BY TIFFANY TSAO
Whenever I return home to Singapore for Christmas, I can always expect a miracle. Or rather, I can always expect to hear about one from my family. Past miracles related to me have involved the inexplicable healing of serious and terminal illnesses, angelic visitations, exorcisms of demons, and the like. My aunt once showed me photos taken during her trip to Israel with luminous white spots here and there. “Angels,” she told me. “Are you sure?” I asked. “What else could they be?” she replied, somewhat defensively. “Something wrong with the camera?” “Like what?” “I dunno,” I mumbled; not knowing very much about cameras, I decided to let the matter drop. Another time, my mother told me of a woman in her office who found out she had cancer. After an extended session of prayer, the doctors found no trace of the malignant tumors which they had previously found throughout her body. “Praise God. Isn’t He amazing?” my mother asked, rhetorically of course. If the story was true, I was inclined to agree with her, finding this incident a far more convincing instance of divine intervention than white spots in a photograph.
This last Christmas, soon after I arrived back from the States, my family invited a man over for dinner who had the gift of being able to physically feel other people’s ailments and to pray for their healing. A faith-healer, eh? I thought to myself. This might be interesting. By which I really meant, I wonder how kooky he’s going to be. He and his wife arrived a little late (they were visiting someone in the hospital, and it had taken longer than expected). They were an ordinary-looking Singaporean-Chinese couple: in their late thirties to forties, dressed in ordinary clothing, and quite shy and self-effacing. “So, Uncle,” I asked, eager to satisfy my curiosity, “they tell me you have the gift of healing!” “Yah, a little,” he acknowledged. I persisted. “My mom said you can feel people’s pain in the same place where they feel it?” “Yah,” he acknowledged again. Then he told me how the gift had appeared one day, and how sometimes he would use the gift, and how sometimes the person was healed and sometimes was not. “It really depends on God,” he said. And the conversation moved to other things.
At my mother’s behest and out of my own curiosity, after dinner, he and his wife laid hands on me and prayed for the curing of a persistent canker sore in my mouth. Consciously attempting to banish the skepticism from my mind, I tried to remain open to the possibility that God might very well cure the sore right then and there. It was gone the next day, but truthfully, I attributed that more to the fact that it was almost gone already and the application of some medicinal paste before I went to bed that night. Whether the disappearance of the sore was “miraculous” or not, aren’t all good things, even the most seemingly trivial, attributable ultimately to God?
The more unsettling question, though, was this: Does being skeptical about faith healings and angelic apparitions captured on film make me less of a Christian? It almost seems to—at least in my family’s eyes. I’m a Christian; they’re certain about that. But to them, my Christian faith is a bloodless, lifeless one. I’m afraid to fully believe in the omnipotence of the Almighty God and the wonders He can perform in this day and age; afraid to ask God the Father for blessings in all areas of life; snugly cocooned in theological doctrine and academic knowledge about God while shying away from experiencing God. In general, Christians in Singapore (and, as far as I can tell, in Asia as a whole) are far more comfortable with acknowledging and experiencing the supernatural as a daily part of Christian life. The church my family has traditionally attended—considered one of the more theologically conservative (“stuffy”, if you will) churches in Singapore—has no qualms about sponsoring the occasional evangelistic healing rally for Hokkien, Teochew, and other Chinese dialect speakers. During the SARS outbreak in Singapore, the pastor of one mega-church (and yes, they do exist in Singapore), urged his parishioners to recite Psalm 91 every day in order to protect themselves. I had the opportunity to attend a weeknight Bible-study session at the church during which the pastor delivered an hour-long public rumination on Psalm 91 to a 1,500 member audience. “Surely!” he read with great zeal, “Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare, and from the— from the what?” The congregation responded “…the deadly pestilence!” “I can’t hear you, people! He’ll save you from what?” he roared. “THE DEADLY PESTILENCE!” the congregation roared back.
The pastor of this church believes in “naming it, and claiming it” and enjoying material blessings which come from the Lord’s favor upon his followers. He encourages his congregation to pray for healing, for miracles, and for improvement in their business. When they receive those blessings, he reminds them that they in turn should bless others. The most obvious influence on Singaporean churches like these comes from certain evangelistic churches in America and the figures who espouse “prosperity” theology, such as Bruce Wilkinson or Joel Osteen. But in Asia, I would argue that the American-imported “health and wealth” gospel has its hand in only a part in the story. In Asia, praying for miracles and expecting the supernatural also has its roots in certain traditional religious practices from China. Ethnic Chinese make up approximately 76% of Singapore’s population, and most of them observe a form of Buddhism or Taoism, mixed with some Confucianism and Chinese folk religion. In daily practice, such religion involves certain prayers and offerings made to the spirits (good and bad) to request and receive blessings; incense is burned; the ghosts of ancestors are kept fed with offerings of food and money; mediums channel spirits who will give people guidance about what to do. Although Christians may be quick to deny it, one might see parallels in local Christian practice, where dealing with the supernatural is more part and parcel of everyday life than in, say, the United States or the United Kingdom. Demons are exorcised, the faithful can have visions, cancerous tumors can be prayed over and melted away by the grace and power of God. But there is one important difference between non-Christian and Christian interactions with the supernatural: Christians will hold that, ultimately, it depends not on the believer’s actions, but on God Himself…and God doesn’t always choose to grant us what we desire. Even the pastor preaching on God’s sovereignty over SARS would acknowledge that. Still, “God rewards the faithful,” many Christians in Asia will hold: Matthew 13 does record that in his hometown, Jesus “did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.”
While I am sure that there are some parts of the United States where similar expressions of Christianity can be found, my own experience of Christianity in America—specifically, in Massachusetts and California—has been vastly different. I hear more sermons preached on how God works through life crises and hardships rather than on how enough faith and prayer can remove those hardships forever. I hear fewer personal testimonies about divine intervention and supernatural experiences, and more personal testimonies about appreciating God in the little things and leaning on Him in the hard times. Here, Christians see God more as a life-vest than, say, a rescue-helicopter: He’ll get you through life when the floods engulf you, rather than pulling you out immediately. Typical prayers I hear for physical healing here consist of asking God to “bring healing and restoration” or to “give the doctors judgment.” Such requests sound downright wishy-washy when compared with typical prayers I hear when back home in Asia, which not only ask for God to work through doctors and medicine, but also through direct intervention: “God, we ask that You remove those tumors in the name of Jesus! Take them away!”
Although some would disagree with me, I think it undeniable that the miraculous plays a central role in Christianity—a faith which professes the divinity of a man who was born to a virgin, who walked on water, who came back from the dead, and then ascended into heaven before his disciples’ very eyes. But what role does it play in the everyday lives of believers today? Although I shy away from making supernatural intervention in my a life an important part of practicing my faith, I find myself strangely hesitant to ridicule its presence in the faith of others—especially when it manifests itself in the surprisingly unostentatious humility of a shy “faith-healer” from back home, and especially when it means the disappearance of cancer or some other terminal illness for a fellow human being.
Perhaps this question—what role does the miraculous play in my everyday life—is part of a larger problem the Christian often faces: finding the balance between treating God as a wish-fulfillment machine (the great ATM in the sky), and thinking of God as someone who created us only to observe us playing out our lives from a distance as He sits with His hands folded in front of Him. Does God guarantee a miracle whenever I ask for one, or does God refrain from granting miracles, except for certain, very, very exceptional circumstances? And as wishy-washy as it may sound at first, perhaps the answer isn’t one or the other.
This past weekend, I heard a pastor of a church in Berkeley speak on the visions of the prophet Ezekiel. The book of Ezekiel, by any standards, is downright weird. God treats Ezekiel to a series of bizarre visions: four-winged, four-faced cherubim angels covered in eyes and rolling about on wheels; and a valley filled with bones which God recovers in flesh and reanimates into a great army—just to name two of them. The larger point the speaker was making concerned God’s unpredictability and His ability to act not according to a set formula but however He chooses in any situation and at any point in time. To expect God to act in a certain way all the time, be it the granting of miracles when we humbly ask for them, or the denial of such miracles in order to “build our character,” is to reduce God to a being without free will—a phenomenon that follows a predictable pattern of behavior much like gravity, lightning, or an orbiting planet.
The conclusion I’ve come to does sound rather wishy-washy, neither here nor there. Should we expect God to grant miracles when we ask humbly and out of faith? We should…and we shouldn’t. More than anyone else, God is free, bound to no laws and beholden to no being, and we shouldn’t operate on the delusion that we can act in such a way as to elicit a certain response from God. But the reason for this wishy-washy conclusion lies in a startlingly unsettling reality: God’s complete freedom to both transcend the laws of nature and act according to the laws of nature of His creation; His freedom to wipe out the human race and start afresh (according to the story of the Flood, He’s certainly been tempted to do so), and His decision to instead pursue us with an unrequited love—which He has indeed done in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.