For this post, I decided to include passages from several journal entries. 16 years ago, I wrote this in my journal:
Today Dad almost got that old baler to work. In fact it did work, but the knots in the twine would come loose because the bales it was making were too long so we adjusted that, then the arm coming from the tractor broke where the U-joint is. Almost! Dad will get the right part tomorrow.
— July 26th, 1999
A miracle, a miracle! The baler finally started working this evening. It made about 14 bales but then it got pretty dark outside so we went in. Hopefully it’ll keep on working, but I’m pretty sure it will. I was praying that God would help us out and the next day it worked. Thank you, Lord!
— July 28th, 1999
Well, Dad got about 300 bales done but then the baler messed up again. A chain broke and it got out of sync. Then today he thought we had it fixed again, but it didn’t tie the bales right, and so on. We’ll probably get it going tomorrow.
— July 30th, 1999
Dad and I worked on the baler all morning (well, I mostly watched) and gave up around noon. After lunch we hauled the 300 bales we did get into the barn (it was hard work!) and finished at about 5:30. I don’t know if we’ll ever get it fixed.
— July 31st, 1999
Dear Former Self,
A miracle? Looks like you spoke too soon. The baler worked for less than a day before it broke again. But even if the baler were permanently fixed, could it still be considered a miracle? You and your dad were the ones trying to fix it, so at what point would God have stepped in? And even if he had stepped in, is it really a miracle when God does ordinary, mundane things like fixing a baler?
Sorry for all the questions, but you’ve obviously never thought about this before. How do you define “miracle”? If a miracle is just something unusual or unexpected, then miracles happen all the time. The cancer went into remission? A miracle! You got that promotion at work? A miracle! You finally found your car keys? A miracle!
Some people have an even broader definition that includes anything amazing or beautiful. A gorgeous sunset? A miracle! A frozen waterfall? A miracle! A baby was born? A miracle! But the more people do this, the more the word “miracle” loses its meaning.
According to most dictionaries, miracles are events that would ordinarily be impossible. Christians love talking about the miracles in the Bible, but none of those miracles are ordinary (like Noah suddenly finding the keys to the ark). They’re impossible. So if they did happen, they were temporary suspensions of the laws of physics. That seems like a more useful definition.
And yet, modern day miracles are always very mundane compared to the ones in the Bible. They never involve a blatant violation of the laws of physics, and they’re always things that could have happened without divine intervention. For example, people often cite cancer going into remission as a miraculous answer to prayer, but any doctor will tell you that sometimes cancer goes into remission on its own. What would be a miracle is if someone regrew a lost limb, but of course that never happens.
This isn’t the only time you’ve referred to a mundane event as a miracle. If I recall correctly, you use that word a lot, and I think I know why. Deep down, you know it’s unreasonable to believe all the wild claims in the Bible: talking animals, seas parting, people rising from the dead. To solve this, you’ve lumped Biblical miracles into the same category as the mundane “miracles” that happen in modern times. Now you can say, “miracles happen all the time!” And if they happen all the time, then they must have happened in Bible times as well.
You’re not the only Christian who has done this. Every Christian wants to believe the miracles in the Bible actually happened, so they set the bar for miracles so low that they can call almost anything a miracle. And if almost anything is a miracle, then of course miracles are real, and therefore the miracles in the Bible are real. It’s terrible logic, but it’s good enough for people who are desperate to believe in life after death.
One final thought: When you credit God with fixing the baler, don’t you think that’s a little insulting to your Dad? The one who spent several days under the hot summer sun trying to fix it himself? If it were really a miracle, your Dad could have sat in the shade and waited while God made the repairs.
Obviously God had nothing to do with it, but you’re so eager to believe he did that you immediately assumed it was a miracle. If I remember right, your Dad never did manage to fix that baler. He ended up hiring someone else to bale the hay. Where was God when that happened? Couldn’t he at least pay the bill?
— Matt, July 31st, 2015
This is part of an ongoing series called Letters to My Former Self.