Signs and Wonders

Nothing I said in What God Wants for your Life got me into more trouble than the chapter on signs and wonders:

Don’t you believe in miracles?

Don’t you believe that God is active in the world?

Don’t you believe in the power of prayer

Yes…but I don’t believe that signs and wonders are necessarily indicative of the will of God.  Sometimes the exceptional is just exceptional.

For example: I made a major move in employment some years ago — prayerfully, I might add — on the basis of what I felt God moving me to do with my life.  It was a profoundly difficult choice and rooted finally in questions of vocation.  When I told my employer that I was going to be leaving I was promptly offered a 10K raise to stay.  That, in my experience, was exceptional — one could even say, miraculous.  BUT it didn’t speak for a moment to the question of what God wanted for my life.  In fact, taking that kind offer into consideration would have been a distraction.  The right decision was much more deeply rooted in paying attention to the daily, annual, long, slow, work-filled years that lay behind me.

There are many reasons we pay more attention to the miraculous or exceptional in our lives than we do the daily, lifelong patterns — all of them understandable, some of them good, some of them bad:

We look to the miraculous because in principle we believe that God is active in the world and hears our prayers…That’s not a bad reason, but it can be easily distorted.  God is not a cosmic bellhop and life is not all about us.  We are called to serve as Christ served — we are not hear to live a lifelong, all-you-can-eat buffet.

We are afraid to have faith…all of us use training wheels on spiritual journey — experiences that bolster our faith: things that have happened to us, answers to prayers, familiar approaches to worship, Scripture.  These are good things.  But they should not be the object of our trust and confidence (a.k.a., faith).  God is the one on whom we are meant to live in ever closer dependence.  Days, weeks and years marked by the sameness of life — or, harder yet, by loss and tragedy — make it harder to live in dependence upon God.  So we look for God-sightings, the miraculous to secure our hope.  Those are the moments to cultivate a greater trust in God — whatever happens.  Training wheels are a great thing, but if you show up at the Tour de France with three wheels in back, you are not Lance Armstrong — and if, as children of God, we show up at the finishing line more dependent than ever on God’s gifts, instead of God, we will have missed the point.

We also long to experience the presence of God…In our materialistic world, where what we can see, feel, hear, touch, and smell makes the more powerful claims on our attention, it is not surprising that we look for the exceptional to reassure us that God is here.  That’s understandable.  Cultural forces and intellectual forces have left us with the impression that, if God exists at all, God is “out there” beyond the last process or molecule that we have successfully identified.  In an environment like that, we are bound to what God to “show up” with the same, tangible evidence.  The problem, though, doesn’t lie with God.  The problem is with our perceptions:

The whole of creation, material and non-material, common and exceptional, is the work of God’s creative and sustaining presence.  What could be more miraculous than the ability to see, hear and understand — to love?  What could be more miraculous than new life or the wonders of the world around us?  The Greek Orthodox church has long held — and rightly so — that we owe the miracle of our existence to God as Trinity.  The very fact that we count only the exceptional as miracle, then, constitutes one of our problems.

The other is this: If you aren’t alert to the work of God, you won’t appreciate it.  For most of us, as we mature spiritually, we have more and more of those “Why-didn’t-I-see –this-before?” moments.  And the answer, of course, lies not in the supposed absence of God, but in our awareness of God’s presence.  You can be in the best of acoustical spaces, with accomplished musicians and if you have a tin ear for music or have never cultivated a love of it, you will not appreciate the music performed.

The same is true of God’s work.  God doesn’t need to work more miracles.  We need to learn how to see.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Rueben Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and consulting editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, as well as several books: A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), live in Highland Park, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and four grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, and Sophie.


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