TXAB: The Christ Almighty Blog

26 October 2017

Miracles: The obvious God-stuff.

Don’t just fling that word around for anything neat.

Miracle /'mɪr.ɪ.kəl/ n. Surprising event (usually welcome) not explainable by natural nor scientific law, therefore considered to be a divine or supernatural work.
2. Highly unlikely, improbably, extraordinary event or accomplishment. (Again, usually welcome.)
3. An outstanding achievement, product, or example.
[Miraculous /mə'ræk.jə.ləs/ adj.]

Those are the dictionary definitions. They’re fine when we’re trying to describe what our culture means by a “miracle.”

Most folks figure the miracle is the impossible made possible. But then they turn round and describe some really possible things as miracles: A perfect day. A beautiful view. A newborn baby. Dodging a road accident. None of those things are impossibilities; they’re kinda commonplace. Nice, but still.

So yeah, the dictionary definition kinda sucks when Christians are trying to explain what a miracle really is.

We’ll start with the fact God’s behind them. A miracle is anything God does, or his power makes possible. If I pray, and a person is immediately cured of an illness without any further medicine or treatment, obviously somebody did something, and it wasn’t me. The Holy Spirit cured ’em. That’s a miracle.

Curing illness is probably the best-known example of miracles, ’cause they’re the miracles people pray for most. They’re the stuff where God’s activity is really obvious.

Other acts of God aren’t so obvious. I call ’em hidden miracles: He does them behind the scenes, and people seldom point them out, and he doesn’t trumpet ’em much either. Like Jesus holding the universe together by his power. Cl 1.17 He’s doing this all the time, and it totally counts as an act of God, ergo a miracle. But it’s not a unique, out-of-the-ordinary event. It’s happening all the time. And to most people’s minds, a miracle is by definition a special event. (Which is why they treat every special event like it’s a miracle.) But miracles aren’t special events; they’re acts of God. Any act of God. Even mundane ones.

So when God listens to prayers, that’s a miracle. When God talks back, that’s a miracle. When God answers prayer, of course that’s a miracle. When God changes the weather, cures the sick, stops an accident, stretches our provisions, conveniently gets us the right resources at the right time: All miracles.

It’s just we tend to only notice the cool miracles. And no, that’s not because we’re self-centered, or love spectacle so much. Mainly it’s because we’ve had the definition of “miracle” wrong all this time.

Miracles which aren’t miracles.

Let’s be honest: We Christians are far too ready to claim things are miracles—are acts of God—when they might not be.

Sometimes it’s based on a faulty idea of God. We might believe that every odd event, every remarkable occurrence, including the not-so-happy accidents, is an act of God. That God’s in such micromanagerial control of the universe, everything is technically a miracle… although we’ll back up and only give him credit for the bigger stuff.

Like I said, by that definition everything’s a miracle. The universe has no coincidences; God’s behind it all. There’s no such thing as a meaningless thing, ’cause everything’s part of God’s plan, meaning everything happens for a reason.

In practice, this creates Christians who are extremely superstitious. Because if God’s behind absolutely everything, it means he’s trying to manipulate us through those things, right? Trying to tell us something? Everything’s a potential sign, and we’ve gotta get wise to what those signs mean. Hence these Christians are constantly trying to connect the dots between wholly unconnected things, or trying to deduce revelation from nature when nature isn’t reliable. (If it were, God wouldn’t bother with prophecy and bible!)

That’s one extreme. The other are those folks who believe nothing’s a miracle; that God doesn’t do them anymore. Instead of miracles and prophecy, we only have bible, so start getting to know your bible. (And buy their books so they can tell you how to interpret it, despite how it keeps bringing up miracles and prophecy as if Christians are still expected to see and do ’em.)

Well. On another axis of extremes, we have the Christians who do believe in miracles, who do realize not everything’s necessarily a miracle ’cause God gave his creations free will. But who have the bad habit of claiming everything’s a miracle, because they expect one, or want so very badly to see one. And at the other end of the pole, Christians who doubt absolutely everything.

Me, I figure the right place to be on both poles, is right in the middle. God’s behind much, but obviously not all. And if we’re gonna claim something to be a miracle, it’d better stand up to basic skeptical scrutiny.

See, if we’re gonna present our personal experiences with miracles to people as some sort of testimony, it oughta be something people can independently verify. Something that holds up under investigation. Too many of our miracle stories don’t really. We’re too quick to insist, “It was a miracle!” whereas any doubter will immediately say, “All it sounds like, is a coincidence.”

So before we start spreading around those stories, let’s temporarily think like a skeptic.

Occam’s Razor is the idea that the simplest explanation is likely the correct one: The idea we get to once we shave off all the unnecessary complications. So if any “miracle” can easily be explained away as coincidence, that’s exactly what a skeptic will figure it is. If an illness can easily be diagnosed as psychosomatic, they’ll just as easily figure the “healing” is likewise all in their head. If there’s a plausible scientific explanation, guess what your typical skeptic is gonna plausibly figure?

Y’see for these folks, if God’s really out there, he’s gotta prove himself. Be obvious. Quit hiding behind the wishful expectations of gullible people. ’Cause the skeptics aren’t entirely sure he exists. A God in hiding probably isn’t real.

So what ought we see, if we really do have a miracle? Preferably, we need to see the utter lack of a reasonable explanation.

Miracles which can’t be anything else.

When someone gets cured of cancer—it’s on the X-rays one day, but absolutely gone the next—that doesn’t just happen.

I mean, it happens all the time, but we’re kinda missing a plausible scientific explanation for it. Fr’instance people’ll try to explain it away as X-ray smudges. But radiologists know better, which is why they take way more than one X-ray. You might claim a file mix-up, but there will be plenty of artifacts on the X-rays to prove they’re of the same person.

I’ve heard people claim the cancer faded away as the result of super-optimistic positive thinking. I’m really disinclined to believe that. Plenty of cancer victims have embraced positive thoughts, and died anyway.

Nah, the only valid explanation is somebody straight-up cured the patient. And unless you wanna embrace the healing magic of crystals, or speculate about the advanced technology of space aliens, Occam’s Razor kinda suggests it’s easiest to consider God.

When a prophet steps forward with a mighty specific prediction (“In five days, Phoenix will suffer an earthquake. It’ll knock down these three specific buildings, which you thought were earthquake-proof. Stay out of them.”) and it happens precisely as predicted, again, it’s easiest to consider God. His messages are only vague when he’s speaking about events he doesn’t need us to prepare for. (And “prophets” are only vague when they’re guessing, not prophesying.) Valid God-statements will reflect his foreknowledge.

When a coincidence happens, and we’re gonna claim it’s miraculous, it needs to be ridiculously coincidental. If I pray for money, and within seconds my boss comes up to me with an unexpected bonus check which precisely covers the amount of money I needed, that’s far too coincidental. Or if I pray for a job, and that same day I get a job offer from someone who had no clue I was job-hunting, that’s almost too coincidental; it might help if another two or three coincidences were fulfilled right alongside. The skeptic needs to see the odds against mere coincidence get way too tiny.

You know, like in Gideon’s example.

Judges 6.36-40 KWL
36 Gideon told God, “If you put salvation in my hand for Israel, like you said,
37 look: I put a wool fleece on the threshing-floor.
If dew is only on the fleece, yet all the ground is dry,
I know you’ll save Israel by my hand, like you said.”
38 And it was so: He rose early in the morning,
squeezed the fleece to drain the dew from the fleece, and filled a bowl with water.
39 Gideon told God, “Don’t flare your nostrils at me—let me just say this;
let me test you this once; please just once.
The fleece—please, make only the fleece dry, and all the ground be dewy.”
40 And God did so: By nightfall, the fleece alone dried, and dew covered all the ground.

Wet wool and dry ground might be explained away as coincidence. Dry wool and wet ground might also be explained away as coincidence. But getting precisely what you asked God for, two nights in a row, isn’t coincidence. Someone’s messing with the wool and the ground. And if nobody overheard Gideon’s prayers but God, who else could it be?

The point of miracles.

Humans tend to ask God for miracles for two reasons, and quite often we want both things at once: We’re in a tight spot and don’t know how to get out of it, and figure God himself is gonna have to step in and rectify things. And we wanna see God do something cool.

Why does God do them? Same exact reason. He does wanna step in and rectify things. Or he does wanna do something cool.

There are those Christians who like to reduce God’s miracles to a formula, and claim the only reason God does the miraculous is so he can be glorified by it. But really, they’re confusing the fruit with the purpose. When God does something awesome, of course people are gonna glorify him as a result; duh. But I should point out there are plenty of cases in the scriptures where ingrates didn’t glorify him, usually ’cause they didn’t want that, or wanted something more ’splodey. Naaman of Syria darn near didn’t get cured of leprosy because he wanted his cure to involve hand-waving and spells, and it didn’t. 2Ki 5.10-14 There’s no pleasing some people.

So why do miracles happen? ’Cause God wants ’em to. Obviously.

And when God does stuff, he reveals himself, his activity, and his involvement in our lives. In those moments, he stops being invisible. People see his effects, and realize holy crap, God’s for real! 1Co 14.25 Unbelief gets vaporized.

Yeah, sometimes people want God to do something cool because we’re hoping we’ll look cool by association. We want a miracle so it’ll legitimize us, or make us look powerful. Like when Simon of Samaria tried to buy the Holy Spirit off Simon Peter. Ac 8.18-19 Those who try to reduce God’s miracles to formulas, insist God would never, ever have anything to do with such people, and if you see miracles in their ministries, they’ve gotta be fake. I would remind you that Balaam ben Beor was mercenary to the core, but God prophesied through him regardless, ’cause God wanted his message to get out. Nu 22-24 He’s willing to work through seriously flawed humans. We’re the ones who have that particular hangup, but let’s not turn our dislikes into bad theology.

Done properly, the miracle is gonna inspire faith in God. Not the miracle-worker. It’ll provoke a relationship with Jesus—again, not with the miracle-worker. Yeah, the miracle-worker’s motives might be to promote their own schemes, but God has his own agenda. And can work through whomever he wishes when it serves is purpose. He can do something through an unscrupulous or disobedient miracle-worker, and still make the worker’s plans come to nothing. It’s why, despite Moses and Aaron violating God’s clear instruction to talk to the rock to get water from it, God let water come forth anyway—and separately dealt with his disobedient spokesmen. Nu 20.7-13

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, miracles are acts of grace. Because God is gracious. God can and will do the miraculous to reward good behavior, but that’s far from the only reason he’ll do miracles. Problem is (again, because of our human hangups), Christians tend to treat miracles as if the only reasons God does them is self-promotion and to reward the faithful. Which sound far more like our motives than his.

In any event, remember: God acts because he wants to. It’s for this reason we can ask him for anything and everything. He might say yes! And if it doesn’t serve his purposes, he can always say no. But don’t just assume he’ll say no because we haven’t hit upon the right divine formula. Ask. See what he does.