I must admit that I struggle with using the word “miracle” to describe God’s actions and amazing events in our lives. I had to come to terms with using “miracle” the hard way, at least for an author, when my publisher decided to title my holistic and progressive-oriented book on the healings of Jesus, God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus (Westminster/John Knox, 2001). “Miracle” was not in my spiritual and theological vocabulary. Although I have written extensively on Jesus’ healings and the healing ministry of the church, I still wonder – given the supernatural understandings of the word “miracle” – whether we should have moratorium on using the word at all until we find a theologically adequate understanding of miracles, healings, and cures.
Although Tim Stafford and I have contrasting theological viewpoints and understandings of God’s power and role in healing miracles, I found his book to be a solid theological page turner. I started reading it at daybreak and finished by late morning, sipping coffee and nodding my head at Stafford’s solid scholarship and theological insight. We agree on many things, including the challenge of supernaturalism. If miracles violate the laws of nature, ultimately they become a hindrance rather than a help to sharing the gospel. Supernatural violations of causal relationships imply that God is capricious and arbitrary, a type of Saturday’s father who vows us with weekend trips to theme parks and movies, but is absent in the day to day affairs of packing lunches, driving to school, classes, and sports, and nighttime hugs and kisses.
What we describe as miracles emerge as “signs and wonders,” more dramatic reflections, of God’s constant and unswerving creativity, wisdom, and love. In the spirit of the poetry of Lamentations 3:22:
The steadfast love of God never ceases [evident in the changing seasons, the birth of a
baby, the orderly motions of the heavens, and the gradual processes of growth, healing,
and personal and planetary evolution.]
God’s mercies never come to an end [always and everywhere God seeks our well-being,
God’s care is unlimited in space and time, embracing all creation in God’s omnipresent
they are new every morning [God is constantly doing a new thing, bringing about new
possibilities and bringing forth quantum leaps of spiritual-physical energy that dramatically change people’s lives.]
great is God’s faithfulness. [God’s vision and action are constant, regular, and
dependable; the dramatic energies of love are reflections of a wider and deeper divine
sustaining of each cell and each, the micro and macro.]
From one perspective, we can affirm with Walt Whitman that everything is a miracle. Every moment reveals divine constancy and love. Still, some moments – while reflecting the regular causal relationships that characterize a trustworthy universe – nevertheless reveal something more – cells are transformed, spirits are healed, bodies renewed in ways that defy our understanding and experience of the world. These are not supernatural but continuous with the unnoticed movements present in healing wounds, knitting together bones, or dissolving cancer cells through radiation or chemotherapy. A personal and intimate God can, like us, choose to be more present in some places than others. God can act dramatically in the incarnation of Jesus, the enlightenment of Buddha, the healing energy of Jesus’ touch, and moments of personal and communal conversion and transformation.
However, I differ from Stafford who believes that God “does wonders as [God] wishes in complete freedom.” (219) I believe that the universe is a dynamic call and response and that God always works through the world as it is to bring it closer to God’s realm moment by moment and person by person. God’s control is not absolute, nor does God have complete freedom: as Jesus’ own ministry reveals, healing is relational, faith evokes divine healing energy, while faithlessness may diminish God’s power in certain situations such the response of the citizens of Jesus’ hometown. (Mark 6:1-6)Miracles are releases of divine energy – the personal energy of the big bang, the birth of galaxies, and the emergence of life forms – that occur in the constellation of divine vision, human response, communal response, health conditions, environment, economics, and so forth. All healing and illness, dramatic or undramatic, is contextual, meaningful, and multi-factorial.
No doubt, the healings (or miracles) described by Pentecostals are, in good measure, the results of their belief that they occur, the lively surroundings of healing and prayer services, and the community’s faith. This faith surely elicits the placebo effect, which allows God to be more active in these situations. The same is true for healing prayer, whether at a distance or contiguous to the persons for whom we pray. Our intercessory prayers create a healing field around those for whom we pray – a vortex of energy that not only counteracts the negative impact of disease – but also opens the door to a greater influx of God’s intimate energy. God is always standing at the door, knocking, and when we open the door through prayer, meditation, healing touch, visualization, and community faith, surprising things happen – “God’s mercies are new every morning.” God can move through less dramatic congregational contexts to bring healing and wholeness: it is not the decibel level but the purity of heart and openness to grace that opens the door to God’s healing energy.
Miracles or acts of divine power – signs or wonders – will always be challenging to me. I am not content with assuming that God arbitrarily cures some and not others or that God’s deferring of a cure is somehow a mercy and part of a larger divine plan. Nor can we identify faith with cures in a linear fashion – faithful people die painful deaths while unbelievers receive spontaneous remissions. It is clear that it is not all about us, nor if God is a loving God can it be all about God! Love means letting go of self-centeredness, praise, and even worship. A loving God surely wants us to get well and to experience abundant life, but the nature of this healing and abundance is always contextual and the result of several factors, including God’s vision for us. Perhaps, God “tempers” some immediate cures for greater benefits in the long haul or places a maximum lifespan on humankind to alleviate the impact on the environment of unrestrained population growth. These remain open questions.
One thing that Stafford and I agree on is: physicians, nurses, and health care personnel are agents of God’s aim at healing. God inspires us in the laboratory and God works through surgery and medication to enhance our well-being. God moves through the chemotherapy and radiation – the medications we take – as gentle partner seeking our well-being and the well-being of friends and strangers alike.
Let us continue to pray for healing; let us gather friends at the bedside; and let us expect great things from God and our partnership with God. The universe is more wondrous than we can imagine – with energies and possibilities untapped – and in the call and response of divine and human care, unexpected events can occur, miracles, transforming cells and souls for the glory of God and the goodness of creation.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.
Visit the Patheos Book Club to read an excerpt from Tim Stafford’s new book, Miracles: A Journalist Looks at Modern-Day Miracles.
 My other texts on healing are Healing Worship: Purpose and Practice (Pilgrim Press, 2006) and Reiki Healing Touch and the Way of Jesus (Northstone, 2005). Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel will be published by Energion in 2013.