Some years ago, a friend of mine told me how, after losing his wife to cancer, he encouraged his embittered young adult children to return to church. On their first visit to a small group, several people shared their recent answers to prayer — miracles, they said — while the two young visitors sat quietly. When they returned home that night, my friend's kids asked one question: "Dad, if God answered all those prayers, why didn't he answer ours?" In short, if God gives people miracles, why doesn't he give everyone a miracle?
I want to back into that question with a miracle of my own.
When I was about ten years old, I was riding my bike home from school when I crossed the street just up the hill from our house ... except this time I didn't do my usual shoulder check for oncoming traffic. A second later I suddenly heard a car horn blast followed by the sickening squeal of tires. Then, just as I turned to my left I saw the grill of a large Buick as if it were hovering but a few terrifying feet away from me. You know how people talk about time slowing down when their life is in danger? That describes my experience. Though it was a mere split second, even now I can still visualize the grill of that Buick, frozen in time, looming in space mere feet away from me.
The next moment I was sent sailing through the air and rolling on the asphalt as the car came to a lurching halt on the graveled shoulder of the road. Here's where the miracle bit takes center stage. Incredibly, I never felt the impact of the car. At the moment when I should have been making contact with a chrome grill, all I felt was a cushion of air. Even more incredibly, though I had been sent flying off my bike and skidding on the asphalt with no helmet or pads, I got up with no injuries at all, save a single scrape on my elbow.
Shortly thereafter, as I was wheeling my bike up the driveway, our Christian babysitter, Mrs. White, burst out the front door. She said that she had been sitting on the couch watching TV when God told her that I was in trouble and she needed to pray for my safety. So pray she did until she sensed God telling her that the danger had passed.
These days I can't share that story without acknowledging a range of additional issues that I never thought to ask when I was ten. Perhaps the most difficult one is this: for every child that God miraculously saves from a fatal injury, there are countless others he does not save. Why is that? The problem was memorably stated by the 19th-century skeptic, Robert Ingersoll:
"Only the other day a gentleman was telling me of a case of special Providence. He knew it. He had been the subject of it. A few years ago he was about to go on a ship, when he was detained. He did not go, and the ship was lost with all on board. 'Yes!' I said, 'do you think the people who were drowned believed in special Providence?' Think of the infinite egotism of such a doctrine."
Frankly, it would be a lot simpler if God just never intervened on principle. But once he starts making exceptions, once he starts getting involved, once he spares the life of one child but not another, it's difficult to escape the uncomfortable feeling that he's playing favorites.
The problem is heightened for me as I consider another car accident near my childhood home when a young girl was run over and killed by a dump truck. If God reached down into spacetime to place an invisible divine finger between me and the front grill of a Buick, why didn't he do something similar for this young girl? If God saves some children, then why doesn't he save all of them? Again, it'd be one thing if it was God's general policy not to get involved in the details: in that case, that's just the way it is. But once he abandons a non-intervention policy in order to ensure that the grill of a Buick never comes into contact with one particular kid, the question looms: why doesn't God intervene in other cases?
Looking for Answers
These are haunting questions, and over the last twenty years, I've invested a lot of time thinking about them. While there is much I could say on this very difficult topic, I'll limit myself to four points.
First, if you believe that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, it follows that he must have some purpose in acting as he does. The fact is that as all-powerful, God could have stopped the garbage truck from hitting that girl. As all-knowing, he would have known the truck was about to hit that girl. And as all-good, he would never want any person to suffer without a morally sufficient reason. From this, it follows that when a terrible event like this occurs, it isn't because it escaped God's power or knowledge. And it certainly isn't because God is less than perfectly good. Rather, it must be because God has a morally sufficient reason why he allowed that event to occur.
Second, while God has his reasons, when people are in the midst of suffering they typically don't want to hear what those reasons might be. And they also don't want to hear well-intentioned attempts to lessen the suffering with so-called "comfort words" that end up offering anything but comfort. A few years ago a friend of mine lost his daughter in a car accident. He noted that in the wake of the accident countless well-meaning Christians said to him "Well at least..." and then they would say things like "... she's in heaven" or "... you'll see her again." No doubt, those folks meant well, but the words "Well at least" still ended up being salt in his wounds. The moment he heard them, he would automatically tune out Job's comforters. With that warning in mind, what does one say to those in deep suffering? The simple answer is, when in doubt just say nothing. Instead, just be with those who suffer.
Third, while we will probably never know the reasons God allows terrible events, we can know that he doesn't perform miracles because people somehow deserve them. If God opted to spare my life from a Buick while not sparing the life of that young girl from a garbage truck, it is not because of any difference in us. It isn't because I had somehow earned the right to be saved as if I'd logged a few more brownie points for good behavior. Rather it must be due to God's sovereign purposes alone, whatever those may be.
Now for my final point: what is the proper response of those who believe they experience a miracle? While I'll be the first to admit that many questions remain, my conviction also remains that God did indeed intervene at a particular moment to spare my life. In light of that fact, the best I can do is to seek always to live in a way that honors the merciful gift of my life.
I know I said that was my final point, but there's one more thing I want to say: even though I was spared, the fact remains that someday we all shall die. Even the greatest miracles experienced by God's human creatures are at best a temporary reprieve from their inevitable demise. In that sense, a miracle now is but a promissory note on a future time when all shall be well.
This article is based on a section of my book What's So Confusing About Grace? You can order the book here.