Among poll respondents we spoke with in depth, Finch’s miracle story is the most typical: a hopeless illness, a desperate prayer, an inexplicable recovery. Strictly speaking, perhaps, these stories may not fit into our narrow definition of a miracle because, after all, most medical ailments have been found to be at least occasionally treatable. But those who report such cases as miracles feel there is an extra ingredient present—a “spiritual something”—and their conviction is as certain as the fact that they are alive today.
Consider the survey results: of those who believe in miracles, 84 percent say they happen because of God. About three quarters further identify Jesus and the Holy Spirit as sources of miracles, while lesser numbers attribute them to angels (47 percent), saints (32 percent), deceased relatives or others who have passed on (19 percent), and other spirits (18 percent).
So what’s going on? Wouldn’t the Creator of the universe have better things to tend to than pulling off the occasional miracle? It depends, of course, on whom you ask.
To a scientist, events that many would consider miracles are not only explainable, they’re inevitable—because in a universe of nearly infinite possibilities, outrageously unexpected things have to happen at least occasionally.
“The Law of Large Numbers shows that an event with a low probability of occurrence in a small number of trials has a high probability of occurrence in a large number of trials,” says Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer, author of Why People Believe Weird Things (W.H. Freeman, revised, 2002). “Events with a million-to-one odds happen 295 times a day in America.”
Although that may explain why such extraordinary things as “miracles” happen, it is the province of believers to try to put these events into the context of their belief systems. “I think that through miracles we step back and we start reevaluating our place in the universe,” says Patsy Clairmont, a Christian speaker and author of All Cracked Up: Experiencing God in the Broken Places (Thomas Nelson, 2006). “We see something miraculous and ask ourselves, ‘What is this? I can’t explain it. Is there truly something more than me?’”
Father Jonathan Morris, a Fox News commentator and the author of The Promise: God’s Purpose and Plan for When Life Hurts (HarperOne, 2008), agrees that for believers, miracles reveal as much about the nature of God as they do about the beneficiary. “When people say, ‘This is a miracle,’ they’re not saying ‘God broke the laws of nature to give me this blessing,’” Morris notes. “They’re saying, ‘God cares about me so much that he allowed this to happen.’”
He’d get no argument from Donna Neugent, 64, of Ballwin, Missouri. “My husband and I had a five-year-old son, but we wanted another child and just couldn’t get pregnant,” says Neugent. “My husband and I prayed about it, but never together—until one night when we lay face-to-face on our bed, and we started praying.