The Spring Harvest event at Skegness (and Minehead) is an annual event for Christians of a fairly conservative bent and takes place in the week leading up to Easter. It was Chris’ wife Mary who went as a registered participant, but Chris accompanied her to offer support as she remains physically a little fragile after a car accident. Last year the same event had aroused strong negative emotions in Chris, but this year he felt better prepared to cope with the experience. Dick Davies, a contributor to this blog was also present and ready to offer his help and support.
I spoke to Chris on the phone at the week-end, after he got back from Skegness. He told me about a conversation with an elderly married couple who had seen him walking with a stick after sustaining a injury to his foot. This couple assured him that God would definitely heal the foot and it was a matter of certainty. Without even asking permission, the husband launched into prayer for the injured foot. He then declared that the only thing that would prevent healing was a lack of faith. Chris then explained that he had had bad experiences at the hands of Bible Christians and that among other things he found it extremely difficult to square up what he had been told to think about the Bible with the actual content of Scripture. The Old Testament was supposed to be an accurate revelation of the will of God, but there were passages that Chris had read that made this whole idea impossible for him. What about Psalm 137 for example? Were we supposed to think that it was appropriate to take small children and ‘dash them against the rock’ ? The couple looked puzzled and had nothing to say. Chris suspected that they had never been confronted with or read this passage before.
Hearing this small anecdote, I noted a number of things that would have distressed me as well. The act of praying about the foot was immediately thrust on Chris as though it was a given that this is what he needed and wanted. There was no sense that healing might involve cooperation from the sufferer or even a measure of preparation. God’s force of healing was seen to be irresistible. But although God’s power could not be turned back, the couple did have a let-out clause to explain why it might not work on every occasion. That is the lack of faith. This places those who offer prayer in a win-win situation. They are simultaneously seen as faithful mediators of God’s promises for healing, at the same time having a convenient excuse if the act is not followed by an actual healing. Their sense of righteousness and faithfulness can remain intact. No doubts need to be entertained as to whether they did anything unhelpful in such an encounter. Chris’ challenge to them to question their belief in the infallibility of Scripture was met by a blank silence. Nothing had prepared them for such a challenge and nothing in the way they had studied Scripture could provide any answers to this exposure to an uncomfortable and challenging text. The only way that a belief in Scripture of this kind is possible is because the vast bulk of Scripture has been ignored in favour of few proof texts that appear to make claims for the whole Bible.
In a way the couple have no guilt, but they are themselves victims of a system of theology and a culture of control that puts them in a place that is disastrous in two directions. Not only was their intervention unhelpful to Chris, to say the least, it also demonstrated how they had been infantilised. They had been stopped thinking or growing in any way. They have learnt to react to the world and its problems in a crude mechanistic way. The Bible is applied to every situation as though it were a hammer and that is the tool of choice for every possible situation. An injured person in a place like Spring Harvest can be presumed to be in need of prayer and willing to receive it. No more information is needed. But when the potential recipient does not fit this model, the limitations of the assumption become apparent. There was nothing in their book of rules to cope with such a dissonant situation like the one that Chris provided. They are left with their silence and the discomfort of their own ignorance being revealed.
Suppose their assumptions about meeting a fellow Bible-believing Christian had been realised? Are we to believe that the encounter would have been less disastrous for both sides? If the Bible-believing sufferer had willingly received prayer with the right degree of faith and had still not received healing, what would we say about the situation? The praying couple would still have retained their smug untouchability with their faith in God unsullied, while the recipient of the prayer would have felt more demoralised and perhaps doubting his own grasp of the Christian faith. Neither scenario, the one that actually happened, or the one they wanted to happen, can be described as healthy or helpful.
The conversation and my commentary on it picks up a number of themes which are the concern of this blog. Perhaps my readers can further unpick what might have been going in this scene at Skegness. It may be just one encounter but I suspect that similar unhelpful attitudes are being taught and shared among Christians in many places. Vigilance and scrutiny need to be applied to examine the attitudes and assumptions that Christians in some fellowships and churches take on. The unexamined faith is not and never will be a healthy, life-giving means of growth into fullness of life.