Mistaking the Miraculous for the Mundane
This summer, in a shocking whirlwind of events, I was diagnosed with cancer. A massive tumor had invaded my abdomen, filling my insides with its insidious, disturbing growth as it destroyed one of my ovaries.
Anyone would plead with God to deliver him/her, and I did. I remember lying on my back during the first scans, praying, “God, would you make whatever it is disappear?” For weeks, I prayed with my friends that the mass would suddenly disappear. When I went to my surgery-prep CT scan, I prayed that the now volleyball-sized tumor would have already disappeared. And when surgery arrived to have it removed, I prayed to wake up and be told that when the surgeon had performed the incision, she had found my abdomen miraculously empty of the enormous growth.
It didn’t disappear. Instead, in a perfectly ordinary way, Dr. Lynn Parker removed it from my belly herself. My weeks of painful, slow recovery were ordinary. It turned out I would not need chemotherapy or radiation, and in a perfectly ordinary way, I was delivered from the worst of cancer treatment.
David, giving a wealth of resources to his son Solomon for the construction of Israel’s temple, prayed, saying, “…all things come from you, and of your own have we given you” (1 Chron 29:14). In the ordinary riches of metals, wood, and stone, David saw the hand of God, and instead of falling into the trap of thinking, “but I was the one who got all those things,” or, “but these riches came to me in perfectly normal ways,” he recognized this truth: even ordinary blessings come from God.
The temptation to think that common events arise from common causes runs strong and deep in the human heart. Perhaps in modern-day America, it’s strengthened by our knowledge of statistics and probabilities, natural sciences, or by secularism, but the sickness is the same. We must beware of mistaking God’s goodness for the mundane.
Giving in to this temptation can lead to debilitating spiritual blindness. At least one group who rejected Jesus in the Gospel accounts did it because he seemed too normal, and they thereby missed the greatest opportunity of their time.
Mark 6:2-3, 5-6. And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? ...Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
And he could do no mighty work there…And he marveled because of their unbelief.
In this record, Jesus’ friends and relatives (who had watched him grow up, stumbling and babbling as he learned to walk and talk, soiling his clothes while playing outside, asking for their help when he needed it) could not fathom the idea that Jesus could be something special. “Jesus?” they asked themselves. “You mean Mary and Joseph’s kid?”
Simplistic caricatures practically spring from this text. “Those darn Jews in Jesus’ hometown,” we think, shaking our heads. “How could they miss the Messiah? Didn’t they get it?”
At times, Old Testament prophecies described the promised Messiah in superhuman terms. Isaiah 11 tells of the Messiah, saying that “the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding…” (Isa 11:2). To modern ears, envisioning humble, gentle Jesus, these words ring clear. But two verses later, the description continues, “…he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked” (Isa 11:4). This herculean figure, effortlessly slaying evildoers, is larger than life.
Another motif in messianic prophecy is that of the Messiah as king. “David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel,” Jeremiah wrote, reaffirming God’s word to David: “and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (Jer 33:17; 2 Sam 7:13b).
Jesus looked like neither superhero nor king. His followers, who saw him healing the sick and casting out demons, viewed him on a sliding scale from great prophet to messiah,1 but the people who had watched him learn to use the bathroom as a child could not even see him as a miracle worker. “This man?” they thought. “But we know him.”
Every human faces the same choice as Jesus’ hometown friends. We can look at God’s work in our lives and think, “If it were God who had done that, it would have looked more amazing.” And God allows that perspective. In fact, the Bible is replete with examples of earthly circumstances that fulfilled God’s will, like when David killed Goliath using his skill with a slingshot;2 or when Esther saved her people by asking for the king’s help at a dinner party;3 or when Israel and Judah were punished for their sin by enslavement to the largest world powers of the time.4
God allows circumstances that could look normal, interprets them for us, and then waits for us to choose His perspective. The result is a world that can be comprehended using human reason or via God’s explanation—and a people with the responsibility to choose between them.
In 2016, a group of filmmakers followed volunteers pulling victims from the rubble of buildings being destroyed in the then almost-constant bombing of Aleppo, Syria. Called The White Helmets,5 the documentary features footage both chilling and encouraging, as this group of selfless volunteers live in a pocket of worldly danger, going from bombed building to bombed building in a city descending to ruin.
While the heroism of these men was certainly stunning, I was struck not by their bravery but by their speech: the English subtitles showed that this group of Muslim men, when they spoke, credited almost everything to their god.
Good news? “Allah be praised,” they said.
Bad news? “May Allah have mercy on us,” they said.
I follow Jesus, not Mohammed, and I worship God, not Allah. I believe in my core that what I have in Christ is infinitely superior to the religion of those men. But listening to them, I remember feeling ashamed. Surrounded by trouble and death and suffering that would turn anyone into an atheist, these men relate every event to their god. I did not—and do not—know their hearts, but from their lips, so many of their sentences began with blessings or prayers to a god I don’t even believe in, while I sit in judgment, waiting for my God to earn my praise with something really, really miraculous this time.
This should not be so. The book of James informs us that, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights,” (Jam 1:17). From the perspective of Christ’s followers, every blessing has its origin in God, and it falls to us to practice interpreting the world through the lens of His providence.
Jesus said, “[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt 5:45). In an agricultural society, especially in a desert, rain is a good thing. The lesson that Jesus teaches is that God is merciful to all mankind. But for our purposes, we must note that Jesus is also saying God makes the sun rise and the rain fall. Jesus taught that these common occurrences come from the Father.
It took weeks to recover from the major abdominal surgery I underwent to have my tumor removed. Multiple times, I faced (and face) the temptation to think, “God, you didn’t save me. You didn’t make it disappear.”
But God did save me. He quickly put me into the hands of a doctor whom He had trained and equipped to deliver me of my tumor. He saved me from pain using powerful drugs. He saved me from despair using my friends—His people. He saved us from the massive bills using His money.
My deliverance, though ordinary, was no less deliverance, and I am faced with the same choice as the rest of humanity: will I interpret ordinary events God’s way, or will I fall into the trap of mistaking the miraculous for the mundane?
In a world that whispers, “It would have happened anyway,” we must thank God for the rising sun and the falling rain, kindness from friends and strangers, medical professionals, and common heroes. The world wants us to believe that the events which shape our lives come from nothingness, but we know the truth: even ordinary blessings come from God.
1 See Matthew 16:13-16; Mark 8:27-29; Luke 9:18-20; John 4:19, 29.
2 In 1 Samuel 17:34-37, David both claims some prowess as a warrior and attributes prior success to God.
3 In Esther 5-7, Esther approaches the king in a situation where she opposes one of his most trusted advisors as her enemy and the enemy of her people.
4 Assyria, Babylon, and later, the Medo-Persian Empire were massive and, when Israel and Judah were taken to Babylon, the most formidable military powers in the Near East. In God’s interpretation of these events, He asserts (through His prophets) that these empires are His tools. See Isaiah 8:5-7; Jeremiah 25:8-14; 27:5-7; Habakkuk 1:6.
5 The White Helmets. Directed by Orlando von Einsiedel. Grain Media and Violet Films, 2016. 41 min. https://www.netflix.com/title/80101827.