As Christmas approaches, I find myself preaching on the miraculous events surrounding Christ’s birth in the gospels of Matthew and of Luke. Though our culture is loath to admit it, there’s no good reason to think that miracles cannot happen, as I’ve argued here. Our culture is not the only one at fault when it comes to miracles, however; Christians also have an unhealthy love of the miraculous sometimes. I am convinced that God almost never does a miracle for three reasons:
- God almost always works through providence instead of through miracles.
The first reason I think God almost never performs miracles is due to definitions. When I say that God doesn’t do miracles very often, I am not saying that God does not work in special ways. I definitely believe that God hears prayers, works in hospitals, and brings relief to the afflicted; however, someone bouncing back from a serious illness is not a sufficient condition for saying that God performed a miracle. What’s driving this is the underappreciated distinction between miracles and providence.
A good definition of a miracle can be hard to come by. We’ve certainly all heard stories of miracles in the Bible and examples of miracles from people we know—some have even tried to develop categories for different types of miracles. A definition of the term “miracle” can be hard to find, however: How exactly would you define what a given event must have in order to be a miracle?
Douglas Groothuis, one of today’s premier Christian philosophers, defines a miracle as “God’s supernatural intervention into creation, which produces an effect otherwise not possible given the operation of natural laws.” Similarly, Millard Erickson, one of the 20th century’s greatest theologians, defines a miracle as “an observable occurrence that, though it does not break the laws of nature, is remarkable in that the laws of nature, if fully understood, could not account for it.”
Though these two definitions of “miracle” are different, they share something in common: Both say that a miracle is some event that is naturally impossible. In other words, a miracle is any event that the laws of nature cannot explain. So, for example, Mary becoming pregnant while a virgin certainly seems miraculous because there is no natural explanation; Mary bringing Jesus to term seems non-miraculous because pregnancies naturally lead to births. Once Mary became pregnant with Jesus, natural processes and biology took over until Mary gave birth to Jesus.
Another example: Jesus coming back to life on the Sunday morning of the resurrection is miraculous; Jesus walking around with the disciples after the resurrection seems completely non-miraculous. Perhaps the best way to think of a miracle, then, is as a stab of the supernatural into the natural; after God stabs in and performs the miracle, nature operates upon the effect of the miracle as if it were a completely natural event.
While miracles are essential to the Christian faith, providence is a much subtler, perhaps even more beautiful concept. Whereas miracles are direct stabs of the natural by the supernatural, the providence of God is God’s way of gently leading his creation to his desired ends and goals. This, I think, is how God usually works.
You might be thinking: What is providence? A good definition of providence could be something like: Providence is any event which God brought about indirectly through natural means. Providence is God’s ability to manipulate or lead the natural world to some event.
Consider this example of providence from scripture: Micah 5.2 predicts that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem. In Luke 2, Luke tells us, in a somewhat problematic passage, about how exactly Mary and Joseph ended up in Bethlehem for the birth of Christ. According to Luke, who was an amazingly reliable historian, Caesar Augustus demanded that his government take a census. To do the census, each person had to go to their family home; for Joseph, this meant going to Bethlehem. It would thus seem that completely natural events worked together so that Joseph and Mary would be in Bethlehem at just the right time. In other words, it seems reasonable to believe that God providentially ensured that Joseph and Mary would be in Bethlehem when Jesus was born, thus fulfilling Micah 5.2’s prophecy. God used natural causes to bring about his goals.
An act of providence is much subtler than a miracle. When God does a miracle, it’s usually undeniable. Instead of denying the miracles, people will usually concoct some other story. So, in the gospels, when Jesus walks out of the grave, the Pharisees develop an alternative theory of events and say that the resurrection is fake news (Matthew 28.12-13). As Dostoyevsky once said: “If he (the realist who disbelieves in miracles) is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact he would rather disbelieve his own sense than admit the fact.”
Here’s why this matters: When something amazing, something shockingly unlikely, takes place, if there is any natural explanation for the event, then the event was probably not a miracle. Assuming that God did indeed work on your behalf in a given event (which is another topic for another time), if there is a natural explanation for the event, then you have, by definition, probably experienced divine providence.
- God’s miracles almost always have a significant theological point.
My second reason for thinking that God rarely does miracles is that working through providence instead of miracles is God’s modus operandi (MO) that we see in scripture. Think about where the miraculous events are in the Bible, and you will see that they are clustered together. After the miraculous events surrounding creation, God doesn’t do very many miracles for a long time. In fact, the book of Genesis has few, if any, explicit miracles in it; not until Moses comes on the scene in the book of Exodus do we have clear, explicit, undeniable miracles. God did miracles around Moses’s time because he was working through Moses to establish not only the nation of Israel but also the religion of Judaism.
After Moses, the Old Testament has very few miracles if it has any at all. There’s simply nothing on the level of turning the Nile into blood (Exodus 7) for thousands of years. That’s not to say that God wasn’t working; he was definitely very active. It is simply God’s MO to work through providence except at times of special theological importance.
Once the Old Testament rolls into the New Testament, Jesus comes on the scene. Jesus doesn’t do any miracles for about thirty years until he begins his ministry. Once he begins his ministry, Jesus does many miracles such as walking on water, feeding 5,000 people with the equivalent of a happy meal, and, sorry Baptists, turning water into wine. The reason for the sudden burst of miraculous activity is that Jesus wanted to make extremely clear that he was not just some good teacher or Pharisee.
God then does the ultimate miracle: He raises Jesus from the dead. God didn’t do this just for fun. Instead, the resurrection of Christ is God’s seal of approval upon the life and teachings of Jesus. In other words, God does the miracles that surround Jesus’s life with the purpose of authenticating Jesus’s message. God’s MO is to do miracles at times of great theological significance, such as the founding of Judaism or the authentication of Christ’s ministry.
The final group of miracles in the Bible follows closely upon Christ’s post-resurrection ascension into heaven. According to the book of Acts, when the Christians receive the Holy Spirit, they begin doing miracles such as speaking in tongues, healing the lame, and escaping from prison in ways that would make Houdini jealous. The reason for all the miraculous activity in the book of Acts is that God was doing something very special: God used the miraculous events in the books of Acts to establish his Church. After the Church is established, the New Testament doesn’t mention many miracles.
Here’s the important point: God does miracles primarily at times of great theological importance. God doesn’t waste miracles; when God performs a miracle, he almost always has some exceedingly important purpose in mind. In the Bible, the miracles are grouped around the founding of Judaism by Moses, the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth, the God-man, and the founding of the Church. God doesn’t do miracles very often because it is rare that some event takes place that is so momentous that it requires a miracle.
- Too many miracles would detract from their value.
My final reason for thinking that God doesn’t do miracles very often is based on an observation of human nature. When things happen frequently, we begin to expect them, no matter how amazing they are. For example, sunrises are breathtaking and beautiful; however, due to their consistency, few people wake up before dawn on their day off to watch the sunrise with a cup of coffee.
On the other hand, rare events are met with excitement from human beings. Most of us know what it’s like to be a child at Christmas receiving gifts. What makes this event so special is that it only takes place once a year; therefore, we aren’t conditioned to expect it on a regular basis. Give a child a gift once a year, and they’ll be excited; give a child a gift once a day, and they’ll become a devil.
Applying this insight to miracles, if a miraculous event happened on too regular a basis, it would lose some of its effect. Think about it: If every person who died walked out of their grave three days later, we wouldn’t think it odd at all that Jesus came out of the grave. An essential feature of a miracle is that it doesn’t take place very often.
Miracles are thus kind of like cars. They’re very valuable unused, but once they have a few miles on them, their value decreases significantly.
If God did miracles too often, then they would cease to be miraculous. Thus, God wisely reserves his miracles for special occasions because he understands that a miracle must be rare to be effective.
I firmly believe that God is active in the world and that he can do anything logically possible; however, I also firmly believe that the primary way God works is through providence instead of through miracles: God prefers to work through his creation instead of going over his creation. In doing so, however, he shows just how wise he truly is. After all, it takes a lot more wisdom and creativity to work through the natural order than it does to bend the natural order to your will.
“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!”
Notes & Sources
 Douglas Groothuis, “Are Miracles and Science Compatible,” Douglas Groothuis: The Ministry and Writings of Douglas Groothuis, March 27, 2015, accessed December 19, 2017, https://douglasgroothuis.com/2015/03/27/are-miracles-and-science-compatible/
 Millard Erickson, The Concise Dictionary of Chrsitian Theology, rev. ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), 126.
 Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (Mineloa, NY: Dover Publications, 2005), 20.
 Romans 11.33, NIV