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.
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.
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…