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Signs and Wondering

Over the last few weeks I have heard many stories of people who see certain events in their lives as signs of one thing or another. In fact, I could probably say the same thing about just about any period of time during my life. People are constantly seeing signs.

Of course there is always a problem interpreting the sign. In fact, in the majority of cases, the person who reports something they thought was a sign also say that they are wondering just what the sign means. These signs can be quite simple things, such as meetings that failed, an actual sign seen on the highway when one is thinking of a particular topic, receiving a payment (or not), and so forth.

I’m reminded of the great scene in the final volume of the Chronicles of Narnia (The Last Battle) in which the ape is trying to convince the donkey to wear a lion skin, which the donkey thinks is a very bad idea. Suddenly there is a thunderclap, which the donkey takes as a sign that he should not wear the skin. The ape, however, is quicker and says that he was about to say that if the donkey should wear the lion skin, Aslan should send a thunderclap.

Which presents the problem of interpreting signs–they are so tremendously flexible. The most common temptation is to use a sign to justify a decision that we already intended to make. A close second is the use of a sign to convince someone else that God is on our side in an argument.

Now I don’t have any problem with us using stories to shape the expression of our decisions. I think many people, myself included, need to create some sort of narrative to go with a decision. I also know that it’s a fact that often some event that I regard intellectually as unrelated, nonetheless pushes my mind onto a different track. At the same time I do know that the event is not a good reason for taking a particular course of action.

Signs can be a great deal of fun if you treat them largely as a stimulus to creative thinking, but they can be very dangerous things if you take them too seriously. As a general rule, the signs are more difficult to interpret than the original data.

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4 Comments

  1. Have you read Tony Dungy’s book “Quiet Strength”? One of the things I got out of it is what you echo here. I was a little concerned when I first got it, that he would be talking about how God spoke to him at every point telling him what way to go etc. In fact he really says the opposite, saying that he never had a big booming voice or “sign” as your post talks about.

    I particularly like one of the paragraphs he has at the end of one of his chapters

    “In the process, I had once again learned a valuable lesson. God’s plans don’t always follow human logic. I was finally a head coach, but it had happened in a setting and through a process that had made me believe I had no chance. We often can’t see what God is doing in our lives, but God sees the whole picture and His plan for us clearly.”

    Seems to say to me that while we might think we see the signs, the reading and understanding of them isn’t really up to us.

    1. I can’t help but notice how various branches of theism seem to have gradually morphed until they are functionally indistinguishable from atheism.

      Omphalos creationism is the classic example: of course the world was created, it’s just that God made it with the appearance of great age! This approach to signs and portents appears to be the prognosticative equivalent: of course these events are signs from God, it’s just that we have no clue what they mean!

      Two questions:

      1) If the analysis of signs is so generally ineffective, why not give up the whole concept as a dead loss? What’s the emotional attachment here?

      2) What is it about God that makes Him so darn secretive? Is there any particular reason why a God wouldn’t want to give reliable signs, or is it just a peculiarity of your particular flavour of deity that He likes playing hide and seek?

      1. 1) If the analysis of signs is so generally ineffective, why not give up the whole concept as a dead loss? WhatÂ’s the emotional attachment here?

        I owe you several responses to comments, but let me make a note here.

        I don’t employ signs to tell me what to do; they are part of the creative process that stimulates my thinking. I do get ideas in that fashion, but then test them normally.

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