Zero patience. And zero accountability when all their claims of healing turn out to be nothing.
  • Those with loveless works actually show contempt for the people they’re meant to “help.” They don’t care what you want or think you need; you’re just bums, lucky they do anything for you at all.

So why does God even bother? Because somebody’s gonna benefit. The person being prayed for, prophesied to, cured, given knowledge, or given aid: They are getting helped. God would like to bless both the minister and recipient. He’ll settle for only the recipient. At least one of ’em will give God the glory.

Loveless ministry.

Now, notice verse 3. Suppose Paul gave away everything. Suppose Paul gave up his own life. Not for others; the apostles don’t even mention others. This is stuff for one’s own benefit. But without love, it benefits no one. Selfish self-sacrifice is an oxymoron.

And yet it happens all the time. People take ministry jobs, and never even think about how their job is to love others. Like secular jobs, they’re doing it for the money. Or they love the work; not so much the people.

  • Pastors who figure their job is to do bible study and prepare sermons, preach them dynamically, gather their transcriptions and turn ’em into books, and sell them. But ministering to individuals? That’s for chaplains.
  • Prophets who figure their job is to open schools of prophecy, collect tuition, and likewise sell some books. And if when they prophecy over others, it’s gotta be in public so everybody can be impressed by it; and the prophecies have to have powerful results so they can have anecdotes for their books. It’s not so much about the needs of those they prophesy to.
  • Tongues-speakers figure their job is to speak in tongues. Not as prayer, but as “atmosphere changers”—as people whose job is to change the feeling of the room they’re in, and make people really sense God is around. It’s about warm fuzzy feelings. Not ministry so much.
  • Faith-healers who just wanna get famous… and maybe stick it to western medicine a little, and those doctors who dare tell them they know nothing about science.

These attitudes are ridiculous. But they’re everywhere. I can’t count how many times I’ve personally run into them. Christians want supernatural gifts, but actual ministry with these gifts is an afterthought. They’re in it for the power.

If we’re doing God-stuff for the sake of applause, as Jesus pointed out, we aren’t getting any heavenly reward for it. That, we’ve forfeited for our earthly gains. Mt 6.2 We aren’t growing in love. We aren’t growing any closer to Jesus. We aren’t producing fruit. We’re simply going through the motions—and think we’re getting somewhere because the Spirit grants us supernatural power. But really, he’s using us in spite of us. We’re his quick fix.

We’re gonna wind up one of those folks who shout at Jesus in horrified surprise, “But I did MIRACLES in your name!”—yet Jesus doesn’t know who we are. Mt 7.22-23 Clearly we didn’t know him either.

Sad, but worrisome: How much love for others do we have in what we’re doing for God?

What to do with fruitless miracle-workers.

For a lot of churches, miracles cover a multitude of sins. I’ve seen a lot of churches permit certain prophets free rein—despite their rather toxic, selfish personalities. They figure prophets don’t have to be accommodating, patient, self-controlled, generous, peaceful, or otherwise behave themselves: They’re anointed! When you’ve got the anointing, you get a free pass to be an a--hole.

But according to God, no you don’t. When we’re not anointing the sick, anointing is really for leadership—and the qualifications for Christian leadership involve personal character. If your church lets anyone bypass character requirements simply because they can prophesy, cure the sick, or even play the keyboards really well, your church has gone wrong.

True, sometimes the church isn’t at fault. Somebody got full of themselves and is trying to seize authority. Fr’instance at just about every Pentecostal church I’ve attended, we’d get visitors who consider themselves prophets. And by dint of this power, they wanted to immediately join the church leadership. (That desire for power is a red flag right there, by the way.) They didn’t care to get to know anybody in the churchl just make a beeline for the leaders and ask to join the team. And even though they weren’t in the team, they’d immediately start prophesying over others, and use their prophecies to try to boss others around: “God said this, so you need to obey me him.” Prayer meetings, after Sunday services, after bible studies, what have you—and nobody authorized them to do this, and the pastors correctly had to tell them to cut it out.

Other churches don’t crack down on it at all. They permit the misbehavior. And people in their churches get hurt. Always do.

No I’m not saying we should drive out every miracle-worker who can’t control themselves. They lack maturity! They lack discipleship and good fruit, so somebody’s gotta mentor them. We gotta point such people to leaders who can take them under their wings, encourage them to develop fruit, and show ’em how fruit multiplies their ministry—and how fruitlessness ruins it. Point ’em to 1 Corinthians 13. Encourage growth.

After all, God gave them a greater gift. 1Co 12.27-31 Maybe your job in the body of Christ isn’t to wield a supernatural gift… but help those who do wield such gifts to become more spiritually mature. That’s a really noble job. And very necessary these days.