The Gospel miracles can make a life of faith very difficult for the average Christian. In tragic times we long for Jesus to show compassion and provide the grand miracle that will take away our despair. We cling to the vision that miracles should be like those in the New Testament, but we risk missing the smaller miracle moments in which God’s compassion can enter into our upside-down world, touch our most pain-filled places, and restore our shattered hearts.
Imagine the scene. Jesus is walking toward the town gate, with his entourage only steps behind. Perhaps he can hear the weeping long before he can see the funeral procession. There is no mistaking the near-primal sound pouring out from a mother who has lost her child. It makes little difference that this child appears to be grown; the grief is deep. Perhaps it is this gut-wrenching wail of the widow whose only son has just died that rips into Jesus’ heart, moving him to reach out with compassion. “Do not weep,” he says. Unlike characters in other miracle stories, no one rushes to the front of the crowd asking for Jesus’ help. Perhaps everyone thinks it is too late; after all, the young man is already dead. With a simple gesture Jesus reaches out, he touches the death bier, and life grabs hold of the body that lies upon it. “Rise up,” he says to the young man. Then, we are simply told, “Jesus gave him to his mother.” In this understated gesture the woman’s shattered world is made whole again. Those who witness this moment are both stunned and somewhat afraid as the extraordinary nature of what has happened begins to sink in.
Who among us has not prayed for a miracle at some point in our lives? Who has not called out in challenge to all things faithful that a compassionate God would not make us suffer so? In these moments, miracles seem to be a sign that God is working to set things right in a world gone very wrong. Illness, death, financial ruin, chronic pain, divorce, depression, addiction, injured children, violence and abuse, mass trauma—the list is long of life circumstances that seem to dismantle our assumptions of the world as it should be.
Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, proposes a frame for understanding traumatic experience, that is, for why we human creatures are so upended when tragedy strikes us. We live, she says, with certain core assumptions about the world, that is, that the world is benevolent (bad things will not happen) and meaningful (events of the world should make sense), and that the self is worthy (events in our world correlate to the good or bad that we bring into the world). At first glance most of us might argue that we are certainly smart enough to know that the world is not fair and that sometimes tragedy follows no line of reasoning. Yet in that moment when our world comes crashing in around us, very often one of the first questions to rise from our lips is, how could this happen? Or why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this? These questions imply the very assumptions Janoff-Bulman suggests.
As people of faith, we go one step further, to ask where God is in the chaos that threatens us. Underlying Janoff-Bulman’s assumptions are terrifying questions like, what would it mean if we no longer lived in a trustworthy world? What would it mean if events in our lives are random (without meaning)? If we assume a correlation between good behavior and good outcome, what would it mean if we have no control over the events of our lives? When all attempts to make right sense of the senseless prove futile, we turn to God to find meaning. Miracles are among the first signs to which we look for proof that God’s compassion will bring our world back into alignment.
Amazingly, like the widowed mother in our story, sometimes we actually get the grand miracle we pray for. The father or husband whose heart stops on the operating table is brought back from the clutches of death. The mother of two young children beats the odds and survives the cancer that all doctors said would kill her. More often than not, in spite of doing everything right and praying for every good thing, the sixteen-year-old who just got her license still dies when the car she is driving hits a tree. Where is God’s compassion then?
We cannot stop ourselves from praying for even the most impossible of miracles, especially when it concerns the lives of those we love. We cling to a central message of the gospel: in Christ Jesus all things are possible. In reality our lives, like that of Jesus, are filled with messy unfinished edges, not the nice tidy ending that the widowed mother in our story experiences. We must come to recognize miracles that come in other less dazzling forms. Indeed, when we focus on only one vision of what is possible, we become blinded to the many moments in which God’s compassion reaches into our lives to hear, touch, and stand in the chaos of life, helping us to find new meaning even in the greatest tragedy. Jesus can hear the cries hidden in the deepest crevices of our despair, just as he heard the heart of the grieving widow. He touches us in the place of our greatest pain, just as he reached into the place of death upon the funeral bier. Jesus steps into the chaos of our unpredictable, overturned, or shattered world to bring meaning from even the most desolate suffering.
M. Jan Holton