“If you can explain what is going on, then God isn’t doing it.”
It’s a great sound byte. Several respected Christian leaders have taught it. And it certainly feels true. In many congregations it would be a reliable “amen!” line. However, not only is the statement itself false but it reflects a damaging and unbiblical way of thinking about faith and Christian living.
Just as focusing on the “how much” of faith distracts us from the “what” and “Who” of faith (Myths of Faith #1), so an unbalanced focus on God’s hand in the unexplainable and dramatic distracts us from His very real and powerful activity in the ordinary and every-day. The problem should be fairly easy to see if we take off our “feels true” glasses and put on our “teach me Thy way” lenses instead. The idea that God is only at work in the amazing and unexplainable forces us to accept another conclusion. The sequence goes like this:
- God is only at work in the extraordinary.
- By definition, “extraordinary” is what is not happening most of the time in life.
- Therefore, God is not involved in a meaningful way in my life most of the time.
Tragically, many Christians—including myself, all too often—actually think this way, though more as attitude than as a conscious thought process. And the attitude has devastating results.
- For some, the result is a constant quest for drama. Because they feel that their relationship with God isn’t vibrant and real unless they are seeing miracles—or at least extraordinary providence—they are constantly seeking an amazing experience, an amazing story to hear, an amazing story to tell. Some Christians I’ve known fairly well even go so far as to imagine dramatic hand-of-God scenarios and then convince themselves that these stories are true, when what really happened was not spectacular or “unexplainable” at all.
- Others are more realistic, but grimly so. They have accepted the reality that amazing and unexplainable things very rarely happen in their lives. But instead of questioning their “God of the unexplainable” theology, they conclude that they are simply boring, second-rate Christians who lack healthy faith and will probably never “amount to anything.” They live in a kind of permanent spiritual desert, trudging along, being “faithful,” but with little hope that God is ever going to show up in any meaningful way. (Yes, I’ve done a little time in this desolate place as well, and know the terrain.)
- Others actually do experience pretty amazing things more often than most Christians, and they mistakenly conclude that this period of astounding success in their life is (a) what every Christian should experience all the time and (b) ought to go on indefinitely in their own walk of faith. When neither of these two expectations are met (and they inevitably are not, eventually) things can get very spiritually messy. Often these folks are leaders, too, so the fallout when the Great Ordinary of life hits them in an undeniable way, is multiplied.
Perhaps there are a few who actually have one faith-drama after another their entire Christian life. There are folks like Elijah in the Bible, after all. But for every Elijah or Moses in OT Israel, there were probably thousands of Beriahs (1 Chron. 7:23) none of us have ever heard of.
A closer look
Speaking of Elijah and Moses, what does a more careful inspection of these men’s lives really reveal about God, faith, and the unexplainable?
In the case of Moses, his life seems filled with miracle and extraordinary providence from birth. Exodus tells us of his unexplainable journey down river as an infant—right into the arms of Egyptian princess. He hears the voice of God in an unexplainable burning bush. He is personally involved in ten unexplainable plagues. He sees the waters part as he raises his own staff. He purifies undrinkable streams and brings water from rocks. It’s all very dramatic stuff.
But then what happens? How much time do these extraordinary events take up, and how much time—how much ordinary life—passes between them? It’s worth pondering: after the dramatic sequence of the Exodus, unexplainable events in Moses’ life drop off sharply, and eventually we see forty years of wilderness wandering with only a handful of noteworthy events.
Even Moses’ life was more ordinary for more of the time than we tend to think.
And what about Elijah? Though the ambiguity of the “juniper tree” experience (1 Kings 19:4-5) and subsequent cave encounter (1 Kings 19:9-14) have been interpreted in many ways, it seems quite possible that Elijah himself fell prey to the “God is only in the amazing and unexplainable” trap to some extent. As he is in the cave and God’s object lesson unfolds, we are specifically told that God was “not in” the whirlwind, earthquake, and fire. Apparently, He was “in” the “still small voice” (or “low whisper,” or even “gentle breeze,” as the Hebrew allows).
After the drama of calling down fire and destroying the false prophets, was it perhaps time for Elijah to learn that God is also in the so-ordinary, maybe even boring, breeze?
A survey of some clear biblical principles frees us from the error of “God of the unexplainable” theology—and also empowers us to know a more difficult and satisfying kind of faith: the faith that sees God in the “ordinary.”
1. Birds, lilies, and molecules—there really is no “ordinary.”
Jesus’ picturesque teaching to regular working folks in Matthew 6:25-33 and Luke 12:22-31 is echoed in more philosophical terms by the apostle Paul and the writer of Hebrews. While honoring the context, isolating the core language helps us see the point.
- Luke 12:24—“Consider the ravens…God feeds them”
- Luke 12:28—“God…clothes the grass”
- Colossians 1:17—“In Him [KJV “by him”], all things consist” (ESV, “hold together”)
- Hebrews 1:3—“upholding all things [ESV, “He upholds the universe”] by the word of His power”
The truth we are called to believe here, the challenge to our faith, is that God’s hand is powerfully at work in all the ordinary (shall we say “explainable”?) events in the every-day world. God is present and involved in a very real and vital way in feeding birds and clothing lilies. Colossians and Hebrews help us bridge this truth to chemistry and physics. God is personally and vitally involved in every spinning molecule, every racing electron, every quark and meson and mysterious quantum.
So, while life is full of “ordinary” in the sense of “happens all the time and isn’t unexplainable,” the other sense of “ordinary” as “what God is not wondrously and intentionally involved in” is a myth. There is no such thing as that kind of ordinary. Believing this—really seeing it (Heb. 12:1)—is far more difficult than believing God is at work in the amazing and unexplainable.
Personally, I’ve never had any trouble at all believing that miracles and extraordinary providence are God at work. What I continually find difficult to believe—in a vivid and present way—is that God is powerfully and personally involved every time I inhale.
2. Parted waters and putrid waters—God is good all the time.
The contrast between Exodus 14 and Exodus 15 is insightful for understanding faith. In chapter 14, the Israelites witness the parting of the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptians. And for the first half of chapter 15, they are full of faith and joy. By Exodus 15:23, though, they are out of water and the water they finally reach is undrinkable.
We all know the story, but we often miss the point. God purifies the putrid waters, but the point is not “there can be miracles if you believe”; the point is that just as God is good and wise and sovereign in the parting of waters, He is good and wise and sovereign in the lack of water.
Ever wonder why God didn’t simply purify the water directly before the Israelites got there? The point was to give them an opportunity for faith—the faith to believe that God’s good hand is involved in even the most ordinary, disappointing, and even unpleasant things that come to pass in our lives.
3. Talents, investments, and holes in the ground—life is responsibility.
It’s no coincidence that Jesus’ parable of responsibility and faithfulness uses completely ordinary imagery. He doesn’t tell a story about three great prophets with ability to call down varying amounts of fire. He tells a story about a boss, three employees, and some bags of money (Matthew 25:14-30). The boss gives differing amounts to work with, but expects diligent investment from all of them.
So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest. (NKJV, Matthew 25:27)
The principle is expressed in many other passages as well. Luke 12:48 reminds us that more is expected of those who have been entrusted with more. In 1 Corinthians 4:2, stewards are expected to be faithful. In 2 Corinthians 5:10, we learn are all going to give account. And let’s not forget that the first man was put in in Eden and given a job to do. Life is responsibility.
What this means for faith and the unexplainable is simply this: the Scriptures call me to believe that God is working in and through me not only when unexplainable things are happening, but also when I get up in the morning and drive to work every day.
“God of the unexplainable” teaching moves faith in to a small, special-cases role and neglects the importance of walking by faith in all the ordinary things we do in all the ordinary days of our lives.