December 20, 2006

Sign Language

2006 1535 page22 cap REMEMBER A TIME WHEN I really wanted to know the Lord’s will in an important decision. We were considering a call to pastor another church. I went to the Lord with an honest and open heart. “Lord, somehow let Your will be known in this matter. Ruth Anne and I are willing to go; we’re willing to stay. Just speak to us. Lead us.” But eventually, there was no sign from heaven to make us lean one way or the other.
Why didn’t God make His plan clear? Or did He make it clear and we just missed the signs? We examined every shred of evidence and made a list of all the pros and cons of staying and moving, and the list came out even. All we wanted was to do His will.
As I talk to other Christians I find that my experience of inquiring of the Lord and receiving silence is not unique. What does it mean when God is sometimes silent in response to our prayers for His leading?
When we say that we want to know God’s will for our lives, what most of us are really referring to are answers to questions such as “Is it God’s will that I take this job, or marry that person, or move to that city, or buy that house?”
2006 1535 page22The Bible has accounts of individuals who also “inquired of the Lord.” Abraham’s servant Eliezer wanted to know God’s will when it came to choosing a mate for Isaac. And in the most famous inquiring of all, Gideon wanted to know God’s will when it came to whether his army should battle against the Midianites. He asked for God to speak through the “sign language” of the fleece. In spite of the fact that God honored these requests, it is nevertheless true that these kinds of questions don’t figure prominently in Scripture. But what about those that do? What do they teach us?

The Urim and Thummim

The Urim and Thummim were two stones on the breastplate of the high priest. This breastplate first appears in Exodus 28:30. A halo of light encircling the Urim was God’s stamp of approval to proceed. A cloud shadowing the Thummim meant “No.” Wouldn’t it be nice to have the same system in place today? Yet if we examine the instances when this inquiring took place, the details are not what we might expect. 

  • First of all, it was used only for matters of national, not individual, consequence.
  • Second, the one time that Saul went to it for assistance the Lord did not speak to him through it, because he had already gone elsewhere for guidance.

The Burning Bush

In Exodus 3:11, 12 we read: “But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ And God said, ‘I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.’”

Some sign! A sign that comes at the end of the process instead of the beginning! We want our signs and our guidance before we step out. But that wasn’t the kind of sign that God offered.

Gideon’s Fleece

It is the story of Gideon and his fleece that most Christians look to as proof that God will speak in sign language when we ask Him to. An angel appears to Gideon and the first words out of the angel’s mouth are, “The Lord is with you.” From that point on, Gideon is told by the angel that God will be with him in the days ahead.

However, at the end of this conversation Gideon asks for a sign. “God, tomorrow morning let there be moisture on the fleece but let it be dry on the ground next to it.” God obliged. Gideon then asks God to reverse the process. And God obliged again.
I believe that Gideon’s weak faith is the point of this story. The whole fleece episode is not to be held up as an example of how God leads, but rather of how far down God will stoop to reach us in our weak faith. So what are some answers with regard to God’s leading?

How to Know God’s Will

1. Faith is important to God.  Abraham set out, and when he got to the end of his “driveway,” he didn’t know whether to turn his caravan left or right. We are told that this stepping out without knowing was pleasing to God. And God seems to value a level of faith in Him that displays our confidence in His overall care for us rather than needing to see His signposts every step of the way.

2. God seems to operate on an entirely different plane from oursPhilip Yancey writes in the October 1998 issue of Christianity Today: “After promising to bring about a people as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore, God then proceeds to conduct a clinic in infertility. Abraham and Sarah wait into their nineties to see their first child; their daughter-in-law, Rebekah, proves barren for a time; her son Jacob must wait 14 years for the wife of his dreams only to discover her barren as well. Three straight generations of infertile women hardly seems an efficient way to populate a great nation.”
“At times,” Yancey says, “God’s history, leading, and thinking seem to operate on an entirely different plane from ours. What we learn about how God works is that often it is not at all as we might expect.”
3. God has given us the power of choice. When it comes to our salvation, God leaves that decision up to us. Doesn’t it then make sense to assume that if God allows the most important decision we could ever face to be left up to us, He would then allow us to make up our own minds about everything else that comes beneath that in terms of importance? Therefore, in regard to many of life’s issues, in which I want specifically to know God’s will, the answer may just be that God doesn’t really care one way or the other.
2006 1535 page22Yes, acknowledge Him as your Lord. Ask Him to lead you and guide you. But in the end, we should not doubt His interest in our lives if He chooses not to answer specifically. It may very well be that God is saying, “I will not try to take away from you the very gift to choose that I gave you. You are a free human being and not My puppet.”
Behind our house is a huge prairie. Often I would take our dog Sunshine to this field. I received great enjoyment in his desire to experience his surroundings. I wouldn’t care whether he wanted to run left and sniff around that rock, or run right and sniff that bush. It’s just nice to see him enjoy himself in this big area. I would intervene only if he were to get into a dangerous situation. Otherwise, I let him decide where he would run in that big field.
I believe that God treats us the same way. He has created a big world with many opportunities. Sometimes we want to explore over here and sometimes experience life over there. It just may be that God smiles and says, “It’s nice to see My children enjoy this world and all of its opportunities. I care not where they go and will step in only if I deem it eternally dangerous for them.”
4. God may speak and lead through different methods, but even these must be tested. There are many ways in which God may choose to invade our world and make His presence known. He may speak through thought impressions, signs, opportunities and circumstances, counsel from other people (especially wise and discerning Christian friends), the common sense of pros and cons.
The problem is that as sinful human beings we don’t always correctly interpret thought impressions, signs, opportunities, and circumstances. We may not receive proper counsel from others. And our own assessment of a situation by pros and cons is limited to what we know about it. We must acknowledge the reality that what we attribute to the Lord as His impressions may, in reality, be our own desires cloaked in religious feeling.
5. We should live for what we do know, not for what we don’t. My dad told me when I was 17, “Rick, cut the grass, take care of the grounds this summer, and at the end of the summer I will buy you a car.”
He let me know his will, and if I held up my end of the bargain he would become more specific in what he would do for me. The real challenge is to stop worrying about what we don’t know about God’s will and concentrate on what we do know.
It was Micah who wrote: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” We need to remember that the words of Jesus were to “seek the kingdom of God first” and the rest, so to speak, would take care of itself.

Three Conclusions

I offer three points in summary, as I conclude:

1. Obvious sign language is rare. And when it does occur in the Bible, it is for the benefit of others.
2. When God seems to be silent, with no obvious indication of His leading, then the decision is up to us as free-willed human beings. In His wisdom He knows when to step in and get our attention and when to leave us free to follow the desires of our heart.
3. God cares much more about how we live and would like to see us concentrate on that first.
Questions such as “Is it God’s will that I take this job, marry that person, buy that house, etc.?” may be issues decided by using good judgment. This good judgment, however, is to be based upon the knowledge of God’s will already revealed in Scripture. In the end God would have us wonder less about signs, impressions, and interpretation of opportunities, and much more about His will for us that He has already placed within His Word.
Rick Labate wrote this piece when he was senior pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist church in Aldergrove, British Columbia. He currently pastors the Staunton and Buena Vista Seventh-day Adventist churches in Virginia.