At the end of May, Mack Wolford, a pastor of one of the fringe pentecostal churches that handle rattlesnakes as a test of faith (in ‘obedience’ to Mark 16), died of a bite on the thigh sustained during a church meeting. Being of the opinion that the Bible commends faith as the cure for snakebite, he did not seek treatment, and died shortly afterwards. His father had met the same end about 25 years ago.
Such an event is ripe for mockery, and many internet commenters predictably obliged, but this is sad for more reasons than his death.
Firstly, the obvious complaint is that the basis for this sort of behaviour in church is absurdly flimsy. Mark 16 is a later addition to the text (one of three manuscript endings for Mark), and seems to have been a hasty conclusion tacked on later because the ending that seems to be the original is abrupt and open ended. Those of us who hold to the authority of scripture tend to believe that it is the original that has the authority, and so mistakes and additions evident in later manuscripts are not deemed binding on us. Secondly, there are no comparable scriptures elsewhere in the Bible that guarantee miraculous intervention of this sort. Thirdly, the one who wrote this hasty conclusion may have understood himself to be writing a summary of Jesus’ promises to his Apostles, not to the general public, perhaps having in mind the incident in Acts in which St Paul is bitten by an adder and suffers no harm. In short, no one should be basing their well-being exclusively on those dubious words in Mark. Most people accept this, and the rattlesnake movement is accordingly very small.
The bigger sadness is that faith healing is in general a misunderstanding of the way that God works in the world. There is an assumption that certain things are (for want of better terminology) ‘ordinary’ and certain things are ‘spiritual’. Although few would argue this if pressed, they treat the spiritual realm as God’s habitat, but the ordinary realm as if God is largely absent from it. ‘Faith’ is a spiritual substance that gains you access to God’s powerful spiritual realm, from which comes miracle and other supernatural phenomena. The ordinary realm is the place for suffering, struggle, bodily functions, the sciences and so on. It is a realm to be transcended.
This outlooks fails not least because the things that belong to the ‘spiritual’ are chosen arbitrarily. Healing is an obvious candidate, because when ailments get beyond human help, we can only seek God’s supernatural intervention. This leads some, like Wolford, to classify healing as belonging to the realm of faith, and to consign medicine to the realm of unfaith.
But eating, as far as I’m aware, is never so classified. Eating is ‘ordinary’ and I for one have never heard of faith eaters.Yet the differences between food and medicine are not so great.
Firstly, food looks like it should belong to the ordinary, because it generally comes to us by natural means. It grows in the ground, you pick it and eat it. No miracle there. Yet the more we learn about our bodies and our world, the more we discover that healing the body is also a cooperative effort between our natural bodily functions and the things we find lying around. There is no necessary reason that the world should contain substances that cure things, but it does, and this is as much a feature of God’s Creation as food is.
Secondly, healing looks like a spiritual matter because so many Biblical miracles involve healing. Yet there are a number of very significant feeding miracles in the Bible by which God provides food entirely without natural help — such as Manna from heaven, the flour and oil jars that never run out, and the feeding of the 5,000 — yet people never seem to argue that we should pursue faith eating.
In both eating and healing, we trust God by faith to provide, and we are able to receive what He provides with thanksgiving. There is no compelling reason why healing by natural means is less faithful to God than eating by natural means.
It is a fundamental misunderstanding that God is more active in the supernatural than in the natural. The Biblical book of Esther, for example, fails even to mention God in its pages, and the deliverance in the end comes about via a series of non-supernatural coincidences. A major theme in the book is that God is capable of doing His work, even bringing about incredible results, without supernatural demonstrations of power.
So maybe a better test of faith would be to trust God while nothing much is happening, or trusting Him while dealing wisely with the world He created, instead of playing spiritual brinkmanship with God to goad Him into making a miraculous display. You might as well sit down with your mouth open and demand that He feed you.