Recently someone I know well said that it was a miracle when an elderly relative did not catch Covid after another member of the household had tested positive. I was a little taken aback by the use of the term. I acknowledge that this outcome was a beneficial occurrence and that gratitude is an appropriate response. What happened might also be described as improbable, but it wouldn’t be something that I would have called miraculous.
Admittedly, not everyone uses the word “miracle” in the way that I do. Some people use the word to refer to any beneficial event that evokes awe or amazement. Some people (especially philosophers) are very strict about reserving the term for a clear exception to the laws of nature. I use the term “miracle” to mean an event that, given our understanding of how the natural world operates, goes against what we would expect to happen apart from the operation of an extraordinary power. I think that my definition corresponds more or less to what ancient people referred to as signs or wonders, the terms used most often in biblical texts to refer to extraordinary events.
Even if we agree about how to use the term “miracle,” it seems apparent that some people are more likely to see events as miraculous than others. For some people miracles are everyday events that occur frequently. At the opposite extreme are those who regard miracles as happening very rarely or not at all. I want to suggest that Christians would do well to avoid both of these extremes. You can be too ready to see events as miracles, or you can be too skeptical about them.
An example of the first extreme is suggested by a story Rachel Held Evans relates about going to a wedding in Ohio the weekend Hurricane Katrina hit. Quite a few guests were coming from out of town, and there were multiple delays at airports in the region from which many of them would depart. However, the entire family made it to the event. While not using the term “miracle,” someone at the wedding described the fact that everyone had made it as “a God thing.” Presumably he meant that God had somehow arranged events so that the wedding would go well. Evans felt a disconnect. She had been watching news reports of desperate families trapped on rooftops during the hurricane as they waited for rescue, and of death and injury from storm surges that produced breaches of levees. She found it disconcerting to imagine that God was concerned enough to make sure the wedding went well, but not concerned enough to help those in more desperate circumstances. Evans notes that she later heard the phrase “God thing” applied to various benefits, including scholarships, job offers, new cars, and remodeled kitchens.
A problem with attributing too many things to God is that it suggests that God’s priorities are wrong. Why does God act to secure relatively unimportant benefits, but fail to act to prevent or ameliorate suffering from real disasters? Are we to imagine that God has special favorites who get blessings, but cares less about those who aren’t given help? People who frequently describe God as arranging some benefit typically assume that God is able to act in any situation to bring about desirable results. But if God can stop horrible evils from occurring, why doesn’t God do more to prevent those that do occur? The more you think that God controls events by miraculous actions, the greater the difficulty you will have in explaining cases in which God lets awful things happen.
But there is an opposite problem to the tendency to see God’s action around every corner. It is not seeing it at all. Western education tends to make people skeptical of claims about extraordinary events. One of the ways it does so is by inculcating us with a picture of the world in which each event is fully explainable in scientific terms. Given this picture, we are inclined to presume that there is a scientific explanation of what happens even in cases that make that presumption seem questionable. Thinking that there is always such an explanation often seems like an article of faith for those with materialistic worldviews, but even people who accept a reality beyond the material order may think that acknowledging something genuinely extraordinary should be done only as a last resort. In effect the materialistic understanding becomes their default assumption about what happens, which can be overridden only by overwhelming evidence. As a result, they are resistant to thinking of any event as miraculous.
I think that there are enough credible stories to lead an open-minded person who is not wedded to a materialistic worldview to think that in our times (not just in biblical times) there are events that can be called miraculous by my definition of the term (an event that goes against what we would expect to happen apart from the operation of some extraordinary power). Some events strongly suggest the operation of powers other than those recognized by contemporary scientific accounts. Some of these powers may arise from hidden aspects of the natural order that allow us to do what we can’t ordinarily do. Some may involve specific acts of God. But while Christians can sometimes recognize extraordinary events as signs of God’s activity, we devalue the real signs by finding them anytime something good happens.
For a fuller discussion of this issue, see chapter 12 of Changing Your Mind Without Losing Your Faith (Does God Control Everything?)