November 15, 1998
 When God Does
The Unexpected

Four Miracles That Help Us
Realize Our Potential
    
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It was the spring of 1973, and Evie and I were soon to be married. The time had come for me to find a home for us to rent, though it seemed an impossible task. The rental market in the Washington, DC area was practically frozen, and my salary with Sons of Thunder was barely at a subsistence level.

Finding an apartment within our price range would be hard enough. But since a small home was better suited for our ministry activities, I decided to try to see if I could possibly find one we could afford. For one long, discouraging day, I drove through neighborhood after neighborhood, but didn't spot a single modest-sized home for rent. Finally, I came to the rural community of Poolesville, Maryland. Instinctively I liked the town. Yet my search had been so futile till then, that it seemed pointless to look any further.

After making an anxious prayer, I decided at least to drive through the town before calling it quits. At the end of a street of new townhomes I was startled to see a "For Rent" sign hanging in the window of one of the units. I thought I was seeing a mirage. Small townhouses simply weren't available for rent in Montgomery County at that time.

I hurried to the real estate office several blocks away, and found that the home was just within the limits we could afford. Within a day I had the lease.

It turned out to be an excellent living situation for Evie and me as a young married couple. During the year that we lived there, we worked with youth in a local church, and developed friendships which endure to this day.

When I think of how God provided for us that year, it's embarrassing to remember how discouraged I had allowed myself to become while house-hunting. I had nearly convinced myself that God wasn't interested in meeting this need in my life. I came within a hair's breadth of not taking that one further step which opened me up to his gracious provision.

Miracles Come in Many Forms

This incident is one of those special ones I like to recall when I'm facing a problem that seems to have no solution. It helps me appreciate that I shouldn't be too quick to think God doesn't have an answer. I'm reminded that God not only is abundantly able to meet my needs, but willing to work in exceptional ways to do so when necessary.

So much of Scripture, it seems, is written to lift us to this higher conviction about God's role in our lives. It's a pervasive theme of Scripture that the God who created the rules of nature, can bend them when needed to accomplish his purposes. Time and again we seem him performing miracles in people's lives. Reflecting on these examples can help move us beyond the limits we tend to place upon how God might choose to work in our own life.

It helps us, too, not to think too narrowly about what constitutes a miracle. It's easy enough to regard some events as miracles. When someone's cancerous tumor disappears overnight without explanation, even an agnostic physician will concede that a miracle has taken place.

But what about incidents like my finding the rental home in Poolesville--those remarkable times when we succeed unexpectedly, even though the odds are stacked against us? Should we regard these as miracles also? Or is it stretching things--even audacious--to do so? Are we on better ground merely to look upon them as fortunate circumstances?

Personally, I believe we should regard such as events as miracles, and even err on the side of assuming a miracle has taken place when we aren't certain. For one thing, to think of them this way is reverent. It deepens our awareness that God has helped us, and strengthens our conviction that he will take care of us in the future.

It is often more logical, too, to consider these events as miracles than merely unusual coincidences. To assume a coincidence requires us to come up with a complicated or convoluted explanation of what happened. If we accept that miracles are possible, at least, then usually the most natural conclusion in these cases is that one has occurred.

Faith Vs. Presumption

I don't deny that our expectation of miracles can take on unhealthy dimensions. The compulsive gambler, 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, even 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, I am 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 aid if we deliberately court disaster.

At the other extreme, though, are countless situations where we've made a reasonable effort to act responsibly, and yet are facing unexpected challenges. Here, without some confidence in God's providing miraculously, we may fail to take the additional steps that position us to succeed.

Some expectation of the miraculous is also healthy--often necessary--when we weigh taking steps with our life in cases where our possibility of success seems good. No matter how carefully we plan a venture, we almost always encounter problems that we didn't anticipate, which stretch us to the limit. The fear of these unforeseen obstacles can discourage us from even getting started; the "what if's?" can paralyze us. Believing that God loves us enough to bail us out of unexpected predicaments can make the difference in our finding the courage to go ahead.

Bailing Us Out

Once I was scheduled to give a talk at a church in St. Louis, as part of an evening series I was presenting there. That day, as I was doing some last-minute preparation, it dawned on me that it would help greatly if I included a certain quote from Bonhoeffer's Life Together in the talk. Unfortunately, I hadn't thought to bring that book on the trip with me.

Shortly before the service that evening, I met with the pastor in his office to pray. I glanced over the books on the shelves of his study. Although the odds were infinitesimal that this book would be one of the thousands of possible titles he could have included in his small library, it was there, and I quickly spotted it! Finding the quote would be another matter, and it was almost time to speak. But I guessed at the page, and was right--no small miracle in itself.

I was able to go ahead and give my talk with exactly the material I needed, even though I had thought I would come up short only a few minutes before.

Now that incident is not exactly what you would term an extravagant miracle, or a genuine sign and wonder. It will not go down as one of the most notable events of my life. But it did give me an important boost at the time.

Most of us, as we think over our lives, can recall many similar experiences of "minor miracles." We set out to do something, even approached it responsibly, yet hit an unexpected snag. Help then came in an unusual way, and God, it seems, bent the rules to come to our rescue.

I'm not blandly suggesting that God always rescues us in such instances. He apportions to us a variety of experiences, depending on our needs and his purpose for us at the time. In some cases he allows us to fail, in order to help us grow, and to recognize where we need to better prepare in the future. In other cases he provides for us in ways above and beyond the ordinary, to deepen our trust in him, and to strengthen our courage to take steps of faith. We should reflect often on this latter way that God works, especially, as this is the area we are most inclined to overlook or downplay.

Different Miracles for Different Needs

There is another way of thinking about miracles which I personally find extremely helpful. When we look carefully at the ones described in Scripture, we see that the point at which God intervenes in a situation of need differs from case to case.

The way in which his initiative and others' relate varies as well. Considering these factors, there are at least four types of miracles pictured in the Bible. These attest to the creative variety of ways God 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 the suffering. This isn't to say that no response was required from the person. In the majority of healing miracles it appears that people either made the effort to present themselves to Jesus and request healing, or that 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. The second type of miracle is shown in those two situations in the Gospels where Jesus fed huge crowds of people 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' work in organizing the crowd and distributing it. Yet their 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.

There's a wonderful message of encouragement here for those of us who teach. So often we feel about 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 which intrigues me most. John records a time 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.

In working on various projects I've sometimes had experiences which 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 the goal is suddenly reached.

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 which 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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Some material in sections 3 and 5 is included from chapter 12 of Blaine's The Optimism Factor: Outrageous Faith Against the Odds (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1994).

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