In my life I have vacillated between rejecting the need for signs in an effort to ‘walk by faith’ and asking God for signs in times of difficulty, fear, and frustration. It’s easy to run too far in either direction and thus ignore the entirety of scripture in favor of only seeing a part. In Matthew 12:38-42 we find a rather famous passage in which Christ rebukes the Jews for asking for signs and wonders. However, many times we fail to ask a very simple question: why? As I drill into my philosophy students, many of the most important questions that we can ask in life are ‘why’ based questions. “Why am I here?” “Why should I believe?” “Why do I want to be happy?” “Why am I unsatisfied?” etc. Many of us focus on asking ‘what’ based questions, but we ignore the ‘why’ based questions on which they rely. In this passage we must ask the question, “Why did Jesus rebuke the people?” The simply answer is, “Because they asked for signs and wonders”, but this answer isn’t entirely correct. Consider Isaiah 7, in which God tells King Ahaz to request a sign from him, and Ahaz refuses. Consider Gideon, who (admittedly out of fear) requests signs from God and is not rebuked. Consider the multitude of signs that God provides throughout the scriptures, from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, to the parting of the Red Sea, water from the stone, the signs of the prophets, the miracles of Christ, all the way down to the miraculous signs done through the apostles. To say that God is ‘against signs and wonders’ ignores almost the entirety of scripture for the sake of a theological perspective that relies on a single verse. So, why does Christ rebuke the people?
A more fundamental question might be why does God give signs in the first place? The answer to this question is three-fold: 1) God gives signs to show his character (i.e. the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the parting of the Red Sea, the giving of water from a stone, the execution of Ananias and Sapphira), 2) God gives signs to encourage faithful response (i.e. the signs given to Gideon, the healing of the Lame man by Peter, etc), and 3) God gives signs to guide his people on the proper path (i.e. the pillar of fire and smoke, the signs of the prophets, etc). The miracles of God serve his purposes first and foremost. Through them he displays his glory, love, mercy, and justice, and by them he leads his people where he wants them to go.
Miraculous signs do not exist from the pleasure of man, and that is what the Jews were asking for in Matthew 12. These Jews did not want to believe in Christ, they didn’t intend to follow him, they were not seeking a greater understanding of God, and they did not desire to be shown a true path. Instead, they wanted to see something cool, which is often the by-word of our own culture. There is a vast difference between seeking a sign so as to more thoroughly understand God, and seeking a sign that titillates the mind. There is also a difference between seeking a sign because you doubt the power and authority of God (not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly a sign of weakened faith), and seeking a sign because you do not trust yourself to correctly discern the will of God.
A great example here is Hand. You might remember that I mentioned her in some posts a while back (I’m not going to go find them and link them, you can find them yourself). Hand was a young woman that I was attracted to, but that I had doubts about. I asked God for guidance, but I know myself. I have, several times, tricked myself into believing that God has led me to pursue whom I wanted to pursue, regardless of God’s desire. So, I asked God for a sign, a very specific sign, not because I doubted him, but because I doubted myself and my own ability to clearly listen to him in this particular situation.
This brings up another issue with signs. A sign is always specific. It is very easy to pull Homer Simpson’s trick and pray, “God, if you want me to eat this donut then do absolutely nothing.” While I have no doubt that God could easily smite a person with lightning, I also believe that God is willing to allow us to wallow in our own stupidity and self-will. God generally doesn’t divinely stop us from making stupid decisions (though sometimes he might protect us in those decisions). If you want a sign from God, make it specific, and make it antithetical to your self-will. Going back to my example with Hand, I knew what I wanted. So, I asked God for a specific sign showing me to pursue my desire. I did not ask him for a non-specific sign showing me not to pursue my desire. The latter would be easy to ignore while the former is very difficult to ignore.
That being said, signs and wonders aren’t the core of our faith, and they shouldn’t be the core of our faith. They are a part of the Christian faith, but they are a small part at best, useful for specific circumstances. If your faith relies on signs and wonders, then take some time to actually get to know God, instead of looking for miracles.