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|This article is excerpted from Blaine Smith's book Faith
and Optimism: Positive Expectation in the Christian Life (formerly
The Optimism Factor).
|* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *|
In The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck writes of his fascination with “serendipities.” These are special but inexplicable experiences of blessing. Events occur in our lives, he notes, which bring us great benefit yet defy logical explanation. Peck does not hesitate to term such incidents miracles.*
Peck marvels, for instance, at how sometimes in a dreadful traffic accident an individual will emerge from a mangled vehicle unharmed. This seems to point to the miraculous protection of God.
Peck speaks with no less intrigue of a fortunate experience he had while working on his book. Having some unexpected time during a trip, he retired to a colleague’s study to write. Writer’s block struck, though, and Peck couldn’t resolve how to proceed with the chapter he was drafting. As he sat befuddled, his friend’s wife walked in carrying a book she wanted to share with him. The book that she lent to him provided exactly the insight he needed, and he was able to move ahead with his writing. Again, serendipity was the only word to describe the experience.
The serendipitous events Peck notes are not unique. We each have had such experiences, perhaps many of them. Yet typically we think of them not as miracles but as fortunate coincidences. In fact, Peck claims, we may be witnessing the supernatural intervention of God more frequently than we realize.
What makes Peck’s perspective so interesting is that he was not a Christian when he arrived at it. Though he became a believer shortly after publishing The Road Less Traveled, he wrote the book simply as an observer of human life and not with a particular theological stance to promote. When he looked honestly at his own experience and that of others, he concluded there was a miraculous element present at times that couldn’t be ignored.
I find Peck’s viewpoint refreshing, for it suggests that even without the benefit of biblical revelation, there is plenty in ordinary experience to convince us of the reality of miracles, if we’ll open our eyes to the evidence. To the thinking person, in fact, it is more logical to look upon certain welcome events as miracles than to write them off as coincidences. His observations inspire us to be more alert to God’s uncanny protection and provision in our lives.
Bending the Rules
For us as Christians--who enjoy the benefit of biblical revelation, and the confidence of Christ’s unspeakable power in our lives--our basis for believing in miracles is solid. It’s hard to read the Bible, in fact, and not conclude that our belief in the possibility of miracles needs to be much stronger than it typically is. It’s a basic theme of Scripture that the God who created the rules of nature can overrule them if he wishes. And it’s a pervasive theme, for examples of God’s doing exactly that abound throughout his Word.
It’s hard, also, to read the Bible and not conclude that our view of what constitutes a miracle needs expanding. Consider the fact that Jesus referred to his miracles as “works.” After healing a man born blind, for instance, he declared to his disciples, “we must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day” (Jn 9:4 RSV). This particular miracle was Jesus’ most impressive one next to raising Lazarus, for while Jewish history had accounts of blind persons regaining their sight, there was no record of anyone blind from birth being healed. This was a miracle of miracles to the people of Jesus’ time. Yet Jesus referred to it merely as a “work.” It was part of the ordinary activity of God, in other words, not the extraordinary.*
Jesus was saying, then, that for God to perform a miracle is simply “business as usual” for him. It’s part of his normal function in managing human life.
On the other hand, Jesus’ language prods us to see the extraordinary in the ordinary events of life. It inspires us to think more creatively about what happens to us, and to realize that in many cases it is more reverent--and more accurate--to regard fortuitous coincidences as miracles of God.
Perhaps another way to say it is this: While a miracle involves God’s bending the rules, these “rules” are not only those of physical nature but of other areas of life as well. They may include--
the rules of economics (God enables me to sell my home even though “no one’s buying”)
the rules of employment (he enables me to find a job even though “no one’s hiring”)
he rules of education (he enables me to get through a course I thought would be too difficult to finish)
the rules of inspiration (he enables me to write a paper I thought would be impossible for me)
the rules of relationships (he brings reconciliation with someone with whom I had an “irreconcilable difference”)
the rules of romance (he enables me to find marriage at a point in life when it seemed inconceivable)
the rules of psychological stamina (he gives me strength for a trial that I thought I could never endure).
It’s helpful to expand our concept of miracles to include serendipities such as these, for then when they occur, we are quicker to recognize God’s power at work. And as our conviction that God is willing to perform miracles grows, we are more alert to the practical ways he may work in our lives.
Faith vs. Presumption
This isn’t to say that all belief in miracles is healthy. There is an important distinction--and a thin line sometimes--between reverent respect for God’s ability to perform miracles and presumptuous expectation that they will occur. Generally, if my expectation of miracles is not accompanied by the willingness to obey Christ and live responsibly, and also by a humble recognition that I don’t know God’s intention for the future, then my “faith” is better termed presumption.
The compulsive gambler, for instance, who against all odds believes he will win the high stakes, has a strong belief in miracles. So does the person who refuses to work yet assumes that God will provide for his needs. So does the intoxicated person cruising at eighty-five miles per hour who imagines that God will protect him. None of these people, though, comes close to displaying faith in the biblical sense.
While the Scriptures challenge us to a deeper conviction about miracles, they emphasize just as strongly our need to take responsibility, to be good stewards of our lives and to grow in our ability to solve problems. If there are obvious steps I can take toward meeting a need that I have, I'm presumptuous to expect God to provide for it in a more direct, miraculous way. I am likewise naive to expect him to shield me miraculously from the effects of reckless behavior. While he protects us in countless ways from unexpected problems that arise, we cannot expect him to come to our rescue if we deliberately court disaster.
By the same token, I am wrong to think that I ever know for certain that God will perform a given miracle or act in a particular way. The Scriptures remind us constantly that we cannot know the mind of God for our future, for such unbending certainty would remove the need for walking step by step in faith.
Having a general conviction that God is able and willing to perform miracles, though, is not presumptuous, if I’m not assuming to know how God will act and not banking on a miracle to bail me out of responsibility. Under these conditions, believing in God’s power to perform miracles will not lead me to be less responsible but more so. In some cases, this belief will even give me the extra impetus needed to succeed.
Miracles and Motivation
No matter how carefully we think through a step of faith, no matter how thoroughly we pray about it, no matter how diligently we plan the details, we often reach a point where the challenge seems simply too great. The odds are stacked against us, we conclude, and failure is inevitable. Ironically, we are sometimes much closer to succeeding at this point than we realize, and one further effort makes all the difference. It’s at this time that faith in God’s ability to do miracles can be so critical, for without it we may lack the motivation to go ahead.
In my years of performing music with bands there were more than a few occasions when, prior to an event, a fiasco occurred that threatened to ruin our presentation. Yet when we went ahead and played, the performance came off well, in some cases remarkably so. When I was only fourteen, a musical group I had formed was scheduled to play for a school function that we considered important. Yet as the date approached, three of the band’s five members informed me that they wouldn’t be able to participate. Panicked, I phoned around and found two very inexperienced high school musicians--a saxophone player and a drummer--who were willing to join with the bass player and myself to play the engagement. There was no time to rehearse, however--we would simply have to “wing it.”
I longed to phone the school and tell them that we had to bow out. But even at that young age I felt compelled by that dogged sense that “the show must go on.”
When we walked on stage that evening, I was terribly apprehensive and certain we would fall flat on our adolescent faces. Yet the audience was warm and receptive, and the substitute musicians were excited to be performing. The energy was somehow right, and though we made many mistakes that evening, the music had that unmistakable quality that can only be called “life.” The audience responded well and didn't seem the least bit aware that we were hanging together by a thread.
It’s an experience I’ve never forgotten, and one that in various ways has been repeated many times in the years since then. If you perform music or act, you’ve probably had unnerving episodes like this. In spite of your best efforts to prepare, a problem arose that threatened disaster if you went on stage. Yet you went ahead anyway--and then were wonderfully surprised by the results.
Most people would simply credit such good fortune to “the magic of performing.” Yet in some cases miracle is the better word for it. The obstacles to be overcome were simply too great to justify using a less inspired term to describe the outcome.
Going on stage in less than ideal circumstances is a helpful analogy to keep in mind for other challenges that we face. In spite of our best preparations, we may feel that if we continue with a certain endeavor, we have as much chance for success as a soprano performing with laryngitis. Yet moving forward may be exactly what we need to do to open ourselves to God’s remarkable provision. This “going on stage” may include--
finishing the course
taking the exam
completing the report
applying for the job
apologizing to the person we’ve offended
making the investment
phoning for the date
giving the talk
sharing Christ with the person who seems skeptical
Confidence in Christ’s power to perform miracles can give us the inspiration we need to take steps like these.
The Four Miracles
This confidence can come from reflecting on our own past experience of miracles, and from meditating on the countless examples of them in Scripture. It helps us, too, to think as broadly and creatively as possible about the various ways God brings about miracles, so that we may be as open as possible to how he might work in our own lives. I’ve personally taken great heart from meditating on the different sorts of miracles pictured in the Bible. At least four major types are noted. They attest to the remarkable variety of ways Christ meets the “impossible” situations in people’s lives.
1. The carte blanche miracle. This is where Christ solves a problem instantaneously, with virtually no effort required on a person’s part. Most of the healing miracles pictured in the New Testament are of this type. Someone suffering the dire effects of a debilitating illness or deformity is relieved in an instant of their suffering. This isn’t to say that no response was required from that person. In the majority of instances where Jesus healed, people either presented themselves to him and requested healing, or someone else did this on their behalf. Yet beyond this basic step of faith they were passive, and the miracle resulted entirely from the benevolent action of Christ.
2. Abundance from meager provisions. This second type of miracle is shown in those two occasions in the Gospels when Jesus fed huge crowds with a few fish and loaves of bread. In these cases some human effort was involved--the providing of a small amount of food, and the disciples’ organizing the crowd and distributing that food. Yet the human effort was minuscule compared to the provision made by Jesus.
These “miracles of expansion” give us hope not only for those impossible predicaments where there appears to be nothing we can do, but for the many situations where there is at least some small effort we can make. “God can do a lot with a little when he has all there is of it,” as it is said. Yet so often we feel it just isn’t worth the effort to try.
There’s a wonderful message of encouragement here for those of us who teach, preach or lead Bible studies. Even after careful preparation, we may feel as prepared to feed a group spiritually as the disciples did when they had to feed the enormous crowd with a handful of fish and loaves. We say, “Lord, there’s no way I can do it!” Yet Christ is addressing us as he did his disciples, saying, “You give them something to eat” (Mk 6:37). If you’re like me, you’ve often sensed that Christ’s provision in a teaching situation has gone far beyond your preparations.
3. A sudden lift toward our goal. This third miracle is the one that intrigues me most. John describes an occasion when Jesus’ disciples make a valiant effort to row across a lake in the face of a difficult storm, with the winds against them (Jn 6:16-21). They have completed the greater part of their journey when Jesus suddenly appears, walking on the water. He steps into the boat and they are instantly at the shore!
When working on various projects, I’ve sometimes had experiences that seem to parallel this incident. I’ve poured myself into an undertaking for some time, still expecting some major challenges, when through some unexpected serendipity I suddenly reach my goal.
Here the message seems to be that we shouldn’t give up too easily. God honors our tenacity and perseverance. At any point he can give us sudden acceleration toward our goal.
4. Strength for the long haul. The fourth miracle is reflected in the words of God to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 29:5: “During the forty years that I led you through the desert, your clothes did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet.” In certain situations God chooses not to make things too easy for us. He allows us to run the full course toward reaching a goal. Yet the miracle is that our strength holds out, whereas we thought it wouldn’t, and the provisions that we were certain would wear out or give out long before we reached our goal end up being sufficient. Certainly most of our experiences of going through college and other formal educational programs fit this pattern well!
We should meditate often, not only on the fact of Christ’s miracles, but on the variety of those he performs. Doing so will help keep us from the presumptuous spirit of thinking we know precisely how he will solve a problem, for we’ll be reminded that he brings his grace to bear on our lives in a multitude of ways. Yet it will also keep us optimistic about receiving that grace, and encourage us to take the steps necessary to receive his provision for our needs.
We can take heart, too, from the wonderful reminder that sometimes the answer to a pressing problem is only a step away.
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This article is excerpted from Blaine Smith's book Faith and Optimism: Positive Expectation in the Christian Life (formerly The Optimism Factor).
Blaine Smith's Nehemiah Notes is available twice-monthly by e-mail.
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