Miracle Work by Jordan Seng is, as the subtitle explains, “a down-to-earth guide to supernatural ministries”: healing, deliverance, prophecy, intercession, and Spirit-baptism. Written in an engaging, folksy style, the book combines personal anecdote, biblical teaching, and practical, experience-based guidance. It is one of the most interesting books I have read this year, for several reasons:
First, Jordan Seng is not the guy you’d expect to write this kind of book. He is a graduate of Stanford University with a PhD in political theory from the University of Chicago who served for a time as a National Security Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. In his infamous essay, “On Miracles,” David Hume argued that reports of miracles arose among chiefly “ignorant and barbarous nations,” or were received by “civilized people” from “ignorant and barbarous ancestors.” Clearly, Hume never imagined the possibility of a miracle-working PhD, which simply shows the limits of his imagination and the extent of his prejudices.
Second, Seng is neither a member of the word-of-faith movement nor an advocate of the prosperity gospel. By the same token, he is not a proponent of classical Pentecostalism, with its doctrines of healing in the Atonement and tongues as initial physical evidence. In other words, he doesn’t fit the public stereotype of a “faith healer,” nor can he be easily fitted into ready-made theological grooves. He is the pastor of Bluewater Mission in Honolulu, Hawaii, which is affiliated with Vineyard Churches, and thus shares some of that movement’s emphases. Nonetheless, he ministers across a wide variety of denominations. (His publisher, InterVarsity Press, is a mainstream evangelical book house.)
Third, whereas faith healers emphasize the importance of faith in the person seeking healing, Seng emphasizes the importance of power in the person performing the healing. Indeed, the heart of the book is a chapter entitled, “The Power Equation,” where Seng lays out his understanding of how supernatural power flows through a person and results in supernatural ministry: Authority + Gifting + Faith + Consecration = Power. “[T]he amount of authority [determined by obedience to Jesus], gifting, faith and consecration you develop will combine to determine, in large part, the amount of supernatural power you have for ministry.” This shift of emphasis has important pastoral consequences: A person who does not experience healing should not be faulted for lack of faith, which is the implication of word-of-faith theology.
Fourth, whereas prosperity evangelists are often captive to the American dream, which emphasizes a life of health, wealth, and peace, Seng argues that supernatural ministry “radicalizes” Christians. “If you accept that you can do even the supernatural things that Jesus and his followers did in the Gospel stories, then you’ve pulled a linchpin: If you can do Jesus’ miracles, then you can live Jesus’ lifestyle across the board. In this way, supernatural ministry reinforces kingdom living. The supernatural begets the radical.” A major theme of the book is that “supernatural ministry will do a lot to make you a supernatural person” [emphasis in the original], and—I would add—vice versa. Rather than seeking health, wealth, and peace, supernatural people should do hard things: “Believers should be attracted to impossible situations like frat boys to beer. We should be drawn to every warzone, disaster area, cancer ward, violent ghetto, impoverished people or unreached group. Wherever the world has no solution, the believers should rush in. Why? Because God makes all things possible.”
Fifth, at the end of the day, the point of supernatural ministry is to draw us closer to Jesus. In the book’s final chapter, Seng shares his personal story. It includes the instability of his birth family, his wife’s seven miscarriages, long stretches of depression, academic frustration, and feelings of personal unworthiness. At a critical juncture, he has a vision of Jesus who comes to him and says, “Good job. I love you.” Reflecting on this, Seng writes: “I have lots of provocative stories about supernatural ministry, but the supernatural experiences that have shaped me most are the simple, intimate ones—the personal interactions in which I’ve gotten to feel, for a short while, the manifest presence of God there for me.”
Despite my interest in this book, even enthusiasm about it, I would like to note three reservations. The first is from the perspective of a classical Pentecostal. Whereas we believe that tongues is the initial physical evidence of Spirit-baptism, Seng argues that it is an evidence—the most common, perhaps, but not “necessary” evidence. The second is from the perspective of an evangelical. I worry that Seng overemphasizes the necessity of prophetic utterance. I don’t deny that such utterances happen, but I’m not sure small groups need to put members in the “mushpot” and prophesy over them on a regular basis. I’m worried, in other words, that giving prophetic advice might crowd out seeking guidance from biblical teaching. Does God have a unique word for everyone in every situation? That’s the impression Seng gives me, but I’m not sure that’s true. The third is from the perspective of an unhealed person. Seng writes, “in the kingdom of God, healing is the default position.” As a classical Pentecostal, who believes that healing is provided for in the atonement, I resonate with this statement. But as a sufferer, I also recognize that there are elements of timing (healing in this age or the age to come?), divine purpose (“my grace is sufficient”), and mystery that complicate expectations of healing here and now. (UPDATE: It might be helpful to read Miracle Work and Dying Out Loud in tandem, for they capture the two sides of the coin. Miracle Work talks about divine power to heal, while Dying Out Loud limns the divine purposes of sickness and death. See my review of Dying Out Loud here.)
Despite my reservations, I recommend reading Miracle Work. It is an interesting, faith-building book. If Jesus and his followers did supernatural ministry, why can’t we?
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