How do you define what a miracle is? What ingredients are necessary before you’ll use that label? Does the event have to be rare? Does it have to be illogical? Does it have to seem physically impossible? Do you only think of miracles as positive, helpful events? Or can a miracle also be destructive, and devastating?
Your cultural context and personal theology greatly influence how you answer these questions. Some people are quick to refer to an event as miraculous. Others refuse to ever use such a term. The point is that there isn’t one right definition of a miracle which everyone in the world agrees with. Instead, definitions vary quite a bit. Naturally a flexible, broad definition allows for many events to qualify as miracles, whereas a narrow, rigid definition results in the term being used far less often.
Now in this post, we’re going to explain why the frequency of miracles varies so much around the world. Why are miraculous cures, prophetic visions, and sightings of supernatural beings so common in one place and so rare in another? In the Gospel books and in Acts, we read about individuals healing people from all manner of diseases and casting out demons right in the middle of public streets. We also find sorcerers running around casting spells as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Miracles and magic were commonplace in Bible times. Everyone expected them, and they happened with great frequency. The rulers of countries commonly included professional sorcerers among their royal advisers. When troubles came, people turned to local sorcerers and paid them to cast blessings or curses. Career prophets like Elijah and Elisha were well-known for having miraculous powers. But then we come to modern day America—an atheistic culture which scoffs at the notion of genuine miracles and insists that everything can be logically explained. Sure, there are subcultures in America where people are aggressively seeking out supernatural power, and in those subcultures, miracles tend to occur more often. But in the main culture, miracles appear to happen very rarely. Is this really true? Or is the rare occurrence of miracles in American culture due to the fact that Americans are so hesitant to use that label?
How many events in America would be labeled as miraculous by folks from another culture? When ginormous hailstones suddenly fall down from the sky, Americans start talking about the science of weather. But someone from another culture might look at the same event and call it a miracle—a sign that the gods are angry. When inexplicable healings occur in American hospitals, doctors shrug and say it just shows how much more we have yet to understand about the science of medicine. But someone else would call the same event a Divine miracle. Labels matter. Definitions matter. The fact that cultures define miracles so differently makes it hard to get an accurate idea of what’s really going on. Perhaps Americans are experiencing far more miracles than they think they are because of the way the data is reported. But then again, some differences are undeniable. American streets aren’t peppered with sorcerers for hire, and if some man were to walk on water or raise someone from the dead, that would be a huge deal for us. In other cultures, these things can occur on a daily basis without making much of a stir because everyone expects it. So why do miracles occur more frequently in cultures who are very receptive to the notion of supernatural beings manipulating human lives? Why do miracles occur less often in cultures that scoff at the whole notion of Divine Beings? Should we take this to mean that God actually needs our faith to perform miracles? This is what many Christians teach, and yet how can we take such a theory seriously? How lame is God if His abilities can actually be hampered by the attitudes of the creatures He created? If we’re going to say that God’s ability to do certain things depends on us having certain beliefs about Him, then we’re claiming to have the power to define the limits of our own Creator. The specks become the masters while God becomes the slave—it’s a delusion that our egos just can’t seem to give up.
If we want to know the truth, we need to let go of this utterly absurd notion that we can control who God is and how He operates. Believing that God is a hot dog doesn’t suddenly turn Him into one. Believing that He is nothing more than an illusion doesn’t make Him cease to be. We humans simply have no say over what God can and can’t do, and the ignorant thoughts that roll around in our teensy little brains hardly cause God to feel hampered. Whenever we find God changing His style, we need to realize that those changes are driven by His preferences, not ours. God is the One who designed humans to be such diverse little creatures in the first place. Human cultures express so much variation because God wants them to. It’s not like we’re being clever and He’s struggling to keep up. God is obsessed with variety. He doesn’t want every human in the world to think and act the same way. He wants variation, and lots of it. It is because of His influence that we group up and spin off in such different directions with our languages, music, clothing, traditions, and basic theological beliefs. And after setting up this fascinating scene of diversity, God then interacts with each of us within the context of the cultures He has put us into.
Ever wonder why Yahweh appeared as a male human to His prophets in the Bible? Ever wonder why He would portray Himself as sitting on a throne wearing a tunic? Why don’t we ever read about angels or Gods wearing pants in the biblical records? Why do supernatural beings always show up wearing man dresses? Is it true that Yahweh and Jesus rule from physical chairs in a Heaven that’s furnished with items from the Old Testament Tabernacle? Of course not. God dons a tunic for people in the Bible because those people wore tunics.
When talking to Jews, God talks like a Jew. He repeats Himself a lot, because that was the Jewish way. He shows Jewish men scenes of angels calling Him “holy, holy, holy” because triple repetition was the ultimate form of emphasis in the Jewish language.
Ever wonder why Yahweh is always extending His right arm in the Old Testament? Why doesn’t He ever use His left arm? Because in Jewish culture, the right side was the favored side. To sit on the right side of a human monarch meant you were some kind of awesome, and that’s why you’ll find Jesus sitting on the right side, and never the left, of Yahweh in Heaven.
Why do the Jewish prophets Daniel and John see visions of animals with an excessive number of horns? Because horns represented power in Jewish culture, thus animals with many horns would symbolize figures with great power.
Does Yahweh really have physical nostrils? No, and yet we find Him telling the Jews that He is pleased with the smell of burnt sacrifices they are offering to Him. When God is working with humans, He over-humanizes Himself in order to help us relate to Him. He then adjusts His language to accommodate our cultural traditions, metaphors, and priorities. Ancient Egyptian culture revolved around the Nile River, so when Yahweh wanted to freak Egyptians out with doomsday prophecies, He warned that He was going to cause the Nile to shrivel up to nothing. In real life, Yahweh didn’t zap the Nile out of existence—it was metaphorical language that was very effective in getting His point across to people who lived in a specific culture. When He was threatening ancient Babylonians, Yahweh said that He’d disgrace the gods Bel and Marduk. To modern Americans, that’s a meaningless threat. But to ancient Babylonians, Bel and Marduk were critical deities, and the thought of their key gods being humiliated by a greater God was extremely upsetting.
Because New Testament Jews were clinging to the delusion that Satan ruled the world, it was quite the big deal when they saw Jesus casting Satan’s minions out of people. Obviously Jesus had to be more powerful than the great Satan if He could manage to do such a thing.
Because the Jews believed that it took three days for body and soul to fully separate after death, Jesus stalled around for four days before raising Lazarus. His stalling ensured that superstitious Jews would have no doubts that Lazarus was fully dead, thus they would be properly wowed by Jesus’ feat. He played on the same superstition when He stalled around three days before bringing His own corpse back to life. Today in modern America, we don’t have the same superstitions that the Jews did. To us, a guy is fully dead once medical equipment shows that his heart has stopped beating and that his brain has stopped working. So in modern America, God could resurrect a man ten minutes after he had been officially declared dead, and we’d be just as impressed as the Jews were with Lazarus. Modern Americans are easier to wow in some areas, and harder to wow in others. The same is true for folks from every culture around the world. And yet it is God who has set up these factors, not us, and it is God who then chooses to use the variables He has invented to teach us spiritual lessons.
To God, miracles are teaching tools. They are just one of many ways that He teaches humans the spiritual principles which we need to understand if we’re going to mature in our relationships with Him. Because God works with us all individually, when He performs a miracle in front of a hundred different people, He’ll use that same event to teach a hundred different lessons. Because humans generally interpret miracles as examples of a Supernatural Being flaunting His power, miracles can really help us gain deeper reverence for God. Reverence is a fear-based respect for God which is a reaction to understanding of how powerful He is. Miracles which flaunt His epic power in our faces help us tune into the fact that He is so much more powerful than we are, thus we’d be idiots to try and provoke Him to anger. But what if we don’t interpret a miracle as coming from one of the real Gods? What if we are crediting some fictitious being or demon for the miraculous event? In these cases, a different set of lessons will be learned.
DEMONS & MIRACLES
While God often uses miracles to draw us closer to Him, demons use miracles to drive us away from God. Among humans who are lusting after supernatural power, it’s often thought that demons can be manipulated into sharing their power with us if we just approach them correctly. The whole “sell your soul to the devil” routine is a delusion that demons love to encourage humans to participate in. In real life, your soul is not something you can sell, but demons will be more than happy to play along with the fantasy if it will keep you fawning over them instead of God. In the world of sorcery, miracles abound, and we can find humans attaching all kinds of ego-pleasing interpretations to those events. Oh, look: Sorcerer Sam was able to stick his hand into a fire without being burned. Obviously that means he has come into possession of supernatural power. And then there’s Marsha: she drank some goat’s blood and mumbled some Latin, and now she’s managed to inflict a brain tumor on the child of the neighbor that she hates. At least this is how Marsha likes to interpret things. And while she’s busy taking the credit for the bad things that are happening to her enemies, demons are laughing at what a spiritual idiot she’s being.
From the perspective of demons, miracles are a great way to lure humans away from God and entice them into wasting their lives chasing after delusions. In Bible times, demonic miracles abounded, and Jews were as wowed by dark magic as they were by acts of God. At the end of the day, humans love drama and they crave power. So we like miracles. Miracles excite us. They peak our curiosity and they can bring us quick fixes to major problems. But then what? Suppose we’re part of the rabble in Exodus. Sure, it’s convenient if Yahweh parts the Red Sea and lets us all hustle through before we get chopped down by Egyptian swords. But it’s only a matter of time until He’ll pitch us into another crisis. So what’s the point?
If we only value miracles for the convenience or stimulation that they bring to our lives, we won’t glean any real benefit from them. This is a critical point to realize for those of you who are wishing that you had more miracles happening in your life. Unless we’re pursuing the right priorities, miracles won’t benefit us, and it’s quite possible that they’ll harm us. It really isn’t a plus if some miracle encourages you to keep putting your faith in lies or it motivates you to keep clinging to an attitude of spiritual rebellion. The only way we will gain any lasting benefit from miracles is if we look beyond the details of what occurred and ask God to help us learn the spiritual lessons that He wants to teach us. When we make growing closer to God our priority, both the presence and absence of miracles can greatly benefit us. When we set our sights on eternal things instead of just looking for quick fixes to our earthly problems, we will find that any miracles God chooses to do for us will help us develop the soul attitudes that please Him—things like reverence, submission, dependency and trust. We will also find that what God does for us won’t be nearly as important to us as the spiritual principles He is teaching us.
REWARDS OR PUNISHMENTS?
When miracles occur, does that mean that God is rewarding us? Not necessarily. Was it benefiting the Israelites for God to allow them to experience their false gods apparently helping them in miraculous ways? Or was He just responding to their rebellion by enticing them further away from truth? When we make it our goal to become the god of God—when we decide that we can succeed at making Him serve and submit to us—God often responds to our rebellious attitudes by creating scenarios in which it appears that our false conclusions about Him are being confirmed.
Today many Christians are pompously taking credit for the things that God has done. They boast about how long and hard they prayed for God to do the exact thing that He ended up doing. And of course they think that their potent prayers were the thing that made the difference. Because of course God can’t drive out a demon without us chanting Jesus’ Name or flinging holy water. And of course He can’t heal anyone unless we lay our holy hands on someone’s shoulders. There’s no question among Christians that God is a capable Guy—but the way many Christians talk and act prove that they really believe God responds to their initiation. First we pray, then He acts. We give the command, He responds with obedience. It is our unbounded arrogance that makes us feel authorized to declare that God will most certainly do whatever we want. Certainly He will heal the sick in our midst, because we are telling Him to. He might take a while to act, but we are certain that He will, because He wouldn’t dare to defy us. And once we start throwing verses in His face, that just seals the deal, because God simply can’t dare to oppose our carnal interpretation of some Bible passage.
When we have this kind of domineering attitude towards God and He responds by giving us exactly what we’re praying for, is He rewarding us? Of course we tell ourselves that He is, but is He really? Or is He just driving us further away from Him by sucking us deeper into a web of lies?
From God’s perspective, miracles can be used to accomplish a wide variety of agendas. It’s really not a good thing when God starts saying “amen” to every delusional theory you cook up in your pompous mind. When you listen to the idiotic apostle Paul waxing on about how we can all co-reign with Christ on the other side, and you actually believe that God Almighty is going to invite us to squeeze onto His throne as if merely dying has morphed us into His equals, is that a good thing? Is reading the Bible even a plus when it’s packing your head with lies? Is having God shower you with earthly fame and wealth really a good thing if all of that surplus is going to suck you deep into idolatry?
If you want to grow in spiritual wisdom, don’t be so quick to stereotype all miracles as a good thing. God is a very complex Being who has many creative ways of avenging Himself on those who defy Him. The wise Christian will only want miracles that will inspire his soul to deepen its devotion to God. Such miracles do occur, and when they do, they are a great asset to spiritual maturity. But miracles can erode faith as effectively as they can strengthen it.
Consider all of the miracles the apostle Paul was personally involved in, only to remain stuck in his delusions of grandeur about what a glory hogging co-ruler he’d get to be on the other side. Then there is the apostle John—a man who walked with the magnificent Jesus on earth only to end up drooling over the sight of his own name etched into one of Heaven’s foundation stones during the Revelation visions. Is it really a good thing when God starts pretending that you’re as perfect as you think you are? The apostle John claimed to be above sinning (see Salvation According to 1 John). He claimed to be flawless in his teaching about God, which is why he said that anyone who failed to agree with him was clearly of the devil (see Spiritual Discernment According to John). God says all throughout Scriptures that He hates arrogance in humans and that we must embrace humility to please Him (see Understanding Jesus: All who Exalt Themselves will be Humbled (Luke 14) & The Parable of the Unworthy Servant (Luke 17)). And yet there’s the apostle John, with an ego the size of the universe, getting showered with attaboys in Revelation. What was that about? Did God really consider John to be the exception to His “I hate arrogance” rule? Not hardly. For all of the revelations, insights and miraculous experiences he’d been given, John degraded into just another self-exalting braggart who had no qualms about telling the world that God was crediting him for propping up Heaven’s walls (see Applying Revelation 21: A Disturbing Paradise).
Then there was the apostle James, idiotically crediting the prophet Elijah instead of Yahweh for controlling the weather in Israel, and then guaranteeing believers that they, too, could have anything they want if they just nagged God while pretending He doesn’t have the option to say “no” (see The Power of a Righteous Man’s Prayer). Are you going to let these morons set your spiritual priorities for you or are you going to listen to God? Why would you want miracles if God is telling you that you don’t yet have the maturity to handle such things? Are we going to trust God to be the Judge of what is best for us, or are we going to sit around complaining because He’s protecting us from things that He knows would drive us astray?
The Israelites in Moses’ day witnessed ten miraculous plagues on Egypt, they walked through the Red Sea, they were fed by food raining down from the sky, and they were constantly in the company of a miraculous pillar of clouds that guided them through a wilderness. Their lives were filled with epic miracles, but what good did it do them? Rather than grow in their reverential submission to Yahweh, they clung to their stupid idols and stubbornly refused to stop worshiping the Egyptian gods that they had seen Yahweh so thoroughly trounce. Miracles abound in the Bible, as does evidence that miracles by themselves are no guarantee of spiritual growth.
Now certainly it’s convenient when God swoops in with some instant cure. But suppose He chooses to bring your healing about in a way that you wouldn’t call “miraculous”? Is healing any less fabulous if it comes through logical means, human doctors and chemical concoctions? God is the One we should be crediting for all healings, regardless of what methods He uses. And if God chooses to avoid certain methods with us for the sake of protecting our fledgling faith, shouldn’t we be thanking Him instead of griping?
A hammer can be a great blessing when it is pounding in nails and helping you construct a house. But the same tool can also be used to crack someone’s skull open. Likewise, miracles are tools that can be used to spiritually help or harm the people who experience them. If we’re wise, we’ll ask God to help us accept His choices for us. We’ll only want miracles when He decides that they could be beneficial to us. The rest of the time, we’ll want to steer clear. Because God works with us all as individuals, His teaching style varies from person to person. In some lives, He performs miracles very often. In other lives, miracles are a very rare event. What frequency of miracles would be best for you? Only God knows. Ask Him to help you stay on course with His best plan for your life and He will. Compared to having God Himself, miracles are truly worthless, so let’s be wise and pursue the only Treasure that’s really worth having.
Miracles in the End Times: The Mechanics & The God-Honoring Response
Why God Performs Miracles Through Spiritual Rebels (Help for Disillusioned Christians)
You’re Sick Because You Sinned: Dealing with Misguided Christians
The Laying On of Hands