One of the things that one often finds people wresting with are the miracle stories that are so abundantly provided in the Bible. These include everything from the Hebrew Bible stories about the escape of the Israelites from Egypt, manna in the wilderness, and oil that mysteriously lasts longer than it should, to the New Testament stories of Jesus healing people or raising dead people back into life. And, of course, there is the miracle of miracles: the raising of Jesus from the dead.
I often find that when people contemplate the treasure trove of biblical miracles, there is a disconnect that quickly becomes a stumbling block: If miracles were so plentiful in the “old days”, why are they not plentiful now? Where have they gone?
Some, of course, would argue that the miracles haven’t gone away. And, many would point to specific examples of miracles that occur today. Very often, however, these modern accounts of miracles seem to come down to a matter of perspective. From a certain vantage point, something can be described as a miracle. But, from another point of view, the event could be described in an alternative way that in no way involves a miracle. Modern miracles don’t usually seem as clear and matter-of-fact as the miracles spoken of in the Bible.
There are a number of possible explanations for this, of course. One is that the miracle stories of the Bible didn’t happen, and are simply inventions of the biblical authors. Another is that the biblical authors had a perspective that encouraged them to see these events as miraculous, but that — just as in our time — there could have been other ways of explaining these things. The reality is that none of us were present for the miracles described by the Bible, and so we shall forever be in a state of uncertainty about them.
In my own contemplation of these stories over the years, I have come to see miracles as moments of transparency that expose the pattern of God’s interaction with us and the world in which we live. Let me try to explain what I mean by that.
If we look at the biblical miracle stories, what we find is that these miracles seldom happen as an end in themselves. While there are some stories that seem to have no point beyond demonstrating divine power, these are the exceptions. The vast majority of the miracle stories show God seeking to right a wrong, bring justice out of injustice, liberate people from something, bring people into particular kinds of relationships, heal people, or create a condition of greater wholeness. The biblical miracles almost always reveal God’s creative engagement with the world in order to move the world toward something. In the Christian vocabulary, that movement is toward a realization of the kingdom of God, a realization of God’s dream for humanity. This is what I mean by transparency: miracles make clear the nature of God’s engagement with the world, and that says something about the way in which God seeks to shape our engagement with world.
Understood this way, miracles are exceptions, not the rule. And, perhaps most importantly, miracles are not gifts that God gives to a faithful few if they love God enough or say the right prayers. In fact, miracles are never about us. Rather, miracles are moments of proclamation, they are reminders of the way in which God’s Spirit moves within and among us. They are moments when the divine light shines through the cracks of our world, meant to remind us of the light that is always there but which we do not always see. We will probably never know how it is that these miracles “bubble up” from time to time. But preserving and sharing the stories that come out of those moments of bubbling up are important, because they remind us who were not witnesses of those moments of the workings of the Spirit.
This means, I think, that for us, the spiritual life is not about seeking after these miracles or trying somehow to make them happen. Rather, the spiritual life for us is about noticing the direction in which these stories move: toward justice, toward restoration, toward liberation, toward healing and wholeness. This is the patterns of God’s movement in the world, and it is meant to be the pattern of ours, as well. Our goal is to align ourselves with the movement of the Spirit, but help make God’s dream for us more a reality.