While in seminary, I read James 4:2 one evening: “You do not have because you do not ask God.” Very clearly I sensed the Holy Spirit tell me, “You haven’t asked me for a husband.” I had not asked specifically for a husband because I had surrendered this desire and truly wanted God’s will. But the Spirit persisted and so I obeyed and asked. A few weeks later, I had my first date with my present husband of 33 years.
As a new bride, I quickly became aware that my husband could not meet all my needs. We slowly realized that he had anxiety issues due to childhood trauma and anxiety and could not love me like I desired. So I surrendered and I asked God for healing. But he didn’t answer like he did when I asked for a husband. Instead he answered with slow healing in both of us over many years.
A few years after we were married, we went to Indonesia as global workers. While there, we experienced several crises. One incident involved our teammate. While lighting her stove for her usual morning cup of tea, it exploded and she was burned on 80% of her body. She was evacuated to Singapore and folks all over the world began to pray. Some proclaimed confidently that she would be healed if we only believed enough. I wasn’t sure how to pray and about three weeks after the explosion, she died.
I asked God for a husband, and he answered fairly quickly as I wanted. I asked God to heal my husband and he gave incremental growth over time. I asked him to heal my teammate and he did so in death.
Can you relate? Have you asked the Lord for a miracle? For healing of a long term illness? To calm a storm? To bring wayward children home? To have children? For a husband? Do you look at the miracles of Jesus and think, how can I make that happen in my life? Perhaps you look at how God answered and healed someone else and want that for yourself. What’s the formula?
Our human tendency is to try to figure it out so that God will answer. To make a formula. To get God to do what he did in chapters 8–9 of Matthew’s gospel.
Matthew isn’t giving a chronological biography of Jesus’s life. Instead, Matthew is divided into sections of narrative surrounded by teaching. (Chapter 5–7 was the first big block of teaching—The Sermon on Mount. Chapter 10 is the second block—his instructions to the disciples to preach and heal.) What we have in chapters 8–9 are the stories of ten miracles.
Jesus has just finished describing what the kingdom is like and now he’s putting feet to his sermon. He’s saying, “I described it, now let’s live it out!” He moves out into Galilee. We get snippets of him in Capernaum, on a boat crossing lake, then on the eastern side at Garasenes, in several homes, and on the road.
Jesus is bringing the Kingdom of God directly into the lives of the people coming for healing, while the crowds, the disciples, and the religious leaders look on. We also get a close up of Matthew himself and some private teaching to both John’s disciples and his own.
Despite Jesus’s efforts to not attract attention, word gets around that he is performing miracles and crowds gather. Everywhere he goes, Jesus is met with awe, praise, and amazement. But also with fear, criticism, laughter, and even told to go away. The people see his power, but also his compassion. They ask “What kind of man is this?” (8:27). They are attracted to him and report, “Nothing like this had ever been seen in Israel” (9:33).
As they heard the reports, I’m sure there were some who speculated about how to get in on the action. Did they ask each other “how can we get a miracle too?” I wonder if they attempted to look for a formula just as we do today.
We’re tempted to look a these miracles and write our own “how to” list or find a formula for how to pray to get our own miracle, to calm a storm, or get all those crowds to follow us. Let’s see what potential formulas we could derive from just these ten stories.
“How to Get a Miracle” Potential Formulas
Since the man with leprosy said, “If you are willing,” we think tagging that onto our prayers will get them answered. Looking at only this set of miracles makes us expect immediate results. We think there’s something magical about Jesus’s touch because he touched both the man with leprosy and Peter’s mother-in-law. If asking directly doesn’t work, perhaps we can get others to ask on our behalf as the centurion did for his servant. Since Peter’s mother-in-law did nothing, maybe we should just wait for God to be merciful. Rebuking storms and demons also seems to work sometimes. Perhaps we need to confess all our sins first since Jesus first forgave the sins of the paralyzed man. Maybe if we follow Jesus radically by giving up home, family, or fasting, he will do a miracle for us. Or if we just ask for mercy or believe that he has authority as the blind men did.
I’ve tried some of these. I bet you have too. But kingdom life is not a formula. The problem with formulas is that if we could find one that would mean we can control God. And if we can do that, that makes us little gods. This is what Hinduism teaches, that we are little gods. Seeking a formula is a way to play god with our own lives.
But if not formulas, what DO we see in these miracles?
We see variety. We see that Jesus doesn’t follow a set pattern. And that destroys any formula. In these encounters, Jesus heals men and women; adults and a child; Jews and a Gentile; a synagogue leader at the top of the social structure and an unclean woman at the bottom; leprosy, fever, seizures, and internal bleeding; physical, mental, and demonic afflictions; disabilities and paralysis. Sometimes the needy ones initiate and sometimes Jesus does and at other times, a companion does. In some cases, a request is made of Jesus and other times, no request is made. Some healings are very public and others very private. Both external sickness and internal sin are healed. And lastly, one miracle involves nature.
We see that these miracles aren’t prescriptive. And so we learn that there are no formulas or blueprints for how to get what we want or need. Remember too, that these ten examples are only representative of Jesus’s ministry. We don’t know how many he healed in total and how many he did not heal. We have hints that not everyone blind, paralyzed person was healed.
What we do know is that Jesus healed people as he was led by the Spirit to accomplish his purposes. Matthew’s big point here is that Jesus has authority—power over disease, death, demons, nature and sin. He wants his followers to know “what kind of man he is” (8:27). To prove he is God and to give them a taste of the Kingdom he just preached about.
What CAN we take from these miracles?
What common threads do we see? Besides Jesus’s power and authority? We see that:
Jesus is doing something new and unexpected. He’s not here to patch up the old ways, but to bring in a new relationship to God through the new kingdom characterized by mercy, not sacrifice.
Jesus has compassion (9:36). He is willing to heal, accepting, receiving. He offers to come and heal the suffering servant. He calls the woman “daughter.” He wants to be the shepherd for leaderless sheep. Nowhere do we see Jesus abrupt, rude, annoyed (other than with religious leaders).
Jesus came for the sick and sinners, those who need him, not the self-righteous. He bears their infirmities, forgives sin, eats with sinners, touches the unclean and dead. Jewish rabbis did not speak to women in public, let alone touch them, even more so unclean women.
Jesus points out and accepts their faith. What I see as a common thread in all these stories is faith. How can we follow Jesus, live in the kingdom, and ask for miracles without making it into a formula? By faith. Live by faith.
We know that Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”
But what does faith look like for the people in our stories?
The Centurion demonstrates faith when he recognizes that Jesus possesses authority. He expected his word to be obeyed, and believed that his command would be done. “This is great faith” according to Jesus.
Faith-filled people follow Jesus wholeheartedly. They prioritize Jesus and don’t delay following him. Matthew got up as soon as Jesus called unlike the teacher of the law who made excuses and didn’t understand the cost.
The disciples have little faith when they are afraid of the storm. The storm must have been really violent for experienced fisherman to be so fearful they cry out to Jesus to save them. Having greater faith, in this case, would mean being calm and resting in his care.
Friends of a paralyzed man demonstrate faith when they go to a lot of trouble to bring him to Jesus. They believe he can do something for him and Jesus acknowledges their faith.
The synagogue leader believes that Jesus can raise his dead daughter. For him, faith is believing Jesus can raise the dead.
The blind men believe that Jesus is able to do this. Faith is believing that Jesus is able to perform miracles. In Jesus’s words: “According to your faith let it gone to you” (9:29); “Your faith has healed you” (9:27); “Let it be done just as you believed it would” (8:13).
Faith sees—knows deep within—what kind of man Jesus is—that he has divine authority, that he is God. That he able to do miracles, even raise the dead.
My colleague is a beautiful example of faith. She was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer a few months ago and her prognosis is grim. She’s a global worker who has served God all her life. Recently she wrote in her prayer letter to her partners and family:
My main prayer request has been that I would trust God and praise Him regardless of my circumstances. In hard circumstances we are tempted to believe the devil’s lies—things like: God is not there, He doesn’t care, or He is not enough. I have entertained all these lies, but I want to respond by faith knowing that God is who He says He is, so He deserves my praise and thanksgiving regardless of how I feel. All our hardships are an opportunity to exercise faith.Lorraine Graves
So, I ask you, are you looking for formulas or living by faith?
- What miracle do you want Jesus to do for you? What is your request of him?
- What formula might you have been tempted to apply to your situation?
- What kind of man is Jesus to you? Do you recognize that he has authority over everything, including your life? That he forgives sin? But also that he is your compassionate, willing shepherd?
- What does faith look like for you in your situation?
We’ve already learned that we can bring our requests to God and as a good Father, he gives good gifts to those who ask (Matthew 7:7–11). So bring your request, your need. But also ask God how he wants to act, how he wants to heal. Let him respond as he wants to, not according to your formula. Physical healing is not proof of God’s love and our faith. Remember God is compassionate, he is willing, he came for the needy. He still performs miracles but they don’t always look like the ones we read about today. But don’t make him a formula. Instead exercise faith.
I wonder what would it look like for us to be faith-filled followers of Jesus, not formula seekers? When unbelievers come to us, we don’t give them a formula, but we point to Jesus who has complete authority and we show them what it means to follow him in faith. We show them what kind of man he is. We’d write less “how to” books or tell people what to expect. We’d let God do the unexpected, the new thing that he wants to do. We’d be a community that prays for each other and tells our stories of faith.
Let’s live in such a way that when people see our community, they will know who Jesus is. Let’s be faith-filled followers of Jesus, not formula seekers.
Listen to “In Jesus Name” by Katy Nichole as my prayer for you.