Concerning Signs and Wonders

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 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.

Recovery

There is always something else that needs to be done. This is particularly true in my job as I make my own schedule. You would think this would leave me with a lot of free time to relax, watch tv, read, etc. And I do take time to do all of these things. However, I have to make myself take that time. At any given moment in my life there is something that needs to be done. Papers to grade, announcements to post, discussion boards to reply to, blog posts to write, stories to write, something to clean, etc, etc, etc. Sometimes I’d swear that I’m as busy as I was in grad school. Given, a lot of these are activities that I choose to take on, but then, isn’t this true of most of the things we do in life? When there is always something to do, you have to make time to waste.

This is difficult for a lot of us. I know that, the way I was raised, wasting time was a bad thing. It was bad to relax, bad to have fun, bad to waste time. I grew up with the irrefutable knowledge that you always have to be doing something productive. So far today I’ve graded several papers, responded to about a hundred discussion board posts, had three meaningful conversations, met a new roommate to show him around, co-taught an Aikido-Jiujitsu class (back breaks… yay), written one blog post, and obviously I’m in the process of writing another. In between that I made dinner and found an hour to lie on the floor thinking about nothing. I’m sure a lot of you have busier schedules, but I wouldn’t call this an unproductive day.

That being said, we need time to recover. Whether this is recovery time from stressful ministry, from work, from simple stresses in life like moving or fighting with family members, or recovery from physical injuries (I think I mentioned the other day that I’ve managed to injure several joints in the past week), we all need downtime to rest, relax, heal, and spend time with God. See, God knows this. It’s probably why he required the Jews to take a sabbat. It’s definitely why he required biblical characters like Elijah, David, Paul, or even Christ to rest.

A good work ethic is a wonderful thing, but it can also be incredibly destructive. Physical injuries are probably the most potent reminder of the need to rest. While it’s important to be able to play (or fight) injured in the clinch, people who train while injured are stupid. They often wind up injuring themselves worse, and inevitably take longer to heal, and don’t heal as well. Trying to hike on a sprained ankle, or do kata on a broken leg is just plain dumb. That being said, I walked two miles in the rain yesterday… I think I should probably take my own advice.

The heart needs time to heal as well. Sometimes this manifests as a desire for singleness, sometimes as fear, sometimes as bitterness against the opposite sex (not the best manifestation possible), but all of these can simply be an injured heart needing time to heal and become whole. More than this, however, our heart’s need to rest in Christ. There are times when stress just won’t go away, when pain doesn’t stop, when it’s not what we are inflicting on ourselves, but what others are inflicting on us that is keeping our recovery at bay. At these times, it helps to have a resting place in Christ, a place of peace that doesn’t depend on circumstances. That’s the peace we’re promised.

Resting in Christ has nothing to do with circumstances and everything to do with the direction of our hearts, and that something that is worth relearning over and over… and over and over and over.