Cynical about miracles?

A friend recently sent me a miraculous news story reported in Christianity Today magazine. It tells of a modern day Road to Damascus conversion, an Islamist leader hell-bent on killing Christians until his life was transformed by miraculous visions of Jesus. I’ll post a link to the full story at the end.

I must confess that my first reponse to the story was to doubt it. And my next was to seek a non-supernatural explanation.

Which, for someone who claims to believe in the resurrection of Christ and the miracles recorded in the gospels and Acts, seems a bit strange.

There was a time when I’d have accepted a story like this unquestioningly, and seen it as proof of the continuing power and work of the Holy Spirit today. But I realise I’ve gradually become much more cynical and suspicious. I still believe in the possibility of miracles, and indeed that they have happened in the past, but I’m sceptical about modern-day miracle reports. Why?

Faith vs experience?

It’s partly just a case of experience triumphing over faith. Everyday life tends not to be outwardly miraculous. And though over my years as a Christian I’ve prayed a lot, and hung around with Charismatic miracle-believers, I’ve seen few things that I can point to as definite miraculous answers to prayer.

There have been a handful that I can’t easily discount, including one or two in my own life. And I’m certainly not saying there have been no answers to prayer – far from it. But for the most part I’ve experienced little that’s obviously miraculous, and I’ve come gradually to accept (rightly or wrongly) that this doesn’t seem to be the primary way God works in modern western society.

It’s also because I’ve eagerly believed quite a few miracle reports in the past, only to have them exposed as hoaxes. For a time I desperately wanted to believe in the supernatural operating here and now. But when time and again it’s turned out to be false I’ve grown increasingly cynical.

Doubting Thomas

When I expressed my reservations to the friend who sent the article, he responded with “blessed are those who believe” – a reference to Doubting Thomas.

Poor Thomas is always held up as a sorry example of lack of faith, but if I had to be one of the apostles I’d probably choose him. Okay, perhaps he could have trusted his friends more; perhaps he could have remembered Jesus’ promise to rise from the dead. But his desire for visible, tangible evidence seems eminently reasonable.

For without evidence, ‘blessed are those who believe’ can all too easily turn into ‘blessed are the gullible’.

And yet… might it not be preferable to be a tiny bit gullible than to be so cynical you miss what God’s doing?

I certainly don’t want to end up like the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’s Last Battle, ‘so afraid of being taken in that they can’t be taken out [of themselves]’. Healthy scepticism is, well, healthy, but I don’t want to become so hardened that I fail to see the genuinely divine when it does appear.

So with the father of the probably-epileptic boy in Mark 9 I say ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief’. Just adding the small caveat ‘but only if it’s actually true.’

The problem with miracles

Another issue is that even when I do believe in miracles these days, I often find them as problematic as they are marvellous.

If God really is appearing directly to an Islamist leader and changing his heart to follow Jesus then that is amazing and great. Yet it also raises difficult questions.

Why just this one particular leader and not all the many others who are persecuting Christians? Why would God get directly involved in this one particular situation and yet apparently leave so many others of equal or greater need? What about, say, the thousands of refugee children dying in horrific conditions?

And this is of course always the problem with any specific miracle. It seems so arbitrary and unfair, like a divine lottery. For each person who is blessed, liberated or transformed, thousands of others aren’t, many of whom are in equally dire straits and have been praying desperately for years. I find it hard to celebrate fully with the favoured one when I’m aware of the unmet needs of the many. (Though perhaps it’s my own unmet needs and unanswered prayers that bother me most.)

Of course, God is free to do as he chooses, with whom he chooses, when he chooses. He doesn’t have to give account of himself to me. And for sure, sometimes his answer to prayer (for whatever reason) is ‘no’ or ‘not yet’. Just because someone isn’t healed now, it doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be later – though of course many never are.

Perhaps my real underlying problem with miracles like the one that prompted this piece is that they challenge my safe liberal worldview and nice comfortable theology. Just when I’ve persuaded myself into a particular view of God and faith that suits me, something like this comes and shakes up the picture. I find it scary and unsettling. If this happens, maybe I’m wrong about everything.

Relying on miracles

Yet I think there’s an equal and opposite danger in placing too much reliance on miracles.

By definition, miracles are rare divine occurrences brought about in God’s timing and by his choice. I’m sure they do occur, but I think we’re wise not to look to them to solve all our problems.

In my experience, God seldom operates as a glorified fairy godmother with a divine magic wand. There are rare times and places when miracles are the order of the day – such as during Jesus’ earthly ministry – but otherwise God apparently prefers to operate quietly, gradually, behind the scenes, through natural means and flawed human agents.

Hidden miracles

So the kinds of miracles I care most about these days are the understated, often unrecognised miracles of forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration of ‘shalom’. And of course the claimed miracle that prompted this piece does partly fall into this category, and it’s that aspect of it that impresses me more than the claims of divine visions and voices.

And then there are the everyday, ordinary miracles of simply being alive in this astonishing universe; of being able to think and see and taste and touch, of giving and receiving love.

It occurs to me that there are two very different kinds of miracle even within the New Testament. In the gospels we have all the healings and wonders. But then in Paul’s letters we read that God wouldn’t heal him of his mysterious ‘thorn in the flesh’, saying ‘My grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in your weakness’.

This is the other, harder kind of miracle that God calls many of us to – not magically removing our troubles, but redeeming them to bring good from bad. I’d prefer magic, but maybe this is the more Christlike path…

And now here’s that miracle news story…

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in miracles, Scepticism and doubt and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Cynical about miracles?

  1. Daniel says:

    No I’m the cynical one not you! Never believed it but your comment about Modern Western Society is I think the key here. We in the west are so vacant to the belief in a spiritual world what can God do when no one believes in anything! This miracle was placed in the middle east where they believe fervently. It’s the opening yourself upto the supernatural that allows it in. The whole idea of playing with weigy boards (I know that’s not how you spell it) allowing devils in etc. Just the reverse. If you allow yourself to believe in something more than you can see God just might be able to slip in and talk to you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good to hear from you Dan. I think I’m nearly as cynical as you these days, with occasional lapses! 🙂

      Fair point though – if we don’t believe at all, then it makes it pretty hard for God to show up and do much in our lives. Even if he did, half the time we wouldn’t notice!

      But on the other hand, I know there have been times when I’ve been praying my socks off for ages, and believing, and still seeing not much change. I know that’s just part of the deal – God doesn’t always make everything lovely for us, and there are hard times to get through. But I don’t think it’s always just that we don’t have enough faith (though it is sometimes!).

      But yes, I could probably use a little more childlike belief and a little less cynicism…

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    • Ouija board isn’t for the “Devil” since there is no such thing but another manifestation of the divine itself.
      This silly trick used by the same Christians who also said worshiping Gold statues is wrong or that Jews bought the bubonic plague in Europe in the dark ages.
      Hope you can educate yourself on these issues.

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      • I’m agnostic about the existence of a personal ‘devil’ but I do believe in the reality of evil. Having experimented with Ouija boards myself many years ago, I personally don’t think it’s a good idea at all. I don’t believe that what I experienced then was a manifestation of anything good, but rather of pure malice. I believe I have since experienced something of the presence of God in worship, and the experience is as different as that of light from dark.

        However, this is not a comment on other people’s faiths or the worship of statues. I simply don’t recommend Ouija boards, from experience!

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        • Malice has greatly arrived from Christianity that destroyed Europe and much of the world for 1700 years and is still continuing to do so.
          In that aspect, I might not recommend making churches anywhere either.
          Ouija practice is vital to many religions of native Africa, tribal north east India, pagan faiths and theistic Satanism. So, your experience wouldn’t suit to everyone’s taste.
          I don’t follow any of those faiths either, but I find most organized faiths more scary than playing with the a board… Plus if God is with you, why be scared of it?
          Christianity has a long history of berating other religions,mainly non Abrahamic ones… It’s time we all accept all religions, rituals, traditions and their practices.
          I m just saying one shouldn’t openly call religious practices of non Christian faiths as evil or scary and non recommendable by sticking to the prejudices of the inquisition.
          I had similar thoughts when I was a young kid in a conservative Catholic school.

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          • Dear Subhankarzac, please forgive me if I have offended with anything I’ve said – please believe that this was not my intention.

            With Ouija, I can only relate my own experience, which was outside the context of any religious practice or belief (I was not a practising Christian at the time). I simply played with Ouija for ‘fun’ with friends, seeking to contact spirits of the dead for a thrill. My experience of it was terrifying and seemed overwhelmingly evil to me. For months afterwards, I was tormented by nightmares of demons suffocating me.

            However, I can make no comment on Ouija as practised within the genuine devotional framework of a spiritual belief system.

            Regarding Christianity and malice, I would sadly have to agree with you that many Christians and churches have brought much evil to the world. However, I would make a distinction between Christianity as the genuine original faith modelled by Christ, and Christianity as badly practised by most Christians throughout history (including myself). I wish this were not the case, but unfortunately humans mess up even the best of things. Which of course is why I believe we need the genuinely Christian message of forgiveness, redemption and healing in the first place.

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  2. Theopany is an ancient concept that has crossed over theistic faiths globally.
    TBH, I too had a dream once about a really REALLY yellow light with the experience me falling uncontrollably below.
    I dismissed it later as mind tricks which it could easily have been.

    I’ve rarely been comfortable with the idea of a supernatural divinity but overall things exists that we can’t understand or more likely don’t want to understand.
    Miracles that I’ve read about often can be explained in scientific terms in out of bound conditions.

    But from my somewhat personal understanding of the reality tells me that God or Allah or Krishna wi’ll never heal the sick or restore sight to the blind. As much as I wish he would, I think not.
    God created imperfections, diseases and Evil on purpose just as he created health, peace and goodness.

    If a land is smooth and flat, water wouldn’t create oceans or rivers, lakes and bays would be stagnant and life would come to an end.
    Without evil, there’s no good. Without hate, there’s no love and without disease, there’s no end and rebirth.

    I do take Jesus as a holy Sage who preached compassion and tapped into the supernatural energy later, still I don’t think it’s authentic… Though I could very well be wrong.

    God showing himself to Muhammad in form of Allah and in his original universal form to Arjuna are instances that caused massive changes to the world.
    Islam started to come out of persecution causing a lessening of tribal warfare and the ghastly war of Mahabharata ushered in the age of Truth and Dharma in ancient India.

    So, those are who doing such evil across the world to satisfy their senses, ego and pander their ignorance, I believe for them punishment of the most severe kind is still waiting which only could be their deliverance by brutal death.
    Though ego is one of the 8 material manifestations of the divine in my opinion, still it has to be controlled by the 7th manifestation which is intelligence.
    Mankind doesn’t need redemption, it just needs to learn to be satisfied by giving up excessive desire, expectation and the results of the work done.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Subhankarzac, thank you for your many comments, which are all interesting and I’m afraid I won’t be able to do justice to them in my replies!

      I may also not be able to reply to each comment separately at the moment, so I will just say this for starters and hope to come back to you on some of the others in due course.

      I think we do both share some core spiritual values and aspirations, and I value your contribution. And we can accept that we both have quite different beliefs, experiences and understandings of spiritual matters, which is okay. You have to follow your path based on your conscience, understanding and experience, and I have to follow mine.

      So for me, my path is that of following Jesus as my teacher, redeemer, master and example, because that is the one I believe I have been led to, and where I find life. I do struggle with it at times, and there are many things I don’t understand, but I think my way will always lie within the broad parameters of the Christian faith.

      For myself then, I cannot believe in a strict law of karma. I do believe that our actions have repercussions, but I also believe in the power and importance of mercy and forgiveness. I do believe that humanity needs redemption, and that those who seek it will find it.

      But I’m happy to agree to disagree with you on this, and I wish you every blessing on your path.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes. 🙂
        All paths to the top of the Everest leads to the same point. I do enjoy your blogs and also a side of a different religion other than the ones I m familiar helps me understand different sides to a single cube.
        God, sage, yogi or just a man… Hard to deny the messages of compassion and love and similarities with other faiths and alternative denominations.
        Waiting for your next article.
        Blessings and Hugs. 🙂

        Like

  3. David says:

    I like the way you have tackled this. I have similar thoughts about miracles. Whilst I have undoubtedly seen a few things that are not easily explained except to say that they are outside the natural. I particularly like what you wrote about the arbitrary nature of miracles – this has always bothered me, but then if God were some kind of slot machine that just responded to a prayer for a miracle, I’m not sure that would be very satisfactory either – I think we would end up not needing faith anymore. Lastly, the thing about Thomas is fascinating. I am going to try to tackle the issue of doubt in one of my forthcoming posts and I think that Thomas was a great example of a real down to earth human being – I notice that Jesus really didn’t have a lot of problems in showing his hands and side to him to gain his belief. I think Thomas is more similar to many of us today who have not seen but believe, and sometimes struggle with that belief because we have no physical proof of the works of God.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks David, and I’m sorry for the delay in replying!

      I agree that God is not a slot machine, and I certainly wouldn’t expect him to answer all prayers in the same way. I do just find it a little hard though that so many people have to suffer such terrible things for so long, while just a few seem to receive miraculous healing or deliverance. I don’t question that God sometimes heals – I just wish he would do it a bit more often, and with the people I know and love! 🙂

      But in the end, I do know that knowing God is enough. If he chooses to heal, great, but if not then that’s his prerogative.

      And I’m glad I’m not the only one who likes ‘doubting’ Thomas! 😉

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  4. tonycutty says:

    I too would be cynical – and this is a great article, btw, especially the bit about the seeming randomness of it all – but for a real and unexpected healing that took place in my own life. Last June, I was completely and suddenly healed of an old, deep-seated attitude and the change was immediate and, at least so far, permanent. I am sorry but I can’t tell you what the attitude was about (if we ever meet ftf then I will!) because it’s too personal to put on a public forum….but I have a screenshot of a whatsapp photo sent by my son to my wife saying ‘Wtf has happened to our Dad?’ There was no bright light, no ‘realisation’, just a load of weeping, a load of laughing and that was it. I didn’t even know what had happened until the next day when I noticed how differently I treated the situations I had the ‘attitude’ problem with. Granted, I haven’t had a leg regrow or raised the dead (yet) but this was just as real and the change has been noticed by others. It might not sound like much but that change was not at all what I wanted, much less expected, so I had no vested interest in wanting that healing; it just happened. Why me? I don’t know. But others have found the secret of what to do when a miracle happens to someone else: rejoice with those who rejoice. Rejoice in their miracle with them as if it’s your own; it is still evidence of God’s Great Love.

    This last Wednesday in Bristol I saw someone healed of a severe lifelong stammer. Why did God wait until this lady’s thirties before He healed her? I don’t know. Another young lady in the same meeting was totally healed of ME/CFS. My daughter has that; why was she not healed? I don’t know that either. But I rejoiced personally with the young lady up out of her wheelchair and running up and down the aisle, in no pain, and showing no signs of weakness. She was still on her feet two hours later – a feat unheard of with the severity of her former symptoms.

    So I’m utterly and personally convinced that Jesus still heals today. Even to my cynical scientific mind, I am convinced that I have witnessed – and had done to me – real miracles. But, like you, Harvey, the seeming randomness of it still baffles me!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Tony, thanks for your very interesting, honest, inspiring and challenging comment!

      I certainly don’t discount the possibility of miracles here and now, and stories like yours keep me believing and hoping. Thank you for that.

      I’d be interested to hear more about this meeting in Bristol last Wednesday. Are healings like this a common occurrence at these meetings, or was that exceptional? I’ve been part of gatherings like this where there have been many reported miracles, and it’s always left me a little uncomfortable, mainly because it challenges my theology and my cynicism – and because the healings almost never happen to people I know and can verify with afterwards. But of course I would secretly love to see this kind of thing in my own life, and in the lives of people I’ve been praying for for a long time. Oddly enough, it was these kinds of healings that helped persuade me of the reality of Christianity in the first place.

      I also realise I’m not very good yet at rejoicing with those who are blessed when I’m not – definitely an area to work on!

      But great to hear your stories and your perspective – thank you again.

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      • tonycutty says:

        Mmm good questions. And you’re welcome! The meeting was a special meeting involving Randy Clark, a Vineyard-related chap who has seen a high success rate in his prayers for the sick. He gave a series of very open and honest chats detailing how he too does not understand why some are healed and some are not, and in fact very honestly claiming ‘only’ about a 20% success rate – still that’s better than mine! Details of the conference are at this link: http://www.release2016.org/ and I understand they will be posting testimonies too. I’ve emailed them for any link they might have.

        I take your point about not knowing the ‘before/after’ state of those ‘healed’; I personally did not know the ladies who testified to the ME/CFS healing and that of the stammer, but it was very apparent from their entire demeanour that they were telling the truth. And there was nothing for anyone to gain from falsehood; there was no collection except for one of those really annoying ones where they are collecting for some completely unrelated thing, unrelated that is to the healing conference. Personally I hate it when they get up and do that to a captive audience who are well-versed at feeling guilty and all that. I was having none of it. But still I am convinced of the authenticity of the healings; there were others too but those are the two I remember most vividly. The lady who prayed for my wife – she is a cancer patient – prayed exactly the same things that we pray, which is no mean feat as praying against cancer is sometimes so complex, there’s so much to cover. And then there’s my own healing last year which, yes, I have no ’empirical’ evidence for, except perhaps for the screenshot of my wife’s phone where my son was wondering what had happened to me, it was so obvious…plus I am still walking in the fruit of that healing; it has not left me or anything like that.

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        • Thanks Tony. I find your story both encouraging and challenging, and I do not of course question the authenticity of your own story, or those others you witnessed for yourself. For the moment though, like my hero the good Doubting Thomas I think I will remain agnostic on the wider subject of miracles and healings, until I myself experience something along those lines. Probably more fool me. 🙂

          Do pray for me! And I also for you and your wife.

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          • tonycutty says:

            Absolutely 🙂 Thomas is my hero too; to me he represents complete honesty!

            I also like your point in your OP about small miracles happening all the time. This too is true; in fact I would say that small miracles and great miracles happen all the time, we just don’t always notice them! God doesn’t do them to show off; He does them because they need doing 🙂

            Plus, if something becomes too commonplace, is it still a miracle? I am on the fence on this question; certainly something like childbirth is a miracle – that two humans can ‘create’ another human being – however some miracles are rare, and in some ways have to be, else they’re not a miracle by some definitions. Having said that, a miracle has to begin with an impossibility, so that’s another way of looking at it. Hmm.

            Liked by 1 person

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