Even the experience of asking for Signs seems a little ridiculous to me. Is the trivial matter I want help with even worthy of God’s time? Maybe the thing that seems terribly important to me is of no great significance to Him – maybe His perfect plan for me doesn’t get down into that level of detail. And if that’s the case, perhaps I’m in for a very long wait.
And what constitutes a Sign from God, anyway? If a small gust of wind blows a leaf across my path, is it time for me to ‘leave?’ Or not: sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, after all, right Sigmund? And while I’m busy focusing at the leaf, am I failing to notice the real Sign from God – a giant neon hotel billboard that contains the phrase ‘Stay with us.’
Not an exact science, this Sign business.
That’s why I’m sometimes tempted to give God instructions on what the Sign should look like. After all of the compulsory I’m-not-worthies and I-beseech-thees, I cut to the following chase: ‘God, if you want me to buy this guitar, let the next song on Shine FM be a Chris Tomlin tune.’
Aside from how easy it seems, on the surface, to manipulate the system, it seems pretty presumptuous to not only ask God for a miracle, but to spell out the parameters of what the miracle should look and sound like. If we can just order up a Sign from Heaven, there’s no need to search our hearts and discern His will for us, is there? We can ask a question, tell Him how to answer it, shake Him up like a Heavenly Magic 8-Ball and get a direct, unambiguous answer.
That’s flawed on so many levels…
But it’s not far from what happens in Genesis 24. Abraham’s Servant effectively tells God to jump, and God says, ‘How high?’
You can read the story yourself, but I’ll summarize and paraphrase: the Servant is sent to Abraham’s hometown to find a wife for Isaac – his boss’s son. He prays for help and guidance, and comes up with a plan: ‘God, I’ll strike up a conversation with a girl and ask her for some water. If she not only gives ME water, but also gets some for my camels, she’s the one. Got that?’
That’s the code phrase he hangs his hat on? ‘Sure you can have a drink – and here’s some for your camels, too?’ I’m no expert on ancient Near Eastern culture, but if you’re near a well in the middle of the desert and somebody rides up and asks for water, and you have the means to give it to him, wouldn’t giving it to both him and his livestock be the common, decent thing to do? Not some over-the-top act of abundant generosity, but, as the saying goes, the least you could do?
In today’s terms, isn’t that like asking a girl for the time? Not exactly the pivotal conversation you build your life around. Couldn’t the Servant have come up with something a little less common – a little more distinctive?
But clearly, it was good enough for God. As we all know, it worked. The Servant found Rebekah, who offered him water for his camels and the rest is history (and herstory, too). So not only is God apparently OK sometimes with us coming up with our own rules for our miracles – He doesn’t even need the parameters to extend far outside what could very easily happen without His direct intervention.
Therefore, maybe the miracle isn’t in the fact that God touched Rebekah’s heart to trigger her predictable act of decency, it’s in the Servant’s decision to boldly put all his eggs in this basket, firmly root himself in the knowledge that God’s on His side, and go forth without hesitation. And therefore, maybe God’s blessing on the young lovers isn’t isn’t the cause of the miracle by the well, maybe it’s caused by it.
I’m suggesting that Rebekah is The One for Isaac because the Servant faithfully and prayerfully decided she was, and God honoured that choice. If the Servant had shown up 20 minutes later and bumped into Rebekah’s cousin Trixie and had the identical experience with her instead, the mother of Jacob and Esau would be named Trixie. And that would, in that instance, be completely OK with God.
But aside from Isaac and Trixie, my two favourite Bible stories about Signs come courtesy of Steve Martin and Homer Simpson.
In his 1983 film, The Man With Two Brains, Steve’s character is about to embark on a relationship with Kathleen Turner’s character. He’s talking to his dead wife about the coming romance, and he asks her to give him a Sign if he shouldn’t go through with it. The room erupts – paintings spin, tables shake, curtains open and close by themselves and you hear a ghostly female voice say, ‘Noooooooo! Nooooooo! Nooooooooooooooooo!’
‘Any sort of sign…’ Steve deadpans after the chaos dies down, apparently completely oblivious to the obvious Sign he was just given. Is he somehow unaware of what happened, or choosing to ignore it? Perhaps a little of both – he’s so bent on doing what he wants that his stubborn will won’t let his senses acknowledge the unmistakable signs to the contrary that are staring him in the face.
I forget the full context of this, but it’s just too funny on so many levels not to share verbatim the whole quotation:
Dear Lord: The gods have been good to me. For the first time in my life, everything is absolutely perfect just the way it is. So here’s the deal: You freeze everything the way it is, and I won’t ask for anything more. If that is OK, please give me absolutely no Sign (He pauses for about a second and a half). OK, deal. In gratitude, I present you this offering of cookies and milk. If you want me to eat them for you, give me no sign. (Another 1.5-second pause.) Thy will be done (Munch munch munch).
I think there’s a little of both Homer and Steve in all of us.
We concoct signs to tell us what we want to hear and we ignore genuine signals we don’t like, and end up doing exactly what we wanted in the first place – feeling extra confident in the decision, based on what we believe are marching orders from God, via the so-called signs we supposedly did or didn’t receive.
And in light of that, I, for one, am tempted not to bother asking for Signs. Since I’ll probably miss the real ones and mistake false ones, I might as well not go down this pitfall-heavy blind alley and just pray for internal discernment and try to work it out for myself, with God’s help. Isn’t looking for Signs just a way of avoiding the unpleasant job of making tough decisions?
Maybe, baldy, but don’t say it like it’s a bad thing…
Hmm. Getting back to Homer, is his ‘give me absolutely no Sign’ approach really that much more audacious and presumptuous than that of Abraham’s Servant? And if that’s the case, maybe Homer is closer to God’s heart on this than I am.
What if the linear, sequential details of our lives are really not that critical to the ability of God to put His plan for the world into action? What if He can make any of our decisions work to further His glory – regardless of whether we’ve zigged or zagged in this particular instance – as long as our choices were truly motivated by an earnest desire to serve Him?
If that’s the case, does that explain why when we ask God a ‘This or That?’ question, His answer often seems to feel more like ‘Yup’? As if He takes a page from Yogi Berra: ‘When you see a fork in the road, take it.’ As if choosing Option 1 or Option 2 isn’t the point, it’s only choosing Christ that matters, and God will honour any action taken in that context.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t pray for signs from God when we’re faced with key decisions. We should. And when we’re presented with signs, we should pray for help in determining whether these signs truly represent God’s will for us.
But when clarity remains elusive, and we can’t decide whether this is a Sign, or if it’s all in our heads, maybe we should remember what Dumbledore says to Harry in one of the closing chapters of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry. But why on Earth should that mean that it is not real?”
Peace be with you.