November 1, 2012
Fooled by

When We Try Too Hard
To Know God's Will
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I doubt there are many of us who at some time in our Christian experience havenít sought to know Godís will through ďputting out a fleece.Ē Putting out a fleece--or ďfleecing,Ē as itís often called--involves seeking Godís will through a predetermined sign. Usually the sign is unrelated to the circumstances of the decision we are facing.

Michael has been accepted by a graduate program at a local college and must let the registrar know by noon tomorrow if he plans to attend. Itís a blustery winter day, and the sky is overcast. Michael prays that if God wants him to enroll, his county will experience a significant snowfall overnight. The fact that it might snow, of course, has no direct relation to whether Michael should enroll in this course of study. Itís merely a randomly chosen event that he hopes God will influence as a sign of his will. This is a typical example of fleecing.

Christians usually base the practice of fleecing on the example of the Old Testament warrior Gideon, in Judges 6. An angel appears to Gideon, telling him that God has chosen him to lead Israel in battle against the Midianites, who have been severely oppressing the Jews. Astounded to think that he could be the one to deliver Israel, Gideon asks God for a clear sign as evidence. He places a lambís fleece on the barn floor and prays that the following morning it will be wet and the ground around it dry. When God grants his request, Gideon then reverses it, asking that the next morning the fleece will be dry and the ground wet. God again responds as Gideon asks. Gideon declares it a miracle and concludes that he is indeed divinely commissioned to lead Israel to victory over Midian.

The incident is unquestionably a fascinating one, and has inspired many Christians to ask God to show them his will through a specific sign.

A Puzzling Experience

Unfortunately, not a few Christians find that the practice of fleecing leads to frustration and disappointment. Take the case of my friend Brock. A Washington, D.C. resident, Brock had a long-distance relationship with Kelly, a Texan. For several years they corresponded, phoned and occasionally visited each other. Yet it was strictly a friendship, with no romantic overtones.

Increasingly, Brock began to have romantic feelings for Kelly and wondered what God had in mind for their future. Finally, a week before a scheduled visit from her, Brock asked God for a clear indication. He prayed that if God intended their relationship to become a serious one, he would see a deer sometime during the next week. Brock was attending a retreat in the country at the time, where the possibility of encountering a deer was good.

The weekend passed, however, and Brock never spotted a deer. He returned home assuming his fleece wouldnít be granted. Two days before Kelly was to arrive, however, as he was exiting the Washington Beltway at Tysonís Corner, he noticed a deer standing near the exit ramp.

If you live in Washington, or are familiar with the area, youíll appreciate just how startled Brock was. The place where he saw the deer is a highly congested intersection in the close-in suburbs of Washington, where deer at that time rarely appeared. Brock was so astonished that he pulled his car to the side of the road, stopped and stared at the animal, to be certain that his eyes werenít playing tricks on him. Sure enough, it was a deer--the first time he had ever seen one near the Beltway.

The sheer improbability of this happening left Brock convinced he had experienced a divine revelation. God must be telling him that pleasant things were ahead in his relationship with Kelly. Brock began to eagerly anticipate her visit. It would surely be a major turning point in their relationship.

Unfortunately, Brock was about to go from the mountaintop to the valley. While Kelly was friendly enough to him during the first few days of her visit, she was just as intent on spending time with other friends as she was with him. She gave no indication that her feelings for him had changed in any way. Finally Brock confronted Kelly. While discreetly omitting any reference to his experience with the deer, he told her that he cared deeply for her and wondered if she was open to a serious relationship. Kelly, surprised by Brockís sudden change, responded that, no, she really had no romantic feelings for him at all.

Finally Brock asked Kelly if she felt that at least the possibility of a romantic relationship was there at some point in their future. Kelly responded that she was firmly convinced their relationship could never be more than a friendship. Never after that did she change her position.

Brock understandably was crushed. Not only was there the pain of rejection, difficult enough to deal with, but also the baffling experience with the deer. How could a fleece so uniquely and distinctly answered not be reflecting reality? How could God have allowed things to transpire as they did?

Revelation -- Or False Expectation?

Brockís experience raises some challenging questions about the practice of fleecing. Is this a proper way for us as Christians to seek to know Godís will? And how should we interpret indications that come through it?

I suspect that God sometimes does honor a fleece which someone puts out in sincerity, especially when one is a young believer and not likely to know better. I once heard a respected Christian leader share about his experience as a young man, seeking guidance about whether to marry. He mailed letters to two different friends, praying that if God wanted him to marry his girlfriend, he would receive letters back from each of them on the same day. He didnít, though, tell his friends what was on his mind. When responses from both of them arrived in same mail delivery, he concluded that God had given him a revelation to get married.

Although his decision to marry proved to be a good one, he now admits that he no longer believes this was a mature approach to Godís will; God was simply gracious enough to stoop down to where he was.

I must say I agree with him. When we look carefully at biblical teaching on guidance, we do not find it encouraging fleecing or suggesting it is a healthy or reliable practice for Christians today. Yes, there is the example of Gideon. There is also the example of Abrahamís servant asking for a special sign when seeking a wife for Isaac (Gen 24). We also find many references in the Old Testament to casting lots--a common practice among the Jews by which many sought to know Godís will through a predetermined sign.

While there are several examples of casting lots in the New Testament, however, the last one occurs in Acts 1, when the disciples chose a successor for Judas. After the day of Pentecost and the giving of the Holy Spirit, in Acts 2, the New Testament makes no further mention of anyone casting lots. Nor does it report any incident where someone sought Godís will through a fleecing-type approach. Nor does it give any teaching on fleecing or make any reference to the practice.

The New Testament does give many examples of Christians finding Godís will through making careful, practical decisions, without any dramatic guidance present. The message in all of this seems clear: the Spirit-filled believer has all of the inner resources needed to understand Godís will apart from any need for fleecing. We should conclude that fleecing is usually a diversion from responsible decision making. It keeps us from taking responsibility for a choice, and hinders the growth God wants us to experience by going through the decision-making process.

An Explanation

But how, then, is my friendís bizarre experience with the deer to be understood? I realize I tread on speculative ground in suggesting an answer. Yet I suspect it lies in a principle that every athletic coach understands well. A good coach pushes his best players the hardest--not to break them down, but because he knows that they will benefit from the prodding and grow stronger from it.

Sometimes God mercifully allows us to continue with a spiritual practice that is less than the best. He is patient with the elementary state of our faith, and not willing to push us to a higher level before weíre ready. Yet when he knows that we can handle it, psychologically and spiritually, he may allow us a hard experience with the practice--not to break us down but to build us up.

His intent is to wake us up, to quell our enthusiasm for the practice, and to prod us to look for a more mature approach to spiritual insight. I believe that this explains otherwise inexplicable experiences that some Christians have had with fleecing and other unhealthy approaches to guidance.

And it may well explain Brockís experience. Brock, a remarkably mature Christian, agrees with me. He admits, ďI realize now that I was dictating to God how he should reveal his will to me.Ē While the experience, now many years in his past, was extremely hard for him, it did strengthen him spiritually in the long run. And one thing is certain: heíll never be tempted to put his faith in a fleece again.

Scripture is consistent in teaching that God seldom gives us a purchase on our personal future. While he graciously guides our decisions, his guidance comes not in a blinding flash of insight about whatís ahead, but incrementally, day by day, hour by hour, step by step. Any process that would pretend to produce a more certain insight than this into Godís plan for our future should be regarded suspiciously. And any insights that come through it shouldnít be taken as reliable.

It can be quite legitimate to ask God to clarify the next step we should take by opening or closing a door thatís relevant to our decision. But fleecing (when we ask God for an impertinent sign) is almost always an effort to gain more knowledge about our future than God is willing to reveal. If God did grant us this level of insight into his will, it would lessen our incentive to grow through taking responsibility for thinking through our decisions. It would also take away our need to continue to trust him to guide us step by step as we move along; our growth in faith would be stunted.

Perhaps worst of all, if God gave us certain knowledge of his will through a fleece, we would feel locked in to the guidance we had received. We wouldnít feel free to consider further alternatives or to change our mind about what to do, even if new information suggested we should. What if Kelly had responded as Brock had hoped, yet during her visit he decided he no longer was interested in a romantic relationship? He might have felt compelled to commit to it anyway. And if he didnít agree to it, he might have worried forever that he had missed Godís will.

God does us a great favor by withholding insight about his will for our future until we actually need it, and letting us discover it bit by bit as we move ahead. This leaves us free to stay tentative about what to do until the facts compel us to decide, and to change our mind when new information indicates we should. Let us rejoice that God gives us this freedom, and be thankful for the sense of adventure and purpose it brings into our Christian life. And let us be determined that no unhealthy spiritual practice will ever fleece it away.

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This article is adapted from chapter 13 of the revised edition of Blaine Smith's Knowing God's Will: Finding Guidance for Personal Decisions (InterVarsity Press, 1991).

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