If you want to know what somebody believes, just watch them for a while. We all exhibit patterns of behavior in our ordinary lives.
We are either routinely generous or miserly, bold or timid, trusting or suspicious. We readily welcome strangers or keep them at a distance, let go of grievances or nurse grudges, respond to the needs of others or pursue our own comfort.
In other words, believing–really believing–is doing.
The philosopher William James taught that your faith is composed of the beliefs that you stake your life on. He doesn’t mean by this ideas that you’ll die for or fight over. Instead, faith is that set of beliefs embodied in our habitual, nearly automatic daily living.
Take gravity, for instance. I never really think about gravity, but with each step I take I reaffirm my belief in it. I never hesitate to take the next step for fear that I’ll float away, and I will certainly not climb a steeple expecting to fly back down by flapping my arms.
Few of us really follow Jesus with this kind of fidelity. But we want to. Faith is something we grow into, mature in, stumble over, slip from, and try again. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. And following Jesus means taking each new step with the confidence that he is with us.
He guides our actions, guards our hearts, and redeems our missteps. That’s what we say we believe. We mean it when we forgive those who hurt us, share whatever we have with those who have less than we do, and find our Savior in the faces of people very unlike us. Gospel faith is something we do sometimes and seek to do always.
Many people point to Jesus’ miracles as evidence for faith. For instance, John’s Gospel recounts Jesus’ healing of a man born blind. (John 9:1-41) Some are keen to say that this demonstrates that God gets involved. He is no absentee parent. He’s involved up to his elbows in the messiness of our lives.
There’s just one problem: how we understand miracles. The way we think about miracles actually leads us to treat God as an occasional visitor at best and at worst as a capricious intruder. Many of us don’t get miracles, so using our misconceptions about miracles to shape our daily lives has the ironic effect turning our hearts away from God.
By contrast, getting our minds around a sound view of miracles can help us to grow in faith, to shape our daily lives in a way that resonates with our belief in Jesus, in the God who is truly involved.
So, let’s take a look at three related questions:
- What is our common misconception about miracles?
- How does this misconception distort our faith?
- What is a miracle?
Many of us think of miracles as supernatural intrusions. Disruptions of the natural order. See if this sounds familiar.
Since the rise of modern natural science, we have been taught to think of the universe as a kind of closed system. Anything that happens in nature is explained with reference to other natural phenomena as a function of natural law.
If a blind man recovers his sight, if a woman with an issue of blood gets relief, or if a lame person suddenly walks there must be a natural explanation.
Given that assumption, we’ve come to think of miracles as disruptions of the natural order from beyond nature, from the supernatural realm of God. Miracles, in other words, seem like special exceptions to the usual rules for how things operate. God is stepping in when he usually keeps a hands off posture.
So, the blind man in John’s Gospel received special, remarkable attention to his his condition. God chose to relieve his suffering and altered the natural course of things to accomplish it. And that leads us to the problem of miracles so long as we think of them in this way.
The Problem of Miracles
This view of miracles leads inevitably to the familiar question about God’s reasons for stepping in at some points and refusing to do so at other points.
We wonder why he saved Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace but allowed six million Jews to burn in the ovens of concentration camps.
Why did the old stinker recover from cancer and the innocent child succumb?
Viewing miracles as supernatural intrusions can make God seem capricious and downright unfair. Philosophers and theologians have filled library shelves with attempts to reconcile God’s goodness with the existence of suffering and his apparently sporadic interventions to relieve it.
I am not interested so much in untying this intellectual knot as identifying and dispelling the negative practical implications of thinking about miracles as supernatural intrusions in the first place.
The practical problem of miracles is the way in which our belief in them shapes our daily living. When we think about miracles as so occasional and capricious as to be random, we begin to act as if God is simply indifferent and unreliable.
We might not say anything of the sort. In fact, we may readily recite the Creed and repeat the Lord’s Prayer. Nevertheless, our actions begin to fall into patterns that reflect the conviction that we are more or less on our own.
A friend of mine put it this way when I asked her if she trusts God. “It’s fine to trust the Lord, but you better hitch the mule up to the plow.” In other words, getting God’s help with something would be a lagniappe. But she’s not counting on it.
Guess what. She’s remarkably controlling, prone to anger, and bears fierce grudges. Even with a clerical collar around her neck.
Our common misconception about miracles has had a negative impact on her faith, as it can on anyone else’s faith.
So what am I suggesting? Forgetting about miracles altogether? Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, let’s think more clearly about miracles as a means to strengthen our faith.
Ruin and Restoration
For starters, let’s stop thinking about miracles as supernatural intrusions by rejecting the idea of nature as a closed system. Scripture teaches us that God is sovereign. All things move in accordance with his will.
Natural law is not something separate from God that excludes his habitual and reliable intervention in our lives. Instead, natural law describes the orderly way that God chooses to reign over his creation. He sets the planets in their courses and stirs the tides.
Now this might seem to lead us into a difficult problem. Terrible suffering occurs every day as a result of natural occurrences. Are we to think that God purposely crushes people with earthquakes and drowns people in floods and starves people in famines?
Not at all!
And we can see this clearly when we remember that we dwell in a fallen creation. The story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden teaches us that the creation is fractured. God intended a gracious and peaceful order for all things. And he still does. However, his creative, providential work takes the form of restoring his ruined creation. Restoring us.
The cross and the empty tomb restore the ruined creation. On the cross, God involves himself in all the worst we have to offer and transforms it from ruin into new life.
The creation in which we dwell is a work in progress, and God is at work constantly and perpetually.
Miracles give us a clear glimpse of what God is up to all the time. The sovereign God is restoring his ruined creation through every step we take in his name. Our routine acts of mercy and grace–even the smallest and apparently least significant–are the channel for God’s restoration of this ruined universe. Miracles simply show us in gaudy outline what God is doing through ordinary hands and feet every day.