Two men who worked for Spring Arbor University suffered severe closed-head injuries at about the same time. Both served the Lord and both had many people praying for them. One returned to work as a professor in a few weeks, but the other never was able to remember things well enough to run the food service. He survived but never was able to handle mental challenges again.
Why did God heal one but not the other? Each was equally deserving of healing and each had numerous people believing and interceding for him. Sadly, this case was not the first time God’s people were puzzled by God’s miraculous action for one person and His bewildering inaction for another. In Acts 12 King Herod murders James the apostle and then puts Peter in prison with plans to murder him after Passover. The church prays for Peter as they undoubtedly did for James, and God answers their prayers by sending an angel to break Peter out of prison. What made the difference between God’s decision to let James die as a martyr, and to let Peter go free? It certainly was not the great faith of those who were praying for him! When God answered their prayers and Peter showed up at the door of their prayer meeting, they thought he must already have been killed. “Since Peter’s dead, it must be his angel at the door,” they said.
No, there is no reason we can figure out why God chose to let James die and then to save Peter from the same executioner. The problem gets even tougher when we look at Paul’s life. God used Paul to work many miracles. He says he did many signs, wonders and miracles, and he did them over a long period of time (2 Corinthians 12:12). So powerful was Paul that in Ephesus people collected clothes he had worn and gave them to sick or demon-possessed people, and they were healed (Acts 19:11–12). Yet this same Paul, whose clothes healed people he didn’t even know, was unable to heal his fellow-worker, Trophimus, whom he had to leave sick at Miletus (2 Timothy 4:20).
It’s easy to think that because Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8) — and because this truth applies equally to the other two members of the Trinity — when God acts differently in different people’s circumstances, then the only thing that is different is the people involved. We know this is sometimes the case: In his hometown, Jesus was unable to do many miracles because His own people did not believe in Him (Mark 6:5–6). But blaming the victim is a dangerous business. We can’t see into people’s hearts and, as we saw in the case of Paul, sometimes God treats the same person differently. God rescued both Peter and Paul from death several times, but then delivered each of them over to be martyred.
These truths help us avoid the terrible mistake of blaming someone when God chose not to do the miracle we all had hoped for. I heard a story of a pastor who at his son’s funeral preached that someone (or ones) in his congregation was responsible for the child’s death, because they did not have enough faith that he would be healed. This awful accusation reminds me of pagans who consult a witchdoctor after a villager’s death to find out who put a curse on the one who died.
Rather than searching for a scapegoat, we need to remember that sometimes God answers prayer by saying, “No.” The best prayer ever offered by the most perfect petitioner received exactly that response. In Gethsemane, Jesus begged his Father to “let this cup pass from me,” yet the answer was negative (Matthew 26:39-44 KJV).
Near But Not Fully Here
Another way to frame why God seems to grant some pleas and is silent regarding others comes from the nature of the kingdom of God. Mark summarizes the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, saying He proclaimed the good news of God, “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15).
Notice that Jesus did not say, “The kingdom of God has come here.” No, He said it “has come near.” Even though God Himself was in the world in the person of Jesus, He had not yet fully brought the kingdom. The word Jesus uses, ejggizw (eggidzō), means that something is approaching, that it is near but not here. The phrase New Testament scholars use is “already/not yet.” They say that with the arrival of Jesus, God’s kingdom — His rule in peoples’ hearts and over the earth — is already here, but it is not yet fully here.
The most obvious way that Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God but did not complete it was with His physical presence. Although Jesus could heal without being close to the sick person, He only did so twice (Matthew 8:5–13; 15:21–28). All the other times, Jesus healed with a word or a touch, and the person had to be in His presence. The four carriers knew that if their paralyzed friend was going to be healed, they needed to get him to Jesus, even if it meant ripping up the roof (Mark 2:1–12). Jesus healed many in Capernaum, but the next day He left to go to the other villages of Galilee (Mark 1:32–39). For that time at least, the miracles in Capernaum stopped. When Jesus came into the world for the first time, the kingdom of God came with Him, but in a way, when Jesus moved on from an area, it also left with Him too.
After Pentecost, when Jesus gave His Holy Spirit, it became possible for Jesus, through His people, to be present everywhere at once. God solved the problem of Jesus’ physical limitations by allowing Jesus to live in believers through the Holy Spirit. Because of the Holy Spirit, the power of the kingdom of God to heal the sick, free the demon-possessed, and even raise the dead, burst the limits of one man’s presence. But even the mighty empowerment of the Holy Spirit did not complete the coming of the kingdom. At the same time that Jesus explained how He would live through His disciples by the Holy Spirit, He also told of going to prepare a place for them, a work that He would not complete until He came back to the world again (John 14-17).
The New Testament uses two word pictures to describe the nearness, but not the hereness of the kingdom. The first is engagement, and the second is pregnancy. In John 14, Jesus describes Himself as a bridegroom, who is not yet a husband. The bridegroom goes to prepare a place for his bride. Then when he returns, they are married, and he becomes her husband. In Galatians 4:19, Paul likens himself to a pregnant woman who is in labor to bring forth her child. In each case something has started, but has not yet come to completion. Yes, things are already different, but they are not yet as different as they are going to be.
D-Day and V-E Day
In the 20th century, New Testament scholar Oscar Cullmann discovered yet another word picture to describe the already/not-yet nature of God’s kingdom. After he lived through World War II, he said that as Christians we live in God’s kingdom between D-Day and V-E Day. D-Day was when the armies invaded France, and V-E Day celebrated the victory in Europe the next spring. Yes, the allies have landed and are on their way to inevitable victory, but more men will die in the 11 months between D-Day and V-E Day than died in the more than four years before D-Day.
Because God’s kingdom is ejggizw, there is much fighting yet to do. Many battles must be fought, and not all of them will be won. Yes, the kingdom is triumphing: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor” (Matthew 11:5). But the unspoken message is, “You, John, will die in prison.” Certainly we will win the war, but we will lose many battles along the way, and there will be heavy casualties.
So we pray, “Thy kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10 KJV), knowing that it is coming.
“He comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found” (“Joy to the World” by Isaac Watts based on Psalm 98).
But we know the kingdom is near, but it is not here. So we go on to pray, “Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10 KJV).
We know God’s will is not always done here on earth. Sometimes sinful people oppose it, and other times evil demons thwart it. God wanted the Pharisees to repent and accept John’s baptism, but they resisted His will and did not obey (Luke 7:30). Paul wanted to visit the people in Thessalonica but Satan hindered him (1 Thessalonians 2:18).
Engagements end in marriage, and pregnancies end in childbirth. D-Day gave way to V-E Day. Jesus will return to establish His kingdom over every heart and heartland. The certain hope of victory enables us to embrace the “fellowship of His suffering” as Paul wrote from jail to the Philippians (Philippians 3:10 RGT). Because we know how the story will end, we can regard our unanswered prayers, our disappointments, and our pain as temporary setbacks on the road to glory. Paul described his afflictions including hunger, thirst, cold, betrayal, danger, beating, flogging, stoning, imprisonment and four shipwrecks as “light and momentary troubles” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Because he had his eyes on the prize, he could see the stumbling blocks as stepping stones.
So we pray for miracles. As the Israeli sign says, “We don’t believe in miracles. We depend on them.”
And we also remember the words of the three Hebrew boys as they faced the fiery furnace, “Our God is able to save us from it, and He will rescue us from your hand. But if not, we will not serve your gods” (my paraphrase of Daniel 3:17–18). “We know God can do it, but if not …”
We know God does miracles, but we also know He Himself suffered, and He may allow us to become like Him in His suffering. And we know that whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s (Romans 14:8).
And we also know that in every situation, God is working for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). Miracles show us the kingdom is near, and disappointments show us that it is not here. But we are closer every day.
The truth that God is at work in every situation for the good of those who love Him is so important that the Bible teaches it four times. The first one comes in the story of Joseph whose brothers hated him so much that they sold him into slavery in Egypt. Their crime against him began with slavery, which led to prison, which turned into power, which resulted in the saving of thousands of Hebrew and Egyptian lives during the famine (Genesis 37-50). In the end Joseph summarized the story when he said, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20 NASB). Nehemiah repeated the lesson when he spoke of God changing curses into blessings (Nehemiah 13:2). Paul taught it twice, once in Romans 8:28 and again in 2 Corinthians 1:4 when he said that God strengthens us in all our troubles, so that we in turn can strengthen other people in any of their troubles too.
Obviously the greatest illustration of God turning evil into good is the cross. The worst deed that people ever did was when the best government the world had ever known joined with the most wonderful religion the world had ever known. They committed the single most atrocious atrocity the world had ever known. They killed the most perfect man the world had ever known in the most painful and shameful way the world had ever known, but God turned it into the glory of our salvation. Because the cross allows us to see God transforming the world’s worst into heaven’s best, we can face the “not yet” as more than conquerors, confidently anticipating the complete coming of the kingdom (Romans 8:28–39).
Chuck White, Ph.D., teaches at Spring Arbor University. He has taught the Bible in 13 different countries. He has 14 grandchildren, and he has run 60,000 miles since he turned 40.