In the 21st century, the Christian faith has taken a turn toward the extraordinary and the miraculous. This obsession with the phenomenal has come at the expense of the routine and ordinary. The problem, of course, is that although God is extraordinary and miraculous, the bulk of the Christian experience is in fact very plain. The Bible recounts many marvelous stories, but these events are taken from the “highlight reel” of Biblical history. Everyone knows the story of David conquering Goliath, but few recognize that before he slew the giant, David spent years quietly tending sheep. As a result, in searching for an awesome experience, one might gloss over the God who chooses to work in the simplicity of everyday life.
The focus on miracles is merely one example. Christians tend to say, “I’m waiting on a [insert need here] miracle”, or “I’m praying for a [insert need here] miracle.” However, what many neglect to realize is that in God’s miracle formula, the miracle is never an end in and of itself. The miracle always serves to bring glory to God, and to bring others closer to Him. The incessant focus on the miracle, therefore, diverts attention from where the miracle intends to take you: into the arms of God. In fact, dare I say that all of God’s miracles within the Bible were “dirty”, in that although there was divine provision, the provisions required a natural sacrifice.
Hence, the problem with miracles poses the following question: what are you willing to give up so that God can bless you with a miracle?
Allow me to explain. I Kings 17:10-13 (NASB) says:
“So [Elijah] arose and went to Zarephath, and when he came to the gate of the city, behold, a widow was there gathering sticks; and he called to her and said, “Please get me a little water in a jar, that I may drink.” As she was going to get it, he called to her and said, “Please bring me a piece of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have no bread, only a handful of flour in the bowl and a little oil in the jar; and behold, I am gathering a few sticks that I may go in and prepare for me and my son, that we may eat it and die.” Then Elijah said to her, “Do not fear; go, do as you have said, but make me a little bread cake from it first and bring it out to me, and afterward you may make one for yourself and for your son.”
Verses 14-16 describe the miracle:
For thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘The bowl of flour shall not be exhausted, nor shall the jar of oil be empty, until the day that the Lord sends rain on the face of the earth.’” So she went and did according to the word of Elijah, and she and he and her household ate for many days. The bowl of flour was not exhausted nor did the jar of oil become empty, according to the word of the Lord which He spoke through Elijah.”
At the time, the nation of Israel was having a problem with idolatry and many people worshipped the false god Baal. The queen of that time, Jezebel, was a big proponent of Baal. Zarephath was the hometown of Jezebel’s father. Zarephath was also a major hub of Baal worship and many Biblical scholars suggest that Israel’s problems with idol worship had its origin in Zarephath. Moreover, Zarephath was not in the Promised Land—it was well outside of it. Hence, this is exactly the place one would not expect to find believers of God.
Why is this important? Because, before this miracle even gets set up, Elijah, the prophet of God, has to go directly into a place that is considered to be inhabited by “dogs,” and is “filthy,” “dirty,” “foul,” and “where all sinners live.” Zarephath was the last place an obedient servant of God would expect to go, but in order for this widow to receive a miracle, the prophet of God must obey first. God says in I Kings 17:9, “Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon …” God says, and Elijah does.
The problem with miracles is that they ask you to defy what you’re used to.
Also note that the widow wasn’t searching for a miracle. The miracle found her.
The text says, “A widow was there gathering sticks; and [Elijah] called to her and said, ‘Please get me a little water in a jar, that I may drink.’ As she was going to get it…” What is key to understand here is that these events occurred during a time of severe drought. Water was thus a very scarce resource and therefore very valuable, as a function of the widow’s circumstance. In fact, a few verses later, the woman says she is gathering sticks so that she can prepare a meal for herself and her son so that they can eat and then die. So, the widow’s miracle first asked her to give up water in a time of drought, and then although this resource was very scarce, she did not behave as if it was scarce. Normally, if a person is low on resources, their first instinct is to conserve and hoard. In fact, if a person has convinced himself or herself that the only thing that can save them is a miracle, then this is a tacit affirmation that they lack necessary resources. As a result, miracle-focused thinking leads to scarcity thinking and conservation. In the widow’s case, scraping together the little that she did have fueled her miracle. She did not allow her reality to define her mentality, and she continued to give up of herself until the perceived end of her natural resources.
The problem with miracles is that they ask you to give up valuable assets.
This widow obeys the command of the man of God, and while she is en route to get Elijah water, the prophet raises the stakes, asking her to make him some bread and then serve it to him first. She is asked to go from using some of her scarce resources to all of them, and then to give them to someone else. By executing this, she would be left with nothing. The women is hesitant and expresses some concern, but despite her situation, her words express her thinking: “But she said, ‘As the lord your God lives…’” The man of God says, and the widow does.
And then the miracle happens: the widow is given divine provision of bread and oil throughout the course of a severe drought.
The problem with miracles is that you have to give up the very things that God wants to bless you with.
A reasonable question to ask is why: why would God ask a woman with nothing, to give up everything so that He can bless her? Why can’t He just give me something without seeking a down payment first? The answer is simple: without having first to sacrifice, the woman would be godless with her blessing. By recognizing that there is a God who creates the miracle, she honors and glorifies Him first. Now, with her blessing, she still carries with her the same reverence for the Lord. Without sacrifice, anyone can act selfishly in their prosperity, potentially causing massive harm to themselves and to those around them. This is why, in many cases (e.g., Abraham, Joseph, David) God blessed those who were already faithful because prosperity augments who you are—it does not create virtue. Prosperity is natural and therefore cannot create supernatural spiritual fruit. A poor man who worships God will augment his worship when he is rich. A poor man with an evil heart will do more evil when he prospers. This is why the modern prosperity gospel is a fraud: by placing so much emphasis on wealth, one subordinates (or simply forgets) an eternal God to the temporal idol of money, property and success.
Yet, this story is not over. This miracle of divine provision was far from over. I Kings 17:17-24 (NASB) says:
“Now it came about after these things that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became sick; and his sickness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. So she said to Elijah, “What do I have to do with you, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my iniquity to remembrance and to put my son to death!” He said to her, “Give me your son.” Then he took him from her bosom and carried him up to the upper room where he was living, and laid him on his own bed. He called to the Lord and said, “O Lord my God, have You also brought calamity to the widow with whom I am staying, by causing her son to die?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and called to the Lord and said, “O Lord my God, I pray You, let this child’s life return to him.” The Lord heard the voice of Elijah, and the life of the child returned to him and he revived. Elijah took the child and brought him down from the upper room into the house and gave him to his mother; and Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” Then the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”
The problem with miracles is that if you pass God’s test of faithful obedience, you may graduate to bigger miracles, and thus bigger sacrifices.
This widow already knew what life in a vulnerable provision felt like. Yet, the same God who provided for her is the same One who permissively allowed her son to die. Had it not been for her trust in the Lord with water and bread, she never would have developed the faith, tenacity and grit to trust God with the life of her son. So what happens? The same messenger who came through before is the same one who comes through again. And what is the woman’s response?
“Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”
And this is the whole point of the miracle: it’s not the miracle itself that’s miraculous, it’s the One behind it who is miraculous. It’s not the prophet who is great, but the One who works through the prophet. It is not turning water into wine (John 2) that is miraculous, but the God who has power over nature. It is not the healing of lepers (Luke 17) that is important, but the One who has power over the human body. And finally, it is not the resurrection that is miraculous, as it is the God who has power over both life and death.
The problem with miracles is that they divert your attention away from the One who executes the miracle in the first place.