The Downside of Asking God for Signs

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I’ve often heard people say that whenever they make a decision – whether it’s about a career, a religious calling, marriage, settling in another place, or working in a foreign land – they ask God for a sign. “Lord, give me a sign!” is the mantra of those wishing to discern God’s will to find direction. There is a downside to this practice, though. In most instances, people ask for God’s sign when they need a quick fix to their problems about relationships and money.

Life-Changing Situations as “Signs”

A priest once said that God works through our decisions and through events that we sometimes consider inconsequential or take for granted; events that may occur over the course of many years. I’d like to think that finding God’s will is more like finding His desire for our spiritual good and that of our loved ones over a period of time.  It’s probably not at all like finding it in one fell swoop or in just one event or situation.

We’ve all heard the stories of those who had one life-changing experience that allowed them to find a different path or direction in life. I once heard of an engineer who, after being in a car accident, lay in bed for several months. The long period of recovery got him seriously thinking of a religious vocation – and now he’s a Jesuit enjoying every minute of his work as professor of theology in a Catholic university. Perhaps God wanted him to practice his profession as an engineer first so he could answer the call to a late vocation. Who knows?

I know for a fact that my late father was not destined to be a priest because, when he entered the seminary in the 1940s, he contracted tuberculosis. He had to be isolated in a convalescent facility far from Manila and run by nuns while his younger brother took care of him. After he recovered, he took his illness as a “sign” that perhaps God wanted him somewhere else – anywhere but the seminary.

So he decided to study philosophy at the University of Santo Tomas, and he found he would benefit more from a career in religious journalism than in the priesthood. He soon met the love of his life (my mother) while serving in a parish in the heart of Manila, and then raised a healthy brood of five! Perhaps it was God’s plan that he study in the seminary for a while so he’d have a satisfying married life, or maybe enable him to write for a living.

Doable and Practical Ways

There are many ways of discerning God’s will, and it’s a relief that they are all doable and practical. For instance, we can talk to someone we respect (a priest, a wise older relative or mentor), manifesting our heart’s desire to them. Perhaps it is our plan to take up medicine or enrol in law school; or our dream of looking for a job that suits our academic qualifications; or our plan to settle down. Perhaps it is our sincere intention and plan to uplift the living standards of our loved ones and make their lives a little easier.

We can also lay all the facts before us to help us see the options. In the 1979 movie, Kramer vs. Kramer, Ted (played by Dustin Hoffman) was advised by his lawyer to list the pros and cons of pursuing custody of his only son against Joanna (Meryl Streep), his wife of six years. Although the movie doesn’t show whether or not he prayed to find God’s will in this matter, his writing out a list helped him to find out that there were more cons than pros. In the end, he lost the case after spending tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. (This reminds me of famous preacher, Fr. John Corapi’s, oft-repeated line: “God puts limits on our intelligence but none whatsoever on our stupidity.”)

It is also a good discernment practice to evaluate the fruits of our decisions. Someone once said that if such fruits are good, then we’ve made the right decision. In the case of Ted, we could surmise that the fruits of his decision (that is, alienating Joanna and the judgment handed down by the court) did not bode well for him, although the story ended with Joanna practically giving Ted full custody of their only child anyway.

Will It Do Our Souls Any Good?

Those of us who have habitually asked God for a sign for everything we plan to do may as well ask ourselves: Will this habit of asking for signs do my soul any good? Truth is: we cannot wholly and literally depend on divine signs all the time. God certainly does not want to spoon-feed us with His signs, especially those of us who are slow, foolish and unable to “read between the lines”!

First of all, if asking for signs becomes a habit, we should probably take a moment to ponder that God’s plan just might be different than ours. He has asked us to pray and remind ourselves that He always has a plan for us. We live with faith that the divine plan is driven purely by His love for us.

Second, shouldn’t it be that one’s faith needs no sign whatsoever from above? Fr. John Trigilio, prominent author, writer and EWTN anchor, calls this the ninth beatitude: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

Focusing on Our Final Destiny

Our discernment of God’s will is meant to improve two things: our temporal lives here on earth with the goal of bringing others to Christ, and our chances of making it to heaven, our final destiny. Finding His will requires us to take into account our own life situation. For instance, if a man is married, he needs to think of the well-being and welfare of his wife, children, and parents.

But the good news is that God’s omniscience and omnipotence also can bring good out of something bad. Has it ever occurred to you that even if we make bad choices and decisions, something good usually comes out of them? That is God’s permissive will at work. Who would think that the Cold War and the evils of Communism would have paved the way for democracy? Whoever thought that the moral and physical destruction brought by 9/11 would wake up many nominal Catholics and non-Catholic Christians from their deep spiritual slumber?

The answer to our question about signs, therefore, is our willingness and ability to be open to many possibilities, and not give up or let failure and rejection dwell in us. I believe this pleases God more than always asking Him for a sign.

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4 thoughts on “The Downside of Asking God for Signs”

  1. A better article would have been “The Downside of Asking God for TOO MANY Signs.”

    Obviously, we shouldn’t always need a sign to discern His Will; this article well analyzes some of the problems inherent in that approach.

    Equally obviously, we *should sometimes* ask God for signs. Would have been nice to see this article at least acknowledge that. Read the biography of just about any saint, and you’ll see them sometimes asking for (and being given) signs showing God’s Will.

    1. Yes, I am mistaken. How could I forget Isaiah`s response to King Ajax, “must you also weary God?” His sign, of course, ” the young woman, pregnant about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel.”

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