In ancient Israel, the high priests wore a vest that had two stones on it called the Urim and Thummim. Whenever a question about God’s will was brought to the priest, he would ask God to give the answer. If the stone on the left glowed, it indicated divine approval. If the stone on the right glowed instead, it indicated God’s disapproval.

Have you ever wished you were an Israelite who could get Yes and No answers like that straight from God? Decision-making would be less confusing, since you would not have to be afraid of choosing the wrong thing.

The Bible tells the story of a man by the name of Gideon, who was told by an angel that he, an unremarkable young man, would be the one to free the people of Israel from their foreign oppressors. Doubting his own qualifications and somewhat fearful of leading an armed revolt, Gideon made a proposition to God. “I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor,” he said, “and the next morning, if there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground around it is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand” (Judges 6:37).

So that night Gideon set a fleece outside. The next morning, the fleece was soaking wet and the ground around it was dry. Gideon squeezed the fleece and wrung out a bowlful of water. But Gideon was still fearful, so he asked God to reverse the sign. “Allow me one more test with the fleece,” he said, “but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew” (verse 39). Again, Gideon set the fleece outside, and the next morning the fleece was perfectly dry while the ground all around it was covered with dew.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all get divine answers like that to all of our perplexing problems? There have been times when I needed to make a decision and did some “fleecing.”

I know some Christians who have indeed been guided by God with a special sign. However, I also know of many sincere Christians who were disappointed after they followed what they thought was a clear sign from God. So, what makes signs seemingly work at times and fail miserably in other situations?

Is God a cosmic GPS?

A very basic question is why we are asking for a sign. Are we trying to use God as a cosmic GPS to tell us the shortest way to get from point A to point B? While this desire on our part is understandable, God is more interested in developing a loving relationship with us.

Discovering God’s specific plans for our lives is a natural result of a vibrant relationship with Him, not its substitute. Otherwise, Christianity becomes a superstitious and shallow practice. We need first an intimate relationship with God.

Then, God may choose to talk to us through the Bible, through a friend, using circumstances or yes, even a sign now and then. And in all these ways we will be able to recognise His voice, because we will be used to hearing Him speak to us.

I will share with you five reasons for not asking God for a sign.

1. To take a shortcut

Imagine that I want a better-paying job, but I do not want to put in the effort of getting it. So, I pray, “Lord, if You want me to find a better job, make somebody come to me offering what You have already chosen for me.” Perhaps I am exaggerating with this example, but I’ve come to realise that at times, when I asked God for a sign, the reason behind my request was to take a shortcut.

Author Daniel Schaeffer says, “If the sign does not come, we can feel we have been given an ‘excused-from-work’ slip from heaven. In fact, we can start to believe that if we do not get 100 per cent divine confirmation in a dramatic way for specific direction in life, we do not have to do anything at all.”

We need to make sure that we are not turning the discovery of God’s will into a scheme by which we can put all the responsibility and all the work in God’s hands.

2. To ignore God’s revealed will

As contradictory as it seems, at times we may ask for a sign, not because we want to discover God’s will but because we do not like what He has already revealed. A new believer, for example, could be introduced to the doctrine of tithes and offerings, and disliking the idea, pray, “Lord, if you truly want me to pay my tithes, then make my boss give me a 15 per cent pay rise.”

How to know God’s will

  • Prayer. Whether the decision is major or minor, ask God to help you understand His will. This is especially important with life’s major decisions such as marriage and a career to pursue.
  • Wait. We humans don’t like to wait. We want to know which course to pursue now. However, unless an immediate decision is imperative, a good way to know God’s will is to let the situation develop—and pray while waiting.
  • Scripture. Does the Bible offer guidance? Especially in making moral decisions, the Bible’s counsel is invaluable.
  • Signs. When asking for a sign, make it a part of the natural outworking of events. For example, when seeking God’s will on whether to move to a different location, ask God to lead by bringing a buyer for your home if the move is in harmony with His will.
  • Human freedom. In some cases, God may be pleased with any of your options. So, after praying and waiting, if no clear answer emerges, then use your best judgement.

3. To validate a decision you have already made

Balaam provides a sad example of this kind of behaviour. This prophet was bold enough to ask God if he could go and curse the Israelites! God, obviously, answered his prayer with a clear “no.” Unwilling to submit, Balaam prayed again and even though an affirmative sign was not given to him, he went anyway. He had made up his mind long before praying. Discovering God’s will was only an excuse to Balaam, a pretext to justify a decision he had already made.

How often do we choose a job or a date or an investment based on our decisions about what we want? After that, we get on our knees and pray, “God, please bless this project.” Knowing God is fundamentally about surrendering our will and our ways.

4. To avoid waiting

I confess that when confusing situations take too long to untangle, I’m tempted to look for a quick answer. This is why signs can be so alluring. While we wait, we are powerless and dependent, and anxiety grows inside us because we can do nothing. But asking for a sign, especially if we give God a sort of timeframe or deadline, puts us back in control. Suddenly, God needs to answer according to our schedule, so the seemingly endless waiting is over. We have done something about it—we fixed it. And because we pretended to be submissive to God all the way, we do not have to feel guilty!

In their book Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God, Harry Blackaby and Richard King say, “If you do not have clear instructions from God in a matter, pray and wait. Learn patience. Depend on God’s timing. His timing is always right and best. Don’t get in a hurry. He may be withholding directions to cause you to seek Him more intently. Don’t try to skip the relationship to get to the doing.”

5. As a talisman or a luck charm

There is a general misconception that doing the will of God means living “happily ever after” and avoiding all kinds of failure and pain. If we adhere to this fallacy, we may find ourselves trying to use signs as a talisman or a good-luck charm to protect us from ever experiencing problems.

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The Bible has many examples of people doing exactly what God wanted them to and yet they went through hard times, persecution and even death. When Jesus Himself was nailed to the cross, He was fulfilling God’s perfect plan for Him. God’s idea of success may be radically different from what we have in mind. His plan may include some painful times and dry seasons. If we are serious about doing God’s will, we need to be willing to stick to His plans even when doing so hurts.

Vanessa Pizzuto is a freelance journalist and broadcaster based in London, United Kingdom.  A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand website and is republished with permission.