One late summer afternoon when our family was visiting relatives in a large and distant city, our four-year-old boy suddenly disappeared from a city park. We all began a search of the area, ultimately involving the police as well as many neighbors. After about two hours, darkness came and our Tom still had not been found. Our concern grew very deep.
Finally, we gathered our family together and with a solemnity that is rare among children, we knelt in prayer. A short time later the city police telephoned to report that Tom had been found, almost precisely as had been requested in the prayer. A few minutes later a police car drove up to the house, its precious cargo a bit shaken, but intact.
Later that night before he dropped off to sleep, Tom’s six-year-old brother said to me, as he reflected on what had happened, “Dad, you’re kind of magic, sort of, aren’t you?” I replied that I wasn’t but that the Lord had answered our prayers.
Would Tom have turned up anyway? I don’t know; but our family chooses to believe that the prayer made a difference.
A few years ago, a university student related to his priesthood quorum a boyhood experience that happened just after he had been ordained a deacon in the Aaronic Priesthood. He had lived on a farm, and had been promised that a calf about to be born would be his very own to raise. One summer morning when his parents were away, he was working in the barn when the expectant cow began to calve prematurely. He watched in great amazement as the little calf was born and then, without warning, the mother cow suddenly rolled over the calf. She was trying to kill it. In his heart he cried out to the Lord for help. Not thinking about how much more the cow weighed than he did, he pushed on her with all his strength and somehow moved her away. He picked up the lifeless calf in his arms and, brokenhearted, looked at it, the tears running down his cheeks. Then he remembered that he now held the priesthood and had every right to pray for additional help. So he prayed from the depths of his boyish, believing heart. Before long the little animal began breathing again. He knew his prayer had been heard.
After relating this story, the tears welled up in his eyes and he said, “Brethren, I tell you that story because I don’t think I would do now what I did then. Now that I am older, less naive, and more experienced, I ‘know better’ than to expect help in that kind of situation. I am not sure I would believe now, even if I relived that experience, that the calf’s survival was anything more than a coincidence. I don’t understand what has happened to me since that time, but I sense that something has gone wrong.”
Whatever the change in attitude was, I too sensed that it was not healthy. Did it matter? He still came to church. But he had become less childlike, less believing. His sense of the miraculous had waned.
Yes, it should have been a matter of great concern.
We live in sophisticated times. Many of us are inclined to regard what might be a genuine spiritual experience as a coincidence, unless there is conclusive evidence that spiritual forces were indeed involved. However, we are sometimes required to make decisions that require action before such proof is available.
The scriptures teach that God deliberately, and for wise purposes, may use restraint in expressing his highly obvious manifestations. Yet he remains deeply interested and involved in our lives. Because of that restraint in the midst of such interest, it is most important that we learn to perceive the hand of the Lord in situations where his presence may be still and small. It helps make such perception possible if we are willing to “be believing.”
The risen Lord counseled his apostle Thomas to “reach hither thy hand and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but be believing.” (John 20:27.) Mormon, speaking to our generation, said: “And who shall say that Jesus Christ did not many mighty miracles? … and he ceaseth not to be God, and is a God of miracles. … Doubt not, but be believing. …” (Morm. 9:18–19, 27.) Similarly, a recent MIA theme: “Search diligently, pray always, and be believing, and all things shall work together for your good, if ye walk uprightly. …” (D&C 90:24.)
The act of believing originates in the heart of the beholder. On more than one occasion the Lord said to those around him, “… He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” (Luke 8:8.) Few of those who observed him truly understood the parables or perceived the miracles for what they were.
It is not always easy to know at first which influences are of divine origin. Those who first heard about the Savior’s healings faced this question as we do today when we hear the testimony of a miracle. Was it really a healing, or would the person have recovered anyway? Did the Lord really help us find Tom? Did the calf really receive some new infusion of life in answer to a boy’s prayer? In the early history of the Salt Lake Valley, were the seagulls really sent to take away the crickets?
Even the matter of God’s existence may seem a closed question at the outset. Some argue that with all the misery of life, there couldn’t be a God; others say that the order in nature could never have been accidental. Neither side seems to persuade the other on the basis of external evidence.
It just might be that the Lord planned it that way—so that men are not forced by the circumstances to believe. There are so many things that he could do to rend the veil. But, “we walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Cor. 5:7.)
Scholars in the philosophy of knowledge tell us that people tend to see what they want to see, especially when the evidence is ambiguous. Perhaps that is why the mists of darkness in Lehi’s dream are so descriptive of the conditions of mortality. God has chosen to leave us free, amid circumstances that do not compel our belief, to determine for ourselves, as an act of will, whether to grasp the iron rod in the midst of that mortal darkness. All four of Lehi’s sons were born of those same goodly parents. The difference between the believers and unbelievers was not so much in what happened to them, but in their attitude toward what happened. That attitude originated within their own hearts, with each making his own free choice about being willing to be believing.
Certainly Christ might have been born under circumstances so overwhelming and miraculous that all who lived at the time of his birth could not have questioned his supernatural origin. But he came more quietly than that, a light that “shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. … But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.” (John 1:5, 11–12; italics added.)
It was all part of a plan carefully and deliberately designed not to compel belief. Further indications of the deliberateness of that plan appear throughout the accounts of the Savior’s life. Frequently he told those who were blessed by a miracle that they “should tell no man what was done.” (Luke 8:56; see also Matt. 8:4.)
One essential element in that plan is the principle of “line upon line, precept upon precept.” Not only does he leave to us the initiative to believe, he imparts to his hearers only what they are ready to hear. Milk comes before meat. “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now.” (John 16:12.)
Hugh Nibley has described this guiding principle as the “policy of reticence,” which the Lord has always followed “to protect sacred things from common misunderstandings and to protect the unworthy from damaging themselves with them.” (Since Cumorah, Deseret Book Co., 1967, p. 107.)
The Lord has also made it plain that it is not good to seek for signs. (See Matt. 12:29; Mark 8:12.) Moreover, miracles are not proof of divine authority. Satan can also work wonders so marvelous, “that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.” (Matt. 24:24.) Thus, there is a profound difference between the person “that saith unto me, Lord, Lord,” and the person who “doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 7:21; italics added.)
A key reason for the Lord’s unwillingness to compel our belief may be found in those scriptural phrases about doing the will of the Father and “receiving him.” Something happens to people who receive him—who do his will. They learn. They develop Christlike capacities and skills beyond the reach of other men. Following his will changes them. These changes do not happen to those who merely see the sign or hear the word. Such changes in character and spirit do not happen without our active, voluntary participation. Thus, by being believing, by receiving the Lord, and by following him, the process of becoming like him is set into motion. That is a point he does not want us to miss.
Knowing these reasons for the Lord’s restraint should make us less inclined to wait for irrefutable evidence before we will act as believers. The Lord is not likely to make the case miraculously irresistible. That would be contrary to the purpose of mortality because it would inhibit the growth and development that a free environment is designed to permit.
If, then, it is not good to seek for signs and wonders, some may ask why the Lord performed the great miracles of his earthly ministry. Why the wonders of Moses’ time? If he had the power to send the seagulls, why didn’t he keep the crickets away in the first place?
One reason is revealed in the Lord’s answer to Moses when Moses asked why such great wonders came forth when Israel was freed from captivity: “… that thou mayest tell in the ears of thy son, and of thy son’s son, what things I have wrought in Egypt, and my signs which I have done among them; that ye may know how that I am the Lord.” (Ex. 10:2.) I think of that passage when I see the seagull monument on Temple Square, and I have told my sons what the monument stands for.
The Lord does wish to remind us, if we have ears to hear, that we are finally and ultimately dependent upon him. It has been suggested that the great miracles are symbolic of the way in which the Savior’s atonement intervenes as a pure act of grace, offering redemption after all we can do. In the wilderness of our own lives, whenever that may be for each of us, the honest person will at some time and in some way confront that total dependence as did the children of Israel standing before the waters of the Red Sea.
And yet, paradoxically, that confrontation is not likely to be overwhelming, or we may be deprived of the very experiences intended to be produced by that wilderness and the free agency that accompanies it.
The Lord has used the highly visible forms of his power so sparingly—enough to leave us with clear witnesses but not enough to compel us to believe.
Once the conduct of a person’s life has shown that he is indeed a believer, the signs will still follow him in part as a further witness, but primarily to bless others.
What a careful balance has been struck between too much and not enough in the manifestations of divine power. How essential, then, to be willing to recognize the quiet evidences for what they are.
If we are willing to see miracles, what should we look for? Elder James E. Talmage wrote that miracles have been broadly classified as phenomena that are “unusual, special, transitory, and wrought by an agency beyond the power of man’s control.” (Jesus the Christ, Deseret Book Co., 1961, p. 148.) In our sophisticated and complex day, there are few things that happen, large or small, that seem to be beyond man’s control.
As we have begun to understand how technological miracles happen, the tendency to ascribe what is not understood to supernatural origins has declined. Elder Talmage also wrote, “The human sense of the miraculous wanes as comprehension of the operative process increases.” (Ibid., p. 148.) Having watched men walk on the moon, we are quite comfortable with wonders, so much so that even when we haven’t any idea how some marvelous thing could happen—like the cure of a dread disease—we assume that some expert somewhere understands how it happened. Thus, we are left stripped of a sense of wonder. Whatever it is, thinks 20th-century man, there is some natural explanation for it.
Perhaps, in view of this modern-day tendency, we need to think of miracles not as phenomena we do not understand, but simply as the influence of divine forces. In a broad sense, divine forces are involved in all nature and all technology. But if the Lord is directly involved in our personal affairs, that is a special miracle, however quiet, however common it may be. Does God want us to be able to recognize that kind of miracle? Yes. “And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments.” (D&C 59:21.)
Why would he be concerned that we recognize his influence? It can’t be just to satisfy his need to be recognized. We know too much about his character and attributes to take that possibility seriously. It must have something to do with us—with whether we receive him, with whether we become like him, with whether we recognize him as the Supreme Power from whom all blessings flow. If his hand is there, and we take it, we can be guided toward those experiences uniquely suited to further our personal development of a Christlike character. Thereby will we understand the meaning of “be believing, and all things shall work together for your good. …” (D&C 90:23.)
God is so close, so available to those who have ears to hear, and eyes to see. In Jacob’s dream about the ladder reaching to heaven, with angels ascending and descending it, he saw God standing at the top of the ladder saying, “I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest.” And then Jacob awoke and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place: and I knew it not.” (See Gen. 28:13–16.) President Lee used to say, “Our Lord is not an absentee father. He is closer to the leaders of this church than you have any idea.” He is also closer to us individually than most of us have any idea. The Lord is here, and who knows it? The faithful, those who are willing to be believing, because their greatest desire is to find him and serve him. When he is there, they know it.
All this is not intended to imply that we should be overzealous in looking for the Lord’s hand, nor should it imply that God is so involved in human affairs that we are relieved of either our freedom or our responsibility in life. But it does imply that he may well be more involved in our lives than many suppose. Interestingly, the nature of that involvement probably means more, not less, for both our freedom and our responsibility.
So, what kinds of quiet miracles do believers perceive, from which they derive strength, assurance, and spiritual growth?
One example is “… the awesome, sobering miracle of the newborn babe—with hands reaching, with eyes watching, with ears listening, and intelligence that responds to truth. … Who gave two cells the intelligence to join and divide, to become an eye, or a tooth, or the hair of the head? … Surely immortality is no more a miracle than mortality is.” (Richard L. Evans, The Man and the Message, Bookcraft, Inc., 1973, pp. 130–31.)
Another example is to see a grown man cry, when, after a life of neglecting God and family, the Spirit penetrates his heart and he changes—his interests, his allegiance, his countenance, his conduct.
And also, to walk through the valley of evil, and, after coming to oneself, to feel with the despondent Alma, “… that the very thought of coming into the presence of God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror.” (Alma 36:14.) And then, after much anguish, to finally understand what it means to have a Savior. In Alma’s words, “And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain.” (Alma 36:20.) As bishops and stake presidents know, there are many among us who reach that understanding with a gratitude that cannot be fully explained. That is the miracle of forgiveness.
A further illustration of how the believing heart responds is “The Windows of Heaven,” the historical film-story of a modern-day prophet’s inspired promise to his people that if they would pay their tithing an awful drought would come to an end. There we see the faithful farmer and his wife, after all the planting, the waiting, the watching, and the thirsting, fall to their knees in gratitude in the parched red soil as finally the rains come, pouring down upon their bowed heads.
And then we see President Lorenzo Snow receive the telegram in his office, telling of the rain; and then we see him instinctively proceed to his bedside and say something like, “Oh, what can I do to show my gratitude that thou hast heard the prayers of thy people and thy humble servant? I would give anything, even my life. …”
Neither that prophet nor those farmers stood by watching the rain, wondering if perhaps it was just a coincidence. Their attitudes, their experiences, and their instincts told them otherwise. They knew in whom they had trusted.
It should be added that the way people live has much, perhaps everything, to do with how much even the still, small miracles influence their lives. “And there was not any man who could do a miracle in the name of Jesus save he were cleansed every whit from his iniquities.” (3 Ne. 8:1.)
Living up to that condition provides an incentive for righteous living that mere sign-seeking cannot offer. Moreover, a believing attitude inevitably affects the way one proceeds, as mother, forgiven sinner, or tithepayer. There is somehow more reliance, manifested in the way one lives, on the expectation that divine promises will be fulfilled. The believing heart is also a faithful one. Thereby does belief lead to action.
Most of us have experienced in some way the realization of our own long-awaited rainstorm, our forgiveness, our lost boy found, our seagulls come. And because of these experiences, we can say with Jacob, “Surely the Lord is in this place. …” (Gen. 28:16.)
Yet the real confirmation, the actual realization of his having been there, often comes later—the harvest of those early decisions to be believing. “… On the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.” (Luke 8:15.) After a few seasons of such harvesting, and of doing what believers do, the faithful, believing heart becomes more and more a knowing heart.
Significantly, those reasons and experiences also bring with them increased capacities of character and spirit, and thus is brought to partial fruition the greatest miracle of all—our own divine potential to become Christlike. That is a miracle that nature’s laws simply do not, perhaps cannot, produce without the trial of our faith. And the beginning of it all is to doubt not, but be believing. That first step and the conduct that follows it are under our exclusive, personal control.