This article was first published in Briefing #223, 23 July 1998.
Fred was an old man when he told me the story of his miracle. He had not told many people over the years, because of his fear of appearing stupid and facing disbelief and ridicule. But it was as real to him in old age as it was on the day it happened many years before as a young apprentice mechanic.
Young was the right word. His mother had lied about his age to get him the job, but his mother was widowed with several younger children and somebody had to bring some money into the house.
Fred was intelligent, responsible and diligent, and his boss was sufficiently impressed with him to leave him alone in the garage occasionally to do extra work. Fred used to enjoy these times alone. He got to use all the tools and fiddle with machines, his inquiring mind leading him into all kinds of discoveries that can only come from getting ‘hands on’.
On the day of his miracle, Fred had been tinkering with an expensive car. The boss would probably not have let him touch it, but Fred’s theory was that if you don’t ask permission you can’t be forbidden. Late in the afternoon, alone in the workshop, he started to take the expensive car apart. He knew he had an hour or so to play with it.
As he came to put back together what he had dismantled, he did not line up one of the nuts correctly, and it became very difficult to screw in. As with many a young boy, his impetuosity led him to solve the problem by simply applying more force, and he kept screwing harder and harder, until it completely jammed. It wouldn’t budge; nor would it unscrew, for the thread was by now badly burred.
He was stuck. The nut would neither tighten nor loosen. The minutes ticked away. The panic increased. He tried first one way then the other in a kind of wild frenzy. Any movement seemed only to make it worse. He was sweating and terrified. Not just fearful of having wrecked the engine but of losing his job. The apprenticeship was his big chance in life. His mother relied upon his income.
As the minutes passed before the boss would return to close up for the day, Fred turned to prayer. He was a Sunday School pupil. He had never doubted God, but then again he had not thought much about him either. But now he felt he needed divine help like never before. He was in danger beyond his ability to cope. So he prayed, right out loud, asking God to help him.
The prayer of the youthful Fred raises many of the concerns that all of us have who believe in and pray to God. What can we pray for? What could we expect God to do, and what should we expect him to do? Does prayer only change the person who prays, or does it also change the circumstance of life? Does belief in miracles commit us to claim health, wealth and justice now? Is the age of miracles over? Are miracles limited to the works of apostles? In brief, is God willing to help and is God able to help?
In this particular case, will God be interested in such a minor matter as Fred and his nut, when the world is torn by suffering and torment? Does God hear and respond to the prayers of naughty apprentices? Is God able to reverse the damage of a cross-threaded nut? Can God intervene in the laws of nature so as to change what happens? Can he do it without creating chaos in the whole universe?
The world seems to lurch between the materialistic skeptics who would not believe even if they were bowled over by a miracle, and new age gullibles who would believe anything provided it was unbelievable. Does prayer make any difference to life?
William Barclay’s argument in the introduction of his book The Plain Man’s Book of Prayers is an example of those who teach God’s inability to help. Professor Barclay writes:
Prayer moves within the natural laws which govern life. When we think of it, this is a necessity. The characteristic of this world is that it is a dependable world; if the laws which govern it were erratically suspended, it would cease to be an order and become a chaos. Suppose a man was accidentally to fall from the fortieth floor of a New York skyscraper; suppose him to be a good and devout man and a firm believer in prayer; suppose him, as he passes the twentieth floor in his downward descent, to pray, “O God, stop me falling”. That is a prayer which cannot be answered, because in that moment that man is in the grip of the law of gravity, and to suspend the law of gravity would be to put an end, not to his fall, but to the world in general.
A very important conclusion follows from this. Prayer does not normally promise or achieve release from some situation; it brings power and endurance to meet and to overcome that situation.
Everybody has their off day, and I presume that this was Professor Barclay’s. The illustration fails dismally. It is hard to understand how praying while passing the twentieth floor could possibly give the unfortunate man “power and endurance to meet and to overcome” his situation.
Furthermore, even if it were true that God cannot “suspend the law of gravity”, that would not limit his ability to use other parts of the so called “laws which govern” the world to answer the man’s prayer. He could send a great wind to save him, or direct a passing albatross to bump him in a window on the nineteenth floor! Bizarre situations may require unusual methods, but they do not require suspending the “laws which govern” the world.
Yet it is not true that laws do “govern” the world. It is God who governs the world, not laws. The Bible is theistic not deistic. The world is not a machine that God cannot interfere with but the creation of the God who upholds it and governs it in every detail. No blade of grass grows, no hair of the head falls out, nor any sparrow dies without God. His Son upholds the universe by his word of power; all things are held together by him (see Matt 10:29-30; Heb 1:3; Col 1:15-17).
The fact that God, by his word and wisdom, created the world as an orderly and habitable place may mean that the world displays a uniform and regular pattern of operation. The fact that he created humans in his image to govern this world under him, may mean that we are able to discern many of the methods by which he ultimately governs his world. But we must not mistake our knowledge of these regularities for his sovereignty in ruling the world. We must not replace the Creator with Nature, or God with Mother Nature.
It is more than the person praying that is affected by God hearing our prayers. In the letter of James we read:
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:1-3)
The reason they do not have is their failure to pray. This passage does not make sense if prayer makes no difference, if it only changes the person who prays.
It is true, of course, that prayer changes and strengthens the person who prays. It also brings glory to God. But these truths do not in any way conflict with the other truth—that God is listening to our prayers and may respond in ways that change our circumstances and our world in accordance with our requests.
So would God listen to someone like Fred? Is God willing to help people in such seemingly trivial difficulties? We must never presume upon God’s willingness to grant our requests. Our Lord Jesus himself had to submit his own will to that of his Father.
We only know of God’s will in advance when God has revealed it to us. We know of his will to forgive all who ask in the name of his Son (1 Jn 1:8-2:2). We know his willingness to grant wisdom to those of his children who ask in faith (Jas 1:5). We know these things because he has revealed them to us in his Scriptures. But what is his will concerning cross-threaded nuts and bolts?
We know of God’s general goodwill to the fatherless. He is called the helper and father of the fatherless (Ps 10:14; 68:5). Fred was caring for his widowed mother, and for his fatherless siblings. Surely he was one to whom God would listen. Yet this does not prove that God would do everything for which Fred ever asked. God is not committed to obey the voice of every orphan. God does not obey humans. He sovereignly responds to our requests, as he chooses.
Fred had made a dreadful mistake. God could choose to teach him an important lesson by allowing his error to be found out by the boss. Or God could rescue Fred by providing the help he so desperately sought. But of this one thing we can be sure: whatever God chose would be in Fred’s best interests. Which it would be on this occasion we cannot determine in advance because we are not God. We do not see all the factors involved. We cannot determine all or even any of the outcomes. We cannot see if he would lose his job or learn lessons either by receiving his request or by having his request denied. We are not God, and without a clear word from God we cannot anticipate the outcomes.
When Fred told me the story many many years after the event, he still did not know what it meant, anymore than I did. He was still embarrassed and reticent to tell it. The only other time he had ever told somebody, they had laughed at him.
For some time he had continued to struggle with the nut. He had used all the strength he could muster and all the techniques he had learnt in his short career. But nothing moved. And the boss was soon to return.
When Fred prayed to God, he did not know what would happen. All the same, he did not ask to be given “the power and endurance to meet and to overcome that situation”. He wanted the nut fixed.
Having finished praying, he tried once more with the spanner. The nut glided into place just as it should have all along. It was effortless, smooth, easy. Everything was perfect. His prayer had been answered.
Those who do not believe in God immediately cast around for a naturalistic explanation for what happened. We recall the times when we couldn’t loosen a lid and asked someone to help who then found it very easy because we had already loosened it and with weakened fingers could not finish the job.
A naturalistic explanation removes any need for belief in God to those who do not want to believe anyway. For them, God is the filler of gaps in our knowledge. Fill the gap with knowledge and God disappears. But belief in “the God of the Gaps” is not Christian belief. God is not an hypothesis to cover our ignorance.
Miracles are not “phenomena whose mechanisms we cannot explain”. We know that God divided the Red Sea by using a great wind (Exod 14:21). Knowing how God did it does not remove it from the category of miracle. Nor does it mean that we can dispense with God from any discussion of the crossing of the Red Sea.
All who pray believe in miracles. We believe that God can materially change the world and consequently the situation we are now in. That is why we ask him for help. Without his help things will not change, and without our asking he may not change them.
Whether we know how he changes things is not relevant to those who ask. Whether he uses the normal processes by which he rules the world or brings into play other processes unique to the situation, is not relevant to those who pray. We do not pray in order to see, understand or analyse miracles, but in order to find help in our hour of need.
Fred could not fix the car. He thought it could not be fixed without major work being done to it. But when the nut slipped smoothly into place, he was overwhelmingly convinced that it was God answering his prayer for help. He did not understand how it could happen. Even years later, having been a mechanic all his adult life, he still could not understand how God fixed it.
Nor did Fred know why God had fixed it. He just knew that it was God acting on his behalf—not because he deserved it, but because God was being kind to him and saving him. From that time, Fred knew that God was a mighty Saviour and could be trusted for all things in life.
And yet Fred still did not know what Jesus had done for him on the cross, or how Christ’s resurrection could bring him new life. The difference between faith in the God of miracles and crass superstition is not very great. It was many years later that Fred came to understand and accept the gospel which saves. He knew that he was not saved by the miracle, but by the death of his Lord. And then he knew that it was the God and Father of his Lord Jesus Christ who had rescued him that day.