Diagnosing the Miraculous

My guess is that the story of Ema McKinley will eventually gain some national traction.  Ema is already a local celebrity here in Rochester, MN.  She had suffered 20 years with what was diagnosed as Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, a rare neurological disorder that left her disfigured and wheelchair bound.  On the morning of this past Christmas Eve, Ema fell from her chair.  But instead of it complicating her condition, Ema says that after 8 continuous hours of crying out to God, he came to her in her most trying time and healed her.  Today she is walking, pain-free, and telling the world about God’s healing hand in her life. (If you’d like the full story of Ema McKinley, it’s linked here.)

Well…..this is an interesting case study for demonstrating how your preconceived worldviews interpret data, in this case, extraordinary data.  Some will look for a purely naturalistic explanation (by the way, these people likely also believe in Darwinian evolution).  Some will point to this simply as the “hand of God” without any desire for further explanation (by the way, the Christian who is most inclined to do this is one who belongs to a Christian church which strongly promotes charismatic gifts like speaking in tongues and miraculous healings).  And just so that we’re all on the same page here, pumping the brakes of belief here with the Ema McKinley story doesn’t make you a bad Christian any more than the Bereans searching the Scriptures to validate what Paul was saying makes them unnecessarily cynical (Acts 17:11).  New Testament Christians are to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1) when they see something they perceive to be out of the biblical ordinary, particularly if it’s acclaimed as spiritually extraordinary.

This all serves as a good opportunity for Christians to figure out how to process this kind of information.  There are really only three options.  1) This is a hoax.  2) This is a “coincidence” (i.e. it happened by chance, not exactly as Ema describes it).  3) It was indeed divine intervention.

In no particular order, let’s briefly investigate the evidence for each:

1) It’s a hoax

For this to be an elaborate trick that Ema is pulling on us, it’d require some commitment to the craft.  I mean we’re talking like the magicians in The Prestige level of dedication here.  Ema was wheelchair-bound for 20 years.  I know several individuals who knew her personally.  Her unusual and unfortunate condition – always leaning over the side of her wheelchair – was hard to miss.  No one would do this voluntarily.  And now to be up and walking around unhindered.  There seem to be too many credible witnesses (including the testimony of a Mayo Clinic doctor, shown in the link above) for a hoax to be a truly plausible explanation.

2) It’s a medical “coincidence”

By a “coincidence,” I mean that through random good fortune, Ema’s circumstances improved – sort of like winning the lottery.  Now, please understand that as a Christian who appreciates the providence of God, I don’t truly believe that anything is entirely random.  However, there is a big difference between a woman falling out of a chair and this sending a jolt through her body that somehow aligns things to the point of healing, and God working through that, as opposed to God appearing to Ema in a white robe to heal her after levitating a wheel of her chair to spill her out of it.

Looking around on the internet for a while, it appears that Ema’s diagnosis, Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD), is not considered curable, but is considered treatable, particularly if caught in the early stages.  I ran across several message boards where people claimed “miraculous” recovery through various forms of water treatment or oxygen treatment.  While that doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about whether or not this was miraculous, when we see others treated successfully for a condition, it does suggest that when the circumstances are right, relief can be found through some kind of natural measures.  This, then, would logically be different from say an amputee spontaneously regenerating a limb.  Both could be cured through miracles.  I have a more difficult time, however, imagining the circumstances in which an amputee could grow a limb back than someone with RSD finding significant relief for pain.  One would be a more likely “coincidence” than the other.  This might influence our reaction.

3) It’s divine intervention

If you believe that the Bible is historically accurate, which I do, then you’ll have no problem believing that miracles are possible.  The Gospel records are chalked full of testimonies to Jesus’ miracles.  Perhaps most similar to Ema’s situation, in Luke 5:23-26, Jesus told a paralyzed man to get up and walk, “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 24 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” He said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” 25 Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. 26 Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today.”

Clearly God is capable of such things and carries them out according to his desire.  However, even in the New Testament accounts we start seeing that the miraculous healing begins to wane.  Paul encourages Timothy to drink a little wine for his stomach (1 Tim. 5:23), not just pray for miraculous healing.  Paul continues to struggle with a “thorn in the flesh” which may or may not have been a physical debilitation, but wasn’t cured (2 Cor. 12:1-10).  There are many other examples.  But what you see is that while the disciples were capable of some extraordinary things through God’s power, they didn’t have the power of Jesus.  And the farther away you get from Jesus, the less miraculous power you see regularly demonstrated in church history.  So while Jesus certainly has the power to do stuff like this, we can’t simply ignore the reality that this isn’t typically the way he’s operated for the majority of the past 2000 years.

Random Thoughts

In many ways, this is much like the post that I wrote several weeks ago, Where Dreams Fit Into Our Spiritual Lives.  While God can do anything that pleases him, what he promises he has done/will do for us should preoccupy our thoughts more deeply.

At this point, I haven’t personally seen anything that indicates I should doubt Ema McKinley’s testimony.  Having done some background research on her, she does not come off as a Benny Hinn-like charlatan, but seems to be a reliable witness.  And just as important, she has other reliable witnesses corroborating her story.  At this point, the evidence would seem to suggest that she’s telling the truth.  If you want to passionately suggest otherwise, I’d ask you to check and see if your current worldview even allows for anything miraculous in it.  Some people have been so conditioned to naturalistic explanation that it would not matter if Ema was flying around on a magical talking unicorn that introduced himself to them, they’d remain unconvinced simply for the reason that their worldview does not allow for that to be possible.  For some scientific minds at nearby Mayo Clinic, I’m sure Ema’s story ranges from interesting to uncomfortably paradigm-shaking.

With all of that said, and while I know this next opinion isn’t as exciting because we all generally want concrete answers, neat categories, and bold labels, but there’s a part of me that simply wants to say, “Isn’t it enough to be thankful on behalf of Ema?”  MUST we be able to label something that admittedly seems somewhat unknowable?  Can’t we just be grateful for God’s mercy to her in whatever way he chose to grant it?  In other words, while I know that miracles are certainly possible, I also know it is not God’s accustomed method of operating, so I’m very careful to authoritatively use that particular label.

I get the impression that sometimes people want to know for sure whether or not cases like Ema’s are indeed “miracles” for personal reasons.  People generally seem to feel that if the miracle is authentic, this will 1) convince unbelievers to believe (probably not true), or 2) perhaps others can push the same supernatural buttons in their life as the miracle receiver and create healing as well (also not true).

While walking this planet, Jesus WAS the quintessential miracle worker.  And that changed every unbelieving heart, right?  Wrong.  It got people’s attention, no doubt.  But people still chose to deny the evidence for their own reasons.

Secondly, God chooses to bless whom he wants in the ways he wants according to his divine insights.  I’m a little concerned that the Christian who is begging for a miracle does not yet understand the doctrine of the Resurrection.  On the Last Day, all that is wrong will be made right.  All that is broken will be mended.  All that is hurt will be soothed. So I’m thrilled that Ema was healed, but quite honestly, it was a matter of time.  If God grants us a glimpse of Resurrection joy like Ema, praise be to God!  If God, in his infinite wisdom, deems it wise to allow our own “thorns in the flesh” until the Resurrection so that he may be glorified in our weaknesses, praise be to God!


I don’t know.

How’s that for satisfying analysis :).

Like half the planet, I saw The Avengers last week.  Now I’m all for logic.  But I also understand that one of the fastest ways to ruin a remarkable tale of the heroic is to say “I can’t appreciate what I’m seeing here until I’ve had every detail rationalized away.”  Ema was in a wheelchair for 20+ years.  She isn’t anymore.  And she’s pointing to Jesus as the hero who made it happen.  As a Christian, that sounds about right.  I’m satisfied with that.

11 thoughts on “Diagnosing the Miraculous

  1. Andrea says:

    This is NOT a hoax. I know who is Ema is and have for many years. This is a miracle and I have no doubt in my mind that this gift of healing came from our Savior, the physician for all mankind.

  2. It is wonderful she was healed and I’m thankfull she gives God the credit. Your post covered most all the issues with healing and how we respond to them.

    I’ve known too many people who take the healing thing to heart and blame their own lack of spiritualness for not “getting healed.” That seems to be the largest obstacle to people just trusting in God alone. They want to feel as if they did something to deserve this gift.

    Even when Jesus was alive He didn’t heal every single sick person He saw. And those He did do miracles for/with, tended to focus on the supernatural instead of the message. Give us more bread and fish or don’t let me die. We are no different today. Which leads to many mocking Christianity for their “faith healers” and assorted con-men and women who bilk the gullible from their money.

    You are quite right, healing will take place at the resurrection and any great things that might happen between then and now, well, I’ll just be grateful for them.

  3. byby5555 says:

    How thankful we all can be with Ema. Watching for the small miracles opens our eyes to things we might easily take for granted. Blessings fall into our lives dailly without our doing. Daily thankfulness has been the best exercise I have learned in all my rehab time. Thanks again, Pastor Hein, for your thoughtful, faithful assessment.

  4. Jason says:

    Thank you, Pastor, for your article. It’s definitely different than others that I have read concerning Ema. I am Ema’s son and I can assure you this is no hoax.

  5. Joyce says:

    Well said, Pastor. Thank you for your wise words. We had been praying for Ema for many years, but the news still left us speechless and in awe of our Lord. We also praise him that Ema’s dad is able to witness her miraculous transformation to a walking person once more.

  6. I knew this lady personally, as I cared for her dad for some time. She’s a wonderful lady who clearly loves the Lord and credits him even to those she meets or knows casually. Definitely she has made a wonderful recovery, and did walk unhindered last I saw her. So do I, usually… but I need some help getting up from being seated a long time, getting up off the floor sometimes, or getting out of my car sometimes, etc. I hold down full time work but am far from pain-free. From what I saw of Ema, I’d say it’s much the same for her.

  7. I believe in Ema’s miracle, because I can see from the pictures that a miracle occured and because I personally have had a healing miracle. My doctor was Dr. Stanhope, in 1981 I had stage 2 ovarian cancer, 2 large tumors. It has been 32 years and I am cancer free. Not only that, but I have survived my 3 siblings, mother and sister’s husband, none of my siblings lived past 61, I am 62. Dr. Stanhope Is an excellent doctor and surgeon and has a deep faith, I don’t think it was any accident that we became connected. We exchange Christmas cards every year, I have seen my daughter graduate from high school, then college, then get married and have two children. After the first milestone I began to accept the miracle and believe that I was healed, even though doctors promised only 5- 10 years, and after knowing what a deep faith Dr. Stanhope has, I can see that God chose him to help me. I also am a Christian, and God has done amazing things for me in my life, including my talent for art. If people don’t believe, it is because their eyes and their hearts are closed, I pray God will one day open them, and bring them to faith. I don’t know why this miracle of life and healing was given to me. I know my family members are in heaven, and that is a great comfort, and I know that some day I will be reunited with them. Our prayers are always answered in the way God knows we will benefit the most. I am so glad Dr. Stanhope came forward to speak about Ema’s miracle, and I want to do the same. When my final day comes, I am ready for my great reward in heaven, until then, I want to thank God for every day he has given me, for every sunrise, for every wrinkle, for every gray hair. Thank you Dr. Stanhope for coming forward with your wonderful statement of faith, and for helping me those many years ago.

  8. Ema’s story was recently published by Zondervan (October 2014) in a book called “Rush of Heaven.” The book details her whole story — from the accident, through the MANY years of medical challenges, to the miraculous healing and beyond — and really, even without the miracle, Ema had a remarkable testimony of faith. She continued to trust God and thank Him for her healing, even before she was healed. She knew that it would come, one way or another, in this life or the next, and she lived out the guidance given in scripture, that we are to be thankful in ALL things. Not just the comfy, easy things. ALL things. And she did that beautifully, from her bent over position in her wheelchair, for MANY years. That alone is a remarkable example and reminder for all of us.

    But the miracle. Wow. Just… wow. As she and her collaborator prepared the manuscript for the book, we made a decision before it went to press to add a final chapter that includes extensive excerpts from her Mayo Clinic medical records. I spent a few days pouring through her records, and was struck by the consistency of the doctors’ reports about how severe her problems were, and also, by the fact that Mayo had clearly run out of ideas to help her. That is also documented in her records. Then, less than 2 weeks after the miracle, she was back at Mayo again, for the doctors to see the changes for themselves. They were dumbfounded (and occasionally in tears) and no one could offer a medical explanation for her sudden, dramatic improvement in posture and mobility. Some bravely admitted that it had to be an act of God.

    For my part, I didn’t know Ema when she was in the wheelchair. I have seen the pictures, read her medical records, and heard many eyewitnesses in the Rochester area confirm details of her story. In her post-miracle condition, I have watched her out in the community running errands, taking pictures, and sometimes even pulling weeds in my flower gardens. She continues to be a bright light for the Lord, and I am so grateful for her!

    So… read “Rush of Heaven” for yourself. Decide for yourself. And have the courage to BELIEVE if that’s where the data lead you.

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