A Ten-Year-Old Boy and Augustine on Healing Miracles2
It is well known that early in his Christian life and career Augustine was what we today would call a cessationist. He was quite skeptical about claims to miraculous events and the operation of all spiritual gifts. But a number of undeniable experiences led him to reevaluate his earlier beliefs. Continue reading . . .
It is well known that early in his Christian life and career Augustine was what we today would call a cessationist. He was quite skeptical about claims to miraculous events and the operation of all spiritual gifts. But a number of undeniable experiences led him to reevaluate his earlier beliefs. Although these are by no means the only references he made to healing, they are deserving of our close attention.
The first healing was of himself. He explains:
“At that time you [God] tortured me with a toothache, and when it had grown so severe that I could not speak, the thought entered my heart that I should urge all my own people who were there to pray for me to you, the God of every kind of healing. I wrote this on a wax tablet and gave it to one of them to read out to the rest. The moment we knelt down and begged this favor from you, the pain vanished. What was that pain? Where did it go? I must admit that I was terrified, my Lord and my God, for I had never in all my life experienced anything like it. It came home to [me] most deeply that this was a sign of your powerful will, and I rejoiced in my faith as I praised your name” (Confessions, Book IX, 12, p. 179).
On reading this I immediately thought back on an experience I had when I was a young boy, one that I believe was similar to Augustine, especially in terms of our reaction to it.
It was 1961 and my family had recently moved to Midland, Texas. I was only ten years old, having been a Christian for about two years. I was theologically uninformed and knew nothing of the supernatural. I suspect that what I’m about to share may strike some of you as silly, or at best the confusion of an immature kid. Undoubtedly I was immature. What ten-year-old isn’t? But I’m confident about the truth of what happened.
One night I lay in bed, suffering from the worst headache I had ever experienced. I didn’t have words for it then, but it was something akin to a migraine. The pain was paralyzing and I felt helpless even to call out for the help of my mother or father. I can’t say that I had ever asked God for healing before that night, but I was desperate. My prayer was simple and typical for a ten-year-old.
“God, if you’re there, would you heal me? Please take this pain away. I’m going to count to three.”
I know what you’re thinking, but isn’t that the way you would have done it at that age?
“When I get to three, God, please take the pain away. One. Two. Three!”
I didn’t expect anything to happen. To say I was shocked when something did is quite the understatement. There wasn’t a gradual diminishing of pain. Nothing along the lines of, “I’m beginning to feel a little bit better.” The healing was sudden, total, and startling, very much along the lines of what Augustine describes when God healed him of the excruciating pain of that toothache. Immediately on saying “Three,” all pain disappeared. I remember being so surprised that I lay motionless, fearful that if I moved the pain would come back, fearful that it was all make-believe.
But I went from excruciating pain to complete and empirically undeniable healing in an instant. I’d love to be able to say it happened the next time a headache came along, but I can’t. It was a one-off, as they say. But that doesn’t make it any less real. It’s one of those experiences that, no matter the age when it happens, you never forget it. The moment it occurred is as real to me today as it was that night. It was so exceptional and out of the ordinary that I was more scared than relieved. Again, I suspect that’s typical for ten-year-old kids.
On countless occasions since that night in 1961 I’ve reminded myself of what God did for a silly little kid who counted to three. The lesson I learned is as simple now as it was then: there is a God who heals, not every time we count to three, but according to his sovereign and merciful good will.
Now, back to Augustine. There is yet another story that he recounts for us in The Confessions:
“A certain citizen of Milan, very well known in the city, who had been blind for several years, became aware of the riotous joy of the people and inquired the reason for it; on hearing what was happening he leapt up and asked his guide to take him there. He was led to the basilica and begged to be admitted, so that he might touch with his handkerchief the funeral bier of your holy ones, whose death was precious in your sight. He did so, and applied the handkerchief to his eyes; they were immediately opened. The consequences of this were the wide diffusion of the story, fervent praise offered to you, and a change of mind on the part of our enemy, for although she was not brought to the healthy state of believing, her persecuting fury was at least curbed [he is referring to Justina, mother of the boy-emperor Valentinian, who had taken to persecuting the church and Bishop Ambrose in particular]. Thanks be to you, O my God!” (Confessions, IX, 16, p. 182).
Some have objected on the basis of the somewhat “odd” or “weird” way in which this healing occurred: the blind man used his handkerchief to touch the bodies of two dead saints. But as strange as this incident may be, especially to people of a 21st century mindset, “strangeness is not a criterion for truth. Nor is it a criterion we would want to use in order to decide whether something is scriptural or unscriptural” (Jack Deere, Surprised by the Power of the Spirit, 74-75).
Before you too quickly reject Augustine’s testimony, ask yourself if it is any less strange that a man should be raised from the dead after making contact with the decaying bones of Elisha (2 Kings 13:21). I find it strange that a man should have to wash seven times in a river to be healed of leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-14). That demons should be cast out of two men and enter into a whole herd of pigs, who proceed to run into the sea and drown, is a bit unusual (Matt. 8:28-32)! Using spit and mud (John 9:6-7), a man’s “shadow” (Acts 5:14-15), and another’s “aprons” to heal (Acts 19:12) all seem a bit out of the ordinary. I’m certainly not suggesting that such methods for healing are normative, but God’s ways are on occasion “strange” and “weird” and “unusual” but should not for that reason be rejected as inauthentic.
Are you in need of healing? Whether it is a minor headache or blindness, God is pleased and honored when you come to him and ask. I don’t know what the outcome will be in your case, but this I do know: “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2).