This Book is Something Like a Spiritual Catapult
I first read Behold Your God by Agnes Sanford about a month ago, at the same time that I was listening to over 40 of Agnes Sanford’s lectures online (at cfoclassicslibrary.org).
It was an immersive spiritual formation experience: I was hearing from Agnes Sanford about her life experiences in the mornings, and then reading the pages of the book that arose from those experiences in the evenings.
Agnes Sanford mentioned a couple of times in her lectures that she received most of the content of Behold Your God as direct revelation from God, and that she just had to change the pronouns to put it into the book. She never mentioned that detail in the book itself, but spiritual discernment will reveal to the reader that there is something very rich and dear about many of its messages.
I won’t even attempt to summarize the book; that feels a little like trying to put the Grand Canyon into one’s pocket. Instead, I will note several areas of the book that were spiritually formative for me and have already been extremely useful.
From Chapter 3: The Nature of God and the Prayer of Faith
Creating with God
I was riveted by Sanford’s explanation of the creative life of a person, as being an imperative for a human created in the image of a creator. This makes so much sense to me, and as I consider what she wrote in her other books about how her own creative endeavors brought her life, I know that she knew the depth of this truth firsthand.
But she took this exploration of creativity and inspiration a step further than even Dorothy Sayers (Mind of the Maker) did. Sanford wrote, “Jesus called this creative action of the spirit doing his works ‘The words that I do shall ye do also (John 14:12),’ He said. He also said that the principle through which we do these works is the principle of faith” (page 27).
Although Sanford was a writer, (and later also a painter), she was, notably, a healer. And this was the creative work that she co-labored with Christ in for decades of her life, giving rise to the ministry of inner healing that Christians know today.
The Prayer of Faith
I have never—and I mean never—heard anyone explain the prayer of faith (James 5:15) the way Agnes Sanford taught it in her lectures and in this book. In my book Faith with Grit (written before I encountered Sanford’s teaching on the prayer of faith) I arrived at the conclusion that Elijah must have known in advance that a drought was the will of God, in order to have successfully prayed for it—and then for the breaking of the drought. But how did he know?
Sanford has closed the gap for me with her beautiful and succinct teaching on using prayers of guidance before praying effective prayers of faith. She has outlined her process simply and in detail so that others can do it, too.
I appreciate her making the point that confusion has arisen from our failure to distinguish between various types of prayer other than the prayer of faith: worship; meditation and prayer for the purpose of making contact with God, a contemplative type of prayer; guidance; and for the strength to follow the guidance. She also points out what I believe to be one of the great causes of the failure of effectiveness of much so-called prayer for healing: “The prayer for guidance never healed the sick.”
“…when we pray the prayer of faith we are not merely asking Him to do something, we are actually … doing his works” (page 31).
Her teaching on this subject is robust, it is rich and full of life. I cannot even do it justice here. For anyone who is serious about praying effectively for anything, I recommend reading the book for the teaching on this topic alone, if for no other.
The Substance of Faith
I also appreciate so deeply Sanford’s discussion and description of the practical substance of faith as ”the essential material out of which God’s will could be done” (page 29).
From Chapter 7: Redemptive Suffering That Sets Us Free
“In my old concept of Christianity,” writes Sanford, “suffering was no problem. This earth was a vale of tears, I was a pilgrim here, it was God’s will that I suffer until I died, and the sooner the better. This made the suffering of Jesus plain and clear—He wanted to share our sufferings, so He suffered, too. Thus we could hug our sufferings to our bosoms and … tell ourselves that we were bearing our cross. But learning faith robbed me of the old comfort of this inadequate concept of sufferings” (pages 84-84).
Readers of my books Stay, Faith with Grit, and Faith with Wings will know that I am no stranger to wrestling with practical theology of suffering and healing. I have actively wrestled with some of these concepts for years. Sanford’s writings have brought to light some important distinctions between types of suffering and the spiritual value—or lack thereof—of each. (William DeArteaga also summarizes those distinctions succinctly in Quenching the Spirit: Creation House, 1992; see more about that below.)
While I sometimes think that Sanford’s theology of suffering and healing leaves out some category which we would today call environmental illness (individual suffering caused by the physical effects of the collective sins of humanity against the environment; therefore it is neither the suffering of Christ, redemptive suffering, nor punishment for individual sin), in a later chapter of Behold Your God, Sanford’s discussion of how a generation (hers) that launched atomic warfare might repent of their parts in their sins against creation and therefore receive the mercy of healing that they could not achieve by natural means gave me hope. With regard to the damage that this generation has done by releasing radiation and environmental toxins in the form of chemicals and plastics into the air, water, soil—and thereby, human bodies: I truly hope that God will show us a way to find his mercy for healing when we have so clearly produced so much our own disease and suffering by our collective actions against creation.
Sanford discusses the differences between two kinds of suffering: “earthly and heavenly” (page 86). I think that if we are going to be the instruments of God’s will that he is calling us to be in this next season on earth, we would do well to sort out the differences between the kind of suffering that is our cross, and the kind that isn’t. I think Sanford’s discussion can go a long way toward helping us get to a more biblical view of suffering. Too much damage has been done over the past several hundreds of years by an incorrect doctrine that sickness is the will of God—rather than something he wants to use us to heal.
A Side Note About Suffering
As mentioned previously, William DeArteaga, in Quenching the Spirit, helps put into perspective how Christians ended up in the doctrinal quicksand on this topic. He explains that fourth century desert monks (in Egypt and Palestine) began as gifted in healing and exorcism, but became “captivated” by Stoic and neo-Platonic ideas of their times, including the idea that pain and illness were to be accepted bravely. DeArteaga writes, “In fact several Scripture verses supported this, such as … 2 Cor. 12:7. In addition it is central to the Christian Scriptures that every believer take up a cross and share the sufferings of Christ (2 Cor. 1:5-7; Phil 3:10). However, [the desert Christians] made an absolute connection between the sufferings brought on by illness and the believer’s sharing of Christ’s sufferings. This concept of illness as redemptive suffering subordinated the many Scripture passages which showed that illness was brought on by demonic oppression and an evil to be dispersed by the church’s ministry (Luke 13:16, for example).” He concludes, “In essence, the monks inverted the Scripture, making the normative biblical attitude toward healing the exception, and the exception (redemptive suffering), the normative. This type of inversion of Scripture was passed on to subsequent Christian theology. It was to become the perfect alibi for those Christian communities that lost their faith-expectancy for healing prayer because all illness could then be assumed to be from the Lord and for the purpose of redemptive suffering” (pages 66-67).
Later in the Quenching the Spirit, DeArteaga distills the doctrinal point even further as a “distinction between illness and Christian suffering. Christians must suffer from persecution or suffer in their ministry, as in martyrdom or reviling, but sickness is not redemptive suffering…” (page 231).
From Chapter 9: The Resurrection and the Ever-Present Christ
My spiritual life doesn’t stop while I’m asleep; yet, I haven’t heard a great deal of credible discussion on this topic outside of the Bible itself. So I appreciated the practical teaching of this chapter.
From Chapter 10: The Holy Spirit and His Power
My new favorite quote is from this chapter : “…those of us who seek to heal by faith without being endued with the full power of the Spirit are like an author who does not use a typewriter or a seamstress who has no sewing machine” (page 127). I have many thoughts on the topic of being empowered by God for the work for which he has made us and to which he has called us, which you can read in my new book, Faith with Wings.
I love Sanford’s relating of her experience of receiving more from the Holy Spirit after she had already been engaged in healing ministry as a Christian for some time. She received not only the power to continue her work, but great joy.
Sanford gives a compelling discussion of how—and why—we become “sons of God.” Before reading (and hearing, in her lecture) Sanford’s discussion on the topic, I had never given it any special thought at all. Now, however, I give the intriguing matter a great deal of thought.
From Chapter 11: The New Creature in Christ Jesus
This chapter contained some very eye opening concepts for me. One being that a church not filled with the power of the Spirit will also not be strong in power in prayer to heal or to save.
And that a church strong in the Holy Spirit can pray, rather than for “a long list of sick people,” for the “Holy Spirit who can heal all those people when He is sufficiently released within the church of Christ.”
While this chapter is filled with treasures, the one that thrilled me most was the concept that being opened to the life of God’s Holy Spirit is the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45-46). I appreciated Sanford’s honest reflection, which mirrored my own heart: “Is it strange that we must seek with earnest longing in order to open a wide enough door that He shall enter into us? ‘As the hart panteth after the water-brooks (Psalm 42:1),’ so must our souls thirst for God, for the living God, that He may give us His water of life which is the power of His Spirit. ‘More than they that watch for the morning (Psalm 130:6),’ so must our souls watch for Him, that He may redeem us and make us His children—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17).”
From Chapter 12: The Company of the Redeemed
Here is a summary of “all three currents of God’s healing power”: “the power of faith…, the healing energy of the Body and Blood of Christ, … [and] the baptism of the Holy Spirit.” Sanford describes what it is like to function in such a way—it was her own experience to have done so. Since I knew I was reading testimony and not conjecture, I read it hungrily.
I definitely appreciated her perspective that “the Church should be the healer” to the Christians. Rather than burdening a single person who had the gift of healing, the whole body of Christ should heal the rest of the body of Christ.
It was in that context that I was able to understand the power of communion in a new way. After understanding Sanford’s explanation of the power of the church, and the power of God that comes through communion taken worthily, I understand her perspective of 1 Corinthians 11:30 that the church experienced a loss of power that she would have had if its members had taken communion worthily. But because the church took communion unworthily, the church had lost power to heal. This is a call to action to the church in about three ways: take communion; examine your heart and repent before doing so, so that you do not take communion unworthily; and heal. As for myself, I’m taking communion far more regularly, and encouraging others to, as well.
There is an excellent discussion of the power that builds up in a place through prayer and other spiritual disciplines, that then makes that place embued with the power of God to heal. Sanford gives some compelling testimony about this, as well as practical advice for individuals and churches.
From Chapter 13: National Repentance Brings National Blessings
“A man cannot throw a boomerang and say: ‘Why didn’t God prevent it from hitting me?’,” writes Sanford (page 176).
This is one of the best discussions of the individual Christian’s role in national repentance that I have ever read. I believe Christ-followers urgently need to engage in this now. My little summary here does not hold a candle to Sanford’s chapter, so I highly encourage believers to read her writings, but I do want to share just a brief excerpt with a prayer we can use as a model:
“Countless people have told me of their feeling of imminent danger unless we repent and try as never before to find God’s will. So we have gone deep in repentance for our own sins that we may be better channels for the forgiveness of national sins. Also we have repented for the sins of the nation, as all should do, for the nation is made up of all of us. ‘God, please forgive me for my part in the sins of this nation and through me send thy forgiveness into the nation itself. Please spread among the people the consciousness of our own sins and unworthiness and make them turn to Thee. And please illumine the minds of our leaders, show them the mistakes they and we have made as a nation and guide them into the way of Life.'”Agnes Sanford, in Behold Your God (pages 177-178)
On the topic of physical healing, I also found a key in her writing about the connection between healing and the repentance for the nation’s destruction of creation [she referred to the use of atomic weapons, but the idea is transferable to many present-day realities]. “I do believe that if we repent and cease sinning, God can … save us from the very destruction that we have brought upon ourselves. Unless these sins are forgiven and this destructivity in the air is counteracted by God’s power the degenerative diseases of mankind will increase in spite of all our faith, because the causes of them are unrepented and unforgiven” (page 176).
Far from being the gloomy pit that the topic of national repentance sounds like, Sanford portrays a hopeful picture of the true spiritual reality:
“While there is a degenerative force running loose in the world as a result of man’s sins, God’s perfect healing cannot come through to us. We can still pray for wholeness, yes, and we must, not only for our own sake but for the sake of the world. Every prayer for life and every healing achieved by prayer releases God’s life in the world and helps in the battle against death” (page 176).
There is so much good information in this chapter about how we can increase our spiritual capacity to become “better channels for the forgiveness of national sins” (page 177). She gives practical advice and productive prayer strategies. This isn’t a chapter about hand-wringing over the state of things; this is a chapter about Christ-followers getting things done for the kingdom of God. And I absolutely love it, and her statement that, “When we have gone deep enough in repentance, then we will go high in hope. We will feel a new courage and a new power in prayer” (page 178).
From Chapter 14: The Resurrection of the Body and the Life Everlasting
Sanford had such a refreshing view of death for the believer. And after reading a true story about her own preparations for death (in Agnes Sanford and Her Companions, by William DeArteaga: Wipf and Stock, 2015), and hearing her talk on the subject as she got older (cfoclassicslibrary.org) I know that she was fully prepared. She knew that she had faithfully lived her life’s purpose to the full with God while on earth and she had developed her relationship with God in such a beautiful way that she could be eager for the continued and expanded adventure with him that she knew was next.
Agnes Sanford’s life and her life work inspires me. And this amazing book, which was part of that work, is still continuing her work today, decades after she left the earth. That fact inspires me, as well.
I highly recommend Behold Your God.