If you’ve spent much time in certain Christian circles, you’ve heard people refer to “laying a fleece before the Lord” or something similar. It usually means asking God to give us some clear, concrete indication whether something is his will or not:
“Lord, if this is the right job for me, then please have them call after 4:00 pm.”
“God, should I go out with Betty or Sally? I’m going to turn on the radio and trust that whichever name I hear first is the one you want me to marry.”
Where did we get this practice? We’ll take a look at the passage where we find the idea of ‘putting a fleece before the Lord,’ but first I think it would be helpful for us to see why so many are seeking this kind of confirmation.
“So God said to me, ‘Hey, I want you to put down your book and go talk to that person.'”
How many times have you heard—or said—something like this? Quoting something God “said” to us? It’s become fairly commonplace, hasn’t it? To be honest, sometimes I think this is done to raise someone up (or keep them) on a pedestal high above ordinary “laypeople,” more on the level of a Moses or apostle Paul. But even us ordinary, everyday Christians have fallen into using this way of describing our motivations.
But why do we talk this way? Is this really an accurate description of what took place? When someone makes this kind of bold declaration during a church gathering or a Bible study, I’ll often gently challenge them:
“Did you really hear God speak to you audibly?”
“Well . . . no . . . I didn’t actually hear God speak.”
“But God communicated those very words to you?”
“No . . . I guess I just felt that the person seemed distraught, and that God would want me to stop reading my book and try to help them.”
Now, there’s nothing wrong with the idea that God can direct or guide us, or that he can speak audibly to individuals. But there’s a big difference between saying: “I don’t know if it was the Spirit, but I just felt like I needed to pray for Jill,” and saying: “God told me to pray for Jill.” Have you ever considered what a young Christian thinks when they hear these kinds of bold statements? At first they think, “Wow, that’s amazing!” But then they begin to wonder, “How come God never directly speaks to me that way?” And then they either put us on the pedestal, or they decide there’s something deficient about their Christian life. Or they begin to fake it so they too can sound spiritual:
“I just felt led to go to McDonald’s today.”
It’s easy to start feeling the need to clarify every action or decision with something that makes it sound spiritually motivated. Suddenly everything we do is generated by some prompting or leading—supposedly from the Lord. “I feel that God is leading us to buy the Ford and not the Toyota.” The danger is that we’ll either slip into hypocritically playing spiritual games, or we’ll start confusing our own inner impulses as the voice of God.
Harold Bredesen used to tell the story of when he first came to New York as a young man very zealous to experience a Spirit-directed and empowered life. He was on the bus one day when he thought God was telling him to preach to the people on the bus. So he stood up and started preaching. One young woman seemed disturbed and moved away from him. Bredesen felt God was leading him to focus on her, so he moved closer. She moved away again—and he followed. Finally, she exited the bus, with Harold right behind her, preaching away. The story ends with him sitting in the back seat of a police car, wondering if this was really what the Holy Spirit had in mind!
“The bush won’t burn, and I’m all out of matches.”
Those who know me well know that I’m a sucker for a cleverly written book title. There are some books I remember only because of a memorable and useful title. A few years ago, Dan Schaeffer wrote a book that not only has a catchy title, but has some really helpful content as well. He shows how many of us—when we can’t seem to find God speaking to us through a burning bush—try to help God out by lighting one on fire ourselves! I guess the idea is that if we get the bush burning, God will respond to us and speak directly to us as he did with Moses. The problem is it doesn’t work very well, hence the book title: The Bush Won’t Burn, and I’m All Out of Matches.
Why do we have these expectations? Here’s one reason why: We read of all the incredible ways God supernaturally directed his people in the Bible, and we tend to assume he’s going to guide us in similar ways today.
But, wait a minute. How many times did God speak to someone through a burning bush? Exactly once. How many times did people hear a rushing, mighty wind and see what looked like flames of fire on everyone’s head? Once. How many times did a disciple of Jesus walk on water? Once. (Maybe Peter walking on water should only count for 1/2!) You see the pattern, right? Knocking down city walls, chariots of fire, turning water to wine—God doesn’t seem to repeat himself as far as a lot of these things go. He doesn’t change, but his methods do.
Elijah had to learn this when he ran to Mt Sinai expecting to see great and powerful manifestations of God, just as Moses and the people had seen long before. But instead, God greeted Elijah with a still, small voice, asking him, “What are you doing here?” “Yes,” someone might protest, “God may have changed the specific method, but he routinely guided his people in supernatural ways.” But is this true?
If you chart out chronologically the period of time covered in Scripture, and then note the times when God performed great signs and wonders, you’ll see that these events are relatively few and far between. We tend to think there were spectacular, supernatural events occurring practically every day in biblical times, but this just isn’t the case. Actually these events are included in the Scriptures because they’re extraordinary.
Usually, God only moved in these overt and direct ways during times of great, historical significance: the choosing of Abraham, the deliverance of the people from bondage, the choosing of David, the confrontation of his rebellious people through his prophets, the ministry of Jesus, the birth of the church, etc. Many—if not most—of God’s people had heard of these kinds of events, but never witnessed any of this themselves. We even see mention of this in passages such as these:
We no longer see your miraculous signs.
All the prophets are gone,
and no one can tell us when it will end.
Where are all the miracles our ancestors told us about?
Manipulation and desperation
There are real problems with seeking—and relying on—this kind of seemingly supernatural guidance. The process is so subjective we can manipulate it to produce the outcome we want, all the while convinced it’s God confirming our feelings. “Lord, I’m not sure whether or not you want me to apologize to my neighbor for losing my temper and calling him a jerk and an embarrassment to the whole street. I need to know what you want me to do. I don’t feel led to apologize. But if you really want me to, please make the 3rd car that passes here be a Porsche 987 S . . . yellow . . . with the top down . . . and the driver wearing purple sunglasses and a cowboy hat . . . followed by a hailstorm . . . and a solar eclipse . . .” See, look! God doesn’t want me to apologize to my neighbor!
But we can also get a panicky desperation to hear something—anything—directly from God, especially when we’re making an important decision. We start to use our Bible like a Magic 8-Ball. It’s as if we ask our question (“Lord, should we move to Akron or Albuquerque?”), turn the Bible over and shake it, open it up and stick our finger in for some kind of answer: Reply hazy, try again. But as Howard Hendricks says, the Bible isn’t a lucky rabbit’s foot. It doesn’t work if you rub it.
Putting a fleece before the Lord?
The idea of putting a fleece before the Lord comes from the story of Gideon in Judges 6. He asked for a sign from God proving that God would do what he had promised. First, he put out a fleece and asked God to make the fleece wet but the surrounding ground dry. When God did this, he asked for a second sign, this time making the fleece dry and the surrounding ground wet.
Notice a few important details in this story: (1) Gideon wasn’t trying to find God’s will. God had already told Gideon what he wanted Gideon to do. (2) Gideon knew exactly who was giving him these instructions. There was no uncertainty on his part that God was speaking to him. (3) God had already given Gideon a sign (at his request). God had caused fire to flame up from a rock and consume the meat, bread and broth Gideon had placed there (Judges 6:21).
So if Gideon knew this was God, and knew what God’s will was for him, why did he insist on ‘putting out a fleece’? Read his own words:
Then Gideon said to God, “If you are truly going to use me to rescue Israel as you promised, prove it to me in this way. . . . then I will know that you are going to help me rescue Israel as you promised.”
Judges 6:36-37 [emphasis added]
This doesn’t demonstrate Gideon’s faith in God, but his lack of trust. God had already given his promise to Gideon, and even graciously demonstrated his power. That should have settled the issue; all that was left was for Gideon to trust and obey. His putting out a fleece, demanding proof from God, is certainly not an example we want to follow.
“But it works!”
Many of us have stories of doing something like I’ve described above, and it seems as if God responded. Maybe you’ve used one of these methods, and everything turned out well. You got the right job, the right spouse, the ministry that was meant for you. But we need to be very careful how we interpret our experiences. Often all a good outcome proves is the mercy and grace of God.
In his book, Dan Schaeffer tells the story of a young couple who brings home a new puppy. They take the puppy out to play in the backyard, where he promptly chases a squirrel up the tree. The puppy is sitting at the foot of the tree, looking up and barking. The squirrel jumps onto a dead, dry branch that breaks under its weight, and he falls right in front of the startled puppy. For the rest of that dog’s life he would run straight to that tree and look up, barking expectantly, waiting for a squirrel to fall from the tree. He had assumed his actions caused the squirrel to fall, and so he expected the same actions to work again.
It’s easy to imagine the same kind of scenario between parents and their children. Your daughter thinks you gave her what she asked for because she cried, when that wasn’t your reason at all. Just because something seems to work, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Just because our actions are followed by a result doesn’t mean we caused the result.
Sometimes God blesses us in spite of our actions
not because of them.
So what have we learned this week?
- We shouldn’t embellish our interaction with God and make it sound as if he’s audibly speaking directly to us when that’s not the case.
- We don’t want to over-interpret our own inner impulses and confuse these with the divine leading of the Spirit.
- We’ve seen that the biblical basis for ‘putting a fleece before the Lord’ is very weak.
- We need to trust God and not try to push him into giving us more information about our future. And we definitely don’t want to manipulate some “sign” that only confirms our own desires.
- While God can speak directly and dramatically any time he chooses to, we see in Scripture this isn’t his usual way of interacting with his people. It’s not healthy for us to assume God will give us supernatural signs to guide us in our decisions.
So . . . then . . . just how are we supposed to seek the will of God? How can we know for sure how God is guiding us in our lives? We’ll explore this next week.