Mormon Miracles: Seeking for a Sign

Hawkgrrrlchristianity, church, Culture, Devil, doubt, faith, General Authorities, inter-faith, LDS, Mormon, mormon, Mormons, obedience, religion, scripture, testimony, theology 28 Comments

How much does God intervene in our lives?  More than we give credit to Him or less than some would like to believe?  Why do some require evidence of God’s will in even the most mundane aspects of life?  Is this seeking for a sign?

Mormons are certainly not the only ones out there who are guilty of “seeking for a sign.”  Many faiths use stories to illustrate evidence of God’s approval or disapproval.  And this is not to discount the idea that prayers are answered.  But it seems that there is a distinction between answers to prayers and requesting divine intervention or a sign from God that something is the right course of action.

So when does living prayerfully by faith turn into seeking for a sign?  Here are some thoughts:

  • Providence:  This idea is that God guides everything for the wealth and growth of His kingdom and church.  What it might sound like:  “God wanted me to be in that car accident so that I could give a Book of Mormon to the other driver.”
  • Aggrandizing Stories:  The premise is that divine or occult sources “testify” of the truth of the gospel.  For example, Satan’s forces have been “witnessed” surrounding the MTC, ready to destroy the missionaries if they leave its protection.
  • Wanting to be “commanded in all things.” Some things are either obvious or just too trivial for God to care about (I think).  What it might sound like:  “And so I said a quick prayer in my heart about whether I should order the beef or chicken, and I got a clear feeling I should go with the chicken.”  Now, I suppose if the beef turns out to be rife with mad cow disease, perhaps not so trivial.
  • Projection. Projecting what you want on God; making your agenda His.  What it might sound like:  “Sally, I know you don’t see this yet, but God wants me to take this job and move our family across the country.”
  • Fatalism. When we become something “acted upon” vs. something that “acts.”  The argument goes:  “If God wanted things to be different, He’d make them different.  Therefore, submitting myself to His will means I don’t have to do anything, and it will all work out.”

I’m perfectly willing to concede that inspiration occurs, and that we can be directed by the Holy Ghost.  But, at times, there seems to be a fine line between intervention and invention.  There are two main views on divine intervention:

  1. that miracles occur frequently and God intervenes freely in our lives
  2. that miracles occur, but are limited in frequency and only occur in accordance with natural laws

I fall firmly into that second camp.  So, if I’m right, why might people sometimes imagine more divine intervention that there is?  Here are some possible reasons:

  • We seek confirming evidence.  Everyone wants to “prove” a belief they hold is right.  This happens all the time on the b’nacle (and pretty much everywhere).
  • We want to feel personally important. If God’s involved in my life, I must be remarkably important out of the billions who’ve lived.
  • We want to absolve ourselves of responsibility. We can rationalize:  “This isn’t about what I want–it’s what God wants.”

According to McConkie, signs come according to the will of God and not the will of man.

  • Signs can cause the wicked to fear and tremble.  (Being struck dumb I suppose.)
  • Signs can help the weak in faith begin to develop faith in God.  (But “faith precedes the miracle,” right?)
  • Signs strengthen the faith of those who already believe in God.  (Vindication?  Proof?)
  • Signs can symbolically teach us of Christ and the gospel.  (I’m thinking serpents on a stake in the desert as a type of Christ, as well as the medical profession).
  • Signs can tell of important impending events in the world.  (Signs at the Savior’s birth and death in the BOM and NT).

So, what do you think?  How do you tell the difference between real miracles and signs and what we want to believe to make ourselves feel better (proven right, important, or doing God’s will)?  Is the way we gain an LDS testimony (a spiritual witness) “seeking for a sign”?  Discuss.

Comments 28

  1. Amen, Stephen. There have been numerous times I have looked back and seen the clear and unmistakable hand of God – that I didn’t realized at the time. If that has happened so many times that I’ve come to recognize in hindsight, I wonder how many times it has happened when I still have not recognized it.

  2. This post reminds me of a series of audiotapes I heard as a teenager, by Lex de Azevedo (not sure how to spell that, I used to call him “Lex de Raw Potato”). He essentially told the story of his life and career, with heavy emphasis on supernatural intervention. What I couldn’t help but notice, even at my young age, was that every time something went well for him, he declared it was deity intervening in his life. Every time something went bad for him, he declared it was the devil trying to destroy him. The problem is, those bad events were mostly the results of incredibly boneheaded choices he had made regarding investments, etc. I don’t remember specifics anymore, but they were along the line of him investing in what should have been an obviously risky and/or dubious moneymaking venture, losing his money, and then telling everyone that it only failed because the devil was out to get him.

    Even aside from issues of belief in deities or devils, I think humans bring most of their experiences onto themselves, rather than supernatural micromanagement.

  3. I am firmly convinced that I have the job I do right now because I needed to live in the area I do right now. Simply because my sons need this. It’s an expensive area, and we can barely afford it. We struggle to pay bills, and it is financially hazardous, and with the economy the way it is right now, I’m having trouble staying afloat. All that said, my oldest son is on the autism spectrum, and is getting some of the best social and service oriented support from the community and school system that he could possibly receive: attention and care that he SIMPLY WOULD NOT RECEIVE if we live somewhere else. We are in one of the top areas in the country for these services, and we are extremely lucky to be there.

    I searched for a job for nearly 9 months before I finally found the one I have right now, spent 3-4 months apart from my family while I did it, and nearly had a job in a very different location. I feel strongly, however, that God had a hand in my family landing in this area. I also have faith that the He will provide a way for us to afford to remain in this area despite the excruciatingly high cost of living and gas (ouch!).

    Does God interfere? I think sometimes it is very subtle. He does not coerce. He touches hearts and opens minds. He guides us as we are able to receive his influence. Miracles are subtle things mostly. Now do I believe that the big miracles–healings and the like–can still occur? Absolutely! While I may have my doubts occasionally about certain aspects of the gospel, there are certain things I cannot deny. One does deny personal experience that they have had witnessed by the Holy Spirit. It is unwise. Humans can be healed by the power of God.

  4. It may be productive to see God’s hand in ALL things, as the scripture says, but I don’t in practice. I choose to see God upholding the world in its entirety, sending his rain on the just and unjust. I look at the good things in my life and realize they are mainly the result of the sacrifices of other people. Ancestors, siblings, spouse, children, teachers, mentors, even strangers have done incredibly wonderful things for me and my family. Sometimes because they believed it was what God wanted them to do, sometimes they just felt it was the right thing to do. If God inspires every good act, I am open to that possibility. Blaming the devil is much less productive when things go wrong, however. We ought to recognize our own failures and correct them, as Nick has pointed out.

    In my view, God respects human freedom far more than I do, to the point of allowing things to occur which I never would. I confess I don’t understand it. I can’t arbitrarily assign some good things to God’s action and scratch my head in wonder at why He didn’t do more to stop Nazi doctors from diabolically disfiguring the innocent, or African tribes to slaughter babies. It makes no sense that way. The only reckoning I can see is the Final Reckoning at the end of time, not in our world or our time.

  5. Great essay topic Hawgrrrl…

    Personal revelation is just that….personal. It is difficult for others to understand something so subjective. HOWEVER…even though it is subjective it can have value in it.

    For example…there are times in my life where I have felt the Spirit and it has caused me to visibly change my behaviour to be a better, nicer and more humble person. Does that mean the spiritual experience I had wasnt “true to me”?

    However…I get fishy when people start receiving revelation for other people on a conditional basis.

  6. Hawkgrrrl, great post. This question of how much God does or doesn’t intervene in our lives plagues me. Unfortunately, I don’t have any answers. Sometimes I see God taking an extremely “hands off” approach in the world, which for me explains why there seems to be so much gratuitous pain & suffering and so much injustice and unanswered prayers. Then sometimes I see “miracles” that seem can only be explained as divine intervention.

    I remain completely puzzled and perplexed about which one God is. Take two examples from just this last weekend for me:

    1. On Friday I receive a phone call informing me that one of my friends that I lived with for a couple years at BYU was found at the bottom of his parents’ swimming pool. It is still a mystery how he died. He was a kind-hearted person and didn’t have a mean bone in his body. He left a wife and four children ages 6 and under behind. Needless to say, his friends and family are devastated. God could have intervened in numerous ways to stop this, but He didn’t. In this situation, I see God as a Libertarian God who takes a “hands off” approach.

    2. On Sunday, we began a Farsi-speaking Gospel Principles class. One of our Persian students who has been attending our English as a Second Language classes then told us that several weeks ago, she was so depressed that she wanted to commit suicide. (She is the sole caretaker for her elderly parents and her deaf sister; her husband and daughter life 100 miles away.) The next day, the sister missionaries knocked on her door. She said she couldn’t understand what the sisters were saying, except that they looked like good people and that they were telling her about free English classes at our church building. She said ever since she’s been coming to the church building each week, she’s felt a “power” that she cannot explain. It’s a “power” that is comforting her and giving her strength and she’s still struggling but now has so much hope. She said she wanted to know what was this “power.” This is the type of story I read about in the Ensign magazine and usually write it off as being embellished or “glurge.” But I heard this with my own ears on Sunday. In this situation where a woman is pondering suicide one night and sister missionaries knock on her door the next day, God seems to be an Interventionist God who is aware of pending tragedies and intervenes to stop them.

    How do I reconcile story #1 with story #2? I have no idea.

  7. Great post! A lot of important points. Especially this one: “If God wanted things to be different, He’d make them different.” I think this idea kind of lets people shirk responsibility for making things happen themselves. I thought this way early on in my mission in Japan–“If God wants people to listen to me, they will.” Only later did I realize how important having a clear and interesting message to share was, rather than the poor Japanese I was using.

    Nick – “every time something went well for him, he declared it was deity intervening in his life. Every time something went bad for him, he declared it was the devil trying to destroy him.” I have encountered this idea quite a bit with people in the church, and have to bite my tongue sometimes. While I certainly allow people to interpret their experiences for themselves, I think (as I said previously) that a lot more is left up to us than we realize. We humans do a lot of amazingly LAME things to mess up our lives (re: bad investments) without the interference of Screwtape.

    Andrew – Paradox is one of the things I love about religion, especially Mormonism. How can it be reconciled (in your case)? Lately I have been taking a more Buddhist approach to these conundrums. When I am faced with paradox, or conflict, rather than trying to reconcile them, or do any apologetic mental gymnastics, I just sit with them, and let them be. If that makes sense.

  8. The only God that makes sense to me is a “Distant God,” someone who created the world/us and sent us here — each of us with varying inclinations, propensities, qualities, etc. — to learn things. At most, I can accept a God that comforts us in times of trouble, but intervening in our lives for good or ill just opens up a Pandora’s Box of problems that are impossible to reconcile. It creates more problems than it solves. At least a Distant God is a God of order. A God that intermittently intervenes on a macro (human events) or micro (individual life) level creates chaos.

    If our lives are truly eternal, I don’t see how/why God would intervene in our lives? After all, we learn something whether he intervenes or not. For example, when a life is saved (and we attribute it to God), we learn about faith, God’s mercy, etc. But if the life is not saved, we learn about death, we say “God’s ways are not our ways,” or we say “God need him/her on the other side,” etc. Either way, God is great.

    It is interesting to see what kind of God the rest of the country believes in, whether an Authoritarian God, a Benevolent God, a Critical God, a Distant God, or No God. I once wrote about it here:

  9. Nick, I agree with you. When I look back, I can see the hand of God causing some of my hardest trials, frankly – but I also can in each of those cases why that trial was necessary. Understand, I do NOT believe that God is a micro-manager or puppeteer; I just think He intervenes more often than we think.

    The best (worst?) examples I have heard are summarized by the following two:

    1) Deion Sanders celebrates and interception with the “Holy Ghost dance” – thanking God for helping him make the interception. HUH?! What if the quarterback and/or receiver and/or any other member of the opposing team was just as good a person and praying with just as much real intent as he? That is SUCH an arrogant assumption that it boggles my mind. Unfortunately, it’s not that much different than assuming God will help BYU win in sports – the Mormon Miracle Bowl against SMU notwithstanding.

    2) A pregnant mother with 6 other kids gets killed by a drunk driver, and everyone says, “It must have been her time. It must be God’s will.” HUH?! God *wants* a widowed man and his 6 children to grow up without their wife and mother?!

    Yes, I believe God helps arrange some things (and I would say I KNOW that for myself), but I also think he doesn’t have his hands in everything we do.

  10. I sometimes think that we all signed a waiver before coming to earth.

    I agree with Nick on this, but like Andrew and Ray I can also see the the pattern of God’s influence looking back over time. Occasional miracles like the one Andrew mentioned also occur and don’t fail to amaze, but they are more infrequent.

  11. I would dare say that most if not all who post and read here are well into the upper echelons of humanity. From such a lofty position it is easy to look at the good in our lives and attribute them to God’s love and blessings.

    From the lower echelons it will appear rather arrogant. Explain to those in Myanmar how God blessed you with a good home and good schools for your children.

    I agree with hawkgrrrl. We knew the game before coming here and we are pretty d__ lucky to be where we are at.

  12. I agree 100% with Matt.

    When things go bad, I really dislike the “God has something else in mind for you” answer. Most of the time the things that happen in our lives have nothing to do with God. The search committee hires someone else. The hurricane misses the city, but the levees break anyway. A mother of three is cured of cancer. A mother of three dies of cancer.

    When we are able to see meaning in the challenges we have in our lives, that’s a very, very good thing. That’s a sign that we’re learning and growing in acceptance; a very important skill. But it doesn’t follow that our challenges are deliberate obstacles placed for our development by God the Micro-Manager.

  13. The Calling of a Prophet

    Section Five 1842-43, p.278

    Wednesday, Feb. 8.–This morning I read German and visited with a brother and sister from Michigan, who thought that “a prophet is always a prophet;” but I told them that a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such.–DHC 5:265.

    The Sign Seeker

    Section Five 1842-43, p.278

    When I was preaching in Philadelphia, a Quaker called out for a sign. I told him to be still. After the sermon, he again asked for a sign. I told the congregation the man was an adulterer; that a wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and that the Lord had said to me in a revelation, that any man who wanted a sign was an adulterous person. “It is true,” cried one, “for I caught him in the very act,” which the man afterwards confessed when he was baptized. (Feb. 9, 1843.) DHC 5:268.

  14. Those of faith, of whatever degree, relate to God based on their experience with Him. Therefore, we’re going to have a “spectrum” of thought on the subject at hand.

    Some feel God puts us on earth and let’s us do our thing. Those who hold this view will find confirming evidence for their position and can speak or write at length bringing compelling evidence and reason to support their position.

    On the other extreme of the spectrum are those who hold that God is involved in the minor as well as the important aspects of their life, even on a daily basis. And they can see confirming evidence for their position and can speak or write at length bringing compelling evidence and reason to support their position.

    The point is that both of these position are correct, as well as all positions or paradigms that exist along the spectrum.

    My belief and experience is that God will respond to us based on our faith, our point of view, or paradigm.

    The Lord gives us the scripture to help us see our possibilities, and when we’re able, he will give us the companionship of the Holy Ghost to lead us from where ever we’re at, to where ever we will let Him take us.

    And of course we must allow for the fact that we are imperfect beings, no matter where we’re at on the spectrum–we make mistakes and misunderstand, that is a given.

    I hope all of us, no matter where we’re at on the spectrum will take the Lord up on His offer to give us the gift of the Holy Ghost, and all that goes with it.

  15. I think life is a wonderful partnership with God.

    On one hand, the more we get in line with his will, the more he reveals himself to us, and the more willing/able he is to pour out blessings. IE, to receive blessings/miracles, we need to go stand under the blessing faucet. I’m not ruling out that sometimes we get blessings without asking, and sometimes we get blessings without doing anything, and the Lord causes his rain to fall on the wicked as well as the just.

    On the other hand, the more we learn, the more we can think, reason and do for ourselves, without having to rely on divine involvement. IE, in an answer to prayer, the Lord may say: “You’ve already learned how to handle that yourself, now go and do.”

    This work-and-obedience is sometimes seen as being in contrast to “relying on the Lord”, but I don’t believe asking for a blessing or asking for the Lord to do something, and then sitting back and doing nothing ourselves is the right way either. We can ask for those things that the Lord wants to give us, and do for us; which are the things we can’t do for ourselves. But then after the prayer, I think it behooves us to do what we can, what is in our power, to bring it about.

    For example, as the joke goes, if you ask the Lord to let you win the lottery, you then have to go out and buy a ticket.

    I’ve been on both sides of the scale, at times wondering why God seemed to have abandoned me, and at other times, seeing his hand in things all throughout a day.

    Our relationship with our Heavenly Father seems to have much in commen as with our earthly fathers. They start out doing things for you, then doing things with you, then send you out to do them on your own.

  16. Is the way we gain an LDS testimony (a spiritual witness) ”seeking for a sign”?

    I think it can be. I’ve always thought that this scripture suggested as much:

    And this is not all—it has been made manifest unto me, for I have heard and seen; and it also has been made manifest unto me by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, I know if there should be no atonement made all mankind must be lost.

    And it came to pass that he said unto me: Show me a sign by this power of the Holy Ghost, in the which ye know so much. (Jacob 7:12-13)

  17. A few conferences ago President Eyring encouraged the Saints to look for the hand of God in their lives. I firmly believe that when all is said and done, that the highest possible number of people that can be saved in the Celestial kingdon will be saved, and that because of Heavenly Father is the One in charge. He’s not an amateur at this, and He’s not just figuring it out as He goes along. Obviously, we have our free agency, and we can choose to go in directions opposite to God’s will, and then we’ll be saved in a lower kingdom than the Celestial…

    Let me give one example of a loving Father in Heaven looking out for me. About eight weeks ago I broke both of my elbows in a pool accident. Could God have prevented the accident? Certainly, but He didn’t. However, my wife was standing right there when it happened, and she was supposed to be somewhere else. 99 out of 100 times she would’ve been somewhere else, but this time was different. Coincidence? Highly improbable.

    A lady I home teach had been in the hospital for six months with pancreatitis. Ironically, she checked out the same day I checked in. Notwithstanding, that wasn’t the closest hospital to where I live, but having been a regular visitor I was very impressed with the staff and quality of care she received, and so I made sure we went to that hospital. Coincidence? Could be, but I’m gald I went to that hospital insteadof the one closest to me.

    Orthopedists make their bread and butter on knees and hips. However, a few weeks before my injury, a brilliant/pioneer orthopedist that only specializes in elbows and shoulders transferred to this hospital. I could write his bio, but I’m just hoping that you’ll accept it’s very impressive. He’s also LDS, which doesn’t make him a better orthopedist necessarily, but it gave me great comfort. Is there a timing coincidence of when he moved or when my elbows were broke? Again, it is highly improbable that the timing should be so close.

    Though I never hope to experience anything like that again, I can assure that even though Heavenly Father didn’t prevent it, He was aware that it was going to heppen and looked out for me. There have been tremendous blessings that have come into my life since then that are directly attributable to the accident.

  18. I listened somewhat cynically to a regular testimony bearer once with his experience of the month. He was walking in flip flops (did someone say flip flops are evil) at a remote home building site when he stepped on something sharp and had profuse bleeding. He got into his truck and drove to a friends home, which was closer than a hospital or doctor. He prayed in the truck, all the while, blood was gushing on the floorboards. When he got to the friends house, the bleeding had stopped. I couldn’t help but think to myself that this probably the biological processes of vasoconstriction and coagulation rather than any miraculous occurrence.

    I had another more personal experience where my wife’s early ultrasound showed a potential problem that could cause a number of birth defects, but none had occurred at the time. Study of the internet on the subject suggested that if no problems were noted, then there was a 70% chance that everything would be normal. The defects, even at a 30 percent chance, were difficult to face. We set out with prayers, a blessing, and names on temple roles, as there was not any medical treatment that could be performed.

    We in fact had known a child born with the defects of this condition, and he was doing great, but needed some special surgeries and prosthetic limbs. I wondered if this was God’s way of preparing me for a child with special needs. During the blessing, the inspiration was to learn to trust God and accept his will and to make no promises.

    At the follow-up ultrasound 12 weeks later, the evidence of the problem had disappeared
    and everything looked fine. We were joyful and relieved. However, given the 70/30 odds, was it really a miracle or was it just favorable statistics? If I was to bear my testimony about our joy, would it be received in the same way by the audience as I received fellow with the bleeding foot?

    I think the miracle for us, however, was both the comfort we felt that we had family and temple patrons praying for us and the power of the priesthood with us. We had done what we could and from there placed our faith in God. As the days went by, the worries became less and less until it really wasn’t a surprise at the second ultrasound because it was like I already knew that everything would be alright, and even if it wasn’t we felt that God would help us through whatever outcome existed. It was both a miracle and favorable statistics to us, but the miracle occurred in a quiet subtle way that could easily be trumped up by cynics as hoopla.

  19. I think the thing about this that boggles my mind has been brought up a few times, but it is the “directly attributable” aspect of this.

    Last week, a lady got up and talked about the fact that she drove through an intersection and missed an accident by mere inches. She knew that the Lord had watched out for her and that her testimony was stronger now than it had been prior. She attributed it to the fact that she leads a good, clean life and is a member of the church. I leaned over to my wife and asked her if that meant for each other member of the congregation, who have had accidents, if that meant they were not good, dirty, non-members. I’ve caused a few accidents in my lifetime and I suppose that it means I’m just plain evil.

    I guess I’m just bothered by how much people attribute to divine intervention. If I go around giving God credit for everything that goes good in my life, and then doing the opposite for the hard times, it negates the fact that me, and others have free agency. I think Heavenly Father will help put things into action, but how things play out, it largely to how we as free-wills interact with each other. I simply get tired of people just laying everything that happens in their live on some divine good/bad influence. The scriptures are full of bad things happening to good people and vice-versa.

  20. It is not ours to question, or even attempt to analyze God, but to accept Him. He’s already told us he’s mysterious. What more do you want?

  21. I agree with Matt and Ann; the problem with a meddling God is that there are unintended consequences and someone’s agency will be violated.

    My dad–who, unlike me, actually very much believes in God–related an interesting story; a friend was diagnosed with brain cancer. The ward fasted and prayed. The man went in for exploratory surgery and the cancer was gone! Miracle. My dad then shocked me to the core when he muttered that the man never had cancer to begin with. (His advise was essentially to keep your faith promoting stories to yourself.)

  22. “I agree with Matt and Ann; the problem with a meddling God is that there are unintended consequences and someone’s agency will be violated.”

    Not necessarily. I believe God has prompted me on numerous occasions without once interfering with or violating my agency. You say “meddling”; I say “prompting”. You might say “interfering”; I might say “inspiring possibilities”.

    For example, I am convinced completely that God inspired me and my father-in-law separately and distinctly in ways that made it possible for me and my wife to meet in a very unusual way. I believe He got us together, but I don’t believe in any way, shape or form that He “made” us connect and eventually get married. My agency wasn’t violated one iota in that process, even though I recognize His hand in the process with absolute clarity.

  23. GeorgeGT–

    Your post makes me think of a small, yet profound, little book I picked up reading last night: How Good is Good Enough?. The author, spends the first half of the book turning on its ear the Good People Go To Heaven paradigm, and its offshoots, that have infiltrated all religious organizations throughout history, including Christianity. I love his skeptical, fresh, entertaining attitude he applies toward cultural rationalizations of blessedness from God like you mention in your example. Now I have to read the other half. 🙂

  24. I was intrigued by the statement made by Andrew Ainsworth, “2. On Sunday, we began a Farsi-speaking Gospel Principles class”.

    What was this quoted from? Was it a recent activity? I am trying to find Persian LDS members throughout the world. If Andrew or others are familiar with some LDS Mormons, could you please contact me?

    Thank you.

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