On the 25th of January, an unusual headline appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times: “Struck by ‘Golden Miracles’.” The subhead explained that “Pastors of a congregation say Holy Spirit has turned silver fillings to gold. Claim stirs excitement in revival movement, but skeptic calls it trick to build membership.” The story, which originated in Orangevale, California, began as follows: “In the heart of the Sacramento Valley, where 49ers flocked to mine a mother lode of riches 150 years ago, Christian believers are proclaiming a new and godly gold rush: The Holy Spirit, they claim, is miraculously transforming porcelain crowns and silver fillings into gold.”
The alleged miracles actually began in Pensacola, Florida, but now a frenzy of excitement has swept through revivalist churches in California, and then on to places as far away as Brazil and Britain. Some people claim that the golden teeth are the first signs of a “powerful move of God” that will bring “renewal to Christian churches at the start of the new millennium.” Hoping that this is true, a number of charismatic and Pentecostal churches in the California Revival Network have begun to offer training programs to teach people how to perform their own miracles.
Before you rush home and check your fillings in the mirror, you should know that there are some skeptics. Upon closer investigation, the Los Angeles Times was unable to document even a single case of miracle teeth. One pastor peeled back his lip to show reporters a glittering gold crown, which he claimed had miraculously appeared last March. In fact, however, a dentist had put in the crown a decade earlier. When confronted with his old dental records, the pastor rather sheepishly said, “I’d have to say I was absolutely wrong… [but] none of it distracts from the fact that I know God is a healer.”
The whole thing is a fraud, of course. I say this, not because God is unable to turn silver into gold, but because he has no reason to. Surely God has better things to do than improve our dental work. This is a point non-Christians have been quick to grasp. Michael Shermer, who is president of the American Skeptics Society, wants to know, “Of all the things going on–cancer, war, disease–God is busy changing fillings? That’s the best he can do?” One of the most unfortunate things about the new California gold rush is that it makes Christians seem ridiculous. Golden teeth have nothing to do with biblical Christianity. The alleged miracles owe more to peer pressure and the power of suggestion than they do to divine intervention. Nevertheless, they will serve to confirm some people in their skepticism about Christianity.
It is easy to laugh at people who believe in divine dentistry, but it is worth asking why they want to believe in it. Why are so many people looking for signs and wonders? And why are so many people fooled by them?
Part of the explanation, of course, is that false miracles are the work of Satan, who is always trying to deceive people. The Bible says that the work of Satan is “displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs, and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing” (2 Thess. 2:9-10). If people are foolish enough to care about something as trivial as a few traces of gold, Satan is only too happy to encourage them.
But there are deeper spiritual issues at work. If people are deceived by the golden fillings, it is partly because they want to be deceived. The Los Angeles Times speculates that revivalists are looking for “a way to personally experience God amid disenchantment with rote religious rituals.” Christians are tired, the newspaper says, of “listless liturgies, tired traditions and pro-forma rituals of ‘three songs, an offering and a homily’.” The Times may be right. For people who want to experience God, what could be more boring than another traditional worship service, and what could be more tangible than a miracle inside your own mouth?
It is not wrong to want to experience God, but it is important to know what kind of experience to expect. The truth is that God does not perform miracles very often. A miracle is an extraordinary demonstration of divine power, but God’s usual way of working is through what theologians call the ordinary means of grace–the Word, the sacraments, and prayer. Our own Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches that “The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption, are… the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation” (A. 88).
In other words, the ordinary means of grace are precisely the kinds of rituals that some people are tired of. People are looking for extraordinary miracles, like golden dental work, because they are not impressed with God’s rather unspectacular plan for their spiritual growth. We face the same temptation. Even if we are satisfied with silver fillings, there are times when we secretly want something more from a worship service than another sermon or another pastoral prayer. We must learn to accept God’s plan for our spiritual growth, however ordinary it may seem.
God intends for us to experience him by reading the Bible. It is there that we discover his will for our lives, learning to love what he loves and hate what he hates. We also experience God in the sacraments–in baptism, which shows the cleansing of our sins, and in the Lord’s Supper, which proclaims the body and blood of Christ. Then there is prayer, in which we talk to God as a friend with a friend.
All of this may sound rather ordinary, but it accomplishes something extraordinary: By the quiet work of God’s Spirit, it changes you from the inside out, transforming you into the kind of person God wants you to become. Ordinarily, God leaves your dental work out of it, at least on this side of eternity (although one of the Scottish divines saved his teeth “for the resurrection”). But the spiritual changes he brings are beautiful to see, and they are “of greater worth than gold” (1 Pet. 1:7).
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