Believers and unbelievers alike ought to recall from Scripture how often it is true that the Lord works through nature rather than against it. (CS Lewis makes this point in his book Miracles.) Without wishing to be flippant, it’s almost as if the Lord surfs nature rather than slicing it or else making no contact with it.
Lewis points out that even in the feedings of the five- and four-thousand—in some ways the greatest miracles in history—the miracle was not to countermand nature so much as to accelerate it. Jesus didn’t pluck fish from the air; he received ordinary fish, passed hand-to-hand, that had been caught with a line and hook and bait from a mucky lake, and simply increased its mass. Somebody made—skillfully or not, burning or undercooking or baking just right—the loaves he multiplied. Jesus did not wave his arms in a magical gesture that caused purple light to shoot across the crowd, into their gaping mouths, filling their stomachs with magical sustenance. He took what was already present in nature and expanded it more rapidly than it otherwise might have. People chewed the miraculous fish with ordinary, sometimes broken, sometimes aching teeth. Those caught fish, had they been allowed to keep on swimming, might have multiplied into thousands of fish, sufficient to feed the crowd, in a few more generations; but that would have taken years. The wheat for the bread and the women’s labor to grind, mix, knead, and bake it could have fed the crowd in a few more years of harvests and long baking days. Jesus did in seconds what the natural process might have done more slowly. He didn’t contradict nature, he amplified it.
So it is with all the miracles, Lewis says: bringing frogs and gnats and blood into Egypt, parting the Red Sea, laying manna across the desert “like dew”, blowing in quail, securing Jonah inside a whale for three days, holding the sun frozen in the sky, turning water to wine, spreading mud on a blind man’s face. The miracles amplify or amend nature, they don’t ignore or destroy it. The closest they get to a direct contradiction of nature, perhaps, is the resurrection of Christ (or Lazarus or “Talitha”, for that matter), but even here it’s not too difficult to understand the miracle as a sort of grand healing—a soothing and re-binding of flesh and sinew, a cleaning and strengthening of cells, a rebooting of hearts and lungs—rather than a contradiction of nature itself.
What’s especially interesting is to see how gently God touches nature even in quite weighty actions. Consider, for example, how often messages come to prophets as “night visions” or indeed “dreams”. Surely it’s unnecessary for the all-powerful God to communicate merely through dreams. He could make a vision come to you at any time. If you’re driving a car down a freeway (or a chariot into battle), he could pause time itself, show you the vision, then un-pause time and send you on your merry (and probably bewildered) way. Yet when the Lord has an important message for a prophet or even a king, as often as not it comes through a dream, at night, when the man is alone and silent and passive and perhaps in some sense “receptive”—receptive to the Almighty who could do anything, barge in anywhere—when his mind is open to the impression of the Lord’s soft voice. Even then the message comes as often as not through imagery, surrealistic dream-imagery—bowing sheaves of wheat, skinny cows eating fat cows—as if the only change the Lord could muster as he called out to mankind was to lightly adjust the pictures in an already-dreaming man’s neurons. Such gentleness, or quietness, might seem horribly insufficient, and yet in the biblical stories it inevitably proves sufficient. The dreams themselves are often too “gentle”, too abstract to be clearly understood, but the Lord provides insight—a second, likewise gentle, miracle—through an appointed interpreter: Joseph, Daniel, certain believers of the Corinthian church. So in this miracle of divine communication rather than thunder from heaven we have a scintilla of neurological influence in the mind of a dreamer and another gentle touch on the mind of an interpreter, and this is how the omnipotent God, master of galaxies and quasars and black holes, makes his will clearly known.
God is gentle with nature. He does not like to change it. As Lewis said, nature is his first and lasting miracle. When he touches it he touches it as softly as possible. He “surfs” it, applying slight pressure to its surface so that it is reshaped a smidgeon while it continues in most respects along the original path of his creative will.
This is an extremely important insight for believers, but also for non-believers.
The non-believer will say that all this “gentleness” is a sign that the people who saw these small miracles were making mountains out of molehills. Nature was doing its thing: seas responding to winds, frogs responding to rainfall and migration patterns, brains responding to normal dreaming patterns, and interpreters responding to ordinary, eisegetical, wishful thinking. If you’re disposed to dismiss all miracles, the most “gentle” and “nature-honoring” miracles may be of least help to your faith.
And yet the problem you have, as an unbeliever, is that the same Scripture that embraces the “small” miracle also proclaims the “large” one. Jesus healed a blind man using mud. Was that a natural event or miraculous? Before you answer, note that he also healed blind men using nothing but words, and if that happened at all, it was clearly miraculous. And the feeding of the five thousand is genuinely hard to dismiss both as a historical event (that’s a lot of witnesses, and all four gospels report it) and a non-natural miracle.
You would think that a religious text bent on showing God’s miraculous power would emphasize the extraordinary miracle stories, the ones that stand out, that can’t possibly have been natural: men walking around unharmed in a furnace, for example. But this text in the same breath embraces the more naturally explicable miracles: men walking around unharmed in a lion’s den. I don’t have space here to make this particular thought clear, but part of what makes Scripture compelling is its humility, you might say: its recognition and normalization of the idea that although God does large things, a great deal of what we observe in him is minute, gentle, almost indistinguishable from the natural flow of things: not an earthquake or tornado but a “still, small voice”. If the purpose of Scripture was merely to sell people on the power of a comforting and nature-controlling God, it wastes an awful lot of energy on portrayals of God that are diminutive—even weak—ambivalent, uncanny, and unnerving.
The Scripture’s emphasis on God’s smallness and quietness undermines its presumed goal of establishing him as powerful comforter. But if it’s not trying to portray God as powerful and comforting, what on earth is it doing? The “small miracles” pose a peculiar problem (paradoxically) to unbelief.
The insight is important for believers (and for me) for the following reason.
I too often ask God to contradict nature.
I too often avoid learning about God’s world (including how I myself, mind, spirit, and body, am created to function). I prefer the hoped-for shortcut that he might provide rather than myself working at a “natural” solution.
Now the particular instance of this that I’m thinking about today is the phenomenon of mood swings. I’ve been experiencing them a lot lately. I’ll be happy for a few hours, upbeat, on cloud nine. Then my mood will decline—perhaps the slump of the late afternoon Witching Hour arrives, or bad news, or bad thoughts, or bad diet—and I’ll cry out in pain and need.
Now sometimes the Lord answers that pain immediately, but sometimes he doesn’t. And yet even when he doesn’t, the next day, when I’m better rested and fed, and the sun is shining, and good news has arrived, and my thoughts are more squared-off, then I will feel much more cheerful.
And there’s a part of me who with the atheist declares, “What use is God anyway, then? I was hurting last night. I prayed about it. God did nothing. I kept hurting. But a good night of sleep did what God evidently couldn’t or wouldn’t do. What do I need God for if I can just take a nap?” God’s failure to countermand nature stands up as a failure for him to love or act or even, perhaps, exist.
But this is simply forgetful of Scripture. Christ came to save the world, but he walked Judea on his own two (no doubt aching) feet. To relieve pain and grant pleasure is not God’s only or even primary method of showing his love. God loves me, and he hates for me to hurt; but for him to wait a few hours while I stew in my hurt, knowing that time and sleep will heal me, is no unkindness, not when it teaches me a higher character.
Because for all their virtues, miracles are not the best teachers of character.
To learn good character, to be good people, we must learn to do hard things. We must learn to endure pain. We must learn to wait. We must learn to see the good thing coming in the future and let it sanctify the present. We must learn, in a word, faith and faithfulness.
Without a miracle I may learn, on a bad night, that merely to wait, merely to trust, will bring relief soon enough. For my character this is a better lesson than to learn that if I kick and scream enough the Lord will bring quick relief. Both lessons, both experiences are of some value. But my ability to function as a person—to trust, to relate, to make decisions, to keep perspective, to have compassion, to fend off despair—is done more good through a bit of suffering than through instant relief.
We need both. We need to know that Dad will pick us up out of the cradle when we cry, at least sometimes: that he has the ear to hear our voice and the care and power to answer it. We also need to know that we are big enough, now, that sometimes when we cry Dad is going to leave it for us to figure out—that we can figure it out, endure, find joy even in the boredom or loneliness or anxiety or pain we’re suffering. God is in the miracle, the quick fix; but he’s also in our own strength, our growth, our virtues, our patience—these are the fruit of his Spirit. The quick fix grows our faith in him; endurance grows our faith with him, our faith that he will bring goodness and blessing as we, too, participate in goodness and blessing.
The moral is this. When we cry out and God does not seem to respond, don’t let it hurt your faith. There’s nothing new under the sun, and we shouldn’t be surprised as if something strange were happening. Even God’s fondest kings and prophets received his words only late at night, usually, and only in dreams. If he dealt so softly and rarely with them, you can bet he will deal softly and rarely with you. His silence is no sign of absence or rejection; it’s the usual way people of faith encounter him.
But the deeper truth is this: in our pain, God is there, loving us and teaching us and knowing (whether we do or not) that we’ll be fine very shortly. He deals softly, perhaps, but the truth is he never deals “rarely” with anyone: he’s dealing with each of us every second of every minute of every hour of every day, through the nature he created, through his people, through our own minds and bodies. And it is precisely these things—our minds and bodies and spirits—that we have to learn to know and discern and lead and master if we are to become a “kingdom of priests” capable of “judging angels” and ”taking charge of cities“. We must learn to work, like him, through nature—even our own natures—rather than against it.
So let’s not balk at the lonely, sad, aching night. It’s the time when patience and faith are built. And God never promised any kind of blessing greater than that of receiving those virtues; there’s nothing else more worth having.