I remember the day it really “clicked” for me.
My Greek professor had just finished up his lesson for the day, and, as was his habit, to conclude our time together he asked if there were any prayer requests. A few hands went up.
One of the requests went something like this: “A brother of a friend of mine has been diagnosed with a late-stage brain tumor. It’s a pretty desperate situation. I’d appreciate it if you could pray.” Another fellow in the class volunteered to pray over the request, and off we went.
I’d been wrestling with the subject of the miraculous for some time, and, being at a seminary that was more or less agnostic on the question of whether or not God still performs miracles today, I was anxious to see how the prayer would go. It went something like this:
Dear God. We thank you that you are sovereign. We thank you that this tumor did not surprise you. That it is somehow part of your perfect plan. We pray that you would comfort this family in their time of trial. Give them peace, surround them with your love, and give them the hope that only you can give. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
Something in my charismatic soul woke up. And I got mad. “Mad as hornet” as they say. I remember feeling a sense of outrage at the prayer, and that on at least two fronts:
In the first place, I thought: you didn’t pray for the tumor! I mean really. Forget theology for a second, that’s just downright rude. The person asked that you would pray for “X.” You prayed for everything but “X.” That’s unsportsmanlike conduct in my book. 15 yard penalty. Walk it back and let’s run the play again.
But there was something more profound that struck me, and it was this:
To pray for “comfort” is to, in principle, ask for a miracle. It is to ask that God would effect something in the lives of people that he would not (presumably) have effected UNLESS WE ASKED. Further, it is to ask God that he would impact those in question at the level of their physicality. To be more blunt, to “feel a sense of comfort” means that something happens in the brain and nervous system of a person that would not have happened otherwise. It is a “Divine intervention” at the level of their physical beings.
And if we may be so bold as to ask for “comfort”, surely it is a small step to asking God to, you know, heal the tumor. It’s really a request for the same “sort” of thing, when you think about it.
According to the Scriptures, we live in a universe that is shot all through with the Divine. God walks about in his creation (Gen 3:8). In Christ Jesus all created things “subsist” (Col 1:17). The unfailing love of Yahweh fills the earth (Ps 33:5). In Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). Sometimes the way we envision the universe is like a machine which more or less works on its own that God every once in awhile jumps inside of or violates in some way to correct a wrong, but that mostly he leaves to run on its own. Such a view, I submit, owes more to Sir Isaac Newton than it does to the Bible. Believing in such a universe makes it hard to pray for miracles. God is accidental to the normal course of our affairs.
But the scriptural record is better. Everything that is, is mysteriously upheld by him, animated by him, thrust forward in him, drawn into fullness in him. And so “miracles” are, as CS Lewis put it so beautifully, God doing “small and close” what is always doing everywhere, all of the time (CSL, Miracles; Chapter 15). Or as Wendell Berry puts it, that when we really begin to wrestle with the Scriptures, we will see that
…the miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at all at the turning of water into wine–which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes (from Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community p103).
Me? I live in an enchanted universe. One that a gracious God is at work in, all the time. That’s at least what the Scriptures tell me. My own heart bears witness. And even, I am finding, modern science is far less hostile to such a belief than perhaps it once was. The discoveries of quantum physics have revealed that the universe really is far less like a great machine than Newton thought. It spins on great probabilities (not certainties), is influenced in profound ways by small things (chaos theory) and therefore looks far more open to the personal–whether that personal be us, or God–than it once did.
It is relational. It is spiritual. It is full of wonder. And glory.
So. I pray for miracles. Because I think that the whole dang thing is miraculous. The God who hung the sun and the stars and keeps them wheeling about in their endless dance, the God who raised Jesus from the dead and promises one day the advent of a fully restored creation… THAT GOD… is certainly not daunted by tumors.
Or by my or your lack of comfort. So I’ll pray for both. I hope you do too.