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15/5/16: is it right to ask God for signs?

Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised— look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.” And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water.

Then Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me.  Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.” That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew.

Judges 6:36-40
I’m finally going into writing with a line of thought which was I’ve been pondering for some time now.  Is it right to ask God for signs?  As always, interested to know what you think about this, very much thinking of the thoughts below as work in progress.
In using Gideon and the fleece as the starting point, I firstly want to address the question as to whether Gideon was right in what he did, before then asking the question for ourselves.  But before that, I think it’s necessary to make  few preliminary points which will help guide our interpretation of Gideon’s actions, which is where I start below.
Some preliminary points
Often Biblical narrative tells us just what happened without commentary  One example of this is Acts 1:23-26 when the disciples chose Judas’s successor, Matthias, by drawing lots.  Was that the right thing to do?  The Bible does not say, it simply records what happens.  It is noticeable that there is no further mention of Matthias in the Bible after this point, and there is a line of thought which says that the place should have been left open for Paul to fill it when he was ready.  Whether or not we agree with what the disciples did we can, I think, agree that this is not a model for how to choose church leaders!
That God agrees to do as people ask does not necessarily mean that people were asking for the right thing  Perhaps the clearest example of this is found in 1 Samuel 8 when the Israelites demanded a king.  God gave them their request – first Saul then David – but it is quite clear from verse 7b that this request was not appropriate, as God says to Samuel, “ is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as king.”
Sometimes it is right to ask God for a sign  The clearest example I can think of this is in Isaiah 7, which I considered in this blog post.  In verse 10 God through Isaiah offers King Ahaz a sign, when the King rejects it is is quite clear (verse 13) that this was the wrong thing to do.

Sometimes it is not right to ask God for a sign  The clearest example of this I can think of is when Satan tempts Jesus to throw Himself from the temple, and Jesus refuses, quoting Deuteronomy 6:16a, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” – the same quotation curiously as King Ahaz used, pointing to the care which needs to be used in applying Scripture.

(I would note briefly that, strictly speaking, I have now answered the question in the title, ie. sometimes yes and sometimes no.  Hopefully before I finish our understanding can be a bit fuller than this!)

Two other things we need to know about Gideon  Firstly, the fleece incident is not the first time that Gideon asked God for a sign.  Earlier in Judges 6 he is approached by an angel commissioning him to lead Israel against the Midianites.  And then in verses 17 and 18 we read:

Gideon replied, “If now I have found favour in your eyes, give me a sign that it is really you talking to me. Please do not go away until I come back and bring my offering and set it before you.”  And the Lord said, “I will wait until you return.”
The angel does indeed stay and performs various miraculous signs, Gideon then acknowledges the angel as a messenger direct from God.

The other point I wish to note is that, after the fleece incident - by which time God has given Gideon clear direction and two clear signs - we read this in chapter 7 verses 13 to 15:

Gideon arrived just as a man was telling a friend his dream. “I had a dream,” he was saying. “A round loaf of barley bread came tumbling into the Midianite camp. It struck the tent with such force that the tent overturned and collapsed.”

His friend responded, “This can be nothing other than the sword of Gideon son of Joash, the Israelite. God has given the Midianites and the whole camp into his hands.”

When Gideon heard the dream and its interpretation, he bowed down and worshiped. He returned to the camp of Israel and called out, “Get up! The Lord has given the Midianite camp into your hands."

Now, do tell me if I'm being unreasonable, but my estimation of Gideon goes down a couple of notches through this incident.  God has spoken to him and given two clear signs, but what really convinces him and drives him to his knees?  A dream retold by one of the enemy.

So, was Gideon right to ask God for a sign?
Let me put my colours firmly on the mast and say, the more I think about this story, the more I come to the conclusion that Gideon was not right.  Whilst we are not told exactly how God communicated with him (it is noticeable in the story that 'angel of the Lord' and 'the Lord' are used almost interchangeably) he has previously had God communicate with him very clearly with an associated sign.  It is clear even from what he says asking for the sign with the fleece that God had spoken clearly to him already:

"If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.
Joshua 6:36,37, added emphasis.

That God gave two opposite signs with the fleece is testament to His graciousness and awareness of human frailty.  As noted with the call for a King resulting in the appointment of King Saul, that God agrees to do as people ask does not necessarily mean that what was being asked was appropriate, and I think that applies here.  But I'm aware this in a view which can be contested, and would be very interested to hear defence of the view that Gideon was right to ask for the signs with the fleece.

So where does this leave us?
There is the call, in response to the salvation we can know through Jesus's death on the cross, to live a Christian life.  Whilst never easy, in some respects it is clear what this means - there is a call to corporate worship, to pray and Bible study, to witness where the opportunity arises, our responsibility to work hard in our jobs, there is clear guidance on family relationships and sexual ethics.

But beyond this, God calls some people to full-time Christian work, short of miraculous provision for these workers it is clear that this can only ever be a minority calling.  And those of us who do work in the secular world do so believing that we have jobs which are honouring to God, and may will feel we need guidance.  And in other respects, when general Christian teaching cannot tell us exactly what to do, we need guidance to be sure that we are acting within His will.  So where do signs fit into this?

If I may I'd like to give a personal testimony before returning to the more general issue.  I cannot now remember the precise sums of money involved in what follows, please understand the figures to be given for illustrative purposes only.

When I entered my last year of school I was very clear that I wanted to take a year out before proceeding to University.  I initially wrote to a range of voluntary organisations, Christian and secular, to ask what possibilities there were and got some very helpful responses, but nothing quite resonated as what I wanted to do.

I then wrote to a second group of organisations, including WEC International, a Christian mission organisation which operates across the world.  They wrote back to say that there was a position in East Java, Indonesia, tutoring missionaries' children and teaching English to nationals.  Immediately this felt like something I wanted to pursue further, far beyond anything else which had come up to that point.  I wrote back, an interview was arranged, they indicated that they would be happy to proceed.

But there was a but.  The position required me to find the money to support myself for the year.  There was no way on earth I was able to do that independently, I was therefore committing other people to be supporting me on a missionary basis, albeit short-term.  This was no small undertaking as you might imagine, which weighed very heavily at that time as I tried to discern what was the right thing to do.

The time came closer for me to get back to WEC as to whether I was accepting the position or not.  So before God I set a deadline of the coming Sunday, that if it was right to proceed I would be given UKP100.  The rest of the week came and went, nothing came, and then the Sunday itself arrived.  After the morning service a member of the church leadership team - whose name I still remember - pressed an envelope into my hand, when I opened it it was a cheque for UKP20.

I am so grateful to this person for her support in every sense of the word.  But I was left with the question - what do you do with UKP20 when you've prayed for UKP100?

The rest of the day came and went, and I was in the bath getting ready for bed still pondering this question.  When the 'phone rang, and a few minutes later my mother shouted from the other side of the bathroom door, that was my grandmother (who went to be with Jesus in 1992) and she wanted to give me UKP200, what was the best way of sending the money?

So I went to Java with WEC International for the year.  Not always an easy time but I learnt a great deal and I like to think I made a positive contribution (on balance, if I want to stay awake at night I just think back to the appalling way I tried to teach English - but, hey, I was 18 with no training, so obviously I knew everything about everything!)  To this day I speak better Indonesian than any other language apart from English, including Swahili.

So, was I right to pray for the money as a sign that it was right to proceed?  Yes, I think it was.  What I prayed for was entirely in keeping with the need for guidance, particularly that I was committing other people and not just myself.

More recently in seeking God's guidance one thing I do is think through the issues and arrive at a proposed plan of action, lay it before Him and ask that it would be made clear if this is not right.  I would say that the point Carolyn, my sister-in-law, made when  said a few weeks ago that I was intending to write on this theme, is very helpful: "Maybe the thing to ask is not so much, 'God, send me a sign', but, 'God, give me eyes to see the sign that you might send.'" 

Is it right to ask God for signs?  In general I think the answer is no.  We have the Bible, the Holy Spirit has come on all of us (I write this of course on Pentecost Sunday!) we have other people with whom we can discuss things and pray things over and seek wisdom from.  The exception, I think, may be when we feel we are being asked to take a big step of faith and need to be sure before God that we are doing the right thing.  We need to search our hearts and be clear that we are wanting God's name to be glorified and His kingdom extended.  Bwana Yesu asifiwe!  The Lord's name's be praised!  And yes, I do remember how to say this in Indonesian: Puji Tuhan!

So this is where my thinking is up to, do please let me know if you have anything to add - or wish to disagree with the above!  Two brief finishing asides if I may - I've finally got round to applying for a postal vote, we international types believe in making connections with the rest of the world, not trying to go it alone.  And very finally: do I understand that my British readers were inflicted with 'The Eurovision Song Contest' last night?  Sometimes being away from the mother country seems a very wonderful thing....

2 Comments to 15/5/16: is it right to ask God for signs?:

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Ruth Lee on 16 May 2016 16:05
Hi Geoff Interesting read. I try not to ask for signs. I recently had a chat with a chaplain about this. I am with your sister. I remember saying I didn't need signs but then realised there were signs littered all around. What about stepping out in faith ? Scary isn't it ? Hope you are well x
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Geoff on 16 May 2016 22:53
Thank you for this, Ruth. Agree with your point about stepping out in faith, I suppose I'm saying that we need to be sure this is the right thing to do. Which is now a bit of a contradiction. Going to need to think about this further, may be there's another blog post or two in this....

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