The Miraculous and Mundane Working God
He makes an axe head float. He creates ex nihilo. He causes the sun to stand still. He can defeat an entire army on his own and cause his enemies to fall dead when he pleases. He brings the dead son of a widow back to life and commanded Lazarus to walk out of a tomb. The sick were healed, the blind received their sight. Our God is a mighty, miracle-working God. But he doesn’t always work that way.
His people are sawn in two. John the Baptist is decapitated. Illnesses lead to death without a resurrection. The Gospel falls on deaf ears. There are shipwrecks, scourges, stonings, and whips. There are generations without revival and then unexpectedly thousands come to faith. There is hard work and difficult circumstances with little tangible fruit. And in these difficult things, God is at work.
As much as it is difficult to admit the Bible clearly teaches that God is just as involved and active when he accomplishes his will in the mundane and difficult as he is when he accomplishes his will through the miraculous and amazing.
The Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes this truth when it teaches that, “God, in His ordinary providence, makes use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at His pleasure."
Let's briefly consider how this works out in an overview of the book of Acts and what implications they are for how we live our lives as Christians.
Acts - The Long Way Around
The book of Acts begins with Jesus commissioning his disciples for world evangelism before his glorious ascension to the right hand of the Father. This narrative drips excitement. Expectantly, the disciples listen as Jesus says,
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Imagine receiving such a commission from the resurrected Son of God. Power! Mission! Gospel! World conquest! The miraculous was apparently about to burst into the ordinary in the world. But things don’t quite turn out the way we would expect. In fact if we were to briefly summarize the Pauline portion of Acts we might include a list like this:
- Major persecution hits the church following Pentecost resulting in the death of key leaders.
- Saul (Paul), an enemy of Christians, is chosen to carry the gospel to the “ends of the earth.”
- Paul is persecuted and rejected from city to city with some amazing responses but a ton of suffering.
- Paul is almost killed in Jerusalem. But God confirms to him that by God’s sovereign plan Paul will make it to Rome
- Paul is arrested by Romans, the current enemy and foreign occupier of Jerusalem.
- There is a shipwreck, from which the entire crew survives and is stranded on an island.
- Paul is bitten by a snake while picking up sticks to start a fire.
- Finally, Paul arrives in Rome and rents a house in which he is on house arrest. The promise of Acts 1:9 is fulfilled in part, the gospel reaches the center of the known world and begins to extend beyond.
At every turn, God was using Paul and his companions to accomplish major gospel work throughout the world; and yet--despite the peppering in of a few miracles and divine rescues--the majority of the book of Acts is the testimony of hard, difficult labors in the face of suffering, risk, danger, and threat.
Imagine for a moment how God could have carried out his plan in the book of Acts. He could have assigned a host of angels to protect and guard his people and messengers. Every hurled stoned could have met an impenetrable shield of protection. Every believer could have led a fruitful life concluded with a peaceful death. Each time the gospel was shared it could have resulted in a glorious and immediate transformation of lives. Roman rulers and Jewish leaders could have all been immediately convinced of the kingship of Jesus. But that wasn’t God’s plan. He used the miraculous differently than we would. He blessed the mundane in ways we don't often understand. He utilizes suffering to our discouragement and often withholds desired blessings to our frustration. And therein is the rub. If we possessed it, we wouldn’t use divine power the way God does. We wouldn’t write world history the way he does.
When God’s Best is Hard
In the end, we really want to tell God how He should exercise sovereign power; but, we offer our suggestions from the perspective of sinful biases and as limited beings. We all like Job (at the end of His suffering), want to call God to account. We wrongly think that the more miraculously God accomplishes his plan the more he is “at work” in our lives. We wrongly think that the presence of suffering is a sign that God’s plan has gone awry. Consider these examples.
- Is God more at work when he heals an illness or when he allows it to end in death?
- Can you chart a Christian’s personal holiness by how many people they’ve led to Christ?
- Is a Christian tax accountant as significant in the kingdom of God as a minister?
- Are small towns as important mission fields as major urban centers?
The list goes on. However, this is enough to point out our tendency to pit the ordinary against the extraordinary, to make assumptions about the effectives of suffering versus blessing.
What are we to do when we have such a firm testimony of God’s character in the Bible but live in such a complex world?
Lookin Unto Jesus…
We find in the life of Jesus all that we need to know about God’s purposes in our world. Jesus' life, though often full of miraculous divine power, was also humble, unassuming, and filled with suffering. There is no contradiction here. At times you could not pick him out of a crowd, and at other times he was transfigured on a mountain top revealing His unique Divine glory. He could both walk on water and fall asleep in a boat on a stormy sea. His family declared Him to be crazy, but it was He who cast a demon out of a crazed, life-long demoniac. His victory was his defeat. In his death he brought life. He demolished the apparent contradictions of God’s work in the world as he culminated God’s work in the world.
When we look to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, we find someone who can sympathize with our weakness and yet someone who conquered sin. We find in him the most blessed man who had ever lived and simultaneously the man who has experienced the most suffering.
Jesus resolves the tension of life in this fallen world. Christians are the only ones who can testify to the miraculous and rejoice in the mundane. Christians are the only ones who can sing in suffering and work joyfully through difficulty. It isn’t that we don’t feel the tension of life’s struggles; it is that we have someone who has gone before us to chart the path that is often dark and confusing. We wouldn’t write our stories the way God does, but we are also unable to love as He does. Jesus is all the proof that we need.