Do you believe in miracles or God?

“Do you believe someone can be healed of AIDS?” That was the question a discouraged doctor asked my elderly pastor friend during a seminar exploring how western medicine and “faith healing” could work together to combat a deadly disease.

It was 1997, and the AIDS pandemic was sweeping over the country of Botswana with many withering away before our eyes and funerals multiplying at a frightening rate. Concerned people with very different approaches to healing gathered to talk about how to halt the spread of this disease. Everybody wanted a miracle, including me.

“Yes, I believe God can heal AIDS,” my friend answered, “but I haven’t seen it happen yet.” She went on to explain that she had seen God work many other miracles during her lifetime so she would not stop praying for healing just because she hadn’t received the answer she desired in this case.

I remember listening to her response with my own heart in turmoil, wanting to believe but struggling with my unbelief like the father with a demonized son in Mark 9. I had already begged God to heal many suffering friends, only to bury them later. “Do you believe…?” I wasn’t sure I did anymore.

Longing for divine intervention
No matter where one lives in the world, almost everyone has longed to experience a miracle at some point in their life. In Africa, church names like the Spiritual Healing Church and the Celestial Miracle Center reflect their fixation with supernatural interventions. Here in North America, Helen Shucman claimed that her best-selling book, A Course in Miracles, was dictated to her by Jesus. Many say that if we follow the right method, give enough money, claim the promises of God without doubting, we’re sure to experience the miraculous.

But while we want miracles, most of us remain very skeptical. Miracles happened in the Bible, and they may happen in other parts of the world, but we don’t seem to see many in our daily lives.

This subject raises a multitude of claims and questions. Some maintain that miracles are taking place all around us, all the time. So, how do we define miraculous? Do we include newborn babies and glorious sunsets, or should miracles be confined to the scientifically unexplainable?

At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who claim that few, if any, true miracles happen today due to our lack of faith and prayer. Self-absorbed and self-reliant, we have become spiritually lethargic, and God has left us to our own means. But others disagree, arguing that we shouldn’t lament a lack of miracles, but rather rejoice because it means we’re maturing in faith and no longer need “signs and wonders” to stir up spiritual fervour.

Part of the problem when discussing miracles is that our experience, or lack thereof, tends to impact our theology so significantly. Having worked with Christians who believe that physical symbols such as water, ashes, and sacrifices were necessary to produce the miraculous, as well as with those who relied on formulaic phrases such as the “name of Jesus” or the “fire of God” in their quest for healing, I believe it’s especially important to look carefully at the biblical record.

The purpose of miracles

We can affirm at least three important truths regarding the purpose of miraculous interventions. First, miracles are intended to glorify God (John 11:40), demonstrate his sovereignty over all of creation (Deuteronomy 4:34–35), and confirm that he is present and active (Exodus 3:1–6).

Second, miracles accredit God’s messengers as authentic bearers of his word. Godly leaders such as Moses (Deuteronomy 34:10–12), Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:3), and preeminently Jesus (Matthew 11:2–5) verify this role of the miraculous.

Third, miracles are intended to induce and encourage faith and obedience in the lives of those who are blessed to witness them (John 20:30–31). Paul joyfully pointed out how God used “the power of signs and miracles” (Romans 15:19) to lead many Gentiles to accept the gospel message.

However, we must remember that an experience of the miraculous, either as God’s instrument or recipient, doesn’t guarantee faithfulness in the future. The people of Israel quickly returned to worshipping false gods after the Exodus (Exodus 32), and most of those who ate the divinely provided loaves and fishes deserted Jesus (John 6:25-66). Jesus himself warned: “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:22-23). This solemn reminder challenges us to realize that the greatest miracle is not a resurrection from the dead but a life transformed by the Spirit of God.

No formula
Even if we understand their purpose, we still want to know how to obtain miracles and see God work tangibly in our lives. To those who peddle a particular formula, I recommend reading Scripture. I find it almost humorous to list the diverse ways and means employed by God: a staff (Exodus 14:15–18), a donkey (Numbers 22:26–31), salt (2 Kings 2:19–22), oil (Mark 6:13; James 5:14–15), spit (Mark 8:22–26), water (John 2:1–11), mud (John 9:6–7), handkerchiefs (Acts 19:11–12), and even shadows (Acts 5:15).

So, we might argue that it isn’t the exact means or formula, but the existence of true faith that really matters when it comes to miracles. But does Scripture support this conclusion? Those with amazing personal faith, such as the hemorrhaging woman, were healed (Luke 8:43–48). And sometimes the faith of family members (Matthew 15:21–28) or friends (Mark 2:3–12) was considered. But in other cases, such as Naaman (2 Kings 5:8–14) or the man at the pool (John 5:1–9), even those without much outward faith received a miracle. What’s going on?

One of my favourite miracle stories is that of the crippled man healed at the temple gate in Acts 3. I marvel at the faith of our biblical heroes. How could Peter and John have had the audacity to claim, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (Acts 3:6)? And he did – what a story! But have you ever noticed that the man had been crippled since birth, and that he was brought to the temple gate every day to beg? Jesus went to the temple regularly, so why didn’t he heal the man? And how did Peter and John know that God was going to heal the crippled man on that day? Did he have faith or did he just go along with it, and all of a sudden find himself jumping and singing?

I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t think we’re supposed to, because miracles happen at God’s discretion, not ours. This story teaches us that we must listen to the Spirit and move in obedience. God chose to heal that man on that day, employing Peter and John as his agents. Sometimes God calls us to do and say audacious things, but too often we’re afraid that God might not “show up” and we’ll look foolish.

Our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world don’t appear to share our embarrassment in this area, and perhaps that’s why they seem to see miracles more often than we do. We’ve become so self-absorbed and self-sufficient that we only look to God for a miracle as a last resort, and only if it will benefit us. Most of my friends in Botswana, living without our wealth of resources, turn to God and their church community at the first sign of trouble. They have nowhere else to go, and they believe that God will meet them collectively at their point of need. And God does.

Since miracles are performed at God’s initiative, not ours, there is no magic formula. We have no “right” to claim a miracle, for to do so would put God at our disposal, not us at his.

Instead, Christians are to glorify God, lean on Jesus, and listen to the Spirit. The ultimate miracle is that God has drawn near to us and continues to do so, even at our deepest points of need.

Faith is essential

This introduces the third lesson. In some mysterious way, faith is extremely important.  Without hope and expectation, and the will to believe, we will miss out on the mighty works of God.

We cannot demand miracles, but we must keep looking for them, and glorifying God when we witness them. And if we’re struggling to believe that he will answer our prayers, tell him.

Last year, I suffered with a painful eye condition and many people prayed for me. Some had a healthy expectation that God was working in my life, and prayed confidently. Others prayed for healing while making excuses for the apparent lack of action on God’s part. God doesn’t need us to make excuses for him – pray Scripture, pray boldly, and leave the results to God.

In my case, God decided to use medical professionals to bring healing, while teaching me about his love through family and friends. But on other occasions, I’ve seen God heal instantaneously, protect those who should have contracted a deadly disease, and provide food and finances in ways that could only be described as miraculous.

Interestingly, in most of those situations, God challenged me through his Spirit to step out and say or do something that was somewhat uncomfortable. I don’t pretend to understand the mysterious connection between faith and the miraculous, but I know that obedience to God is critical.

In summary, I’ve come to believe that it’s far more important to believe in God than in miracles. The two aren’t mutually exclusive but we need to keep them in the right order. In Botswana, I started to learn to trust God even when I didn’t witness miracles. Even as I grew disillusioned with God, African Christians, like my pastor friend who’d never seen someone healed of AIDS, taught me that you don’t stop believing and praying just because you don’t receive the answer you want.

Bryan Born is director of the intercultural studies department at Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, B.C., and served for 12 years as a missionary in Botswana with MBMSI.

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