Interest in miracles is rising these days. Newsweek journalist Kenneth Woodward's The Book of Miracles (Simon & Schuster) has been well-received by secular reviewers, and polls tell us that 90 percent of Americans believe in miracles.

Since our early Sunday-school days, we in the church have been told stories about seas parting, donkeys talking, and water turned to the finest wine.

Even today, as Woodward and others note, some happenings defy logic. Terminal diseases mysteriously disappear with no explanation—except that an entire church had been praying really hard. A customs agent in a country hostile to Christians "forgets" to check that suitcase full of Bibles.

But are miracles tossed down directly from heaven really all that great? Maybe miracles aren't all they're cracked up to be—or all we've cracked them up to be.

No magic show
Even Jesus, the Miracle Man himself, occasionally seemed less than enthusiastic about miracles.

"A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign," he once told a bunch of misguided miracle-seekers.

True, miracles dazzle humanity like Fourth of July fireworks. Both the devout and the skeptic might ooh and aah at the exploding spectacle before them. But then when the glorious miracle fades, the crowd invariably grows restless.

"More! More! More!"

"Many saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name," John says in his Gospel. "But Jesus would not trust himself to them, for he knew all men" (John 2:23, 24).

Jesus knew people. He knew their hearts. He knew their desires. He also knew the minute he pulled the plug on the miraculous, they'd be ready to skip off to the First Church of Signs and Wonders.

Amid the miracles, God is easily reduced to a magician for an audience seeking one encore after another.

Breaking out of the package
Maybe a miracle is an inferior imitation of something (or Someone) too big to be packaged into sight, sound, touch, and smell.

"Every time God chooses to manifest himself in our world," writes Philip Yancey in Reaching for the Invisible God, "he must accept limitations. He 'con-descends' (literally descends to be with) to our point of view. Moses saw a burning bush that bedazzled him, changing the course of life and of history. Out of flames of fire he heard the voice of God speaking. Yet God experienced the same burning bush as an accommodation, a limitation."

Yancey was writing about miraculous manifestations of God himself—something theologians call theophanies. Still, I tend to think Yancey's words are easily applied to all miracles, from multiplying chunks of bread to calming seas by divine rebuke. Miracles—all miracles—are dried-up mud puddles compared to the ocean-deep realities they represent, trivial manifestations of the Incomprehensible, crass demonstrations of the Holy Holy Holy Other.

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Think of Ezekiel's vision—those frightening faces on that bizarre wheel for which even Hollywood director Steven Spielberg couldn't concoct appropriate special effects. Yet the vision is a lifeless, flat caricature when contrasted to the reality it struggles to portray.

Miracles, I think, are God's show-and-tell of things that can't be shown and can never be fully heard. The voice of God? Even if it shattered eardrums, the decibel level would be a pitiful peep compared to the voice that called the universe into creation.

Miracles? They're necessary, I suppose. After all, they have been known to give a much-needed boost to our less-than-perfect faith.

But they must never be mistaken for the real thing.

Chris Lutes is editor of Campus Life, a sister publication of Christianity Today.

Views expressed in Readers' Forum do not necessarily reflect those of Christianity Today.

Illustration by Darryl Brown

Related Elsewhere

Read Christian History's "What Would Augustine Say? | Miracles Ended Long Ago— Or Did They?"

Christianity Today's take on that question is evident in "Love and Miracles in China. "

Read an excerpt from Woodward's The Book of Miracles: The Meaning of the Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam from

Reaching for the Invisible God is available from the Christianity Online bookstore, as are Philip Yancey's What's So Amazing About Grace?, and Disappointment With God.

Chris Lutes has also written "What Makes Music "Christian"? | One CCM veteran thinks it means more than mentioning Jesus." for Christianity Today.

Philip Yancey's most recent columns for Christianity Today include:

Humility's Many Faces | Everyone I've looked up to has shared one trait. (Dec. 4, 2000)
Getting a Life | The most fully alive persons are those who give their lives away. (Oct. 16, 2000)
'To Rise, It Stoops' | How parenting mirrors the character of God. (Aug. 29, 2000)
Lessons From Rock Bottom | The church can learn about grace from the recovery movement. (July 11, 2000)
Chess Master | God brings victory even from our bad moves. (May 15, 2000)
Would Jesus Worship Here? | Across the world, God moves in mysterious ways. (Feb. 7, 2000)
Doctor's Orders | Why should I care if my doctor is unhappy? I'm not his psychiatrist. (Dec. 2, 1999)

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