Journalist Tim Stafford decided to write his new book, Miracles: A Journalist Looks at Modern-Day Experiences of God’s Power, after witnessing one by a young man in his church. The intriguing account of that miracle, and many others, are explored by Stafford in his book, along with a historical overview of miracles in the Christian tradition, and chapters entitled: “Can the Scientist Believe in Miracles?” and “When No Miracles Come.”
Here, Stafford talks about his book and the case for believing in modern miracles. (You can also view a brief video interview with Stafford at the end of this post.)
You begin your book by telling about a miracle that happened to someone in your church. Can you tell about that and your church’s reaction?
Jeff Moore was a teenager in our church. His father rolled Jeff’s wheelchair into our sanctuary every Sunday. Jeff had been to every doctor on the planet; he had endured multiple surgeries and every other conceivable therapy, with no success. His feet were too painful to walk on. It had gone on for years, and Jeff had sworn off any further interventions; he just wanted to get on with life.
He was playing wheelchair basketball in another town, and when they were done, one of his teammates suggested they go to a nearby church. There was an invitation for healing prayer after the service, and since his friend (who was paralyzed) wanted to go forward, Jeff went too. Without any expectations, Jeff received prayer and was completely, instantly, healed. He got out of the wheelchair and has never had pain in his feet again.
It was a dramatic case. But when Jeff’s mother announced it at our church, there were mixed reactions. Some people were very cautious, fearing that it might not hold. This was one of the reasons I wrote Miracles. I wanted to understand what had happened, and think through how we should react.
As a writer for Christianity Today, you’ve reported on the church all over the world. Have you seen miracles?
Mainly I’ve heard testimonies of miracles—many, many times. Last year in Mozambique, I witnessed what might have been a miracle. Heidi Baker prayed for a young man who had been deaf since he was a small child, and there seemed to be a change in his ability to hear. Heidi thought it was a miracle, and so did many others. However, I have to say that unless you knew the young man before, and could follow up on his life afterward, you couldn’t know for sure. Not every reported miracle really is a miracle.
Aren’t there miracles in everyday life—like a baby’s smile, a sunrise, a friendship?
Some people call those miracles, but I don’t think that’s the right terminology. Every day God does wonderful things that reveal his character, but the word miracle should be reserved for events that are surprising and revelatory. That’s not to downplay the significance of a smile. It’s just to say that miracles have a very special purpose.
You write that the Bible’s terminology of “signs and wonders” helps us understand the nature of miracles from God’s perspective. Can you explain?
A sign points to something. That means it isn’t an end in itself: It aims to direct us to something beyond itself.
A wonder is an event that causes us to stop and pay attention. It’s surprising. It’s rare. God is just as much at work in the usual happenings, in the everyday sunrises and routine healings that we experience constantly. Sometimes, though, he “walks other paths,” as Augustine puts it, and we are amazed. That’s a miracle. It’s not a sign that God is present in power—he’s always present in power—so much as it’s a sign that God is doing something special to get our attention. And then you have to ask: attention to what?
Not necessarily. God is the miracle worker, not us. And if you look in the Bible, you will find cases where miracles come in spite of faithlessness, and many cases where faith is not rewarded by miracles. For example, Israel saw the most spectacular public miracles in the whole of history when God led them out of Egypt. What kind of people were they? They were quarrelsome, doubting, difficult people. God still did miracles for them. On the other hand, the Israelites who came back to Palestine from their Babylonian captivity showed tremendous faith. They took on danger and terrible sacrifice because they believed God wanted them in the Promised Land. And yet, they didn’t see any miracles—not any that were recorded, anyway.
Scientists want proof. Can you prove that miracles happen?
In Miracles, I write of a scholar who has attempted to do careful experiments on prayers for healing of the deaf. She found statistically significant indications that prayers did make a difference.
I think that’s valuable attestation, but it won’t change the skeptics’ minds. Miracles are not really subject to proof, because they are historical events and by their very nature rare. The kind of evidence you look for is not what scientists attempt to find—replication, duplication—but the kind of personal testimony that historians and law courts depend on. They look for reliable testimony from trustworthy people. We trust that kind of testimony every day, but we don’t usually call it proof.
Many people pray for a miracle, and their prayers aren’t answered. What do you say to them?
Perhaps what I say matters less than what I do. I want to stand beside them and let them know I care. I want to stand with them and offer the same comfort that God has given me when my prayers have not been answered as I wanted them to be.
When we do talk about prayers for miracles, it helps to put them into the context of the kingdom of God. In the Lord’s Prayer we learn to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In heaven there is no sickness, no pain, no brokenness. It’s all healed there. We pray for that, and sometimes we see it. Miracles happen. They happen more often than most people realize. That’s a sign of the kingdom.
But we don’t always see miracles. Even Jesus didn’t have all his prayers answered. He asked to be relieved of his crucifixion assignment. It couldn’t be. And yet, it was in and through his suffering that God’s will was accomplished.
We pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, but we aren’t in heaven yet. That’s where we are going. Miracles are messages from God, saying to us: Heaven is reality and it is where God’s people are headed. We are going to get there, together!
Watch the Skype interview with Tim Stafford below.