Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Gum and cigarettes

I once knew a woman named Mary. She told me this story. One time, she was walking around in Baltimore, and she saw a man on the street who looked bedraggled and hungry. God told her, she says, to pop in at the 7-Eleven to pick up lunch for this guy. As she headed to the cash register, she felt an impulse to purchase a pack of gum. She gave the bag of food to the hungry man, and he thanked her, and asked her if she had any cigarettes. 'No, but is gum okay?' She says that he said yes.

Mary takes this impulse to pick up the pack of gum, when she wouldn't ordinarily have thought to, as a sign of God's work in her life.

I call shenanigans.

What smoker thinks finds gum to be a satisfying substitute for nicotine?

Worse, though, Mary thinks that God's telling her to pick up a pack of gum, and the hungry man's acceptance of it, is a satisfying reason to believe in God. That she doesn't see God smiting with plagues or healing lepers or parting seas or raising the dead doesn't bother her, because she's settled for God telling her to pick up a pack of gum. If God is real the way that Mary says that she thinks he is, she wouldn't bother telling this story about the gum‚ she would find it mundane.

When believers tell lame stories, I lose confidence that God is real.


  1. But who are you decide that it's lame & mundane? I see what you're saying, but I am so not convinced that you have the standard.

  2. So, since we don't see God raising the dead or sending plagues, what does that imply? Do you think it implies that God doesn't exist? Or is it simply that God hasn't done any of those things around you?

    The reason I ask is that people (including me) think that because the Bible is full of stories about miracles, that means that God should perform miracles frequently. If we don't see any miracles, then either He doesn't exist, or there's something wrong with us.

    But, the Bible covers at least 2000 years of history. I haven't counted the times that God performed miracles, but let's just guess and say there are 2000 recorded in the Bible. That means that there were an average of one per year. Not very frequent.

    Worse, they weren't evenly distributed. When Moses was around, there were a lot. Same for Elijah and Elisha. When Jesus was here, there were *a lot*.

    But in between, not so much. They had one prophet every hundred years or so, and he saw the future. Maybe he also had some signs or wonders to prove his point.

    Maybe we're in one of the lulls. That would explain a lot. But maybe when Jesus came He changed the statistics; in that case, we should expect miracles to happen like they did in the New Testament. Maybe I can expect to directly see several miracles in my lifetime. Or maybe it's supposed to be more than that.

    I don't have a point, I'm just thinking out loud. (-:

  3. Tim: If God is the loving dad that we see in the Bible, we would absolutely expect him to be concerned with and work in lame and mundane things, because he would be concerned with the minutiae of our lives. However, picking up or not picking up gum is not something verifiably supernatural. What does it mean if we see God only in small ways that can be fudged?

  4. I agree with you, Tim, I don't have the standard. However, if you look at the Bible, far bigger things than gum and cigarettes are cited. Small things happen, too; the stories of Ruth and Esther don't attribute anything to the supernatural. God works most of the time through providence. It's dangerous, though, for God to work in these small invisible ways, but for us to think of this as God's work in surprising and verifiable ways.

  5. Josh: To believe in God, we need to start from unbelief. What do you see that would imply God is real? Resurrection and plagues would imply that God is real to me. If God is doing things, but not around me, I still am not given a good reason to believe in God, unless I go to those places and see something peculiar, and maybe I should.

    I like your analysis of miracle frequency. I don't grieve God for not doing more than one miracle a year, nor for bunching them up. However, I identify two explanations for the dearth of supernatural experiences (I think you see this, too):
    1 God is not real
    2 We're in a lull
    If God is not real, we should learn to make meaning for ourselves. If God is real, but we're in a lull, we need to ask ourselves why. The people of Judah were in Babylon because of idolatry and injustice. That we aren't seeing signs should make us concerned and grieved, because, if God is real, this may be a sign that he is angry at us and is giving us time to repent.

  6. I already made this point to Alex directly, but I will share it here for the edification of the internet. What I will say will probably sound conveniently vague, but it is the best answer that I have.

    First of all, the reason why we have the miracle stories in the Bible in the first place is so that we might believe, not so that we might question why we aren't seeing miracles in the first place. I know Alex disagrees with me strenuously on this point, but I think there is something to be said for the fact that we have the Bible and the people in the Bible didn't.

    The question of faith and doubt in the Bible is primarily one of heart orientation-- even people who saw the miracles of Jesus didn't believe in Him because their hearts were not humble enough to submit to Him. The man who was healed in John 5 and the Pharisees in John 9 are great examples of this-- even encountering a miracle by Jesus, they don't truly repent.

    Jesus always confronts us on His terms and not on ours.

  7. Matthew, that is not very seeker-sensitive of him.

  8. Tim, that comment elicited a chuckle from me.

  9. Matthew,
    On your first point, the stories in the Bible are supposed to be records of people's experiences with God. One one hand, they are encouraging to us, because they do point to God being real and loving. On the other hand, we ought to expect these experiences to be accessible to us, also. When Mark ends his Gospel with the women being told to meet Jesus in Galilee, the story ends abruptly as they run fearful from the tomb. The young man at the tomb tells them to go to Galilee, but he tells us to, also.

    I agree that faith and doubt, in the Bible, are treated as matters of orientation rather than intellectual assent. The Bible says little of how honest doubters who want to believe; this is a different sort of doubt.

    Because of the incarnation, Jesus confronts us on his terms in one sense, and on ours in another. He became human so that we could know him, he encountered us on our terms. He also refused to be who people wanted him to be, and the Pharisees were disappointed, confusing, and angry, because Jesus did not come to them on their terms.

  10. Is it shallow to take this as some kind of proof of God? Yes, I guess it is. I sometimes wonder, when hearing stories like this, if we Christians are grasping at straws. :/

    But as encouragement that God is working in one's life? I think that the gum story is legitimate. There have only been a couple of times in my life where I felt God working powerfully and in a large way. I have seen someone healed in a way I consider miraculous, but not in the laying-on-of-hands faith healing sense. If you don't count things like that, then I haven't seen any "miracles."

    So I sometimes take stories like this one as confirmation of what I believe and feel. Little ways of seeing God's hand in my life and the lives of others.

    "God works most of the time through providence. It's dangerous, though, for God to work in these small invisible ways, but for us to think of this as God's work in surprising and verifiable ways."

    I think that distinction is what I'm getting at. :) I think I can be in awe of the miracles in the Bible while at the same time marveling at the smaller ways that God works in my own life.

  11. if deciding to purchase a product that you don't normally buy and have that product "come in handy" later constitutes a miracle, then the term 'miracle' is vacuous. miracles, by definition, are (at the very least) extraordinary instances. if they can be as common as what is purchased at a 7-11, the term 'miracle' can be easily replaced with 'something that happens relatively frequently' (also known as 'an event').

    it's like this: if everyone could fly, see through walls, run faster than a locomotive, and change in a telephone booth at the drop of a hat, there'd be no point in calling superman 'super.' he'd just be 'a dude.'