For the Christian community as a whole, the matter of miracles cannot be ignored. What are miracles? Do they happen? How do they happen? But in certain segments of the Christian community, miracles play a particularly important role. I am thinking of those who, upon losing their keys, pray to God that they will be found and pronounce it a miracle when they are. My question is whether such a moment is properly named a "miracle."
I have both reaped the spiritual benefits of this sort of pious mindset and seen the damage it can do by making Christians look silly. But the consequences of such pronouncements are insufficient evidence toward answering this question. Rather, we must proceed from a proper definition of a miracle to ascertain its appropriateness to this case.
What is a miracle?
One common answer is that a miracle is a divine action that suspends the laws of nature. This is the kind of definition one finds in David Hume, and I suspect is the most common view of miracles "on the street" today. The strength of such a view is that it acknowledges the "specialness" of miracles. If miracles aren't special, then they are irrelevant. To matter, miracles must be unique. The weakness of such a view is that divine action is linked to an idea of divine intervention that implies the absence of divine agency in non-miraculous situations. In other words, God is only acting when he acts miraculously. God and nature are in an irreconcilable opposition.
On the other extreme, one might define a miracle as any divine action whatsoever. This view is particularly common among Christians of an evangelical temper (to use an archaic phrase). But it also finds its way into a new age forms of spirituality. The benefit of this view is that is sees God at work in everything. All we have to do is open our eyes to see what God is doing. The problem with such a view is that the designation "miracle" becomes meaningless. If everything is a miracle, then nothing is a miracle. Miracle simply becomes synonymous with divine agency, and is thus emptied of any relevant content.
Is there a third option? Is there a way to affirm the special uniqueness of miracles without slipping into an interventionist model? I believe there is, but in order to uncover it, let us return to the question of finding your keys after praying about it. The crucial aspect in such a story is the act of prayer. If you hadn't prayed, you would not have called it a miracle if you found your keys. So the defining feature of a miracle (at least in this case) is human perception, not divine action.
The significance of perception leads us to the third view: a miracle is a divine action intended for revelation. Of course God is at work throughout the world. God is not only the creator of the universe, but its providential governor. So in some sense all actions can be attributed to God (the ancients called this primary causality, but the terms are not important). But there are some actions within the created order that God has specifically ordained to reveal himself to us. These revelatory actions are called miracles. The Johannine term “miraculous signs” is helpful here, because it indicates the revelatory purpose of miracles.
According to this view, the power of God is behind the rotation of the planets, but the power of God is revealed in the healing of the paralytic. Both are actions of God in some sense. Both are based on the power of God. But we take for granted the former, whereas the latter catches us by surprise. Either one might prompt us to worship God, but the latter is specifically ordained by God to do so because he knows that we tend to forget him without jolting reminders.
Thus, if you prayed that God would help you find your keys, and you find them, God may have intended such a providential action to reveal his power to you. If finding your keys encourages your faith in him, then it is likely that God intended such an action as a revelation. So it is appropriate to call it a miracle, not because it was a divine intervention, and not because everything is a miracle, but because of God’s intention to reveal himself.