Understanding why God works miracles, and how he brings them about also leads us to perhaps the most shocking aspect of biblical miracles: that miracles don’t occur far more often than they do. As Everett Ferguson points out, “It is easy to gain the impression that the Bible is a book of miracles. A closer examination reveals that miracles came only at particular times in biblical history. The miracles cluster at significant moments of revelation and crisis in the history of God’s saving deeds” (Church 1520).
As Lewis once mused, we have a greater chance of being “present when a peace-treaty is signed, when a great scientific discovery is made, [or] when a dictator commits suicide” than we do of seeing a miracle (Miracles 273). Not because God doesn’t care, but that he simply doesn’t often act that way. To paraphrase the Apostle Paul, God’s providential grace is, far more often than not, all we need (2Co 12:9). But regardless of how God chooses to respond to our situation, the way we access that grace is through prayer.
One of the greatest blessings we enjoy through fellowship with God is the honor of approaching him—anytime, anywhere—in prayer. Even when exiled to the wilderness, David was not alone, but could exult in his deliverance and communion with God: “The eyes of the LORD are toward the righteous and his ears toward their cry. . . . When the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears and delivers them out of all their troubles” (Psa 34:15, 17 ESV). And through the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus prayer’s power has only increased. As Christ himself said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:12-14).
But how are we to do “greater works” than those of the Lord? Christ connects the power of believers not to any inherent miraculous abilities, nor even to the indwelling of his Spirit, but to the power of prayer. But how can we compare answered prayers to the great miracles of the Bible: the Ten Plagues, the Red Sea, the manna in the wilderness, Mount Carmel, miraculous healing, the casting out of demons, or the raising of the dead? The first clue to solving this mystery is simply a matter of perspective: the power of prayer comes not from the one praying, or even from what is being prayed, but from the One to whom we pray.
The second clue comes when we realize that our prayers are being used by God to providentially reign his creation through his people. Consider this: many of our prayers ask for something to be undone that has already been done; to wind back (or wind forward) the clock to restore someone’s health, or to help us pass a test even after we’ve already studied for it. On one hand, our prayers often assume that God has already been at work in the situation to bring about the most beneficial effects, but on the other we also believe that by praying we are somehow participating in what God has already started. Notice how Paul weaves together the themes of prayer and providence:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Rom 8:26-28)
God’s love therefore provides, calling us to respond to him in faith and communion; to participate, by the power of his own Spirit, in his own providential will for the world.
As Lewis further explains, understanding the power of prayer begins by understanding the timelessness of God. “God’s creative act is timeless and timelessly adapted to the ‘free’ elements within it: but this timeless adaptation meets our consciousness as a sequence of prayer and answer” (Miracles 290). So while we experience God’s answer to our prayers only after we pray them, in his transcendence he begins to answer our prayers before we pray them. Our works are “greater” than Christ’s, then, not because of the works themselves (because in both his case and ours, God is the one working), but because of the surprising fact that God wraps up the myopic prayers of sinful man into his own cosmic plan of redemption. As Lewis wonders with excitement, “My free act contributes to the cosmic shape. That contribution is made in eternity or ‘before all worlds’; but my consciousness of contributing reaches me at a particular point in the time-series” (Miracles 292).
Most answered prayers, then, may be classified as Level 1 Involvements, in which God is bringing about what nature could have done left to itself, but at a particular time or in a particular way that makes it clear that God is the one at work. Consider, for example, Elijah’s prayer for rain:
And Elijah went up to the top of Mount Carmel. And he bowed himself down on the earth and put his face between his knees. And he said to his servant, “Go up now, look toward the sea.” And he went up and looked and said, “There is nothing.” And he said, “Go again,” seven times. And at the seventh time he said, “Behold, a little cloud like a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” And he said, “Go up, say to Ahab, ‘Prepare your chariot and go down, lest the rain stop you.’” And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode and went to Jezreel. And the hand of the LORD was on Elijah, and he gathered up his garment and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel. (1Ki 18:42-46)
Reading the account, one can almost hear skeptics (both then and now) scoffing, “But it rains all the time; that’s just the water cycle!” or, “That’s just a coincidence!” But as the Bible tells us, what is remarkable about the event is not that it happened or happened in that place, but that it happened at that time--“the seventh time.” God had promised Elijah rain even before he began praying (18:1), but God, in his foreknowledge and omnipotence brought about the rain only after Elijah devoted himself to prayer. What makes the event divine is that God knew exactly when this moment would occur and providentially prepared the weather to coincide with Elijah’s petition.
And as James later points out, it is this same power that is accessible to the people of God in every generation, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit” (Jam 5:17-18, emphasis added). In essence, a Level 1 Involvement means that even when God is working in a way that appears to be through an exclusively natural process, it is still fundamentally a work of God, and should be viewed as such by his people.
Because of this, we should also be careful in the way we discuss times when God has said Yes to one of our prayers. Biblical prayers are easier to categorize than ours today because in the Bible we have God’s own account of what happened. But our prayers and their fulfillment are both intensely personal and emotional matters, and therefore subject to various individual interpretations. As Lewis cautions, then, “It is never possible to prove empirically that a given, nonmiraculous event was or was not an answer to prayer,” much less whether God’s work involved an interruption of natural laws (Miracles 293).
Nor should we appeal to gaps in our scientific understanding of God’s providence as evidence of God and his power. As Henry Drummond cautions, “If God is only to be left to the gaps in our knowledge, where shall we be when these gaps are filled up? And if they are never to be filled up, is God only to be found in the disorders of the world? Those who yield to the temptation to reserve a point here and there for special divine interposition are apt to forget that this virtually excludes God from the rest of the process” (The Ascent of Man in McGrath, ch. 7). In other words, if we appeal to every unexplainable event as an argument for divine intervention, we will quickly find that when we discover the natural explanations for such events we have also explained away God.
God, however, is not a god of the gaps (present only when there is not an explanation); he is the God of all truth, and his power and love is manifested even when he has shown us his hand through natural (and therefore providential) causes. In the context of a discussion of miraculous healing in the early church, Everett Ferguson therefore writes:
Where to draw the line, if one is disposed to draw such a line, between healing that occurs from natural causes or through natural means and healing that is immediate or direct without an obvious natural explanation is often difficult to determine. Modern medicine is recognizing the spiritual, emotional, and mental dimensions of health care. The Christian conviction is that all healing ultimately comes from God, whatever the means. (ECS2 128-129)
But understanding answered prayers as matters of providence rather than miracles should by no means constrain our faith. Instead, our “belief in efficacious prayer” should help us understand that “all events are equally providential. If God directed the course of events at all then he directs the movements of every atom at every moment; ‘not one sparrow falls to the ground’ without that direction” (Lewis, Miracles 284; see Mat 10:29). And just as with Miracles of the Old and New Creation, these works of God are no less divine and reflect his own originating, sustaining, and directing creativity.
Nothing in the world around us is therefore devoid of wonder, meaning, or purpose. “Rather, reality is seen in the light of the glorious Christian vision of God as Father, Son, and Spirit: a God who creates, redeems, and sanctifies; a God who is present with us at this moment, while remaining the transcendent ground of order and existence within the universe” (McGrath 7). And it is this Everlasting God that Christians have the honor of calling upon as our Father.