In the gospel of Matthew chapter sixteen, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees and Sadducees because they ask for a sign from heaven that would satisfy their demands for proof that God is truly among them in the flesh. His response, “A wicked and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it…” To be sure these came to test Jesus and did not have good intentions. Even so, it is a universal error to seek signs when we desire to know God’s will and purpose for us.
St. John of the Cross spills much ink in this realm as well. He repeatedly warns that the seeking of signs and mystical experiences is fraught with much delusion and deception. St. Teresa of Avila goes so far as to say that if one were to receive a vision and Jesus appeared and directed the soul to do a thing, and the soul’s spiritual director told them to do something different, that they should follow their spiritual director’s admonitions? Why is this?
The answer is not complex, and it is found in part in an oft-repeated axiom of Apostoli Viae, “The human person has an infinite capacity for self-delusion.” Sts John and Teresa warn us against seeking signs because of our capacity for self-delusion, deception, and rationalization – because of our innate narcissism. Thus we are warned to seek the normative means of discernment concerning how we follow God and learn to know His will.
What are the normative means? The answer is simple; we live for Jesus the way He taught us to live in scripture and the magisterium of the Church. We live the Paradigm of Ascent. To put icing on the cake, he gave us the doctors of the Church to reveal even more detail regarding how we can and should follow Him. How many sign-seekers daily immerse themselves in these means?
Unfortunately, the devil and the flesh want more, and really, they want us to pursue an easier path. Can’t God just tell me what to do? The answer is, He can, and sometimes does. However, He has already spilled a great deal of blood and ink, doing just that. Often we want significant decisions made for us. Should I become a priest? Am I called to be married? Should I pursue religious life? If we are not careful, our demands of God begin to echo the disordered hearts of those Jesus rebuked and called “wicked.” We demand a revelation that removes all risks and ensures complete certainty of success. Otherwise, we withhold our hearts and wills and live in pause-mode, waiting with arms crossed for God to deliver before we will commit and move. We are stuck in a cycle of getting ready to be ready so that when we are ready, then we might be ready to be ready. This is a kind of waiting designed by the devil himself. It is fraught with doubt, fear, anxiety, and control. We demand a sign, and without it, we withhold from God what is justly due to him – a following with abandon, complete vulnerability, and trust. A following that even runs flailing into darkness, not knowing what lies ahead. A following that assumes that if we run after Him, He will be faithful and guide us to His will and our complete joy.
But didn’t Jesus promise we would hear His voice? Yes, He did, and He has spoken volumes by His life and the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church. He has also spoken and does speak in a way that sometimes breaks through the natural and reveals more than any human can know without this mystical encounter. However, most who seek guidance beyond the basics, while demanding a sign or a voice from heaven, fail to follow Him in ways He has already provided. How many who demand a sign spend time every day, without fail, reflecting on Jesus’ life and work in scripture and mental prayer? How many who demand a sign give themselves fully to the sacraments of the Eucharist and Penance? How many fight habitual sin with a rabid intensity? How many study discernment of spirits and apply it daily – hour by hour? How many use the daily examen with a rule of life (plan of love) that is a deliberate expression of how we intend to love God every day in the way He has already revealed through our state and duties of life?
If we seek to be holy through all His already revealed means, His Divine will clearly emerges in the heart and soul. His voice does begin to emerge both in and through the natural and the supernatural. However, we cannot pretend to seek His will while simultaneously maintaining one foot on pause or mired in the world, the flesh, and the devil. For we know as St. John of the Cross writes, even a thread of attachment hinders the sparrow from flight. The more sin and attachments we have, the more we habitually say “no” to God or demand things beyond us, the less we will come to know His voice and His will.
So what do I do, if I am in the process of getting my act together spiritually, and I have big decisions to make, like whether or not I enter the priesthood, married life, or religious life? The answer is, work harder on getting your act together and take the next right step. Don’t stand around waiting for a sign. Move with abandon. Then, as you move and deepen your “yes” to God, you will see, ever more clearly, with each step of the journey. He is worthy of all that we are, all that we have, and all we desire. He is worthy of our trust. Run…
Christ and the Pharisees," by Anthony van Dyck. Metropolitan Museum of Art/Wikimedia Commons.