Monday, August 31, 2009

Reflections on Miracles (eg Miracle of Sarah)

Miracles - A Divine Blessing or illusory Bluff?

From time to time, we would hear news and testimonies of 'miracles.' A man who had terminal cancer became healed. Suddenly, the lame are able to walk, and the blind can see. When an episode defies natural laws, or an experience that cannot be scientifically explained, one will quickly proclaim that a miracle had occurred. The media regularly report on people mysteriously missing an ill-fated flight, or accidentally come up on the right side after a wrong turn of events. Some of us are deeply moved by such miracles. Others observe from the point of wonder mixed with suspicion or skepticism. Yet, there are also those who are downright disgusted when these same 'miracles' happen so randomly that they fail to explain why it happens only to a lucky few. Worse, what about those who received the shorter end of the miracle stick? This brings us to the question on how are we to make of miracles? How can we explain events that defy the laws of nature? The many bitter questions fail to rendezvous with satisfactory answers.

Some events can be part of the cruel zero-sum game played out in this world. A person who misses an ill-fated flight may have thanked his or her god for the miracle of being late to the airport. The replacement passenger on that same day unfortunately died in the tragic plane crash. This is a bizarre dramatization of the proverbial: "One man's meat is another man's poison." For additional evidence, we need not look further than the September 11 terrorist attacks in America. From firemen who happened to be inside the building to other office workers at the upper floors of the two towers, an individual rescued outside is cruelly nullified by another life killed inside in a ridiculous zero-sum game. Are miracles a part of what we call zero-sum games, where one's miracle is another person's tragedy? If so, this will pop the dreamer's 'miracle' balloon, releasing all air of fantasy to drive one back down to earth, which lives and breathes reality much like M Scott Peck's "Life is Difficult." Before we dismiss miracles altogether, let me reflect on what miracles are and are not. I believe that miracles exist. I too believe that we need to discern any phenomenon, whether it is a blessing or a bluff. That said, I too hold to the view that some special visions may not have an immediate explanation, but are kept in a mystery box to be revealed according to God's own good time. This reflection will be in 3-phases. Firstly I will make some brief observations of miracles recorded in the Bible. Secondly, from a Christian perspective, I shall try to offer seven ways to understand the purpose of miracles. Finally, I will reflect on one particular miracle encountered by a Christian family: the Miracle of Sarah.

1) Miracles in the Bible
Miracles do happen. The gospels show it. The Old Testament has much to show for it. The Early Church lived it. Missionaries and faithful workers witnessed it. At the onset, it is important that there is not literally used in the original languages. In John's gospel, 'miracles' are signs (σημειον, semeion) to point us to God. Another Greek word widely used in the New Testament is dunamis (δυναμις, strength, power). When used as signs, miracles are meant to point us to a Higher Being or higher purpose. When used as dunamis, the miraculous act becomes a work of wonder. Taken together, when we read about miracles in the New Testament, the reader should not be trapped into miracles per se, but to ask that as signs, what are they pointing us to? As power, what is the purpose or the meaning behind the miracle. In other words, as we wonder about the power of God, we should not forget that miracles are not to take a life of its own. For instance, Jesus performed signs, that people may believe in him (John 4:48, 20:30). Signs demonstrate the power of God (Acts2:43). Signs and miracles confirm the great salvation promised by God (Heb 2:4).

In the Old Testament, the miraculous signs performed through Moses and Aaron are to demonstrate to Pharaoh that the Hebrew God is above other gods Egypt has ever known. They are used to sustain the Israelites in their desert wanderings, where manna was provided daily, guided with a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night (Num 14:14). In the Psalms, miracles are also used to remind the Israelites of the LORD's faithfulness (Ps 77:11).

In both testaments, we see the consistent thrust of miracles, that while they are amazing feats of a supernatural origin, they point us to something bigger, or Someone.

2) Purpose of Miracles
We are now ready to deal with the meaning behind the miracles. Miracles mean so much to the recipient. It provide the last gasp glimmer of hope for those who have no other means of trust. Yet, I am aware that there are many observing from the outside. They hover between hopeful faith in God, and measured suspicion about its authenticity. In between, they curiously hold out for alternative explanations. This section perhaps will bring some sanity into the confused understanding and roles of miracles. In the process, we can at least shed some light on what kind of answers are probable to the questions posed earlier.

Let me offer 7 ways we can understand the purpose of miracles.
  1. Miracles point us to something or Someone larger than ourselves;
  2. Miracles offers us a channel of hope, amid a sea of despair; Helps us pray more fervently. It affirms our faith.
  3. Miracles are not an end in itself. It is part of some larger scheme.
  4. Miracles provide us another angle at life; We need not despair when science or human philosophy cannot answer all our questions. It humbles us to realize that there is a Creator behind.
  5. Miracles are not bound by earthly laws of nature; Thus miracles periodically relieve us from the grasp of a cursed land.
  6. Miracles happen for a purpose, sometimes for us to savor, other times to wonder, but always a mystery to ponder, even savor.
  7. Miracles bring joy and transformation that no other explained puzzles can release.
Our ability to cast suspicions on miraculous happenings is not altogether a bad thing. It is part of our effort to stay authentic and honest to what we know and understand. Miracles can sometimes fill in the gaps of mystery and knowledge. Yet, it is not the end. They point us somewhere, to Someone, for some purpose. In our scientific age, it is hard to accept something that defies the natural laws. This is because we have grown up accustomed to hearing and then giving explanations about everything from cradle to grave. Miracles sometimes are not meant to be explained, but to sustain a spiritual curiosity about our Creator and the purpose of his creation. It keeps us humble and thankful. True miracles that are of God always point us back to Christ.

3) Miracle of Sarah
SKEPTICAL VIEW: One way to answer the question of miracles is to take the consequentialist approach.
  • What if miracles never truly happen?
  • What if the miraculous things are mere hallucinations?
  • What if we are all part of a big gigantic practical joke?
These are the questions that some skeptics and non-religious people readily put forward. The questions may sound cruel. It puts Christians on a pedestal of fools. However, if we say there are no miracles, we will be hard-pressed to find alternative explanations for unexplained phenomena. Perhaps, the astute observer will modestly confess that while they do not know the answer, they believe that the answer lies in the future. After all, for such stoic matter-of-fact individuals, the truth is out there and is very much alive. Maybe, for the skeptic, the whole idea is that miracles is part of a sinister conspiracy theory. This view shuts all miracles behind the curtain of mere human understanding.

VIEW OF FAITH: What if we put miracle under the umbrella of faith? When we attribute miracles to act of God, we take the pressure of explanation off our shoulders, to change our skepticism into a state of wonder and appreciation that there is a higher Being. When a person has exhausted all possibilities, they can still maintain a semblance of hope if they believe in miracles. Indeed, people pray fervently for miracles in their darkest moments. The clue to the understanding of miracles is not to see miracles as an end in itself. Miracles point us to something larger than ourselves. This is the kind of miracles John write about in his gospel. The seven signs all point to the person of Jesus Christ. If we believe in God, we have to believe that miracles are part and parcel of our faith expression. If we let God be God, and every man a liar, God has absolute prerogative to allow or to deny any intervention in the laws of nature. Put it another way, if everything in this world can be explained by science, philosophy, technology, knowledge, social schemes etc, life will no longer be wonderful. Something that can be totally explained may satisfy our intellectual curiosity, yet leaving an emotionally empty aftertaste. In a Catholic journal entitled UScatholic, Leslie Scanlon writes:
A miracle is not primarily for the person healed, but for all people, as a sign of God’s work in the ultimate healing called ‘salvation.’” (Leslie Scanlon, It’s a Miracle, US Catholic; Jun2009, Vol 74 Issue 6, p12-17)
This rings familiar as we remember the presence of spiritual gifts, which Paul says is given for the edification of the body of Christ. Maybe there is some validity in acknowledging the place of miracles in our faith. Remember how Jesus refrained from performing miracles in a land where few believed?
"And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith." (Matt 13:58)
Have we ever wondered why miracles happen in certain places more often than others? For instance, I hear that people in third world countries in Africa, South America and parts of Asia had seen and experienced various kinds of miracles. In the affluent West, occurrences are less frequent. Is the affluent West lacking in faith when compared to the poor in Third World countries? If miracles is connected to faith, is the lack of miracles a consequences of a lack of faith? Such a question ought to trouble the conscience of every believer in Christ. Perhaps, the miracle of miracle for us is not right knowledge or right behaviour. The miracle we all need is faith. In other words, the greatest miracle we may have witnessed is the supernatural conversion of hearts toward God. Two quotations help elaborate on this miracle of faith.
"God does not sell himself into the hands of religious magicians. I do not believe in that kind of miracles. I believe in the kind of miracles that God gives to his people who live so close to him that answers to prayer are common and these miracles are not uncommon." (A. W. Tozer, Rut, Rot, or Revival)

"It is my opinion that miracle is an essential element of biblical faith. . . Miracle, however, is not to be understood in terms of the 19th century argument between science and religion, but in terms of the biblical doctrine of Creation. From this perspective, miracle is strange and offensive not only to modern man. but to ancient man as well." (Millard C Lind, "Reflections on Biblical Hermeneutics," in Kingdom, Cross, and Community)
While Lind brings the essence of miracles to the level of biblical faith, Tozer ties it back to a personal relationship with God. God intervenes in his own good time. It is through the lens of faith that we make sense of miracles. It is also through the lens of faith that we may occasionally need to suspend judgment, to wait in hope for the great Revealer to answer our deepest questions about miracles. Perhaps, when the kingdom finally arrives in its entirety, the answers are no longer important, when all we ever need is the Giver of all life, and miracles.

For the "Miracle of Sarah," I reject the skeptical view. Not only is it an insensitive affront to the love shared and rejoiced by the family, it carelessly treads upon pearls provided lovingly to the family of Sarah. Instead, I prefer to view the Miracle of Sarah with two eyes of faith. It is not blind faith, as we are still grappling with the meaning behind all of it. The first eye is an experiential one, one of rejoicing with the family that a good thing has occurred. The second eye is a philosophical one. CS Lewis believes that any miracles cannot be understood from experience alone. There needs to be sufficient philosophical enquiry. Experience alone can neither prove nor disprove a miraculous event. By viewing with both experience and philosophy, we recognize that the miracle is part of an overall plan. Secondly, we participate in the revelation of the grace of God via faith. This sums up my current position on miracles. Miracles are to be seen through the eyes of faith through grace in Christ, with both mind and heart. One more thing. No matter what, it is never too costly to simply utter a small word of thanks for miracles that has happened, and those are are waiting to happen. As we ponder, discern and pray for wisdom to know the difference between 'divine blessings' and 'illusory bluffing.'


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