12 March 2018

Miracles: Actual acts of God.

Properly defined a miracle is anything God does or enables. If a human performs a miracle, it’s not legitimate—it’s trickery—if the Holy Spirit doesn’t empower it.

Improperly but popularly, a miracle is defined as a violation of the laws of nature. Blame 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume for that one. Hume didn’t believe in miracles, but he did believe in science, and decided to set the two of them at odds with one another: If you believe in one, what’re you doing believing in the other? As a result, today we have a lot of Christians who don’t believe in science—and don’t think we’re allowed to believe in it. Likewise a lot of people who do trust science, but are under the misbelief they’re fools if they also trust God—and as a result they hide their religious beliefs from their colleagues. All for no good reason; over a false rivalry between apples and oranges.

Also improperly but popularly, a miracle is defined as anything which looks awesome, or really works out in our favor. So a newborn baby is a “miracle.” Our sports team beating the odds to win is a “miracle.” Figuring out how to land on the moon was a “miracle.” A stretch where we manage to avoid red lights while driving, a pretty sunset, a really good Reuben sandwich—all these things are “miracles.” We use the word for everything. Kinda ruins its impact.

But back to the proper definition: If God does it, it’s a miracle. So, newborn babies and sunsets sorta count, since God did create all the conditions for nature to form sunsets and babies. Less so with sporting events, cooking, lunar landings, and meaningless coincidences. We might think God’s involved ’cause we’re not so sure about human effort or coincidence. But if he’s not, it’s not.

Miracles in Christanity. Or not.

Miracles happen all over the bible, since the scriptures are the chronicle of God’s ancient doings among the Hebrew people. So if we’re Christian, we’re obligated to accept the biblical miracles, at least.

Not that certain skeptics don’t try to dismiss ’em. Again, if you imagine you’re being untrue to science by believing in miracles, you’re gonna try to reconcile the two: You’re gonna try to create “scientific” explanations for the biblical miracles. How Jesus made wine of water or walked on the Galilean sea, how Elisha made an axehead float or multiplied a jar of oil, how Joshua flattened Jericho’s walls or stopped the sun, how Moses parted the Red Sea or turned his staff into a snake, how a global flood happened in Noah’s day or a city was immolated by falling sulfur in Lot’s.

Okay. I’m not saying there are no nature- or physics-based descriptions for how these events took place. I’m entirely sure there are. Why should God have to suspend natural laws in order to do his thing? He works with and through humans; why wouldn’t he do the same with nature? It’s another one of his creations, and I repeat: He’s not at odds with it.

But thanks to this miracles-versus-science mindset, certain science-minded folks figure if they can’t deduce how God did a miracle, maybe he never really did it. Maybe the biblical miracles are myths, exaggerations, fables, or otherwise non-historical. Fictions invented to make God seem more often.

Clearly these folks feel they can’t believe in God till they precisely know how he does his thing. If Christian, this lack of trust and humility is gonna seriously bollix their Christian growth. They may claim it’s ’cause they believe in science, and Christians will condemn them because it appears they trust science more than God. That’s not the real problem. It’s that they just plain don’t trust God. “Science” is their excuse. (’Cause these very same folks will often trust homeopathic cures, new-age “wellness” cures, and folk medicine: They don’t trust science all that much either.)

I’ve met a few who imagine they’re Christian because they claim to believe in Jesus’s teachings. Yet they try to subtract his miracles, because they think miracles aren’t historical, and aren’t all that essential to who Jesus is. So they attempt to fabricate a Historical Jesus who’s all about the teachings, not the acts.

Problem is, this picking and choosing is doomed to distort Jesus significantly. Y’realize he points to his miracles as evidence that he’s who he claims to be, Jn 10.37-38 and instructs his followers to do miracles too. Mt 10.8 True followers aren’t really given the option to dismiss miracles, and pursue miracle-free lives—much as they might claim miracles aren’t real. Or embrace the skeptical cop-out that God turned miracles off in the present day.

What’s a miracle, and what's not?

Thanks to our faulty ideas of what a miracle is, or who God is, we get some weird extremes in Christianity.

If you believe in determinism, that everything in the universe is an act of God, technically that makes everything a miracle. (Although the title “miracle” tends to be reserved for the bigger, more impressive stuff.) ’Cause there are no coincidences in the universe, everything’s part of God’s plan, and everything happens for a reason.

In practice, determinism creates Christians who are extremely superstitious. Because if God’s behind absolutely everything, it means he’s trying to manipulate us through these things, right? Trying to nudge us to do stuff. Trying to tell us things. Everything’s a potential sign, and we’ve gotta get wise to what these 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 at all 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 stopped doing them in bible times. Today, we have the 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 we 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. They turn into suckers for every claim of the miraculous. Sometimes they even accept supernatural events which are blatantly fruitless and devilish. And at the other end of the pole, we have the Christians who doubt absolutely everything. I already discussed them.

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 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 neat coincidence.”

Before we start spreading around miracle stories, let’s temporarily think like a skeptic. Occam’s Razor is the idea the simplest explanation is likely correct: Once we shave off all the unnecessary complications, we probably have the truth. So if any “miracle” is easier to explain as coincidence, that’s exactly what a skeptic figures it is. If an illness can easily be diagnosed as psychosomatic, that’s all they figure your “healing” was. If there’s a plausible scientific explanation, guess what your typical skeptic plausibly figures?

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, plausible explanation.

Miracles can’t be easily explained away.

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

Okay, it happens all the time. But we’re kinda missing a plausible scientific explanation for why it happens all the time. People try to explain it away as X-ray smudges. But radiologists know better. That’s 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 also heard people claim the cancer faded away as the result of super-optimistic positive thinking. Yeah right. How often have we heard of cancer victims who embraced positive thinking, yet died anyway?

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 indicates it’s easiest to consider God.

Likewise 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, Christians are regularly gonna claim it’s a miracle. But 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 specific to be coincidental. Or if I pray for a job, and the 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 how the odds against mere coincidence are 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 purpose of miracles. Because they have one.

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. 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 there are plenty of cases in the bible where ingrates didn’t glorify him. Sometimes they didn’t want that; sometimes they 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 their miracles have gotta be trickery. 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, a miracle’s gonna inspire faith in God. Not in 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 the Holy Spirit has his own agenda. And the Spirit works through whomever he wishes when it serves his purpose. He can do something through an unscrupulous or disobedient miracle-worker—and still make the worker’s self-serving 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, the Spirit let water come forth anyway—then separately, later, 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.