December 9, 2011

Let Me Be More Explicit ... (Part Two)

"In the pages that follow, we want to shine the spotlight on a remarkable woman who had a remarkable journey toward healing. Was she skeptical about people who claimed to have special powers? Absolutely. Until ..."
Thus begins one of the stories in the recently published book “Miracles Are For Real” by James Garlow and Keith Wall – a collection of stories that I, as an inveterate skeptic, would normally treat with a high degree of suspicion as being potentially distorted, exaggerated, or completely fabricated.

Only this time, something is different. In this case, it’s a story which I had the unique opportunity to test with an unusually intense level of scrutiny. Whereas other times I would only hear of these supposed miracles after the fact, this time I was able to fully observe the relentlessly deteriorating condition of this woman for four years prior to the “miracle”. I was there to take in all the sights, sounds, and emotions connected the “miracle” event itself. And I’ve spent the last 8½ years testing the completeness and permanence of this claimed healing. You see, the “remarkable woman” described in Chapter 7 of “Miracles Are For Real” is my wife.

The one thing that frustrates me most when I share the story of Vonna's healing from MS (see Part One) with others is the remarkable lack of questions that come my way. Typically, those who accept the account offer responses built around some variation of the “praise God” theme. Those who are skeptical tend to respond by looking for the most expedient way to change the subject. Either way, the opportunity to question, investigate, and test the report of a modern-day miracle is overlooked.

As a skeptic myself, it would be hard to think of a question that I haven’t asked at some point during the past 8½ years. So it’s difficult to believe that others don’t have the same questions. But whether it’s fear of offending me, or fear of straying outside the comfort zone of one’s own belief system, very few people have the courage to directly explore those kinds of questions with someone who both has firsthand knowledge of the situation, and who has probably already explored that same question himself.

In fact, the one condition we had before being interviewed for this book was that our own doubts, questions, and skepticism would come through as accurately and transparently as possible. As we read the final product, we were relieved to see that attitude come through, not only through our own story, but in the authors’ emphasis on testable, verifiable evidence. Conditions are applied to distinguish “miracles” from “coincidences”. The possibility of future scientific descriptions for presently unexplainable physical events is clearly offered. Readers are cautioned to allow physicians to assess the completeness and permanence of healings before making any public claims or before discontinuing treatment. And all of this is told in the context of an author whose wife, as the book went to press, continued to suffer from untreatable and unhealed cancer.

I was originally going to write this post listing all of the questions I had asked myself, along with my answers. But that’s the problem with most “miracle” accounts. They’re one-way sermons with no opportunity for follow-up. So I’m challenging you, the reader, to take over from here. Think of the one question you’re dying to ask someone who claims to have seen a modern-day “miracle”, and let’s discuss it. Who knows, maybe you’ll come up with the one question I haven’t thought of yet.


  1. My main questions would relate to how connected do you think the physical miraculous healing is to the internal spiritual health of the person being healed. Does a person's lack of faith or unconfessed sin block the chance or reduce the likelihood of healing. Or is it all about God choosing to do a miracle for some and not for others? Possibly not a very answerable question, but that's one I wonder about.

  2. Scott, this is a good question to which I don't feel qualified to deliver a definitive theological answer. But in the spirit of this discussion, I will comment on how I see it relating to our particular story.

    On the evening Vonna was healed, the guest speaker spoke about unresolved issues that can block healing. We have always been skeptical of anyone who, intentionally or not, makes the sick person feel responsible for the fact that they aren't healed. We've known plenty of people who seemed far more "spiritually healthy", that were never healed. And Hebrews 11 lists all the "heroes of faith" who all died in faith, never having received the promise (Hebrews 11:13).

    So Vonna sat through that message, having an internal argument with God. She had spent years dealing with many "issues" that had were rooted in her childhood with an alcoholic father, but that evening she told God, "I really think I've come to a point of closure on those issues, but if there's anything unresolved that I'm not aware of, please take it away." It was at that point she went forward for prayer, and then went back home, still suffering from MS … until a couple hours later when she lay in bed and felt her body being transformed.

    The way we have made sense of this goes something like this: First, we have postulated that there is something real out there, which we identify as "God", that wants to bring healing into our lives, and with which we need to, in some sense, cooperate in order to receive that healing. Second, we recognize that "healing" can include many areas other than our physical bodies. In Vonna's case, the years of dealing with family issues was definitely a long, slow healing process. Finally, it would seem that we don't get to prioritize which area of healing we want first. In Vonna's case, it seemed that after closure on the family issues, physical healing was, for whatever reason, next on the list. But the list for other people might be prioritized completely differently, and physical healing may not even appear on the list, other than in the form of a new body in another life.

    Again, good question, and obviously one we've given a lot of thought to. The framework I've described seems to fit both scripturally and experientially, but I invite any follow-up comments you might have.

  3. In reports of miraculous healing, I've always found it easier (more probable?) to believe that the initial diagnosis was wrong than that the recovery was a miracle of the "zap -- you're healed" variety. Perhaps the book goes into sufficient detail to cut off this objection in your wife's case, but since I haven't read it yet I'll proceed.

    I have an acquaintance who claims to have been healed of a brain tumor before I knew her. She has before/after xrays to document her story. I don't question the sincerity of her belief that the initial diagnosis was correct; i.e., that the first xray shows a tumor in *her* brain. But given the options of miracle healing or the doctor's explanation of mixed up medical charts, it's hard not to think that the docs have a more believable case. I can imagine, though, that a sick person may be reluctant to "sleight" God of the credit and may not give the misdiagnosis option its full weight.

    If I had received the stunning blow of a terrible diagnosis, prayed for healing, and then had the diagnosis lifted (maybe by miracle, maybe by some mislabeled tests coming to light) then I'd probably feel honor bound to give the glory to God no matter which had occurred. That's not a question, but I'd love to learn what you think about it.

  4. Thank you for your comments. Your points are very well taken; my own skeptical nature tends to take me down those very same paths.

    In the case of a diagnosis followed by a reversal , I would, as you did, first suspect a misdiagnosis, especially if there were minimal presenting symptoms. Having “before” and “after” X-rays to compare does change the odds significantly. (It also makes me think of the old “how much would you charge to just touch up the X-rays?” story.) If the X-ray evidence is compelling enough, then one has to assume a mix-up of records, which is arguably less likely than a generic misdiagnosis. Certainly a change in readily observable and verifiable symptoms would lend credence to the argument that a remarkable physical event actually took place. But ultimately, that will still be weighed against one’s own willingness to accept the “miracle” explanation.

    In this particular case, I have already summarized my wife’s medical history in Part One of my post. It is also summarized in the book, and more details can be read in Vonna’s own account, which can be read at this link: Even so, it bears repeating.

    During the course of her illness, which spanned four years (May 1999 to June 8, 2003) Vonna was under the care of doctors, first in the Neurology Department at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, then with neurologists at Noran Clinic in Minneapolis. The first symptom was numbness beginning in left arm and leg, and ultimately spreading to entire left side of body. Before long, she was unable to lift her left foot, requiring the wearing of a leg brace to prevent “toe drop”. The numbness and deterioration of neurological pathways was confirmed with nerve response tests, and a spinal tap detected markers characteristic of MS.

    As the function of the left leg continued to deteriorate, a cane was needed to facilitate the ability to “swing” the unresponsive leg while walking. Ultimately, the effort in doing this necessitated the use of wheelchair for anything but very short distances. The insurance company deemed her “permanently disabled” and she was approved for an electric wheelchair. We were forced to sell our recently renovated split-level home, and move a few blocks away to a house that could be made handicap accessible.

    Optic nerve inflammation caused severe eye pain and double vision. This inflammation was observable by eye exam, and confirmed by eye doctors.

    Fatigue, difficulty grasping object, weakness, and lack of coordination increased rapidly. The help of occupational therapists was needed to help her relearn tasks as simple as getting out of bed. As a testimony to the extent of the disability (and to her own self-admitted stubbornness) I could tell stories of coming home to find her trying to do laundry by crawling on the floor and trying to push laundry baskets across the room with her right foot. She was forced to close her counseling office, and abandon her hopes for a career as a marriage and family therapist.

    There was increasing difficulty with short term memory. MRIs of the brain showed evidence of lesions, and Vonna was referred to a neuropsychologist who conducted tests that confirmed the loss of cognitive function.

    Neurologists treated her with Avonex (injections), occasional treatments with intravenous steroids for severe flare-ups, and up to a dozen other medications for symptomatic relief. Ultimately, because of the inability for these medications to slow down the relentlessly aggressive progress of the disease, she was one of the first people in the state to be approved to try a chemotherapy drug as an MS treatment of last resort. When this provided no lasting improvement, it was discontinued.

    (continued in next post)

  5. (continued from previous post)

    Could it have been a misdiagnosis? The level of medical care, number of tests performed, and symptomatic history seem to make that unlikely. But I’ll let the reader decide.

    Could the symptoms have been imagined? That would also be a legitimate question from anyone who didn’t live with her for those four years, as I did. Still, it’s possible that we can misremember or exaggerate memories. So I went back through old e-mail archives, and was struck by the number of e-mails I sent to family members along the lines of, “Please remember Vonna in your prayers. She isn’t able to walk more than a few steps without falling today.” If anything, reading those e-mails brought back painful memories of just how difficult those days really were.

    There were, of course, some days that were better than others. In the few days prior to the healing, Vonna was having some of those “better” days, which in her case meant having enough energy to make it to church and walk short distances with a cane. But the symptoms never left. They only lessened in intensity.

    What occurred after the prayer of June 8, 2003, and the several minutes of “heat” she felt later that evening, was not a lessening of symptoms. In retrospect, we can confidently say that at that moment, every symptom disappeared. The next morning, on her way to the store, she had the strange sensation of realizing that her left leg had full feeling, was responding normally, and was not dragging, in spite of the fact that she had forgotten to put on her leg brace. A few days later she was going on hikes, kayaking, and playing volleyball with the church youth group.

    For quite some time we were hesitant about claiming a “healing”, wondering when symptoms might return. After several months of hyper-vigilance, and eight more years of reflections, we can confidently say that not one MS symptom has ever reappeared since June 8, 2003. In fact, the only setback was a plantaris muscle in her left calf that painfully ruptured while she was swimming, a few weeks after the healing. The doctor’s explanation was that this muscle might have atrophied through four years of non-use, and wasn’t ready for “reactivation to service”. Fortunately, this is a somewhat vestigial muscle, and there is little lasting effect from its loss, other than serving as a confirmation of the disability and atrophy that had occurred in that leg over the previous four years.

    Sorry to be so long-winded, but I really want to honor good questions with thorough and honest responses, and I hope this adequately addresses the issues you raised. To me, the evidence I've presented pretty well cuts off the “misdiagnosis” objection, but I’ll leave that for you to decide.

    So tell me what you think. I’d be interested to hear if you have any follow-up thought or questions.

  6. I remember wondering why God didn't perform as many miracles in the US as he seemed to do in foreign countries. I then heard someone say that God wants us to believe that He can heal and we have too much skepticism and don't believe as new Christians or like a child.
    I think He healed Vonna to "show" you and therefore break down barriers to others skepticism. You have to admit that this testimony has caused many people to lose their skepticism through the testimony of her and you.

  7. What an amazing story, Phil. Thanks for sharing it.

    I guess my question would be: why do you think the healing wasn't instantaneous, but rather took several hours to take effect?

  8. Thanks for your comments, Joyce. There are a few ways to think about the fact that more “miracle stories” seem to originate overseas. First of all, people always want to hear such stories from missionaries they support, so perhaps those stories just get more publicity than those that originate locally. Of course, a cynic might say that makes them more prone to fabrication or exaggeration, since the original sources are too far away to follow up with.

    As for the “child-like”’ faith conjecture, there are certainly stories in the Bible where Jesus seems to reward simple faith with miracles (the centurion’s daughter comes to mind), but I don’t think that tells the whole story. It doesn’t explain why many with child-like faith aren’t healed, and why some with much more complex faith (Vonna and I) are.

    Rather than miracles being a reward for child-like faith of believers, it may have more to do with whether the miracle would serve a higher purpose as a sign to non-believers. Hence, miracles would be more prevalent in cultures where the pre-existing belief system of the local populace would be more likely to ascribe divine origin to the miracle. In western cultures that take pride in their intellectualism, the pre-existing belief system tends to discount divine explanations, so miracles may not be the most effective tool for God to use.

    One more comment about skepticism. Skepticism is the willingness to examine truth claims from all angles, and is something I take pride in (see my post on “The View from the Skeptic Tank”). But sometimes it’s confused with cynicism. A skeptic will hear a claim of a miracle, and be skeptical of those who convey the story until they have had opportunity to check out its veracity. This is different from a cynic who will presuppositionally dismiss the possibility that miracles can occur. I like to see cynicism removed as a barrier to faith, but healthy skepticism is something I actively encourage, and consider a necessary component of any search for truth.

    Calling oneself a skeptic doesn’t necessarily mean one has, or had ever had, serious doubts about the reality of miracles – in fact, the true skeptic may value the reality of miracles so highly that they want to prevent any fraudulent or exaggerated claims from diluting the reputation of the real thing. Maybe my passion to do that, in a culture that values that kind of intellectual integrity, had something to do with why Vonna was chosen to receive healing. Who knows?

  9. Good question, Jordan. Why the several hour delay between the prayer and the healing? What’s up with that? Was God just toying with us? Was he busy working through a backlog of prayer requests that night? Or did one of the angels forget to tell him what time zone we were in? Obviously, I can’t claim to know what God had in mind here. (He can be soooo hard to figure out sometimes.) But I can tell you what some of my thoughts are.

    Anyone who has watched “faith healers” in action on TV has to wonder, from time to time, about those people who, immediately after prayer, are on the platform claiming instantaneous healing from back pain, or some other such ailment. One wonders what their state of mind may have to do with their perception of pain, and whether or not the pain will return the next day, when all of the evangelistic fervor of the moment has faded.

    In Vonna’s case, her state of mind was certainly not one that would lead to any suspicions of mind-induced “self-healing”. We both sat in the service that evening harboring significant levels of suspicion about this particular speaker. Vonna only went forward for prayer at the very last moment, and then only reluctantly. As he prayed, she felt heavenly compassion coming through him, and returned to her seat, and then back home, more peaceful – but still suffering from MS.

    The result of the prayer, in Vonna’s mind, was acceptance of her condition. The request for healing had been denied, but the peace she felt told her that “God’s grace is sufficient.” (My attitude, on the other hand, was more along the lines of, “see, I knew this guy wasn’t for real!”) It is interesting that only after our hopes had been dashed, only after Vonna accepted that she wasn’t going to be healed, did the healing take place.

    Whatever the reason for the delay, the effect it had was that for me was that it made the “hysteria of the moment” explanation highly unlikely. Lying in bed, still feeling the symptoms of MS, and resigned to the assumption that this was she was not going to be healed, would be the least opportune set of circumstances for her to conjure up some sort of self-healing power of the mind. The heat she felt at that moment came as a surprise. While I can’t speak for God, some of the things I could imagine him communicating through that timing include:

    1) This isn’t about you. You aren’t making this happen.

    2) This isn’t about the person who prayed for you. It’s to draw your attention to ME, not to him.

    3) I waited until you were alone, so you could enjoy this moment without distraction, and so you could know this is a special gift of love from me to you.

    Thanks, Jordan, for your question, and for the opportunity to reflect on this a little more deeply than I may have before.