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The unfairness struck me at a most inopportune moment. I was scheduled to offer the opening prayer before a packed sanctuary when, suddenly, I didn’t know what to say to God.

From where I was on the platform, I could see past the podium to where my aging father sat—a spot he’d staked out each Sabbath morning for years. Beside him was an empty place now occupied by his well-worn Bible. Weeks before, my mother would have been sitting there. But she had died of cancer. Now both the pew and my heart contained a void.

The speaker at that moment was a woman a little younger than I. Flushed with excitement, she told how her mother, suffering from cancer, had been healed. “The doctors were as surprised as we were,” she told her smiling, attentive listeners. “God stepped in and performed a miracle for my mom.” Then she added, as happy tears moistened her cheeks, “Thank you for your prayers on her behalf. They were certainly answered. Praise God!”

“Praise God!” the audience echoed.

She turned and walked off the platform, leaving the podium waiting for the next participant in the service. That participant was supposed to be me.

I’d spent my life reading, teaching, preaching, studying, counseling, and writing about God. I’d always considered Him to be the answer to every question, the hope beyond every disappointment, the comfort for every fear. I began praying for my mother’s healing when she first told me she had cancer, and I never stopped. But she died in spite of my—and many others’—prayers.

Where was God when my mother lay helpless in a hospital room? Where was God when her beautiful heart faltered and then fell silent for the first time in 76 years? Where was my miracle?

I rose to my feet and began walking toward the podium. I could see my dad sitting there alone, watching me with affection. He was waiting for me to pray to the God who had healed one person while letting another—someone precious to us both—slip away.

Hot potato

The question of miracles is a hot potato in the hands of most Christians. Some say they don’t exist outside the pages of Holy Writ. Others insist that they’ve been the direct recipients of a supernatural manifestation of God’s power. Looking at the event, if they see no explanation of how it occurred, they conclude that “God did it.”

I believe this line of thinking contains one nagging problem. What constitutes “supernatural” keeps changing with each new scientific discovery— sometimes dramatically.

On a cold, winter day, a young boy falls through the ice in a pond. First responders hurry to the scene and, after 30 minutes of frantic searching, find his limp body and bring it to the surface. As expected, they feel no pulse.

A generation ago, the boy would have been pronounced dead. Not so today. Medical science has discovered that life-forces within a human body can become suspended in cold environments such as icy ponds or under snowy avalanches. Time isn’t always the main determination of whether brain damage has occurred. With proper action, such victims can be revived with little or no ill-effects. They can be “brought back to life.” Actually, life never left them. It just hid itself in deep hibernation. Doctors even have a phrase that supports this finding. Before they pronounce someone dead, that patient has to be “warm and dead.” Baring traumatic, life-threatening damage to body parts, if he or she is cold—if the body’s temperature has been significantly lowered— there still remains a chance for revival even hours after the event.

So, do we label the recovery of a boy pulled from icy waters 30 minutes after he fell into them a supernatural “miracle”? That’s exactly what we would have called it a generation ago.

A woman receives a death sentence from her doctor: “You have such advanced heart disease that we can’t fix it. Go home and put your affairs in order.”

That’s when she hears about the power of plant-based nutrition in a documentary movie, book, or seminar. She abruptly changes her diet. Out go all animal products, refined foods, and processed oils, and in come whole fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, legumes, and seeds. Within a year she has dropped 200 pounds and rides her bicycle 15 miles a day. Her death sentence has been lifted. A miracle? No. Food and exercise.

For centuries, hospitals were considered death houses, a cancer diagnosis was a one-way street to the graveyard, and up until the mid-twentieth century, a simple infection could set the stage for disaster. But by the “miracle” of research, hospitals have become hostels of hope for millions each year, many deadly cancers have met their match, and infection’s destructive power is being mitigated.

Those who insist they’ve been the recipient of a miracle are in good company. We’ve all been so blessed at one time or another. We just didn’t call it that because we understood how Mother Nature worked.

More is less

There’s another element to miracles that needs to be considered. The closer we align our lives to how God intended us to live, the fewer miraculous, supernatural events we need to keep us going. We may not even require any miracle except for the overarching miracle of staying alive in a world dominated by an evil power dedicated to killing us all.

By keeping our minds and bodies healthy through proper diet, commonsense exercise, and the reduction of stress that trusting in our heavenly Father brings, we enjoy “none of these diseases” (Exodus 15:26) from which our less dedicated co-inhabitants on this planet suffer. Our hearts aren’t “failing [us] for fear” (Luke 21:26). Our cheerful spirits don’t “[dry] up the bones” (Proverbs 17:22). If you remove smoking, drinking, riotous living, cancer promoting foods, and toss in proper hydration (using water, not soda or coffee), adequate sleep, and large doses of unselfish love, the need for miraculous intervention is greatly diminished. We don’t need a miracle. We live the miracle.

Even if we’ve ignored God’s guidelines or if we find ourselves suffering from the sin-generated effects of being 6,000 years from the hand of the Creator, the miraculous power to stay alive, to heal, to overcome disease that God implanted in each one of us can kick in when needed most. That, I believe, is what saved the lady’s mother. At other times, we may be too weak, too damaged, too empty of resources to fight back, and we die. But that doesn’t mean healing has failed. It’s just been postponed.

The difference

Two individuals pray to God. One pleads for rain to water his crops. His ailing neighbor begs God to keep the land dry so he can plow his field the moment his strength returns. No matter what happens that day, someone is going to call it an answered prayer—a miracle wrought by faith.

Why? Because if we’re honest with ourselves, we tend to label something “a miracle” when what happens is to our benefit. That’s exactly what the lady at the podium did: she praised God for the miraculous healing of her mother. Yet I asked for the same miracle, and my mother died. Are we missing something here?

I believe we are.

Someday my mom and I will be reunited. She’ll be completely healed. What’s the difference? Timing.

If we label only those events that benefit us as “miracles,” we’re overlooking an important truth. We’re all recipients of the miraculous, of divine intervention. And one day we will all enjoy complete restoration to health and well-being. It’s just a matter of timing. I must be willing to allow God’s divine clock to tick away the days, years, and centuries as His story is played out before the watching universe. I must allow the randomness of sin, the unfairness of evil, the onesidedness of circumstance to rule my world a little longer until the day Christ returns and restores that one pulse of harmony throughout time and space. Until then, some moms will live, and some moms will die.

I step to the podium and smile down at the congregation. “Let’s bow our heads for prayer,” I invite. As the sanctuary drifts into silence, I close my eyes and speak words freshly minted in my heart. “Father, this morning, here in this church, I thank You for miracles.”

I steal a quick glance at my dad. He sits there alone, eyes tightly closed, his wrinkled hand resting gently on the Bible, occupying the empty seat beside him.

Where's My Miracle?

by Charles Mills
From the May 2013 Signs