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The tragedy of Bethel's #WakeUpOlive: Why it isn't always God's will to heal

Last month, Bethel Church in Redding, California urged its followers to pray for two year-old Olive Heiligenthal to be raised from the dead. The hashtag #WakeUpOlive trended on social media while the church sang, danced and declared "resurrection power". But despite six days of praying God would work a miracle and raise Olive from the dead, she didn’t wake up. Here, Jessica Miller reflects on the theology which she believes drove the church to prayer, and explains why she believes it can be so damaging 

I had never encountered the Word of Faith movement until a few years ago when I was diagnosed with a chronic illness as part of infertility testing.

Because I believe in God’s ability to supernaturally heal, I used email and social media to ask for prayer from hundreds of Christian friends. As a result of this, I became acquainted with a doctrine pervasive among some Christians, including Bethel's Bill Johnson, who believe it is always God’s will to heal in this life. 

This doctrine is what drove the church to recently pray for the young daughter of one of their worship leaders. It is not simply the belief that God can heal people today (which I agree with). But the belief that God always wants to heal. Word of Faith teaches that faith can be applied like a force and they can bring earthly benefits (such as health and wealth) into reality by using the power of their words.

This was evidenced during the #WakeUpOlive tragedy, where Christians could be seen “declaring” what they believed God must do.

This teaching is based on some verses which are pulled out of context, such as, "by his wounds we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5). It's often claimed that Jesus never said “no” to anyone who asked for a healing. This can sound compelling at first, but is factually wrong. There are examples where Jesus chose not to heal people who were seeking a healing (see Matthew 13:58, Mark 1:29-38, John 5:3-8). There are other New Testament examples where people remained sick or died (1 Timothy 5:23, 2 Timothy 4:20, 1 Corinthians 11:30) even though the apostles had been given authority to “heal the sick” and “raise the dead” (Matthew 10:1-8). We need a more nuanced theology than the Word of Faith movement provides. 

Out of context scriptures

Because I have a number of friends who have recently left churches which teach Word of Faith theology, I've closely followed #WakeUpOlive and have discovered that the promise they were claiming was based on taking a scripture out of context. In this case, Matthew 10:8: “raise the dead.” They were claiming that because God had given the twelve authority to raise the dead, and the twelve were commanded to teach others what they had been taught (Matthew 28:20), therefore Christians today have the same authority to raise the dead. So they were declaring for a week that a 2 year-old girl be raised from the dead.

However, when you study Matthew 10:8 in context, it is clear from that passage that the twelve were also commanded to preach only to the Jews (10:5-6) and to not take any money with them (10:9-11). This is a very selective hermeneutic if we are going to pull verse 8 totally out of context and apply it to our lives today while ignoring the rest of the passage. Preaching the scriptures out of context has the destructive effect of making God out to be a liar.

Bill Johnson put out a video in the middle of the week, defending the church’s activities by quoting Matthew 10:8. He stated that they were simply following what God had commanded them to do. He also quoted John 11:40 (“Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”) out of context, applying a word to everyone that Jesus had spoken specifically to Martha. (The Greek word for “you” makes it clear that he intended this for Martha alone, not the rest of us.)

Emotional rollercoaster 

I cannot overemphasize just how harmful and damaging this teaching can be for someone who is dealing with a chronic condition such as infertility. My emotions were a rollercoaster as I sought to “believe for a miracle” and was devastated month after month when my prayers went unanswered. God wanted to heal me, I was told. If the problem wasn't with him, perhaps it was with me? What was I doing wrong? 

Fortunately, I had enough biblical understanding to recognise some aspect of what was false, and this protected me from wholesale engagement with the lies. But the grief I was grappling with made me more vulnerable and, as a result of engaging to a certain extent with these teachings, I experienced more pain and heartache than I would have otherwise. My healing journey only began when I started to identify the lies and replace them with biblical truth. I realised God’s plan for our lives is according to the purpose of his will, not ours. I reflected on how waiting on God is a normal part of the Christian life, and scripture is full of teaching on how to endure and persevere amid our less-than-perfect circumstances.

Embracing Word of Faith theology results in a very transactional view of God. God is seen as a genie who will always say yes to our requests if we just say the magic formula (or pray hard enough or wait or fast long enough). Some notable individuals who previously ascribed to this theology have nearly lost their faith entirely. One of them, Lisa Gungor, first started to doubt when she began to struggle with infertility. I can relate to her doubts and questions because this theology does not work at all if God says “no.”

When God says 'no' 

The Bible actually teaches that “no” is a possible answer to our prayers (Luke 22:42, 2 Corinthians 12:8-10) so the theology that God always says "yes" is conclusively unbiblical. As I began to recognise and reject these theological errors, I began to experience emotional healing. However, it was still very difficult to encounter people who stated or implied that if I just had enough faith I would be healed. Though packaged in a way as if to be helpful, the theology itself is extremely wounding. Though it’s not usually an overt accusation, the theology implies that the person who has not received the healing is doing something wrong. It’s their fault. They are to blame. But who is the accuser of believers according to scripture (Revelation 12:10)? Hint: it’s not God.

Throughout my journey with infertility, I have become increasingly aware of just how pervasive these Word of Faith teachings have become – even in mainstream Christianity. Despite what appeared to me as an obvious exposure of the failure of these teachings in the #WakeUpOlive movement, many Bethel followers have simply reinterpreted the whole situation and carry on in their beliefs.

We need a robust biblical theology that incorporates all of scripture and accounts for the suffering that the Bible promises to those who believe. We need to review the biblical teaching on lament. We cannot remain faithful to Christ while preaching verses out of context from the inspired Word he has given us. The reality of life and a reading of the whole of scripture testifies that we are not living in the kingdom now. We are living in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” where we need an authentic, biblical theology that will resonate with the growing number of questioning believers.

We need an eternal perspective on miracles. The very definition of a miracle as an extraordinary occurrence would collapse if Bill Johnson’s teaching were actually true.

I have personally seen things that I cannot explain apart from supernatural intervention. I believe God still does miracles today and we can petition him for them, but we cannot declare what he must do. There is such peace and rest in recognizing the truth that God is in control! We can trust him to do what is ultimately best for our eternal good: “The LORD does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths” (Psalm 135:6).

Jessica Miller is married to Jeff and she volunteers as her church’s director of outreach, missions, prayer, and hospitality. Prior to marriage, her life was radically altered by a couple of years she spent living in the Middle East. She blogs at myjourneytomotherhoodinterrupted.com and has degrees in biblical studies, women’s ministries, and counseling.

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