Anatomy Of A Miracle
I recently answered several questions about miracles. The questions originally came from an agnostic/atheist type (Agath) who thought miracles were nonsense and I partly agreed. Agath’s questions were aimed at Christians and for obvious reasons. Who else makes more noise about miracles.
My intent was to answer Agath’s questions, which implied God doesn’t exist and therefore miracles can’t happen. My intent in this post is quite different.
I want to bring a little sense to the grab bag approach to miracles popularized in some circles. It might seem strange but in one sense I agree with Agath here. But that really shouldn’t surprise you. Because Atheists and Christians differ on a few important issues doesn’t mean they disagree on everything. It also doesn’t mean all Christians agree.
So, this post is aimed at Christians who I believe are confusing the issues and making it difficult for practically minded people to believe.
The problem, as I see it, is this. Some Christians are claiming a large number of miracles – of the most sensational kind – and suggesting miracles are promised on demand.
I say “some” because not all Christians agree. I, for one, am of a different opinion and I’m not alone. Many of us are a little skeptical about all the claims.
And it’s a sensitive issue for everyone. Who hasn’t been desperate enough to want a miracle occasionally? When life gets hard, unpredictable and cruel, what better (easier) way to solve the problem than pour a miracle on it.
God, however, hasn’t promised that and the few promises He has made that require miracles in order to be fulfilled have little to do with your personal problems or wish list.
So, let’s analyze the concept of miracles and answer a few questions.
Definition of a Miracle
How would you define the word “miracle” and what exactly do people mean when they say the word? Well, based on the way the word is used it sounds very much like “magic.”
Got a money problem? Ask for money to appear unexpectedly. Scheduling problem? Ask God to turn back the time or move it forward.
And that approach is taken to solve all kinds of problems: relationship, health, academic, ability and so on? Ask and expect the problem to disappear, and the solution to fall into place.
The implied understanding is:
We do nothing but ask and God does everything else, mysteriously, invisible to the naked eye.
In that sense “Miracle” is clearly synonymous with “magic” only in this case God is the Magician and the audience gets to name the tricks He does and when. For some Christians this is the answer to every problem you can imagine and the primary way they relate to God.
Makes you wonder.
Magic-miralces are the easy way out of problems but beware! The magic-miracle-on-demand approach creates a different kind of problem. One that can’t be solved with a miracle.
Why Do We Want Miracles?
Another important question to ask is why do we want miracles? And the answer is simple. A miracle represents the simplest solution to life’s inevitable problems.
I don’t know of anyone who likes problems, at least not normal people. Psychologists use very strange words to ascribe scary conditions to people who enjoy the pain and inconvenience of problems but, as far as I know, problems are universal. Everyone has them. “Problem free” is not possible in this life and the problems people experience are amazingly similar: psychological, biological, circumstantial, moral and so on.
Many prominent professions have developed around each of these problems: psychologists, psychiatrists, medical and natural health practitioners, social workers, law enforcement, etc.
But, even though no normal person likes problems the successful ones are those who face them honestly and work through them diligently. Unsuccessful people tend to blame others and look for shortcuts, the most popular one being a magic-miracle.
Truth? Even if the problem isn’t your fault you must accept responsibility for the solution. Assigning blame and wishing away problems does nothing to solve them.
And that brings us to the next important point.
Miracles Stunt Character Development
So, what happens when we get magic-miracles?
Humans are growing beings. We learn, gain experience, develop skills, master abilities, adjust to life changes, improvise when necessary and expand all the time.
All of those things represent positive change, the one thing we do that God can’t. Humans have what I call “become-ability.” We don’t just change biologically: grow bigger, get older, die. We develop skills, gain insights and become useful in specific ways, otherwise known as professional development.
The primary catalysts stimulating this growth are problems. When we don’t have problems we don’t grow. Unfortunately, the miracles we seek negate both the problem and the growth.
But humans don’t easily get it. Rather than study, we want knowledge by magic. Rather than plan well for every contingency, we want to avoid future problems by miraculous revelation (prophecies). Forget experience, we want wisdom by miracle.
When you die, it is life over. When miracles solve our problems for us, it is life stunted. When miracles are withheld it is game on.
We want magic-miracles-on-demand because it makes life easy, better, more comfortable. God withholds miracles because problems enable us to grow. “No Pain No Gain” applies.
Miracles That Build Character
So far we have talked about miracles that make our problems evaporate, magic-miralces. These are the kind that make cancer mysteriously disappear, no treatment or lifestyle change required.
Can God perform that kind of miracle? Yes. Has He promised to? No.
But, there is a second kind of miracle that God has promised to perform as often as we ask Him for it. They are the ones that build character. Instead of removing the problem these miracles help us work through them.
It’s OK, for example, to ask God to provide strength to face a problem or to help you discover better ways to study or even help you gain wisdom from your bad experiences. In fact, James said…
Let the person who lacks wisdom ask of God who gives to everyone liberally… (James 1:5)
Here God promises to give wisdom to anyone who asks for it. That’s anyone, lost or saved, here or there, at any time. It’s a miracle of sorts.
We aren’t born with wisdom but God makes it readily available. Solomon personifies wisdom as standing in the public places of the city shouting to be noticed.
We need to be focused to see it and disciplined to use it. We should ask God to help us do both.
But here is the question. Why does anyone need wisdom if God has promised to make problems magically go away?
Obviously, God is more interested in stimulating the growth of character than He is in making things easy. Character building miracles, however, aren’t very popular. They support rather than replace human effort.
When a problem arises, the first request should be for help in solving or managing the problem. Asking God to make it magically dissipate is a cheap get out of jail free card. We gain nothing from the experience.
Miracles That Transcend Natural Law
Although I have referred to them humorously as magic-miracles there is such a thing as a miracle that transcends natural law, that defies the laws of life as we know it (Transcendent Miracles).
God can and has performed these kinds of miracles.
- He raised Lazarus and others from the dead.
- He healed lepers.
- He enabled the blind to see.
- He enabled the deaf to hear.
- He healed cripples.
But there are two important observations to make about these miracles:
- God performs them for His purposes.
- And they are not final.
God has many reasons for performing transcendent-miracles but it is never to be sensational. One of His greatest miracles, the virgin birth, was rather low key. Only Joseph and Mary were aware of it at the time and I’m sure they weren’t anxious to tell anyone else about it.
The point? That miracle illustrated Jesus’ humanness not His sensational abilities. If He wanted to make a splash He could have just appeared in the sky, visible to everyone at the same time. He didn’t and the miracle He used put Him on our level, made Him accessible.
So, if sensationalism doesn’t qualify as one of God’s purposes what does?
- Miracles serve Gospel purposes.
God wants to give every possible person every possible chance to hear the Gospel and whatever miracles He performs will serve that purpose. Paul is a good example.
Paul was the most motivated preacher in the New Testament. There was no place he wouldn’t go and he was constantly on the move. Even when people responded violently he never slowed down.
On one occasion, Paul healed a cripple which focused the attention of the entire city on him. Once he had their attention he didn’t talk about the miracle, he preached the Gospel. Many believed but those who didn’t stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city leaving him for dead.
But he didn’t stay dead for long. He rose almost immediately and went on to preach the Gospel for many years in many locations. He also wrote most of the New Testament following that experience.
Do we need to ask why Paul was miraculous spared from death?
Note: Some suggest Paul didn’t really die but you would have a hard time proving that. It only takes one good stone to the head to kill a person and the Bible doesn’t say he was hit with “a” stone. It says he was “stoned.” Paul died! And because God had more for Paul to do He raised him from the dead. This miracle served God’s purposes for Paul not Paul’s personal interests.
And that brings us to the next observation…
Miracles Are Never Absolute
Miracles are never an all round solution. They aren’t final and they don’t wipe out previous problems. Again, Paul is a good example. God raised Paul from the dead but…
- He didn’t keep Paul from getting stoned in the first place.
- As far as we know He didn’t heal any bruises, fractured bones, concussions or lacerations immediately. These injuries needed treatment and required time to heal. A physician, Luke, began traveling with Paul after this.
- He didn’t prevent Paul from future attacks. In addition to this stoning, he was beaten with whips and rods, imprisoned, shipwrecked, starved and more.
In Paul’s case, miracles kept him alive. They didn’t stop the pain or make things easy. Paul not only wrote about the fruits of the Spirit he also became the greatest example of these character qualities because God didn’t miraculously remove the obstacles.
Paul had an eye disease which God specifically refused to heal (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Ministering with the disease, however, was just as miraculous as healing it!
What do you THINK!AboutIt
In The Reason For God Timothy Keller confronts head on the questions that skeptics are asking, yet without a confrontational style. It is sensible, rational and engaging. A must read for every thinking person, Christian or not. His approach to hard questions about God not only provides answers it encourages us to develop analytical thinking skills. Also available is a DVD with discussion guide for small group interaction.