Most spiritual communities make a clear differentiation between magic and miracles. One consistent factor differentiating the two is the character of the person. The character of the saint is seen as unassailable, being a person of impeccable character who is just, moral, virtuous, and a benefactor of mankind. In contrast, the magician is "Evil", willing to harm, manipulate, and deceive others to achieve his/her own ends.
Character, however, may not be an all or nothing. The Jews felt that even the greatest among them could be tempted. The Jews of the early Middle Ages believed they had tapped a source of true power through their mystical study and devotion. They believed that, like fire, this power could be used for good or evil. Its great temptation was its ability to entice the user to satisfy selfish or evil purposes. The saint was vulnerable (although perhaps in more subtle ways) along with the sinner.
Some believe that the source of power is different for magic and miracles. In the western traditions, the saintís power is derived from the Light of God, or the Holy Spirit and it is based in purity and piety. Power to perform miracles is always attributed to God as the ultimate source and His power is used to benefit others. Magicians, on the other hand, are believed to access dark energies and "depends on the whispers of the devil and evil spirits" for their power.
In the eastern traditions, miracles are believed to be a consequence of enlightened state of the practitioner. At a minimum, miracles come from a state of consciousness well beyond identification with the small ego self.
Many traditions believe that the object of meditation/prayer is important in determining the quality of the miracle. Shamen look to plants, rocks, and animals as source of specific knowledge and ritual for healing. Hindu masters point out that meditation on objects such as spirits, ghosts or certain demigods yield questionable, low level spiritual outcomes. The highest miracles derive from contemplation of God.
Magic and miracles also differ in the object of benefit. Sorcerers or black magicians use magic to benefit themselves or another who pays for the service. Benefits include material gain, prestige, status or other ego-based desires. For the saint, power is never acquired for personal gain. It is used for spiritual purpose, for elevating consciousness, for cultivating devotion to God, or for teaching.
Lastly, power and endurance are said to differ. The Sufi believes that true miracles, developed through devotion to God and the Prophet Muhammad, are so powerful that they cannot be produced by magicians. The power of true miracles is believed to be able to overtake the power of magic and destroy it along with all its paraphernalia. The reverse cannot happen. Magic cannot destroy the power of a miracle. The effect of magic is also believed to be short lived, lasting only as long as the magician is attentive. This is not the case with miracles.
Other factors may also account for differences between miracles and magic. Some of these might include differences in the techniques or the strength of concentration needed. In this sense, the Sufis may be right that the power of Godís miracles surpasses the power of magic because the saint has several advantages over the magician. The saint usually has a community that supports and guides the development of profound shifts in consciousness. He/she has powerful techniques for transforming consciousness and has often spent large portions of his/her life dedicated to doing this. Spiritual disciplines can build exceptional levels of concentration and endurance.
Magicians usually live in the larger community, often with another job so has less time to cultivate the strength and endurance of the saint.
A word of caution: much of our understanding of the nature of miracles and magic come from peoples who are arguing for the primacy of their spiritual tradition, viewing other traditions with deep suspicion. The negative label of magic may simply be a reflection of fear or intolerance of others (e.g. witch). The otherís source of ability is evil. The otherís intentions are suspect and probably malevolent.
In this same vein, the term magic and magician or witch has been used to justify scrapegoating. This projection of negative emotions (e.g., fear, anger) onto another has happened repeatedly across history using the justification of magic or witchcraft. The object of scapegoating may be another group (women) or another religion (Jews) and is very specific to culture. Research needs to be conducted exploring the conditions under which a people are likely to scapegoat and how people may be educated about the importance of owing negative material.
The differences between magic and miracles have traditionally been explained in terms of good vs. evil. These differences may better be understood in terms of the nature of consciousness at which they each arise.
First, the nature of abilities changes as consciousness moves from lowest to the highest states of consciousness. (see When above). The truly miraculous occurs in the very highest states. In addition, control over the abilities is positively related to states of consciousness: the lower the state of consciousness, the lesser the ability and control of the ability, the higher the state of consciousness, the greater the ability and the greater the degree of control. So, theoretically anyone who has cultivated these higher states can have access to extraordinary abilities.
Second, lower level abilities arise near states dominated by ego and are therefore subject to the egoic desire systems (greed, lust, envy, pleasure etc). Power-hungry, hedonistic, or, simply, materialistic individuals can and will cultivate these abilities for their own purposes. On the other hand, abilities here are weaker and more transient, than abilities cultivated at higher states.
Many spiritual traditions guard again the magician by strongly downplaying the importance of extraordinary ability. Others put limits on when it can be used and under what conditions. Usually these limits preclude the use of extraordinary abilities except for spiritual purposes and payment for services is discouraged. In this way the desire for material gain is minimized.
Today the difference between saint and magician is not as relevant as it was in the past. Extraordinary abilities are being cultivated in many settings. Intuitives practice subtle energy healing. Psi abilities are being used for military purposes, crime investigation and entrepreneurial gain. Scientists are evoking a variety of abilities for research purposes. In these contexts, the term magic is become increasingly meaningless and will become more so as we disconnect from older frameworks and secularize our understanding of mind and consciousness. Abilities are best seen as neutral in the same way as the knife is a surgeonís tool or a murders weapon depending on its use.
In these circumstances social context becomes very important. Our current economic culture encourages maximizing personal gain while lacking ethical constructs for the use the extraordinary ability. This could be a situation ripe for abuse. Ethical guidelines are clearly needed. Fortunately we can benefit from the work done in medical settings with respect to not harming or interfering with another without permission as well as legal boundaries that respect privacy and personal autonomy.