On the Improbability of Miracles

Last week a friend of mine’s daughter went through the temple for the first time. These are not ordinary friends. These are the kind of deep friends who you’ve been through a lot with. Friends who know your deepest secrets. The kind of friends that would stay back and help push your wagon out of the mud despite everyone else having gone on, leaving you to the arrows and elements. Friends who you know will always be there for you, and you for them.

It was a crowded session. We sat in the middle of the chapel waiting for the 10 ‘O clock session at the the Mount Timpanogos Temple. We were in a crowed of people, nowhere near our friends who came in much later, and nowhere near their daughter and her future husband sitting on the front row. I was sitting head down reading the scriptures. Suddenly, one of the workers made his way through the people sitting thickly on the edges of the benches and asked us to be the witness couple. Why us? My wife has too many earrings. There were lots of couples. Why us? It would have been a cinch to grab at least ten other couples more conveniently placed than us. No one knew we had ties to the only person going through for their first time that day. But one thing is clear. Being the witness couple could not have meant more to anyone going through that day. For various reasons other family relations were not there as couples. Only us. Somehow in that crowd of possible couples, the temple worker in charge picked us. This allowed us to to sit with the family on the first row during the session. It allowed my friend’s daughter to have someone who loved her represent our first parents. It was a deeply spiritual moment. I felt the hand of the Lord in allowing this blessing. It was a very unlikely event. I would estimate that the probability of picking us at random was about 1 out of 25. Much less likely given where we were sitting. Can I call it a miracle? I did.

Ok, here’s the rest of the story and question poised for this post. After the session my friend took us out for lunch. His daughter picked a place she liked in the middle of Provo. About 25 miles away from the Temple in American Fork. It was not a famous place. It was one of those semi-fastfood soup/salad/and sandwich places. Unremarkable really. A Place BYU students might take their date after a Basketball game. But who should be there? Two woman from the session. None of us knew them. The likelihood of that random event was staggeringly small. Given the number of restaurants between here and the temple, and the number of people in the session going out to eat after the session, the fact that we were now completely out of our temple district. The improbabilities just pile up one after another. When they saw us, like us, they whispered to each other, likely saying just as we were say, ‘Look who is here?’ Funny. Weird. Coincidence? Clearly. We didn’t say anything to each other. We didn’t know them, they didn’t know us. On with life and the meal.

But as we sat there eating I began to second guess myself. Was the first event as miraculous as it seemed? The second event was way less probable, nevertheless it happened. It made me wonder, what defines a miracle? Was it simply stacking up improbabilities or the seeming suspension of natural law?

But what role did the improbabilities really play in defining the first event as a miracle? What if there had been a 90% chance that we where chosen as the witness couple? Would that have lessened the meaning and miraculousness of the event? What role did the unlikelihoods play in the first event? Almost none. What made it meaningful, was the infusion of spirit into the event. Grace abounded. Love was manifest. Long time friends were able to share a sacred moment. It was the presence of love and grace that made it a miracle. It had nothing to do with outcomes. It was in the fullness of the moment and the attendant meaning found in the presence of God that made it a miracle. That’s why the second event, so much more improbable than the first, was nothing but coincidence. Coincidences happen. Everyday highly improbable things happen.

So I argue that grace and a sense of the holy presence of the Spirit are all that is needed for miracle status. The loved one who is not cured by the blessing. The child lost in the woods who is never found despite the prayers of thousands. Cannot grace be present in these events too? I remember a few years ago a boy lost in the Uintas had just been found. The parents, friends and relatives were (and rightly so) on TV thanking God for his rescue and return. Prayers had been answered. God’s hand had been revealed. But . . . just the year before another boy had been lost and never found. His disappearance had been complete. He was never located. Yet the same prayers had been offered. The same effort and faith petitioning of Heavenly Father had been laid upon the alters of the temples. Why one and not the other? I cannot say. But I would like to think that the parents of the missing boy never found had had God’s grace and presence in rich abundance. That a gift of Hope, born of the spirit, had graced their unimaginable sorrow and loss. That miracles were present in their life despite the terrible and tragic outcome that they faced. I don’t know. But I hope they had miracles in their lives too.

So is it not just that God is there, and makes His presence known, enough to bestow miracle-status? Isn’t this sufficient to call it a miracle even if we don’t get the outcome we sought? Too often we only count the miracles in which the outcome is improbable or the natural course of things is subverted. But I wonder if miracles have less to do with the ‘unlikely’ than with the grace that infuses the world and that bends and guides things to a sense of the presence of the Author of that grace.

If that is right my life has been full of miracles.

Comments

  1. This is very powerful, Steven. Thank you.

  2. Kevin Barney, in a letter to his younger, missionary self, said to NOTICE miracles. I call them manna. I’m in the midst of five or six right now–and those are only the ones I’ve noticed. Notice, celebrate, praise. If that’s how we frame our worldview, we will become well acquainted with all the dimensions of joy and equipped to deal with the many faces of grief.

  3. Thomas Parkin says:

    I don’t find the word “miracle” very useful – but this helps me a lot. Thanks.

    I think about the prompting to the temple worker. I wonder what part of the time those promptings are ignored. 50%? 80%? What goes undone because we are stony towards that voice, or have learned to ignore it in favor of something more ego-centric?

    I woke up today just after noon. (I’m working a graveyard shift.) I get this prompting, read section 77. I think, how strange. Not 76? I put it off, it is just a thought. But however slight it is, it is still compelling, not easily forgotten. So, I grab my D&C, and open to Sec 77. And there it is, the plain answer to the thing I’ve been seeking. Then the prompting that was so slight turns into a feeling of being awash in the Spirit, and I’m full of gratitude and wonder. No matter how many times it happens, I wonder at it again. ~

  4. I hope I’m getting better, but I have been known in my life to argue with spiritual impressions and explain to myself why I shouldn’t follow them. On one occasion, a temple worker had to come across the Celestial Room–passing every other worker–to ask me if I could help at the veil. I had been fighting the impression to offer that service(since it was not during the session I assist in). After being AUDIBLY invited to help, I obeyed. I got to help my dear friend, Susie Thomas–who’s really the person who got me into what I’ve been doing over the past ten years.

  5. Brother Mark says:

    “Cannot grace be present in these events too?”

    What a beautiful post.

    I certainly agree. Isaiah has the Lord offering “beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning.”

    God is always intervening in the world, always for the good, as much as He can, as much as we will allow Him. Our task is to be aware of this even if the miracle is not what we hoped for, or to the degree we wanted.
    Alma tells his son: “that as much as ye shall put your trust in God, even so much ye shall be delivered out of your trials, and your troubles, and your afflictions, and ye shall be lifted up at the last day.”

  6. John Mansfield says:

    These are nice sentiments, but a confusion of language. If the term miracle is modified to encompass a greater variety of spiritual experience, then a new word is needed to collectively identify those events “in which the outcome is improbable or the natural course of things is subverted.” When we speak of the miracles of Jesus, the word has a particular, concrete meaning that doesn’t include, for example, the witness to Peter that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God.

  7. I think people can be slow to recognize miracles in their lives. To that end, I’ve developed a six-step program that can help us all be more receptive to the hand of the Lord in our lives.

    The six-step program is as follows:

    1) Learn as little as possible about statistics and probability.

    2) Learn as little as possible about the natural causes of things. Don’t study pathology, epidemiology, physics, engineering, history, or any other field that may promote a scientific, skeptical, or natural world-view. If you don’t know about physics, who’s to say cannonballs don’t float on the wings of angels?

    3 ) Whenever you encounter something unusual and for which the cause isn’t clear, make up an explanation that fits your religious worldview (RW) and supports your particular view of God and His doings.

    4) Search for secondhand (or thirdhand, fourth-hand, fifth-hand etc.) accounts of miracles that support your RW. Take them at face value, and use them to support your belief without question. Assume that all accounts that appear to describe “miracles” in religious literature are accurately and literally reported, if they support your RW. If they don’t support your RW, ignore or doubt them.

    5) If someone does something that is unusual and of mysterious origin, and they offer an explanation that supports your RW, take it at face value. There’s no harm in trusting someone who means well.

    6) As you find an increase in miracles in your life, find others who share your RW and share your experience with them. Publish your story in magazines and websites that cater to such people. Remember, they wouldn’t publish it if it weren’t true. When you share the story, be sure to speak slowly, with a low voice. Stare at the person or audience. Try and muster a tear, but don’t sob uncontrollably.

    If you can decrease your ability to understand and explain things, and increase your ability to ascribe a religious and/or supernatural origin to these same events, you’re on your way to increasing the frequency of the occurrence of miracles in your life.

  8. this is basically my view for the last decade or so. Miracles are a relationship between us and God rather than any particular degree of improbability. Not that God can’t be supernatural, but the supernatural isn’t the point.

  9. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 7
    Ouch! Cynical

  10. I think it interesting that Orson Scott Card wrote about miracles today at MormonTimes.com. What he says dovetails nicely with the post and smb’s comments.

  11. re: no. 7

    In my experience, doing the exact opposite of what you suggest has led me to recognize more miracles and see God’s hand more in the minutiae.

  12. Wonderful. Thank you.

  13. #6 “doesn’t include, for example, the witness to Peter that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God”

    Actually, I think that is a miracle and perhaps the most important kind.

  14. Many years ago, my spouse and I were broke. We sold all our possessions (except some clothing) for $100. We had always paid our tithing. We got on are knees and prayed. The doorbell rang. The mailman had our refund from the IRS. Seemingly, not even the IRS is beyond control from above.

    Today, we are living on credit. My spouse feels it is a test, and insists we pay large amounts in fast offerings. I say it is not right to make offerings with someone else’s money.

    It gave me a headache yesterday. I grabbed the aspirin bottle, and accidently dropped three aspirin on the counter. They all landed on edge. This is a true story.

    The odds of one aspirin landing on edge if very small. Cube those odds and the probability is miraculous. I feel we will receive a very good deal on aspirin in the future.

  15. ditto 11.

    There’s always another explanation available, in my experience, because God uses the physical laws of the universe instead of contravening them. Or rather, he knows a lot more about physics than we do. The miraculous part, to hearken back to what SteveP said, is that we can perceive the intention behind the act, when we’re able directly to see the mind and hand and heart of God behind the happening, since he uses things like that to show himself to us. There’s no need for skeptics to be ugly about it. It’s to be expected (it’s likely intentional) that they’ll miss what others can plainly see.

    I think the reason God doesn’t directly show himself to those who don’t believe in him and don’t want to see him is that if they actually saw how powerful he was, not feeling him to be on their side, they would be terrified and he hates that. They would start to act unlike their natural selves, out of fear of him. It would take away the chance here in mortality for them to be who they really are. That’s why I think even powerful witness can fade so quickly in our memory, so that we’ll always be free to reinterpret, if that’s what we want. Just my guesses. Freedom matters.

  16. Shorter version: Anything God does is a “miracle.”

  17. Steve Evans says:

    I predict that cinepro has more miracles going on than the rest of us. Also he has a venomous spittle that paralyzes foes.

  18. Aaron Brown says:

    What John Mansfield (#6) said.

    Steven, I think you’ve found meaning in events that are very much worth finding meaning in. I just don’t see the point of calling them “miracles.” I mean, by all means call them that if you really want to! But then, when you talk about Moses parting the Red Sea (if you ever find yourself talking about it), or staffs being turned into snakes, or Jesus walking on water, or turning water into wine, come up with a different word to describe those events.

    My beef with LDS usage of the word “miracle” is that we use it to refer to very different sorts of phenomena. I think there is value in precision.

    AB

  19. I don’t read cynicism into #7. The observations are consistent with reasonable skepticism.

    The difficulty in expressing and tolerating such comments on this blog is based on the diversity of thought among LDS—which has been shown to exceed the diversity within most Christian religions. Numerous studies have shown that as a person’s education increases, the probability of experiencing mystical phenomena (miracles, revelations, etc.) decreases. This is true across Christian religions.

    Concomitantly, as one’s education increases, the probability of changing to a Christian religion with more compatible explanations of such phenomena increases. Typicially, that transition from one religion to another is as follows, beginning with the least educated (who report the most mystical phenomena) Pentacostal to Baptist to Evangelistical to Methodist to Episcopalian.

    The two exceptions are Catholic and LDS. (This membership stability can be explained in a number of ways.) In the end, both groups contain a membership that is wide-ranging, both in education and in their ways of explaining mystical phenomena.

    Hence, members who tend to see God’s hand in everything may be viewed as simplistic by its educated members. Conversely, those within the religion who tend to explain mystical phenomena from a logical view may be seen as cynical.

    In the end, neither group is likely to warm to the other’s perspective. (This is a likely explanation for interfaith movement in most religions). The LDS educated are likely to maintain closer ties to LDS educated, though they may be portrayed as intellectualists. Similarly, the miracle seeing group is likely to reward those similar to themselves, though they me bee seen as mystical or simplistic.

    (It is not supposed here that either group is incorrect. Perhaps God gives more miracles to the seemingly humble simple heart, and fewer miracles to those who are happy to work out their salvation, incessant signs of faith aside.)

    While the division among Mormons has lamentable sides, it can also be viewed as a byproduct of an almost universal belief: namely, the truth of it’s gospel can be seen from many perspectives (and types of people). Apparently, maintaining membership—rather than transitioning to some other more homogenous denomination—is worth the subgroup hassle.

  20. Steven, I’m sure you’re aware that the 1911 spat at BYU over evolution and “higher criticism” of the Bible which my gr. gr. grandfather Brimhall was involved in (against his will) had a big discussion of “miracles.” The Chamberlain and Peterson brothers taught natural phenomena to explain such things as the parting of the Red Sea (“a great wind”), and were taken to task by Horace Cummings, who saw them as challenging the reality of miracles. As you undoubtedly know, one of the professors was fired and two resigned. When David O. McKay replaced Cummings, he expressed profound regret that one of the professors (W.H. Chamberlain) had been so ill treated. Chamberlain was invited back, but it was too late. He died only a month after that invitation–still a very young but broken man. (And if you don’t know this story, you and I should do lunch sometime and I’ll tell you all about it.)

  21. This post reminded me of Marilynne Robinson’s novels “Gilead” and “Home,” which I strongly recommend. Not that the recommendation of a BCC lurker means much…This was a beautiful post, Steven P. Thank you.

  22. Steve Evans says:

    lurker, it means much.

  23. I’ve experienced the hand of God guiding my life, but like AB in #18 pointed out, I didn’t call them miracles. I reserve the word “miracle” for events described in the NT, like healings, raising the dead, and calming storms. I’ve never seen any of those things.

    But if I look at Christ’s NT miracles as physical types of miracles that still happen spiritually, then I’ve seen lots of miracles. I’ve been spiritually healed, had spiritual storms calmed, and have even seen a person who was dead to spiritual things brought back to spiritual life. None of those events circumvent physical laws, but they certainly required God’s grace.

    So I’ve seen spiritual miracles, but not physical miracles.

  24. Along with Steve Evans, I second Lurker’s recommendation. There. Two permabloggers have joined you. Your recommendation has now been adequately validated. (I have _Housekeeping_ in my suitcase as my travel reading, and read _Gilead_ while in Guatemala during rainy afternoons.)

  25. Three! I love Gilead and Homecoming, Home is on my list! Margaret I’d love to hear more about Chamberlain and Peterson.

  26. Steven P.–

    Thank you so much for this beautiful post.

    Your words make me think of President Kimball. As his son painstakingly relates in his two biographies, President Kimball passed through sometimes nearly Job-like afflictions–especially of the inelegant, gritty, physical, painful sort–and yet came out of those seeming anti-miracles seemingly closer to God than just about any other man of whom I know. Something in the ways God intervenes between what happens to us and what we become as a consequence constitutes a miracle.

    Thank you, again.

  27. I went to a beautiful retreat a couple of months ago where a cancer survivor showed a painting he had done of Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus. He explained that it had personal meaning to him; he felt that the Lord had also raised him from his deathbed. How different is a reprieve from cancer compared to the raising of Jairus’ daughter? And if someone believes they have been so healed–even if healing involved chemotherapy–would we ever tell them they were wrong?

  28. Thank you, Steven P, as well as Margaret Young (#2) for this: “Notice, celebrate, praise. If that’s how we frame our worldview, we will become well acquainted with all the dimensions of joy and equipped to deal with the many faces of grief.”

    Beautiful.

  29. This is a great post. I think we tend to call everyday occurances that we can’t explain as ‘blessings’ rather than miracles though. It is fairly easy to attribute good things that happen to us as coming from God, and fairly difficult to see God in the bad things that happen to us.

  30. Beautiful post. It is the spirit that the accompanies these miracles that do occur that really keep up my faith.

  31. For what it’s worth, Elder Hales from October 2007:

    Generally, those miracles will not be physical demonstrations of God’s power—parting of the Red Sea, raising of the dead, breaking down prison walls, or the appearance of heavenly messengers. By design, most miracles are spiritual demonstrations of God’s power—tender mercies gently bestowed through impressions, ideas, feelings of assurance, solutions to problems, strength to meet challenges, and comfort to bear disappointments and sorrow.

  32. I love your writing, Steven P.

  33. Add another vote for _Gilead_.

  34. Thanks for this.

  35. Mark Brown says:

    I have nothing to add, but I do want to register my enthusiastic approval of these thoughts. Thank you, Steven.

  36. This post brought tears to my eyes — thank you! I enjoy paying attention to these kind of miracles, which, since Elder Bednar’s conference talk, I refer to as tender mercies (and apparently also Elder Hales thinks of them that way). When I see the hand of God in my everyday life, it reminds me of his love for each one of us and understanding of our individual needs and it increases my desire to serve Him and share that love with others.

  37. I love serendipitous blessings as you describe (gee, I wish I could write like you).

    I’ve learned by experience that the Lord oft times will give two witnesses when His hand is manifest in this kind of blessing. It may be that the unlikely presence of others from your temple session was your second witness.

    I would like to share some of my experiences like this, and would love to hear others so that we could all be edified, but because of unbelief…

    But, I will say that time can come for each us when the Lord will be willing/able to manifest Himself more openly to us instead of shrouding His blessings to us. Each of us should seek with all our hearts, might, mind, and strength to acquire greater faith than we currently have.

  38. Its easy to praise God and point out His love and involvement in our life when good things happen and things go as we wanted them to (or when the something bad happens to someone else). Not so easy when there is absolutely no reason for something horrible to happen to *you*, even despite your tremendous faith, pleadings and fasting. When you truly believe in God’s power and blessings, and then He witholds it from you, suddenly everyone else’s “miracles” seem really, well, to be horribly blunt…stupid. *cringes* :/

    Why should one be blessed with a tender mercy/miracle that is not really needed (ie, being the witness couple for a friend) while another is left to die in agony somewhere else at that precise moment? It just doesn’t make sense to me.

    I think the average LDS American can be sheltered when it comes to faith and blessings and miracles sometimes. I don’t believe that 1/4 of the so-called miracles bandied about are truly from the hand of God. They are just good outcomes…you’ve got a 50/50 chance! As one person said above, their testimony is strengthened by hearing about miracles and good things. Well…what does that leave for those who didn’t get their miracle to cling to? :/ I don’t usually hear anyone bearing their testimony that they know God exists because He let something awful happen. And its not very comforting to be told “Well, your miracle is that you get to still feel the Holy Ghost in your life despite your tragedy!” No thanks, I’d rather have my loved one back…how about we switch miracles? Any takers? :P

    But please believe me when I say that I truly wish I was back up there, where I really, really believed God was directly, intimately involved in my life and able to change the course of nature if only I had enough faith. Its not very much fun down here with my broken heart and doubts.

  39. Anon,

    I think if you read me carefully, I’m not saying good outcomes are the miracle. As my case above illustrates with the lost child that outcomes are the opposite of what I’m arguing, it’s a sense of presence. If you focus on outcomes you will always end with a broken heart and doubts. Reread Job and skip the last chapter. As I said above, the miracle is not in the outcome, good luck, or getting our wish. God is not our fairy Godmother.

  40. “God is not ouu fairy Godmother.” Imagine the dismay of the pro prop 8 folks if this were true.

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