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Miracles of Our Lord: 8 - The Government of Nature

By George MacDonald

      The miracles I include in this class are the following:--

      1. The turning of water into wine, already treated of, given by St John. 2. The draught of fishes, given by St Luke. 3. The draught of fishes, given by St John. 4 The feeding of the four thousand, given by St Matthew and St Mark. 5. The feeding of the five thousand, recorded by all the Evangelists. 6. The walking on the sea, given by St Matthew, St Mark, and St John. 7. The stilling of the storm, given by St Matthew, St Mark, and St Luke. 8. The fish bringing the piece of money, told by St Matthew alone.

      These miracles, in common with those already considered, have for their end the help or deliverance of man. They differ from those, however, in operating mediately, through a change upon external things, and not at once on their human objects.

      But besides the fact that they have to do with what we call nature, they would form a class on another ground. In those cases of disease, the miracles are for the setting right of what has gone wrong, the restoration of the order of things,--namely, of the original condition of humanity. No doubt it is a law of nature that where there is sin there should be suffering; but even its cure helps to restore that righteousness which is highest nature; for the cure of suffering must not be confounded with the absence of suffering. But the miracles of which I have now to speak, show themselves as interfering with what we may call the righteous laws of nature. Water should wet the foot, should ingulf him who would tread its surface. Bread should come from the oven last, from the field first. Fishes should be now here now there, according to laws ill understood of men--nay, possibly according to a piscine choice quite unknown of men. Wine should take ripening in the grape and in the bottle. In all these cases it is otherwise. Yet even in these, I think, the restoration of an original law--the supremacy of righteous man, is foreshown. While a man cannot order his own house as he would, something is wrong in him, and therefore in his house. I think a true man should be able to rule winds and waters and loaves and fishes, for he comes of the Father who made the house for him. Had Jesus not been capable of these things, he might have been the best of men, but either he could not have been a perfect man, or the perfect God, if such there were, was not in harmony with the perfect man. Man is not master in his own house because he is not master in himself, because he is not a law unto himself--is not himself obedient to the law by which he exists. Harmony, that is law, alone is power. Discord is weakness. God alone is perfect, living, self-existent law.

      I will try, in a few words, to give the ground on which I find it possible to accept these miracles. I cannot lay it down as for any other man. I do not wonder at most of those to whom the miracles are a stumbling-block. I do a little wonder at those who can believe in Christ and yet find them a stumbling-block.

      How God creates, no man can tell. But as man is made in God's image, he may think about God's work, and dim analogies may arise out of the depth of his nature which have some resemblance to the way in which God works. I say then, that, as we are the offspring of God--the children of his will, like as the thoughts move in a man's mind, we live in God's mind. When God thinks anything, then that thing is. His thought of it is its life. Everything is because God thinks it into being. Can it then be very hard to believe that he should alter by a thought any form or appearance of things about us?

      "It is inconsistent to work otherwise than by law."

      True; but we know so little of this law that we cannot say what is essential in it, and what only the so far irregular consequence of the unnatural condition of those for whom it was made, but who have not yet willed God's harmony. We know so little of law that we cannot certainly say what would be an infringement of this or that law. That which at first sight appears as such, may be but the operating of a higher law which rightly dominates the other. It is the law, as we call it, that a stone should fall to the ground. A man may place his hand beneath the stone, and then, if his hand be strong enough, it is the law that the stone shall not fall to the ground. The law has been lawfully prevented from working its full end. In similar ways, God might stop the working of one law by the intervention of another. Such intervention, if not understood by us, would be what we call a miracle. Possibly a different condition of the earth, producible according to law, might cause everything to fly off from its surface instead of seeking it. The question is whether or not we can believe that the usual laws might be set aside by laws including higher principles and wider operations. All I have to answer is--Give me good reason, and I can. A man may say--"What seems good reason to you, does not to me." I answer, "We are both accountable to that being, if such there be, who has lighted in us the candle of judgment. To him alone we stand or fall. But there must be a final way of right, towards which every willing heart is led,--and which no one can find who does not seek it." All I want to show here, is a conceivable region in which a miracle might take place without any violence done to the order of things. Our power of belief depends greatly on our power of imagining a region in which the things might be. I do not see how some people could believe what to others may offer small difficulty. Let us beware lest what we call faith be but the mere assent of a mind which has cared and thought so little about the objects of its so-called faith, that it has never seen the difficulties they involve. Some such believers are the worst antagonists of true faith--the children of the Pharisees of old.

      If any one say we ought to receive nothing of which we have no experience; I answer, there is in me a necessity, a desire before which all my experience shrivels into a mockery. Its complement must lie beyond. We ought, I grant, to accept nothing for which we cannot see the probability of some sufficient reason, but I thank God that this sufficient reason is not for me limited to the realm of experience. To suppose that it was, would change the hope of a life that might be an ever-burning sacrifice of thanksgiving, into a poor struggle with events and things and chances--to doom the Psyche to perpetual imprisonment in the worm. I desire the higher; I care not to live for the lower. The one would make me despise my fellows and recoil with disgust from a self I cannot annihilate; the other fills me with humility, hope, and love. Is the preference for the one over the other foolish then--even to the meanest judgment?

      A higher condition of harmony with law, may one day enable us to do things which must now appear an interruption of law. I believe it is in virtue of the absolute harmony in him, his perfect righteousness, that God can create at all. If man were in harmony with this, if he too were righteous, he would inherit of his Father a something in his degree correspondent to the creative power in Him; and the world he inhabits, which is but an extension of his body, would, I think, be subject to him in a way surpassing his wildest dreams of dominion, for it would be the perfect dominion of holy law--a virtue flowing to and from him through the channel of a perfect obedience. I suspect that our Lord in all his dominion over nature, set forth only the complete man--man as God means him one day to be. Why should he not know where the fishes were? or even make them come at his will? Why should not that will be potent as impulse in them? If we admit what I hail as the only fundamental idea upon which I can speculate harmoniously with facts, and as alone disclosing regions wherein contradictions are soluble, and doubts previsions of loftier truth--I mean the doctrine of the Incarnation; or if even we admit that Jesus was good beyond any other goodness we know, why should it not seem possible that the whole region of inferior things might be more subject to him than to us? And if more, why not altogether? I believe that some of these miracles were the natural result of a physical nature perfect from the indwelling of a perfect soul, whose unity with the Life of all things and in all things was absolute--in a word, whose sonship was perfect.

      If in the human form God thus visited his people, he would naturally show himself Lord over their circumstances. He will not lord it over their minds, for such lordship is to him abhorrent: they themselves must see and rejoice in acknowledging the lordship which makes them free. There was no grand display, only the simple doing of what at the time was needful. Some say it is a higher thing to believe of him that he took things just as they were, and led the revealing life without the aid of wonders. On any theory this is just what he did as far as his own life was concerned. But he had no ambition to show himself the best of men. He comes to reveal the Father. He will work even wonders to that end, for the sake of those who could not believe as he did and had to be taught it. No miracle was needful for himself: he saw the root of the matter--the care of God. But he revealed this root in a few rare and hastened flowers to the eyes that could not see to the root. There is perfect submission to lower law for himself, but revelation of the Father to them by the introduction of higher laws operating in the upper regions bordering upon ours, not separated from ours by any impassable gulf--rather connected by gently ascending stairs, many of whose gradations he could blend in one descent. He revealed the Father as being under no law, but as law itself, and the cause of the laws we know--the cause of all harmony because himself the harmony. Men had to be delivered not only from the fear of suffering and death, but from the fear, which is a kind of worship, of nature. Nature herself must be shown subject to the Father and to him whom the Father had sent. Men must believe in the great works of the Father through the little works of the Son: all that he showed was little to what God was doing. They had to be helped to see that it was God who did such things as often as they were done. He it is who causes the corn to grow for man. He gives every fish that a man eats. Even if things are terrible yet they are God's, and the Lord will still the storm for their faith in Him--tame a storm, as a man might tame a wild beast--for his Father measures the waters in the hollow of his hand, and men are miserable not to know it. For himself, I repeat, his faith is enough; he sleeps on his pillow nor dreams of perishing.

      On the individual miracles of this class, I have not much to say. The first of them was wrought in the animal kingdom.

      He was teaching on the shore of the lake, and the people crowded him. That he might speak with more freedom, he stepped into an empty boat, and having prayed Simon the owner of it, who was washing his nets near by, to thrust it a little from the shore, sat down, and no longer incommoded by the eagerness of his audience, taught them from the boat. When he had ended he told Simon to launch out into the deep, and let down his nets for a draught. Simon had little hope of success, for there had been no fish there all night; but he obeyed, and caught such a multitude of fishes that the net broke. They had to call another boat to their aid, and both began to sink from the overload of fishes. But the great marvel of it wrought on the mind of Simon as every wonder tends to operate on the mind of an honest man: it brought his sinfulness before him. In self-abasement he fell down at Jesus' knees. Whether he thought of any individual sins at the moment, we cannot tell; but he was painfully dissatisfied with himself. He knew he was not what he ought to be. I am unwilling however to believe that such a man desired, save, it may be, as a passing involuntary result of distress, to be rid of the holy presence. I judge rather that his feeling was like that of the centurion--that he felt himself unworthy to have the Lord in his boat. He may have feared that the Lord took him for a good man, and his honesty could not endure such a mistake:

      "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord."

      The Lord accepted the spirit, therefore not the word of his prayer.

      "Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men."

      His sense of sinfulness, so far from driving the Lord from him, should draw other men to him. As soon as that cry broke from his lips, he had become fit to be a fisher of men. He had begun to abjure that which separated man from man.

      After his resurrection, St John tells us the Lord appeared one morning, on the shore of the lake, to some of his disciples, who had again been toiling all night in vain. He told them once more how to cast their net, and they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes.

      "It is the Lord," said St John, purer-hearted, perhaps therefore keener-eyed, than the rest.

      Since the same thing had occurred before, Simon had become the fisher of men, but had sinned grievously against his Lord. He knew that Lord so much better now, however, that when he heard it was he, instead of crying Depart from me, he cast himself into the sea to go to him.

      I take next the feeding of the four thousand with the seven loaves and the few little fishes, and the feeding of the five thousand with the five loaves and the two fishes.

      Concerning these miracles, I think I have already said almost all I have to say. If he was the Son of God, the bread might as well grow in his hands as the corn in the fields. It is, I repeat, only a doing in condensed form, hence one more easily associated with its real source, of that which God is for ever doing more widely, more slowly, and with more detail both of fundamental wonder and of circumstantial loveliness. Whence more fittingly might food come than from the hands of such an elder brother? No doubt there will always be men who cannot believe it:--happy are they who demand a good reason, and yet can believe a wonder! Associated with words which appeared to me foolish, untrue, or even poor in their content, I should not believe it. Associated with such things as he spoke, I can receive it with ease, and I cherish it with rejoicing. It must be noted in respect of the feeding of the five thousand, that while the other evangelists merely relate the deed as done for the necessities of the multitude, St John records also the use our Lord made of the miracle. It was the outcome of his essential relation to humanity. Of humanity he was ever the sustaining food. To humanity he was about to give himself in an act of such utter devotion as could only be shadowed--now in the spoken, afterwards in the acted symbol of the eucharist. The miracle was a type of his life as the life of the world, a sign that from him flows all the weal of his creatures. The bread we eat is but its outer husk: the true bread is the Lord himself, to have whom in us is eternal life. "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood ye have no life in you." He knew that the grand figure would disclose to the meditation of the loving heart infinitely more of the truth of the matter than any possible amount of definition and explanation, and yet must ever remain far short of setting forth the holy fact to the boldest and humblest mind. But lest they should start upon a wrong track for the interpretation of it, he says to his disciples afterwards, that this body of his should return to God; that what he had said concerning the eating of it had a spiritual sense: "It is the spirit that giveth life; the flesh profiteth nothing"--for that. In words he contradicts what he said before, that they might see the words to have meant infinitely more than as words they were able to express; that not their bodies on his body, but their souls must live on his soul, by a union and communion of which the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood was, after all, but a poor and faint figure. In this miracle, for the souls as for the bodies of men, he did and revealed the work of the Father. He who has once understood the meaning of Christ's words in connection with this miracle, can never be content they should be less than true concerning his Father in heaven. Whoever would have a perfect Father, must believe that he bestows his very being for the daily food of his creatures. He who loves the glory of God will be very jealous of any word that would enhance his greatness by representing him incapable of suffering. Verily God has taken and will ever take and endure his share, his largest share of that suffering in and through which the whole creation groans for the sonship.

      Follows at once the equally wonderful story of his walking on the sea to the help of his disciples. After the former miracle, the multitude would have taken him by force to make him their king. Any kind of honour they would readily give him except that obedience for the truth's sake which was all he cared for. He left them and went away into a mountain alone to pray to his Father. Likely he was weary in body, and also worn in spirit for lack of that finer sympathy which his disciples could not give him being very earthly yet. He who loves his fellows and labours among those who can ill understand him will best know what this weariness of our Lord must have been like. He had to endure the world- pressure of surrounding humanity in all its ungodlike phases. Hence even he, the everlasting Son of the Father, found it needful to retire for silence and room and comfort into solitary places. There his senses would be free, and his soul could the better commune with the Father. The mountain-top was his chamber, the solitude around him its closed door, the evening sky over his head its open window. There he gathered strength from the will of the Father for what yet remained to be done for the world's redemption. How little could the men below, who would have taken him by force and made him a king, understand of such communion! Yet every one of them must go hungering and thirsting and grasping in vain, until the door of that communion was opened for him. They would have made him a king: he would make them poor in spirit, mighty in aspiration, all kings and priests unto God.

      But amidst his prayer, amidst the eternal calm of his rapturous communion, he saw his disciples thwarted by a wind stronger than all their rowing: he descended the hill and walked forth on the water to their help.

      If ignorant yet devout speculation may be borne with here, I venture to say that I think the change of some kind that was necessary somehow before the body of the Son of Man could, like the Spirit of old, move upon the face of the waters, passed, not upon the water, but, by the will of the Son of Man himself, upon his own body. I shall have more to say concerning this in a following chapter--now I merely add that we know nothing yet, or next to nothing, of the relation between a right soul and a healthy body. To some no doubt the notion of a healthy body implies chiefly a perfection of all the animal functions, which is, on the supposition, a matter of course; but what I should mean by an absolutely healthy body is, one entirely under the indwelling spirit, and responsive immediately to all the laws of its supremacy, whatever those laws may be in the divine ideal of a man. As we are now, we find the diseased body tyrannizing over the almost helpless mind: the healthy body would be the absolutely obedient body.

      What power over his own dwelling a Saviour coming fresh from the closest speech with him who made that body for holy subjection, might have, who can tell! If I hear of any reasonable wonder resulting therefrom, I shall not find it hard to believe, and shall be willing to wait until I, pure, inhabit an obedient house, to understand the plain thing which is now a mystery. Meantime I can honour the laws I do know, and which honest men tell me they have discovered, no less than those honest men who--without my impulse, it may be, to speculate in this direction--think such as I foolish in employing the constructive faculty with regard to these things. But where, I pray them, lies any field so absolutely its region as the unknown which yet the heart yearns to know? Such cannot be the unknowable. It is endless comfort to think of something that might be true. And the essence of whatever seems to a human heart to be true, I expect to find true--in greater forms, and without the degrading accidents which so often accompany it in the brain of the purest thinker. Why should I not speculate in the only direction in which things to me worthy of speculation appear likely to lie? There is a wide may be around us; and every true speculation widens the probability of changing the may be into the is. The laws that are known and the laws that shall be known are all lights from the Father of lights: he who reverently searches for such will not long mistake a flash in his own brain for the candle of the Lord. But if he should mistake, he will be little the worse, so long as he is humble, and ready to acknowledge error; while, if he should be right, he will be none the worse for having seen the glimmer of the truth from afar--may, indeed, come to gather a little honour from those who, in the experimental verification of an idea, do not altogether forget that, without some foregone speculation, the very idea on which they have initiated their experiment, and are now expending their most valued labour, would never have appeared in their firmament to guide them to new facts and realities.

      Nor would it be impossible to imagine how St Peter might come within the sphere of the holy influence, so that he, too, for a moment should walk on the water. Faith will yet prove itself as mighty a power as it is represented by certain words of the Lord which are at present a stumbling-block even to devout Christians, who are able to accept them only by putting explanations upon them which render them unworthy of his utterance. When I say a power, I do not mean in itself, but as connecting the helpless with the helpful, as uniting the empty need with the full supply, as being the conduit through which it is right and possible for the power of the creating God to flow to the created necessity.

      When the Lord got into the boat, the wind ceased, "and immediately," says St John, "the ship was at the land whither they went." As to whether the ceasing of the wind was by the ordinary laws of nature, or some higher law first setting such in operation, no one who has followed the spirit of my remarks will wonder that I do not care to inquire: they are all of one. Nor, in regard to their finding themselves so quickly at the end of their voyage, will they wonder if I think that we may have just one instance of space itself being subject to the obedient God, and that his wearied disciples, having toiled and rowed hard for so long, might well find themselves at their desired haven as soon as they received him into their boat. Either God is all in all, or he is nothing. Either Jesus is the Son of the Father, or he did no miracle. Either the miracles are fact, or I lose--not my faith in this man--but certain outward signs of truths which these very signs have aided me to discover and understand and see in themselves.

      The miracle of the stilling of the storm naturally follows here.

      Why should not he, who taught his disciples that God numbered the very hairs of their heads, do what his Father is constantly doing--still storms--bring peace out of uproar? Of course, if the storm was stilled, it came about by natural causes--that is, by such as could still a storm. That anything should be done by unnatural causes, that is, causes not of the nature of the things concerned, is absurd. The sole question is whether Nature works alone, as some speculators think, or whether there is a soul in her, namely, an intent;--whether these things are the result of thought, or whether they spring from a dead heart; unconscious, yet productive of conscious beings, to think, yea, speculate eagerly concerning a conscious harmony hinted at in their broken music and conscious discord; beings who, although thus born of unthinking matter, invent the notion of an all lovely, perfect, self-denying being, whose thought gives form to matter, life to nature, and thought to man--subjecting himself for their sakes to the troubles their waywardness has brought upon them, that they too may at length behold a final good--may see the Holy face to face--think his thoughts and will his wisdom!

      That things should go by a law which does not recognize the loftiest in him, a man feels to be a mockery of him. There lies little more satisfaction in such a condition of things than if the whole were the fortuitous result of ever conflicting, never combining forces. Wherever individual and various necessity, choice, and prayer, come in, there must be the present God, able and ready to fit circumstances to the varying need of the thinking, willing being he has created. Machinery will not do here--perfect as it may be. That God might make a world to go on with absolute physical perfection to all eternity, I could easily believe; but where the gain?--nay, where the fitness, if he would train thinking beings to his own freedom? For such he must be ever present, ever have room to order things for their growth and change and discipline and enlightenment. The present living idea informing the cosmos, is nobler than all forsaken perfection--nobler, as a living man is nobler than an automaton.

      If one should say: "The laws of God ought to admit of no change," I answer: The same working of unalterable laws might under new circumstances look a breach of those laws. That God will never alter his laws, I fully admit and uphold, for they are the outcome of his truth and fact; but that he might not act in ways unrecognizable by us as consistent with those laws, I have yet to see reason ere I believe. Why should his perfect will be limited by our understanding of that will? Should he be paralyzed because we are blind? That he should ever require us to believe of him what we think wrong, I do not believe; that he should present to our vision what may be inconsistent with our half-digested and constantly changing theories, I can well believe. Why not--if only to keep us from petrifying an imperfect notion, and calling it an Idea? What I would believe is, that a present God manages the direction of those laws, even as a man, in his inferior way, works out his own will in the midst and by means of those laws. Shall God create that which shall fetter and limit and enslave himself? What should his laws, as known to us, be but the active mode in which he embodies certain truths--that mode also the outcome of his own nature? If so, they must be always capable of falling in with any, if not of effecting every, expression of his will.

      There remains but one miracle of this class to consider--one to some minds involving greater difficulties than all the rest. They say the story of the fish with a piece of money in its mouth is more like one of the tales of eastern fiction than a sober narrative of the quiet-toned gospel. I acknowledge a likeness: why might there not be some likeness between what God does and what man invents? But there is one noticeable difference: there is nothing of colour in the style of the story. No great rock, no valley of diamonds, no earthly grandeur whatever is hinted at in the poor bare tale. Peter had to do with fishes every day of his life: an ordinary fish, taken with the hook, was here the servant of the Lord--and why should not the poor fish have its share in the service of the Master? Why should it not show for itself and its kind that they were utterly his? that along with the waters in which they dwelt, and the wind which lifteth up the waves thereof, they were his creatures, and gladly under his dominion? What the scaly minister brought was no ring, no rich jewel, but a simple piece of money, just enough, I presume, to meet the demand of those whom, although they had no legal claim, our Lord would not offend by a refusal; for he never cared to stand upon his rights, or treat that as a principle which might be waived without loss of righteousness. I take for granted that there was no other way at hand for those poor men to supply the sum required of them.

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See Also:
   1 - The Beginning of Miracles
   2 - The Cure of Simon's Wife's Mother
   3 - Miracles of Healing Unsolicited
   4 - Miracles of Healing Solicited by the Sufferers
   5 - Miracles Granted to the Prayer of Friends
   6 - The Casting Out of Devils
   7 - The Raising of the Dead
   8 - The Government of Nature
   9 - Miracles of Destruction
   10 - The Resurrection
   11 - The Transfiguration


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