The other day a very good friend related a miracle story to me, told them by a friend at church who’d heard it from another. As I recall it, a teenage boy had been sectioned and was self-harming by scratching his fingernails into his face. An older Christian friend or pastor had been praying for the lad and had heard God say ‘this kind only comes out through prayer and fasting’. Accordingly he had prayed and fasted, and then when he next visited the boy, he’d prayed and laid hands on him. At this point, the boy flew across the room, and when he picked himself up he was himself again, and instead of scratching his face he was caressing it.
I’d be interested to know your immediate reaction to this tale. I must confess that mine was one of almost total scepticism, which understandably slightly miffed the person who’d told it me. She asked me with just a touch of accusation, ‘So don’t you believe in miracles any more?’. It’s a good question, and I’m not altogether sure of the answer. Do I believe in miracles? In theory, yes, absolutely. In practice, I’m not sure.
As I see it, the story in question really entails two beliefs (on top of a basic belief in God and his ability to answer prayer) – (1) in miracles and supernatural phenomena, and (2) in supernatural agents or powers (angels and demons) that have influence over our everyday lives.
Miracles and supernatural forces
I would say that both (1) and (2) are certainly possible, and I wouldn’t want to rule either of them out. A supernatural God can surely perform supernatural acts, and I’ve little doubt that he has indeed done so on a number of occasions. Whether or not these can be expected to form a regular and normative part of our Christian experience is another matter, and on the whole I’d now be inclined to think not.
I do certainly believe in Jesus’ miracles recorded in the gospels (and those of the apostles in Acts); I have no problem with these at all. On the other hand, what I now think matters most about these miracles is their quality as signs – what they show, reveal or symbolise about God and his message. Yes, Jesus healed people in very direct and dramatic ways, and I’ve no doubt he did this for their sake as much as for what these acts signified and symbolised. But at the same time, these miracles are also profound signs of the coming of the Kingdom – and of the coming of the King.
As for angels and demons, again I think I do believe in them, largely on the basis that fairly substantial chunks of the Bible seem to require their existence. I’m not entirely convinced though that they play a major role in most people’s everyday lives – and on the whole I hope they don’t (at least not the demons).
So why did I react with such scepticism to the fasting-and-deliverance story? I’m not sure, but I think what I found hardest to swallow was the flying-across-the-room detail. I was also slightly sceptical about the source of the story and whether it might have become embellished in the telling, as it must have been about 6th-hand by the time it got to me, and it sounded like it came ultimately from a super-charismatic source. It just seemed to me to have something of the quality of a Christian urban myth.
My own experience
I haven’t always been so sceptical about miracle stories. Indeed, reports of the miraculous were a large part of what initially drew me to Christianity 16 or so years ago. I had some friends who were very involved in Vineyard-influenced charismatic Christianity, and their excited (and exciting) stories of healings, miracles and prophecies were exactly what I was looking for at that time. If these tales were true, they surely proved that God was real – and I was longing for proof before I took the plunge of commitment. Furthermore, they demonstrated God’s active power to heal and transform today – something I felt I desperately needed in my own life.
Part of my desperation arose from my having had some very disturbing experiences with the occult before my conversion (Ouija boards and the like), and for several years afterwards I was convinced that I might be suffering from demonic influences or oppression. This took the form of highly intrusive OCD and blasphemous or cursing thoughts. I also had nightly nightmares of suffocation by dark creatures that would only let go when I ordered them to leave in Jesus’ name. I therefore felt sure that the supernatural was very real and powerful, and that the dark side could only be countered by an at-least-equally active good side. I was longing for miracles of deliverance, healing and protection; a powerful and active God to counter what certainly seemed to me to be a powerful and active devil.
Did I receive such miraculous healing? No, and perhaps yes. Nothing dramatic happened. I didn’t fly across the room when prayed for. I engaged in various secular therapeutic groups and practices, alongside attending church and receiving prayer. My recovery was slow and gradual and in any normal sense entirely non-miraculous.
Yet the circumstances of my conversion itself were full of odd coincidence, and looking back I can see God’s hand in the whole slow process of my recovery and healing. It wasn’t a swift or spectacular miracle, but as far as I’m concerned it was miraculous nonetheless – in the sense that it was a genuine work of God.
Spiritual manifestations and the presence of God
After my conversion I started attending a small charismatic C of E church plant. Here minor manifestations of spiritual gifts were par for the course – some I still think genuine, others I’m now less sure about. People spoke in tongues, gave ‘words and pictures’ from God, and there were fairly frequent healings – usually of minor ailments, but occasionally of more serious conditions. I found all this tremendously exciting and encouraging. Even then though I had slightly mixed feelings, because nothing much ever seemed to happen to me. I didn’t speak in tongues, receive words from God or get healed of anything more major than the temporary relief of some mouth ulcers.
The ‘Toronto Blessing’ struck during the first year of my conversion, and our church was very much taken up with it. Nothing hugely spiritually dramatic happened to me during this time, and I now look back on the episode with some bemusement, unsure how much of what I witnessed was truly the Holy Spirit at work and how much was just human. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t all bad though, and I do believe that I experienced being quietly filled with the Holy Spirit.
Not long after this I also had a brief flirtation with ‘health and wealth’ theology (Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn et al), which again seemed to offer miracles and healing – which I so greatly wanted – if you just had enough faith. Ultimately though, this experience left me more than a little wary of extreme-end charismaticism and of miracle claims.
Nonetheless, one thing which was very powerful and important to me during those early charismatic days was a new, very real sense of the presence of God which I experienced during times of sung worship at church. In all my years of somewhat bored churchgoing as a child and teenager, I’d never felt anything like it. I can’t prove it of course, but it was as real to me as anything I’ve ever experienced, and it had a profound and lasting effect on me. I’ve not really doubted God’s reality since then; I’ve occasionally doubted his goodness, or more often that he really cares for me, but rarely that he’s real. And that’s been more important and helpful to me than any number of spectacular miracles or healings.
Scepticism and ambivalence
These days then I’m much more ambivalent and sceptical about miracle stories. My feeling now, based on my own experience, is that miracles can and do happen, but that most reported stories of the miraculous (whether good or evil) are either Christian urban myths or are at least greatly exaggerated.
Part of my scepticism may simply be that I’ve never really witnessed or experienced anything that I could describe as a ‘miracle’ in this sense – certainly nothing spectacular like people flying across rooms and being instantly healed of self-harming. That’s not to say that I’ve not seen any genuine works of God. I’ve known a number of people who’ve been prayed for and then been healed against all the medical odds. I’ve seen God at work in my life and the lives of friends and family. These aren’t quite in the same category as instant healings and raising from the dead, but I’d still see them as genuinely miraculous.
Maybe I’ve also felt a little disappointed and let down by my charismatic experiences, which raised expectations of the spectacularly miraculous that haven’t been fulfilled. I suspect there’s a degree of envy and sour grapes on my part too – as the miraculous only seems to happen to other people, it’s more convenient for me just not to believe in it too much.
I confess that I’m also still a little fearful and wary of the dark side of the supernatural. Perhaps my heartfelt hope that the demonic isn’t real (or at least isn’t as real and active as I was led to believe in my more charismatic days) has also led to a diminished belief in or hope for miracles.
I do sometimes wonder if much of the experience of miracles comes down to factors of personality, temperament and culture. I can’t help feeling it would be easier for me to believe if I were, say, living in tribal Africa or didn’t have my native English reserve and intellectualism. I’m informed that many more miracles and supernatural events (both good and evil) occur in rural Africa and India, where a belief in spirits and magic is prevalent, and where there is no sophisticated medicine or technology to turn to for non-supernatural solutions to life’s problems.
What are miracles – and why do we want them?
I’ve talked a lot about belief in miracles and supernatural phenomena, but what actually is a miracle; what do we really mean by supernatural? Might we have too narrow a view of what these things look like and encompass? I would like to argue that everything in the world has a supernatural or miraculous aspect, because God is the ultimate source of all of it and is in some way at work in or through it. All of God’s work is miraculous; it’s just that most of it appears perfectly natural and normal and even mundane. You and I are miracles in this wider sense; and every time our body heals itself it’s a miracle.
Similarly, does something have to be swift, spectacular or dramatic to be miraculous? I’ve never really understood why the creation of the world would be more wonderful if it took place in six days rather than over the vast majestic sweep of unimaginable aeons of time. In the same way, why should a healing be any less miraculous and wonderful when it takes place slowly and gradually than when it happens in an instant?
I also wonder whether we sometimes set too much store by miracles, signs and wonders. Are we really looking for the miraculous to provide some genuine and lasting good, or are we merely seeking a spiritual thrill? Do we maybe see miracles as a short-cut to the inconvenient pains of growth and change and healing – the waving of a wand to fix our problems instantly? Or perhaps as a way of validating our views and silencing our sceptical opponents? I suspect that I’ve wanted miracles for all these reasons.
As an aside, I’m not sure that miracles often do have the effects we expect of them anyway. Philip Yancey has pointed out that under Moses, the Old Testament Israelite community experienced God’s mighty wonders every day, and yet this didn’t produce any great increase in their faith or righteousness – quite the opposite. And as for silencing sceptics, miracles can always be explained away as hoaxes, hallucinations, freaks of nature or bizarre coincidences.
Signs and blunders
Of course, I’m not saying I wouldn’t like a sign or a miracle in my life – I very much would. In fact, I quite often ask God to show me that he’s present and at work in my life. I’m well aware that this could be seen as both a faithless and a selfish prayer; “it is a wicked and perverse generation that asks for a sign.” But there are very different kinds of ‘signs’ and also very different motives for asking for them.
I think what I’m really asking for is not a spectacular miracle, but just to see; to be given fresh vision or insight into what I hope is already the reality of God’s presence and power at work in and through my life. Alternatively, I’m asking for some long-longed-for transformation or liberation or healing which is not merely for the sake of show, but is a genuine work of God, a fruit of the Spirit and a sign of the Kingdom.
Sometimes I just get depressed or discouraged; perhaps I’m simply asking for reassurance that God cares about me; that he’s really with me. Maybe I shouldn’t need that. And yet, if we’re really with God and he’s really in us, shouldn’t we expect to see some evidence of that from time to time?
I should report then in closing that I did experience a very small miracle last week. My five-year-old son was desperate to find his lost ‘Beast Quest’ Top Trumps cards, which had gone missing some days before. I prayed out loud that God would show us where they were, not really expecting that he would, and I saw the cards staring me in the face literally within a second of finishing the prayer. Of course, this sounds like a silly, trivial example and perhaps it is; but maybe a child-level miracle is the highest kind I can believe in and experience at this point. Who knows, perhaps I can work my way up to minor healings in a few decades’ time… and then flying across the room…