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Formula or Faith

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Editor’s Note: The following is adapted from An Honest Look at a Mysterious Journey by John Stumbo, the story of his battle with a rare illness that nearly cost him his life.

My understanding of the ways God works was again put to the test one night in late May [2009]. The national conference of our denomination—a couple thousand believing people—was gathered in Louisville, Kentucky. As has been the custom for probably a century, they turned a portion of the conference into a massive prayer meeting primarily for those in need of physical healing. I was unable to travel to Kentucky due to my weakness, but was not forgotten. That night as they prayed, in unison they turned their prayer attention toward me. They called out together for “one touch” upon my body. “One touch” is all I needed from God, and I would be completely restored.

Gary Benedict, the president of our denomination, personally called me after the service that night, blessed me with gracious words of encouragement and told me of their passionate prayers. Looking back, I see this as yet another sweet gift that the Body of Christ gave to me.

However, while they prayed I didn’t sense anything. In fact, I distinctly remember on that night feeling as low as I had ever felt. I was sick, lonely, irritated, restless and confused.

How could so many people cry out to God on my behalf and I not feel any benefit from it? Does prayer work? Is God there?

Simultaneous to my disappointment, however, I also knew something else. It may be that the Christian church has always struggled with this issue, but it seems that the church in America is ever in search of a formula. We want quick fixes and clear answers. We want certainty. We want control.

I sensed in my spirit, If God touched me on the night all those people were praying for me, we’d probably mishandle the event and try to turn it into a formula. Across the country the word would spread that if you get enough people together at the same time and they all pray in agreement, then God will heal immediately.

I don’t know for sure that people would have responded to a miracle that way, but I do know that we love formulas. I heard them almost weekly.

Since the doctors hadn’t figured out what had nearly killed me or how to fix me, many other people decided to give it a try. It was obvious their efforts arose out of their love and concern for us. All of these people were well-meaning, and their ideas had some merit. We were encouraged to:

  • Repent of sin
  • Break any curse that might have been put on us
  • Try a certain supplement
  • Go to a certain healing service
  • Have more faith
  • Take this supplement, it’s really powerful
  • Try this diet
  • Take this other supplement, it’s even better
  • Take Communion every day for 30 days

Again, all of these things may have been good to do and, at least in some form, we did try them all. For example, while I really couldn’t take Communion because of my inability to swallow, Joanna and I did our own form of honoring the Lord’s Supper every night for a month. It was a sweet time for us, and a daily declaration of our faith.

However, what began to trouble me was the mentality that some Christians seemed to have and I began to be infected with: if we just found the right thing and did it, everything would be better.

At first I was disappointed when one of these efforts didn’t seem to “work.” I was susceptible to the fallacy many Christians fall into. It seems that as Christians we must be on continual alert that we don’t adopt attitudes and behaviors of man-made religions. Across the globe the common practice of countless people is to try to manipulate or appease the spirit world. By giving an offering, saying a chant, wearing an amulet, etc., the human tries to control the spiritual. Biblical Christianity frees us from this kind of behavior, but its subtleties can slip into our theology and practice. We tend to create if/then scenarios: “If I do this, then God will do that.”

The God whose ways are higher than our ways and whose thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isa. 55:8) can’t be minimized in this way. As a friend of mine, Randy Corbin, says, “God reserves the right to be mysterious.”

So, while I did what my well-meaning friends suggested I do, I began to believe that God was writing His own story and wasn’t going to be manipulated by our human maneuverings. He was up to something, and I had to trust Him. Any sudden answer to prayer or rapid response to our well-intentioned efforts at this point would only have driven me to rely on the method rather than the Master. I don’t believe I was ready for a miracle. I know God wasn’t, or He would have granted one.

I was called to deeper faith in the midst of uncertainty. I was challenged to trust Him when I could neither see Him nor much evidence of Him. I was being reduced to the most foundational place of trust: would I believe He is good, whether or not I was circumstantially experiencing anything that felt good?

Over and over I declared it during these months, “God is in this and He is good.”

Over and over I would be challenged to keep believing my own profession. His goodness wasn’t something I could always see or feel.

Some people disputed my “God is in this” statement. They concluded that I was attributing my illness to God. They believed that He would not do such a thing.

I wasn’t blaming God or attributing my illness to God. I didn’t pretend to know what had hit me. Satanic attack? Some bug from Brazil? Had I worn myself down with my high level of activity? I didn’t know and still don’t know.

But what I do know is that I can’t leave God out of the scenario. My life is in Him and His life is in mine. In Him we live and move and have our being, Paul taught in Acts 17:28. He reinforced this teaching in other passages, I am in Christ (see Eph. 1:3-14) and Christ is in me (Col. 1:27).

How could I believe these things to be true but then say that He had nothing to do with this illness? At minimum, He allowed it. I was beginning to suspect that He had even desired it.

God is not the source of evil, but no evil is outside of His jurisdiction. I didn’t know exactly what I should think and believe about God’s involvement in my situation, but I knew that I couldn’t believe that my illness was beyond Him.

No. He was in this—somewhere, somehow—and He can only be good. To believe anything else would have been to fall into ultimate despair.

On more than one occasion, I would adopt the words of the Apostle Peter as my own. Jesus had just preached a controversial message which led to serious conflict (John 6). As large crowds of onetime Christ followers—now confused and angry—walk away from Him, Jesus looks at His remaining men and says, “You’re not going to leave, too, are you?”

I can almost see Peter look around the circle at the other men. They are a discouraged and confused lot. They aren’t too pleased with their Messiah at the moment. With a shrug of his shoulders, Peter answers for them all, “Where else shall we turn? You alone have the words of eternal life.”

God, I don’t get this. You are confusing the daylights out of me right now. I don’t like my life. I can’t figure out what You are doing. But with Peter I declare that I have no other place to go! Every other option besides You is a dead end.


©2011, Nesting Tree Books, Fox Island, Washington. Excerpt used by permission. To order a copy of An Honest Look at a Mysterious Journey, see the classified ads.

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