Wednesday, January 01, 2014

What's a Miracle?

A conversation (in the jacuzzi) with my son Nathan, a few weeks ago, got me thinking about the nature of miracles.

We were talking about the Bible, and miracles in the Bible, and he asked me, "How do you define a miracle?" My casual definition was, "Something that defies the laws of physics, or the established laws of the universe, that only God can do."

But, as I've been reflecting on this, since that time, I'm wondering if my definition of "miracle" was not completely accurate, or at least way too narrow.

Type "define:miracle" into Google and you get this result:

"A surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency."

But I'm really not sure I agree with that. Are miracles always welcome? To some people, no doubt. To others, clearly not. God did all kinds of battle miracles for the children of Israel, defeating their enemies in hideously unpleasant ways. When the walls of Jericho fell, no doubt many of the residents of Jericho were none too happy about it.

Also, when you think about it, most of what we consider miracles ARE actually explicable by natural or scientific laws. The walls of Jericho? Construction flaws, slight tremors or earthquakes could have accounted for the collapse. There have been lots of failures of walls throughout history.

Peter walking on the water? Perhaps there was a large fish that happened to be swimming by, just beneath the surface. (A pair of large fish, if you include the one Jesus was walking on.)

Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead? We have plenty of examples of people we thought were dead, who revived after various periods of time.

My point is that nearly every possible act of God can be explained away. I've witnessed what I consider to be miracles, a few times in my life. I am 99% certain they were indeed miracles. But there is always a possible, non-miraculous explanation. The one percent uncertainty.

Of course some miracles are harder than others to explain, and probably by design. Jesus, crucified on a Roman Cross, was declared dead after being speared in the side. Blood and water flowed out of the wound. He lay in a tomb for three days before rising from the dead. After he did, he magically appeared in various places, passing through walls to gain access to locked rooms. Pretty high on the miracle scale, all. But that part of you which still has 1% doubt can always still contrive some sort of a possible, more-or-less plausible explanation.

So, what's my point? I think I have three:

1) There are many things which we don't put into the category of miracles ... but probably should. We love our kids. That doesn't sound like a miracle, does it? There is a good, rational, Darwinian explanation for this, no doubt. But a heart of faith believes that it's divine agency behind any true love. God created families, He expresses His love through us. Divine agency.

So, the first of my points is: Be open to the possibility that the everyday things which surround you are, in reality, miraculous.

2) All of life is about faith. There is no way to "prove" that Christianity is true. Some measure of faith will always be required. When I've discussed this with skeptics, they have accused me of circular reasoning. "You only believe the Bible is true because it says it's true and that you must believe this." I'll reply, that's certainly not the only reason I believe the Bible is true; it also strikes me as a highly rational and plausible explanation of perceived reality. I believe none of this perceived universe around me could really have come about by "accident"; that there is evidence everywhere in nature for intelligent design. If there is intelligent design, there must be an intelligent designer. This must in fact be "God." If there is an all-powerful Intelligent Designer, it seems plausible that He would seek to communicate His love for us (if He indeed loved us); and the Bible seems a perfectly plausible and rational explanation for that communication. (The only really good explanation that I've found.) It is, in fact, itself "miraculous," when you think about it, in so many ways. (Sixty-six books written by dozens of disparate writers over thousands of years, all with a very high degree of internal consistency on the facts and a highly consistent theology/philosophy of life reflected as well, cover to cover.)

But, of course you need faith to believe that. There could always be another explanation. You can approach life as an utter skeptic who refuses to believe anything until you are "convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt" (and if you are intellectually honest, you never will be) ... and then come to the end of your life never having come close to finding out (or fulfilling) the purpose for which you were created. Or you can take a leap of (rational) faith.

3) Which brings me to my third point. Time is short. Life is short. You only live once. But most of us don't seek the high ground, we settle for the low: "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die." Those who do seek the high ground, who stake a claim in faith, we honor as a source of inspiration ... the Mother Teresas, the Billy Grahams, the Nelson Mandelas. But really, what is the difference between us and them? We should figure out the answer to that question, and narrow the gap. Our lives, like theirs, could be a miracle.

Baker's Dictionary of the Bible defines a miracle as "an event in the external world brought about by the immediate agency or the simple volition of God." Considering this definition, I think we have three choices as we travel through life. We can respond:
  • There are no miracles.
  • I don't know whether or not there are miracles. If I saw one, I might care.
  • Every day is a miracle. You are a miracle.
Which do you believe?

1 comment:

Larry Short said...

OK, I was watching "The Return of the King" (the third part of the Lord of the Rings movie series) last night with Darlene (for like the fourth time), and I discovered a great analogy (in the relationship between Frodo and Sam) to my relationship with Christ, and the impact of my faith (and occasionally wavering belief, or unbelief) in that relationship.

They make it into Mordor and are climbing the cliffs toward Shelob's lair, Frodo and Sam ... and Gollum. Gollum is seeking to wedge his way between Frodo and Sam ... so that he can ultimately grab the Ring and destroy Frodo. At one point, while Frodo and Sam are sleeping in exhaustion, Smeagol throws their supply of Elfen bread over the cliff, but not before sprinkling incriminatory crumbs on Sam's shirt. Sam wakes to find him messing around and sounds the alarm, but Gollum cleverly frames Sam for the loss of their sustenance.

Frodo shouldn't waiver in his belief in Sam's goodness, but he does, and then everything else that Sam says does nothing but magnify Frodo's skepticism. He ultimately abandons and banishes Sam, then follows Gollum into Shelob's lair, where he is ambushed by the giant spider, bitten and web-wound for a meal.

But the banished Sam hasn't given up on Frodo, even though Frodo has given up on him. He has been following behind. When he sees Shelob about to kill Frodo, he valiantly and at the risk of his own life drives the spider back. Orcs take Frodo's near-lifeless body, but Sam continues following into the very lair of the enemy, where, after defeating the Orcs, he returns the ring to Frodo ... proving once and for all his love and fealty.

I never before saw the humble Samwise as a type of Christ ... but in so many ways he is. Even when Frodo's belief wavered, that's when the power of Sam's sacrifice really kicked in. It made me realize that Jesus believes in me, far more than I have ever managed to believe in Him.