The Power of Non-Coercive Miracles

by Sarah Lancaster

One of the ‘sticking points’ for many people in thinking about an uncontrolling God is the possibility of miracles. In his book The Uncontrolling Love of God, Oord rightly points out that the definition of a miracle is at the heart of this problem. Two Greek words, lancaster-authorfrequently translated as “miracle,” belong in different semantic fields. Those words are dunamis and sēmeion. Dunamis refers to power or ability, while sēmeion refers to a sign. It seems to me that these two words point to distinct dimensions of what a miracle is.

Most of the questions people have about miracles regard the dunamis dimension of a miracle. Does God have the power or ability to act miraculously in our lives? This question has been especially highlighted since David Hume defined miracles as violations of the laws of nature. Oord addresses Hume’s misleading definition and offers an account of an uncontrolling God’s power to do surprising things to promote well-being.

I would like to address the other, often neglected, dimension of a miracle, namely as sign. I think that the idea of an uncontrolling God has the advantage of drawing our attention to the full scope of the miraculous—signs of God’s love and care for us. To illustrate what I mean, I draw from my own experience of what I consider miraculous healing.

In 2008, I had a stroke caused by violent vomiting brought on by a stress-induced headache. The vomiting produced so much pressure in my throat that my carotid artery dissected. The bleeding from that injury formed a clot that went to my brain and paralyzed and blinded me on my left side. Fortunately, my husband was home, and he found me and acted quickly to get me medical attention. I was able to receive cutting edge treatment to remove the clot, and I recovered quickly and fully. Even the doctors called me a ‘success story.’ Everything about this incident could be explained by the ordinary regularities of the world—the doctor used a method of treatment developed to meet the needs of human body functions. But there was nothing ‘ordinary’ to me about my recovery. I was blind, and now I could see: I was paralyzed, and now I could walk. This experience turned me toward God in overwhelming gratitude. I was grateful, of course, for regained abilities, but I was also grateful for the minds that developed the treatment, for the hands that carried it out, and for my husband’s wisdom and quick action. Most of all, I was grateful for the ways God had worked consistently and regularly through all the things that were involved in my healing.

Although the speed and extent of my healing was surprising to most people, a focus on power alone might cause one to miss the miracle I experienced. One advantage of thinking about God as uncontrolling is that it allows and impels us to look for God in the regular events in our lives. Even when surprising events take place, they should not distract us from noticing the regular ways God provides for us every day. In fact, something miraculous, sign as well as power, will focus our attention on God in such a way that we are able to see God’s involvement in more ways than we usually do.

When new parents talk about the ‘miracle’ of birth, they are talking about the way an ordinary life process means so much more than an operation of what bodies do naturally. It is a sign of hope and love and, for those with the eyes of faith, of God’s blessing. An uncontrolling God is active in ways we often fail to see, and a miracle, whether surprising or not, serves to draw our eyes to see what we otherwise would likely miss. This, too, is a kind of power.

Sarah Heaner Lancaster is professor of theology at Methodist Theological School in Ohio.  She has authored several books, including, Romans a theological commentary in the Belief Series. as well as many articles and chapters in books.

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