Pastor's Blog

The sterile hospital room was quiet except for the occasional beeps and clicks of the machinery that kept the motionless patient’s heart pumping and lungs expanding and contracting.  The dear soul had no brain activity.

I was standing out in the hall with the family as the doctor tried to tell them in soft tones that there was no hope.  Proper etiquette wouldn’t let him say that absolutely.  Doctors always leave a pinpoint of hope and family members want to grasp that point of hope, want to grasp anything,  rather than make the decision that no one ever wants to have to make.

I’ve been with families in that situation more than once.  And somehow there always seems to be a well-intentioned evangelical that shows up to break the weighty silence, spurring everyone on to faith in a God who raises the dead and to continue in fervent prayer for a modern-day miracle.  There was such an evangelical in this case – several, in fact. 

This poor family, torn between the grim facts and their faith in God, looked with pleading eyes to me to weigh in.  I said something to this effect: “The God who does miracles is on the throne.  If we allow the doctors to turn off the machines, we will find out if God wants to do a miracle.”  After some deliberation together, the family decided to trust God and turn off the machines. 

There was no miracle.

Perhaps my counsel seems unsettling to some.  It was based on a simple distinction between ‘miracle’ and ‘providence’.  If you wanted the machines kept on, you weren’t trusting God for a miracle.  You were hoping for a providence.  But a miracle really was what was needed in a case like this one.

My approach to the Christian life is simple.  Expect providence.  Make responsible decisions using the knowledge and wisdom you have at hand and trust God to work in, through, and behind the ordinary processes of life.  God can intervene and do a miracle if He wishes.  We have no promise or guarantee that He will do so.  That decision is entirely up to Him.  It’s up to us  to trust God’s decision.

I don’t know why some evangelicals expect God to do miracles every day.  God never promised that.  If miracles took place every day, they wouldn’t be extraordinary.  We’d see them as ordinary, as commonplaces, maybe even as the workings of nature.  The whole point of miracles is that they don’t happen every day.  Their rarity is part of what gives them their character as ‘miracles’.

One of the key biblical terms for “miracle” is the word “sign” (Greek semeion).  A sign doesn’t draw attention to itself.  Rather, a sign points to something else, and the important thing is not the sign but what it points to.  The signs done by Jesus were not merely about getting people healthy;  Jesus left many ill people in their stricken conditions.  The signs He did were cases specially chosen by the Father, cases that would confirm the authority of Jesus and the truth of His message to the people that needed that confirmation.  It would seem that a miracle done today should serve the same purpose.

My faith doesn’t need miracles.  The resurrection of Jesus is enough.  I’m perfectly happy to see God working providentially – what people call “God things” or “God moments” – in, through, and behind the ordinary processes of my ordinary life.

I was always told that spiritual rebirth was an amazing miracle.  Well, it may be a work of God – but when born-again people are vindictive and cruel, you start asking yourself what happened to the miracle that God supposedly did in their lives.  At least I wondered that.  It made me question whether there was a God who worked at all (as I’ve recounted in previous blogs).  When I returned from my flirtation with atheism I decided to remove the word “miracle” from my vocabulary.  Not because I don’t believe in the biblical miracles (I do) and not because I believe God can’t do miracles (He can).  I see “miracle” as a very technical term for a very extraordinary occurrence that cannot be too easily explained by an appeal to nature.  I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything in that category.

That doesn’t mean God doesn’t work in the world.  There is a whole other category of divine working that seems overlooked and forgotten, called “providence”, and I sing its praises.  Evangelicals seem to think that unless a thing is miraculous, God can’t be in it or behind it.  But God is constantly working in, through, and behind completely ordinary circumstances.  Why wouldn’t He be?  He is involved in our lives and our world every day.  He just doesn’t do miracles every day.

Years ago, a three-month-old boy from our church was afflicted with two different types of leukemia.  The doctors at Children’s Hospital called it a death sentence.  The little boy endured numerous chemotherapy treatments, but the cancer kept returning.  As a last-ditch effort, the child received a bone-marrow transplant from his father.  We laid hands on the child, anointed him with oil, and prayed for God to intervene.  The bone marrow transplant was successful and that boy is now a young man.

This was a wonderful divine providence.  A miracle would have been an instantaneous recovery when we prayed so that the bone marrow transplant would have been unnecessary.  But God providentially worked in and through the transplant.  Without it, the boy probably would have died. 

The transplant didn’t negate or demean the work of God.  It does if you only find God in the miraculous.  But does God only work in miracles?  I rejoice that He sees fit to use ordinary means and encourage people to use them, and to then thank God AND THE DOCTORS when they work!

Some providences are ordinary.  You pray “Give us this day our daily bread” and then the prayer is answered with a trip to the grocery store – although finding bread or toilet paper during this coronavirus panic may verge on the miraculous!

Some providences are coincidences that seem too coincidental.  My wife and I attended a Bible conference at our alma mater one year.  It just happened to be the same time that I was wrestling through the hurt and anger of betrayal by a friend.  In the first session we attended, the speaker (whom we did not know) spoke on “Washing Judas’ Feet”.  The sermon was about loving those that betray you.  I couldn’t believe it.  If no one else had been in that room, the message would have been for me.  God was at work in an amazing providence in my life.  But there was no miracle there.

When the church was small and we were trying to raise money (either for the purchase of the 13 acre plot or for the down payment on the building;  I don’t remember which) I challenged our small congregation to raise, in one offering, over $10,000.  There was a visitor there that Sunday who heard my challenge.  He returned the next week and before the service handed me an envelope.  With a stern face he said, “This is for you to read after the service.”  I opened the envelope after the service and found a check for over $10,000.  I saw that as a providential work of God, but not a miracle.  I’d have thought differently if the envelope contained a letter telling me to go catch a fish and use the money I found in its mouth as a down payment, and then had a successful fishing expedition. 

I’m big on providence – God working in ordinary ways.  I look for him there and am happy to find Him.  Of course, any time He’s willing to do a miracle, He’s sovereign.  He can do what He likes.  I’d rejoice to see it, but my faith doesn’t need Him to do so.  Raising Jesus from the dead is the only miracle I need.

I’ll probably talk about this a little more next time…

The evangelical circles in which I travel always presented being born again as a sudden radical change of heart generated by the power of the Holy Spirit – a miracle.  But if the Holy Spirit makes such powerful miraculous changes, why are so many mature Christians such persistent troublemakers?  Why, as a pastor, had I experienced so much anger and even hatred from professing Christians – not only to me personally, but to God’s Word itself?  (And I am not the only pastor to experience this!)

Back in the 90’s, I knew if I was going to remain an evangelical Christian, I had to adjust some of my beliefs.  Regarding rebirth -- either a good many people who professed Christianity were self-deceived or the new birth wasn’t the splashy extravagant event many cracked it up to be.  I went with this second option.

When you’re born again, what happens to you?  What changes when the Spirit gives you a new heart and writes God’s law inside you?  What does the old has passing away and all things becoming new look like and feel like? 

Here are some of the things I am sure of. 
New birth doesn’t mean we stop sinning and it doesn’t mean we stop being tempted. 
It doesn’t mean we automatically recognize all the sin in ourselves.
It doesn’t mean we automatically recognize and fight temptation. 
It doesn’t mean we automatically understand what God wants.

Then what is being born again?  I don’t believe that in most cases being given new life is a flashy, splashy event.  Nor do I believe it is noticeable in its immediate effects.  I liken it to the planting of a tiny seed in the dirt of my soul – a particle of truth, packed with potential energy, power, and life.  That seed germinates slowly and imperceptibly.   It grows in fits and spurts.  Sometimes it languishes, starved or parched, seeming barely alive. 

But it is still there – perhaps temporarily dormant, awaiting the right conditions – but very much alive.  The greatest power of this new life is not radical change but persistence.  It endures.

The change the new birth makes is not so much a radical change of behavior (it may do that) but a change in the ability to perceive God’s truth.  I didn’t say agree, accept, or approve the truth -- often we don’t agree, accept, or approve;  but we do hear the truth.  We may be resistant, but we are no longer deaf.  New birth doesn’t give me an overwhelming willingness to do ;  just the ability to hear.  Once we hear it, even if our hearts resist it, the truth begins to steadily push its way into the recesses of our hearts.  Sometimes it takes root easily and immediately;  sometimes the soil is harder or drier, and it takes longer to take root. It may take additional watering or hoeing or removal of weeds.  But it’s there, slowly taking root, slowly growing, slowly influencing our soul.

The work of the Spirit – the growth of new life within us – takes time.  More time in some than in others.  If that is the truth, then the best way to live as a Christian (and as a pastor) is with lots of patience, and that means fewer expectations of others, more expectation of myself, and lots of waiting.  Spiritual life rarely involves revolution.  Change comes in moments, quiet and unseen, yet incredibly potent. 

And that, apparently, was a change God wanted in me.  It took obstinate people and persecution to work it.  But here I am, humbled and changed.

 I’ll close with an insightful observation made by my favorite Christian writer, C. S. Lewis:  “Isn’t it amazing how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different?”

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