As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
The best story that has ever happened to me is the one I almost never tell.
It's about a very sick little boy, the dark woods of Virginia, and an angel on a motorcycle.
This story is the gospel truth. But it is scandalous in some circles of Christianity. And the motorcycle is not the shocking part.
We, contemporary Reformed American Protestants, hold angels and miracles like we might handle a radioactive isotope or the Holy Grail—anxious over its precious nature but distrusting it.
This arm-length approach to miracles is somewhat unique to our cultural context. In parts of Africa and South America, it is commonplace for Christians to combat demons and see healing in response to prayer. I work in missions; these stories flood in from all over the world. One begins to feel like Dr. Ransom in C.S. Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet, who discovers that Earth is the only planet in the solar system cut off from contact with other intelligent and spiritual life. Why is America, or perhaps Western Christianity, a sort of "silent planet" in the world of miracles?
Perhaps it stems from our history. Reacting against Catholicism's abuses of power and extravagance, we came of age with the Enlightenment. Descartes' central premise that each man must reason out his own existence and Tyndal's conviction that the plowman has as much right to the Word of God as the priest are twin ideals, grounded in a belief in everyone's rationality as much as everyone's dignity. By prayer and thought, the ordinary man should be able to master all necessary theology and draw near to his Maker.
But it is also more than that. Do we resist the miraculous because we have often seen it as a trick, a tool of flashy televangelists and cult leaders to dupe the desperate? Surely the way the supernatural is exploited in media—demons, angels, miracles, and exorcisms—is also a contributing factor.
It would be utterly ridiculous to resign ourselves to media strip-mining our faith for sensational tidbits. And yet, to avoid appearing like primitive, backward idiots in a wild that prizes reason, we've created a false dichotomy between a rational faith and a miraculous one and chosen the rational. When I tell the story of the angel and the motorcycle, I tell it like a ghost story—something that requires not belief but the suspension of disbelief.
But this is how it actually happened.
The summer before I turned 10, I visited Williamsburg, Va., on a family vacation. Friends gave my family a stay at their vacation condo in a sort of resort complex, surrounded by deep woods and featuring an outdoor pool and a small gatehouse.
One night, my mother shook my little sister and me awake. Her voice was brittle with concern. My little brother, who was only 4, was very sick with croup. His symptoms had appeared suddenly and worsened so quickly that now, sometime after midnight, he was struggling to breath. We were going to the ER.
GPS was an emerging technology at this time. My dad asked the gatehouse attendant for directions to the nearest hospital. The teenager groggily explained, and we drove off.
As I listened to the thick gasps and wheezes coming from my brother's car seat, I recall passing what felt like miles of woods but no shopping centers, restaurants, or reassuring blue signs marked "H." We didn't pass a single car. I prayed.
Eventually, we approached a stoplight, which glowed red despite the absence of other vehicles. A motorcycle cop pulled up beside us. My dad rolled down his window to confirm the directions to the hospital.
"Oh no," the man on the motorcycle said. "They closed that hospital months ago and opened a new one. Follow me."
The motorcycle led us to the hospital, where a steroid shot restored my brother's ability to breath.
I'm not sure who first suggested it, but later, one of my family members asked, "Do you think that was an angel?"
At the very least, our encounter was a divine appointment. We saw no other vehicles, and I'm not sure what we would have done had we arrived at the vacant shell of the old hospital without a GPS or another soul to ask for directions.
But determining if the man on the motorcycle was an angel seems impossible and irrelevant. Either it was a miracle or a happy coincidence, but the latter loses something when all the flavor of direct divine intervention is boiled out of it.
Here's the plain truth of the miracle question: a physical world in which our spiritual God answers the needs of his children in tangible ways is fundamentally different from a world in which he doesn't. In the material world, our actions have primarily physical repercussions. In the miracle world, our actions have spiritual repercussions as well.
Because we do, in fact, possess a mysterious ability to apply a sort of leverage on heaven. It is the power vulnerability has over love, the power of an infant's cry over a nursing mother (Is. 49:15). The cry of God's people brought plagues to Egypt and dispatched Death itself to stalk the streets (Ex. 3:7). The reputation of that rescue rang through the ancient world for generations (Josh. 2:10). God himself died on our behalf because God could not bear to see us perish (2 Peter 3:9).
To live in a world of miracles is to believe you matter enough to the Creator to provoke disruptions in the laws of physics and the universe. This bears weight as well as wonder. C.S. Lewis expressed a similar idea in The Weight of Glory, except there he was talking about the spiritual nature of people rather than the world itself.
"It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors," he says.
Earlier, he notes that,"it is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities … that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics."
As Lewis points out, if we dare to accept the spiritual reality, we must accept that both sides of it exist, the splendors and the horrors. And we must admit that the stakes of the game are much higher than those without spiritual sight can guess. "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but … against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" (Eph. 6:12).
The fear of being seen as ignorant because we believe in the true, spiritual nature of the world is costly cowardice, for in "dimming the lights" on the spiritual world, we conceal it entirely from those whose sight is already impaired. If we stumble along, half-blind, we will escape the accusation of folly, but only by the acceptance of it. We impede our ability to act, love, and witness.
The existence of miracles cannot be divorced from the rest of the gospel. It is a "salvation issue." The whole project of heaven to reclaim fallen humanity hinges on one enormous miracle: the Resurrection. To share and live a gospel that ignores or diminishes the role of encounters with the spiritual world in the Christian life for the sake of contemporary materialist comfort and rationalist conceits swiftly becomes a "gospel" of mere moralism, yet another prescriptive campaign to improve the world by human action. While threats of fire and brimstone are objectionable evangelism tactics, to remove heaven and hell, miracles, and spiritual warfare entirely from the narrative of the gospel sets up a preposterous story in which the gospel revolves entirely around humanity's salvation with no larger context of God's plan or glory. Saved for what? It would be as if Edmund, rescued from death, had returned to England straight away with not another thought of Aslan and Narnia, in which he was destined to take a vital role.
The question of miracles in the modern world is, in essence, the same as the question of God's very existence. Either our flailing on this dirt-clod orbiting a ball of fire is simply that, or we are part of a greater story. And though the second option does entail the possibility of encounters with true, waking nightmares, the alternative is far more horrible. The whole of our faith and purpose hinges upon the intrusion of the supernatural into our physical world. It is the ultimate evidence that "God so loved."
Ultimately, the world in which God dispatches an angel to shepherd a sick little boy through dark woods to healing makes more sense than a world in which he doesn't.