08 February 2010

Miracles and Acts of Providence

Whole lotta shakin'
There's a vast difference between God's constant providential control over the natural order of everyday events and His occasional miraculous intervention in worldly affairs. If you have difficulty understanding the diffference, here's a real-life illustration that I hope will help.

(First posted 11 November 2005)

Earthquakes!

etween April 1997 and April 2000, I lived through six earthquakes on four different continents. They were all fairly significant earthquakes that registered between 4.9 and 6.8 on the Richter scale—the kind that make you stop and gasp while you hold onto something for dear life. Falling frescoesBut they weren't really catastrophic events (unless you count the 6.8 quake at Assisi, in September of '97, which killed 10 people and destroyed some ancient frescoes on the ceiling of the Franciscan basilica there. That one struck within an hour after I had flown into Italy, while Carey Hardy and I were literally standing at our hotel's front desk, checking in.)

Here's the complete list, with documentation:


SIX BIG EARTHQUAKES THAT STRUCK CLOSE
TO ME AT THE END OF THE MILLENNIUM
Twin 5.0 quakes in southern CAApril 26 and 27, 1997
6.8 quake in Assisi, ItalySeptember 26, 1997
5.3 quake Hollister, CAAugust 12, 1998
5.1 quake near Queenstown, NZApril 24, 1999
5.1 quake near Pune, Maharashtra, IndiaMarch 12, 2000

The first two of those quakes hit within 24 hours of each other, while I was home. The others all occurred in places where I had gone to minister. The string of earthquakes in and of itself seemed a rather bizarre turn of providence. (An earthquake occurred every place I visited, practically every time I traveled overseas, for three years! What are the odds of that?) I admit that I wondered after the fourth and fifth quakes whether these tremors had some sort of apocalyptic significance, and whether they were meant to convey some divine message to me personally.

Falling frescoesIt also occurred to me that if I were a charismatic charlatan, I could have parlayed my connection with the earthquakes into big-time fame and credibility, simply by inventing whatever "prophetic" significance I wanted to imagine and claiming the earthquakes were divinely-inspired punctuation marks for my prophecies. After all, I had multiple witnesses to my presence in all six earthquakes. The one in Queenstown, New Zealand, occurred while I was preaching about Jonah, right after I had made an emphatic point about God's sovereignty over the forces of nature.

If you have spent any time in charismatic circles, you know that I could have easily sold the idea that the earthquakes were proof that I am endowed with amazing prophetic gifts.

As a matter of fact, the day before the Pune earthquake, an American faith-healing evangelist launched a series of open-air meetings in Pune, in a vacant lot across the street from where a friend of mine lives. This faith-healer was known for making prophecies of doom. He had preached in Pune a year earlier and prophesied a long series of catastrophic disasters that he said would devastate the region if people did not repent—earthquakes, floods, famines, etc.

Of course, if you make enough prophecies like that, chances are you're going to get one of them right (or close enough) someday. Since this guy's constant theme is disaster and he had already prophesied the full range of possible catastrophes (storms, earthquakes, financial disasters, and so on) the odds were pretty good he'd be able to claim something someday.

This earthquake hit the day after his first Pune meeting, so he immediately claimed the phenomenon was sent by God specifically as a fulfillment of his prophecies.

Now, this earthquake was by no means a disaster. It was enough to shake me out of a deep jet-lag-induced nap and into an immediate state of fervent prayer as the ceiling fan swayed over my head. It shook the whole city pretty hard. But it didn't really do any major property damage. As far as I know, no lives were lost.

My first thought, as soon as the shaking subsided, was, That guy is going to claim this as a fulfillment of his prophecies.

That is precisely what he did. That night more than 10,000 people showed up to hear this counterfeit prophet. They didn't notice the fact that no actual disaster occurred. The famines and financial disasters he had predicted never materialized. Even the earthquake itself was not really a disaster. But that fellow was claiming it as proof that he spoke for God, and multitudes believed him.

I happened to be visiting my friend across the street that night, and we moseyed over to hear the guy preach for a half hour or so. He was the worst kind of false prophet and charlatan, preaching a man-centered health-and-prosperity message to people the vast majority of whom lived in extreme poverty. And he took their money as a "seed-faith offering" that was supposed to make them rich. The amount of money he collected was astonishing. Then after prophesying more doom, he took a second offering.

He was preying on superstition for personal profit.

Superstition is irrational awe or fear of the unknown, resulting credulity regarding the supernatural. In this case, people's superstition was purposely manipulated and intensified by the preacher's deliberate blurring of any distinction between God's supernatural intervention by miracles and His providential control over everything that happens.

A miracle is a particular kind of sign—an unmistakable display of supernatural power calculated to confront unbelief and provoke awe—with the purpose of authenticating an agent of divine revelation. True miracles are not merely arbitrary displays of God's power; they are manifestly supernatural and are themselves a form of revelation.

The earthquake was a natural occurrence, not a "miracle." It had no more significance as a "fulfillment" of that false prophet's wild-eyed forecasts than it had as a harbinger of my presence in Pune. There was no reason whatsoever to see it as an example of immediate and preternatural intervention by God. There was no reason to assume it was a special judgment against the sins of the people in that city, as if they were worse sinners than the people in Calcutta (cf. Luke 13:1-5. As a matter of fact, there was far more evidence of mercy than judgment in the providential outworking of the Pune earthquake). The only reason anyone assumed otherwise was sheer superstition, aggravated by the claims of a man who was pretending to speak for God, even though he clearly did not.

By denying that there was any overt supernatural significance or special revelatory message from God in the earthquake, am I suggesting that God had no involvement in the event at all? Am I claiming it was without any meaning or significance whatsoever—as if it were a chance event, utterly devoid of divine purpose? Of course I am not saying that.

On the contrary, I would insist that God is always working through providence, so that every detail of everything that happens is part of His eternal plan and purpose—right down to "insignificant" details like the number of hairs on your head, or the falling of a sparrow (Matthew 10:29-30). It's not necessary to invent a "miraculous" explanation for every extraordinary turn of events in order to give God due credit for accomplishing His will in human affairs. In fact, it downgrades the biblical concept of miracles to imagine that everything unusual qualifies as a "miracle."

I am convinced by all the clear commands and best examples of Scripture that God would have us ordinarily seek an understanding of how His will and His purposes are being providentially fulfilled (insofar as such understanding is given to us at all) by seeking wisdom in the more sure Word of Scripture, rather than the declarations of uncredentialed modern "prophets" who (I think we all agree) often mistake their own imaginations for revelation from God.

That's true of ordinary and extraordinary providences alike. Miracles are a whole different category, and by definition, they are extremely rare events—even on the pages of Scripture.

If you mask the proper distinction between providence and miracles, you confuse things that ought to be clear—and such confusion always breeds superstition.

David Wayne, the JollyBlogger, has a post that makes this point well: "We reformed cessationists believe that God has ceased revelation, but He hasn't ceased upholding, directing, disposing and governing all creatures, actions and things. In other words, God is working in a mighty way at all times."

Adrian Warnock rejects any such distinction: "I honestly believe it is the cessationist who makes the supernatural/natural distinction too large. "For me, it really doesn't matter too much if God answers my prayer for the healing of Phil Johnson's allergic rhinitis by means of a new medication, his body just suddenly deciding one day no longer to exhibit such symptoms. . . , by miraculously changing something physically wrong with his white cells or by . . . taking Phil home to be with him and performing the ultimate miracle of healing. I just want Phil to be healed."

I appreciate the prayers and the well-wishes, and I agree that God's answer to Adrian's prayer (by sending rain that eliminated the high pollen counts) was just as much an answer to prayer as a miracle of healing would have been. I also agree that it would have likewise been an answer to prayer if God had called me home.

But it's still not precisely the same thing. Ask Darlene if the dead-Phil option and the natural-relief option are functionally equivalent in every sense, and she'll explain why they are not.

But here's the main point: The faith that sees the hand of God in the natural outworking of divine providence (and understands that God is sovereign over every detail of everything that happens) is not a lesser faith than the kind of belief that can only see God at work when He intervenes in spectacular, supernatural, and miraculous ways.

Falling frescoes

Phil's signature

16 comments:

Daniel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel said...

It was helpful to distinguish between miracles and providence. The article is right, everyday things like the fact that you are alive or the miracle of birth is better seen as God's providence rather than a miracle for revelatory purposes.

I think if you see things as actual miracles, it is subject to being very subjective or arbitrary. Like how is an earthquake more miraculous than a flower blooming in the sun?

On a side note, it's just interesting that we almost act or sound like naturalists when we talk to charismatics. But when we talk to evolutionists, we sound charismatic.

"In fact, it downgrades the biblical concept of miracles to imagine that everything unusual qualifies as a "miracle."

I thought that was a very good point.

Johnny Dialectic said...

In my Desiring God email this morning, John Piper opines that the Airbus crash in the Hudson over a year ago was accomplished by God "guiding" the geese into the engines, and then "guiding" the hands of the pilot for the landing. Further, he knows the reason: God "meant" this to be a "parable" in the week just before the new president was inaugurated.

Rick Frueh said...

As it concerns assigning divine motives in natural calamities and occurances I quote from the prophet Oscar Hammerstein:

"Fools give you answers...wise men never try."

Brad Williams said...

Rick Frueh,

O.o

Phil,

Providential or miraculous, I would still be worried about you coming here to preach. I live on the second largest fault line in the USA. :) (I would take the chance for you, brother.)

Miracles are a whole different category, and by definition, they are extremely rare events—even on the pages of Scripture.

Extremely. Rare. Events. Yes. I believe regeneration to be a bona fide miracle, all too rare, but preached and hoped for every day.

Bill Combs said...

Phil says: "The faith that sees the hand of God in the natural outworking of divine providence (and understands that God is sovereign over every detail of everything that happens) is not a lesser faith than the kind of belief that can only see God at work when He intervenes in spectacular, supernatural, and miraculous ways."

But the faith "that can only see God at work when He intervenes in spectacular, supernatural, and miraculous ways" is a lesser faith.

stratagem said...

The faith that sees the hand of God in the natural outworking of divine providence (and understands that God is sovereign over every detail of everything that happens) is not a lesser faith than the kind of belief that can only see God at work when He intervenes in spectacular, supernatural, and miraculous ways.


Might I suggest you append to this the following:
"Especially when the latter are as phony as a three-dollar bill."

Cathy M. said...

This post was very helpful to me several months ago. I've saved a link to it and have made reference to it several times since. I attend church with a bunch of quasi-charismatic baptists who liberally pepper their language with this sort of charismatic lingo. Getting a few things sorted out about God's providence has been very useful and instructive for me.

Question: Is regeneration a miracle or providence... or both?

stratagem said...

In my Desiring God email this morning, John Piper opines that the Airbus crash in the Hudson over a year ago was accomplished by God "guiding" the geese into the engines, and then "guiding" the hands of the pilot for the landing. Further, he knows the reason: God "meant" this to be a "parable" in the week just before the new president was inaugurated.

Sounds like Pat Robertson may have a protege?

boyd said...

Providence is when you friend dies in the storm. A miracle is when they live. Such is the language of our sorry state, because who can know the mind of God.

philness said...

Oh goody!!! Might this be a sign the Lord is loosening the strong hold of our favorite bloggers from further prohibiting discussions of eschatology and include the full counsel of Gods Word- The Revelation of Christ Jesus?

I know, I know. That would be a miracle.

CR said...

PJ: The faith that sees the hand of God in the natural outworking of divine providence (and understands that God is sovereign over every detail of everything that happens) is not a lesser faith than the kind of belief that can only see God at work when He intervenes in spectacular, supernatural, and miraculous ways.

Pfff...there you Team Pryo guys go again. Using the the Bible to define biblical terms like faith. You guys are boring.

Barbara said...

Cathy M. said,

Question: Is regeneration a miracle or providence... or both?

I vote miracle.

comeinfromtherain said...

Seriously, Phil what did you do!!!

Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and I got to talking and we seriously think you need to repent.

SamWise said...

Excuse me but earthquakes of these magnitudes happen every week (see a couple recent ones below).

Only when they happen near a population center does anyone notice.

I mean shaking up a few polar bears in Alaska or scaring a few benthic organisms to death on Southeast Indian Ridge doesn't get a drive-by reporter even out of his office.

But shake an LA on a known fault with say a 3.1 and the Drive-by's make the evening news come alive with impending dome (somewhat like the false prophet Phil heard).

Remember what Jesus said about those killed by the collapsing Tower, "Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish." (Luke 13:4-5)

We should be more concerne about the clear word of God and trust His providence instead of turning to Superstition (II Tim 4:4)

Yesterday 6.1 Tonga
http://neic.usgs.gov/neis/qed/

2010/02/07 06:10:00 23.46N 123.67E 24 6.3 SOUTHWESTERN RYUKYU ISL., JAPAN
2010/02/05 06:59:05 47.89S 99.68E 1 6.2 SOUTHEAST INDIAN RIDGE

SamWise said...
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