It almost makes it worse to read about miracles in the Bible. Elijah proved Yahweh’s presence and power by calling down fire from heaven. Jesus healed innumerable people, even raised them from the dead. He fed 5,000 families, then another 4,000. How can we get some of this action?
To some people these events seem so remote, so improbable, that they deny they ever happened. Ancient people were superstitious, they say, foolish, easily deceived. The miracles of the Bible were made-up stories. Or if Matthew, for instance, actually believed what he wrote, he was merely the subject of mass delusion.
There are two reasons I find this explanation implausible. First, the miracles of Jesus, at least, are simply too widely attested. In the Gospels we have four different writers with similar but distinct accounts. The stories they tell are similar enough to show that they used, at times, common material but different enough to show they were not merely colluding. (And anyway, why would they have colluded? There’s no money in founding first century religions, and indeed many of the early Christians ended up dead.) Beyond the Gospels you have the writings of Paul, who described meeting Jesus after the resurrection. When facing skeptics similar to those we find today, Paul pointed out that Jesus, after dying, had appeared to more than five hundred people at one time—and most of those people were still alive. If you don’t believe in resurrection, Paul argued, go an interview a few of those people. There are plenty of witnesses.
By now those first-hand witnesses have, I expect, moved on. But the fact remains that simply too many people, with too little motive to lie, claim to have experienced incredible miracles. We have five written witnesses citing thousands of others. I cannot dismiss this as superstition, mistake, or mass hallucination.
The other reason that I believe God does miracles is that I have experienced them. It is through this experience that I’ve gained an understanding about why God often refrains from showering us with the supernatural.
The basic problem is this. Acts of God do not create faith in God. They create faith in the acts themselves.
Several years ago I was praying together with an elderly woman, an old saint. As she was praying, suddenly she began speaking in a different tongue.
Now I was not what you’d call a charismatic. I didn’t speak in tongues myself, and like all good conservatives I was skeptical of the practice. But there wasn’t anything I could do about this lady cutting loose in a spiritual language. I decided to grin and bear it.
About five seconds into her chanting prayer the grin fell from my face. I suddenly felt the most intense heat arising throughout my body. It felt precisely as if I’d been stuck in the middle of a microwave oven—or at least what I imagine that would feel like. I opened my eyes to check whether someone had, when I wasn’t looking, dragged a large electric heater next to my chair and switched it on.
My second thought—I haven’t told you my first thought yet, but I will in a minute—my second thought was that this lady was a true saint with a rare connection to the Holy Spirit. Her prayer was spiritual in some profound sense and it invoked the presence of the Spirit. I had the impression that the Spirit had been excited, as it were, by the woman’s words and long intimacy with God, and that excitement had somehow spread over to me as a sensation of physical heat. It doesn’t make sense, I know. I’m just piecing it together as best I can.
But it was my first thought that really took me by surprise. When the heat first began to appear throughout my body, some deep, primal part of me simply felt it as magic. I didn’t think of God. I heard a strange chanting and I felt an intense heat. The fundamental part of my mind, the part that had formed before I was three years old, directly connected those two perceptions. My first thought was not that God was somehow involved. My first thought was, “This lady is a witch! And this is some sort of spell!”
The realization that God was somehow involved, somewhere between the chanting and the heat, came to me just a second later. But of course you realize that if I didn’t already believe in God—if I hadn’t read in the Bible about speaking in tongues, or perhaps heard of John Wesley’s famou experience of feeling “strangely warmed”—then I wouldn’t have recognized God in my experience.
Indeed, it’s quite possible that I was wrong to find God there. Maybe it was the Devil who made me feel that sensation. This seems rather unlikely given the cause—this lady, I assure you, truly was a saint by any standard. But how would I know whether it was God or the Devil who was in contact with me? Or perhaps it was simply a nervous reaction. The lady did something odd, I felt embarrassed, I felt penetratingly hot. I find this explanation improbable because the intensity of the heat, the rapidity with which it appeared, and the breadth of its effect all through my body were unlike any nervous reaction I’ve had before or since. But still—how would I know?
Because a miracle, you see, is an act. It is not God himself. It takes place in the created world as some sort of peculiar change among the usual cells, photons, and molecules. When you experience a miracle, you experience it as a phenomenon—you do not encounter God himself.
When I say you experience it as a phenomenon I mean it happens to your senses. You see the blinding light, you hear the thundering voice, you feel the fading leprosy, you smell the risen Lazarus, you taste the broken bread. God may be behind the experience, but still behind—still hidden.
Therefore acts of God do not create faith in God. They create faith in the acts themselves.
Indeed the Bible itself attests to this truth.
In John 6 we read of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Jesus, somehow manipulating the digital clipboard of the universe, copies-and-pastes enough bread and fish for 5,000 men along with women and children. The members of the crowd have no doubt that they’ve seen a miracle. So how do they respond? By listening more closely to Jesus’ teaching? By bowing down and worshiping him? By running away in terror? No. They move in close, lay hold of him, and plan to make him king—by force if necessary. Jesus gets away, but the following day they catch up with him.
What follows is a dramatic conversation that is crucial to understanding the staying power of disbelief even in the face of miracles.
Jesus accuses the people of following him only because he filled their bellies. He urges them not to focus on what they felt or saw or tasted but on the person behind those phenomena. “Don’t work for the kind of food that spoils but for the kind of food that lasts for eternal life,” he says. “Believe in him whom God has sent.”
Their reply is so stupid that I would hardly believe it if I hadn’t experienced the same urge myself and seen it in people around me. “So what sign will you do for us so that we can see it and believe you?” they say.
We sense Jesus’ exasperation in the dialogue that follows. It becomes patently clear that the crowd doesn’t care about Jesus himself. They want their bellies filled. The miracles they have seen haven’t given them faith in him. The miracles have only made lust for more miracles—easy bread from falling from heaven.
Judas, likewise, saw as many miracles as anyone. Yet ultimately he considered thirty silver coins more valuable than the one who had performed those wonders.
So miracles do not create faith. Miracles may be supernatural events but we experience them in the natural world. A miracle is God’s handiwork but it is not his hand, and even less his face or mind or heart. Experiencing a miracle is like seeing a painting by an artist whom you’ve never met. You may fall in love with the painting, but to fall in love with the artist is a whole other matter.
Why Does God Do Miracles?
If miracles do not create faith then why does God do them? Several reasons.
- To Grow Faith. If you lack faith, a miracle will not give it to you. But if you already have some faith a miracle can grow it. This happens especially when we ask God for things and he responds. In that case, not only do we see a miracle, but we see it as a result of our own request. This tells us that someone is listening to our prayers, that that person cares about us, and that He has the desire and power to answer our requests.
- Out of Compassion. Sometimes God does miracles just because he wants to help. We see this in Matt 9:35–36, where Jesus in the midst of healing everyone in the region, “felt compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like a sheep without a shepherd.”
- To Bring Judgment. God also sends miracles to prove the hardness of those who hate him. If you are cold toward God and you see a miracle but continue in disbelief, then your response proves how rotten your heart is. Miracles help distinguish those who are open to God’s presence and power and those who resent it and will deny it to the end. (See Matt 11:20–24; cf. Matt 13:13–15).
If you want to experience a miracle there’s no harm in asking God. But if your focus is on the miracle itself rather than on the Person who gives it, don’t ask. At best, God won’t grant your request. At worst, he will—and then you will stupidly worship not the Giver but what he gives. If, on the other hand, you ask for a miracle out of a desire to know and love God better, then you can look forward to amazing experiences. Not only will you see astounding miracles, but you’ll discover the even more astounding Person who gives them.