Signs from God – a response to “two jars”
My brother Tony recently performed an experiment to see if God would prove his existence to him.
He describes what he did and what his experiment taught or confirmed for him.
If you have not read his blog entitled, “Two Jars”, you must stop reading now and click HERE,
as this blog is a personal response to my brother’s blog.
Tony, your blog was really interesting, moving and caused me to reflect on my own experience of God.
Honestly, I am sad God did not move the stones. Unlike the hypocritical theists you refer to in your blog, I do not have any problem with the idea that God could or would do such a thing. In fact, one of the first questions I asked after reading your blog was, “Why didn’t God do it?”
For you, I can see that the experiment and its result was very significant and genuine. I also see that for you, the result does not prompt in you the same question it does for me. For you, it “puts to rest my belief in a particular type of God” and “It was like I had asked if this world was actually the matrix. The answer was that this is real; the earth, sky, my family and me are all very real.” In this blog, all I would like to do is encourage you to be cautious about what exactly you “put to rest”.
Before performing the experiment you prayed this prayer:
“Yahweh, if you are there and real please grant me this sign. Please empty the jar I have filled with stones and fill the empty jar next to it.”
Your prayer was simple and innocent and I believe genuine. But by praying this prayer did you think that you were painting God into a corner? Or even, painting yourself into a corner? What I mean is, was your prayer a question or a test? Read your prayer again. Did you allow for God to simply say, “no”?
Now, I don’t mean this as if you were being petty or childish, but was the subtext of your prayer something like, “Yahweh, if you are there and real, then you will give me a sign. I ask that the sign that you use to prove your existence to me be to move these stones from one jar to another.”?
Again, I don’t imply that you prayed that mockingly like the Pharisees saying to the crucified Jesus, “Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.” (Matthew 27:42). I only suggest that, by concluding that a particular type of God was put to rest by your experiment, you had some huge expectations behind it all. And by your “Matrix” analogy, these expectations were as great as if you were questioning reality itself.
The reality is, all you have done is put to rest the particular type of God that proves his existence to us on command with experiments that we set up for him to complete. Did you allow for the possibility of God saying, “I want to prove my existence to you another way.” or “Despite your noble motives, it will not be good for you or others for my existence to be proven to you through such an experiment, so I’m going to answer no on this occasion.” Have you joined in with Nick Cave singing, “I don’t believe in an interventionist God” a little too soon?
You experiment actually reminds me of Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union in the early 1960’s, who argued for an atheist state (not that I’m saying you’re doing this) by suggesting that if God was real then the first man in space would have seen him: “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any god there.” (this is often misquoted as something the astronaut, Yuri Gagarin actually said himself). But like you, only a particular type of God was put to rest by this experiment – the type of God that is visible to those who travel beyond the earth’s atmosphere. But to throw out God completely by this experiment – or by yours – is sort of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
The first issue I want to address is, are you right to expect that if God exists he will prove his existence to you by an experiment like the “two jars”?
This seems fundamental to the whole experiment and your acceptance of this premise seems to come from a couple of biblical examples of people doing similar “testing prayers”.
In your blog you refer to Kings and Judges, obviously referring to the stories of “Elijah and the prophets of Baal” in 1 Kings 18, and “Gideon and the Fleece” in Judges 6. You flesh these examples out a bit more in your previous blog, “Pray em if you got em”, where you also include a third example from Isaiah 7:10-14, where God actually rebukes King Ahaz for being reluctant to ask for a sign. You write, “In fact the testing prayer is very biblical. In the Old Testament such tests are common.” I’d have to disagree with this. These are three of thousands of examples of prayers throughout the bible and I would have to say that “testing prayers” are actually exceptionally rare. They are never commended as a general way in which we should pray and these three examples are quite unique.
In your “Two Jars” blog you ask the question to the Christian reader, “How can they claim the truth of books like Kings and Judges while predicting from the get go that I would not find the stones moved?” Now, I didn’t predict that the stones wouldn’t be moved, but I will answer why I think these stories from Kings, Judges and Isaiah, should not be used as a template for us to ask similar “testing prayers”.
Elijah’s Testing Prayer
For those who don’t know the story, Elijah is a prophet who sets up a test. There are two bulls. The prophets of Baal can pray to Baal. He’ll pray to Yahweh. Whichever “god” sends down fire from heaven to burn the sacrifice – they are the real God. This is Elijah’s prayer as found in 1 Kings 18:36-37:
At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “O Yahweh, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O Yahweh, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Yahweh, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
The most obvious thing to note from this story is that this whole episode is not about testing God, it is about the people. Elijah is not unsure of who is the real God. He knows Yahweh is God and throughout all the stories of Elijah, including this one, he goes where Yahweh tells him to go, says what Yahweh tells him to say and does what Yahweh tells him to do. That’s what the “prophets” did. He even says in the prayer that the whole two bulls experiment was something he set up at the “command” of Yahweh. This is God’s test, not Elijah’s. It’s something God told Elijah to do because he intended to answer it in the dramatic way he did – not to prove to Elijah that he was real, but to show the people of Israel that he was real. This is much more akin to the story of God turning Aaron’s staff into a snake in Exodus 7:8-12:
Yahweh said to Moses and Aaron, “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Perform a miracle,’ then say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh,’ and it will become a snake.” So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as Yahweh commanded. Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.
Basically, my point is, God did not tell you to set up the “Two Jars” experiment and so you shouldn’t use 1 Kings 18 as an example of an equivalent “testing prayer”.
Gideon’s Testing Prayer
The story of Gideon and the fleece from the Book of Judges is much more interesting and seems to be more of what you based your test on (in the fabricated part of your blog, you talk about doing the test twice, each time overnight, and the second time in the opposite direction – just like Gideon).
Unlike Elijah, Gideon’s tests are his own idea and they are specifically set up because of his own personal doubts that God is speaking to him. As he says in Judges 6:17, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, give me a sign that it is really you talking to me.” Gideon wants to know if God’s Word to him is real and he actually tests God three times (before the fleece tests, he asks to set up an offering which God then causes to be consumed by fire).
Describing it this way, it’s seems a perfect example of your “Jars Test”, but I question whether Gideon’s is a good example of us to follow. All three of Gideon’s tests are done in the context of Gideon being uniquely visited by God and being asked by God to perform a very specific task (“Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?” – Judges 6:14). There are may parallels in the commissioning of the reluctant Gideon in Judges 6:1-24 and the commissioning of the reluctant Moses in Exodus 3. If you keep reading Gideon’s story, after the fleece tests God has a couple of tests of his own (see Judges 7:1-7). He whittles down Gideon’s army from 32,000, down to only a measly 300 men. Why does he do it? Well, in 7:7 he explains that he want to make sure in this battle it is abundantly clear that God is at work. This seems to be a big theme in the entire Gideon story and it may be why God is so gracious to Gideon to grant his request during “testing prayers”. It is not the Gideon doubts that God exists. Gideon doubts himself: “How can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” (Judges 6:15). God specifically wanted to show Gideon that God will go with him and God will win the battle that Gideon is being commissioned to lead.
We must also take into consideration the cultural time period this story falls within. It is the time of the Judges. There is no king leading the people in God’s truth. There is no mention of the Old Testament scriptures being accessible or read publicly or privately. Gideon is in hiding as a foreign enemy threatens his life, and God want to send him out to be the leader of the Jewish people. The parallels between Gideon’s situation and yours are pretty limited. You both doubt God (and maybe yourself). But that’s about it. Just because the “fleece” test is how Gideon responds to his doubt, does not mean that is how God expects you to respond. Just because God responded to Gideon’s test with a miraculous answer, does not mean God has set up a biding precedent in which anyone who ever sets up a similar test should expect to be responded to in the same way. There are many, many, many examples throughout scripture of people who have doubts about God and they respond to those doubts in a variety of ways. Some, like Abraham, take matters into their hands. Some, like the psalmists, cry out to God in confusion. Some, like Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 and Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (though his prayer is more about his anguish than his doubt), pray to God for a way out and receive the answer “No”. The problem, which I see many Christians do as well, is to come across an interaction with God mentioned in the Bible and apply it as prescriptive rather than descriptive.
Prescriptive vs Descriptive
To say an action of God is prescriptive is to say that God is promising to do this thing in the same way every time. An example of a biblical prescriptive text is something like 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” or Acts 2:38 “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” and if you want an Old Testament one, you can see Joel 2:32 which is quoted also many times in the New Testament: “Everyone who calls on the name of Yahweh will be saved.” These along with many other passages, are God’s promises. They can be relied on and I believe they will never fail.
The problem arises when you read a story like Gideon’s fleece and take it to be prescriptive. It is not. It is descriptive. When a passage is descriptive it means that it accurately describes what God truly did at a certain time in a specific circumstance. It shows that God is able to do that thing and so it may reveal something of God’s character, his power, his values, or his agenda. But it makes no promise that God will or should act in the same way, even if the exact same circumstance happens again.
For example, in Genesis 2, Adam needed a partner. So while he was asleep, God took one of his ribs and used it to form Eve. Now, that story is not prescriptive. If you are looking for a wife, you should not read that story and pray, “Yahweh, if you are there and real please grant me this sign. Please take one of my ribs while I am sleeping and make me a wife.” And if you do decided to do that, you should not conclude that the God mentioned in Genesis does not exist because you wake up and are still single. That may sound like a silly example, but sadly Tony, it is not! I have chatted with some Christians who have become completely disillusioned with God because they have prayed for a marriage partner and God has not provided one. But God does not promise that he will provide everyone with a marriage partner – even though the Bible includes many specific examples of him doing exactly that. This is the vital difference between understanding when a passage is prescriptive and when a passage is descriptive.
So why didn’t God move the stones when you asked him to so that you could have conclusive proof he exists? I don’t know. But I do know one thing. He never promised he would. Maybe he knows it would not have proved anything to you. Maybe he knows it would have developed in you a superstitious faith. Maybe he wants to prepare your heart and your motives before he revealed conclusively his existence to you. You seem to think God could not possibly have any good reason to not move those stones – unless he doesn’t exist or isn’t the sort of God that can move stones – but I would suggest the God of the Bible (if that’s who you were calling out to) is a God who knows all things, can do all things and works all things towards his ultimate goal. As Gandalf the wizard says, “Even the very wise cannot see all ends.” Well, that does apply to us, but it doesn’t apply to God. He sees all ends and he determined that it was best to answer your “testing prayer” with a “no”. That doesn’t seem out of character to me, and I have been walking in relationship with God for nearly two decades now. He has answered many prayers of mine, and he has said “no” to many others – like for example, my prayer for God to prevent my divorce. I had to remind myself that although God’s clear biblical intention is for divorces to never happen, he makes no prescriptive promise anywhere that he will miraculously prevent them, even though I know that he can and does for many Christian couples.
A Wrong Sign
The final suggestion I wanted to make was that God wants to answer “yes” to the first part of your prayer, even if he answered “no” to the whole “moving stones” experiment. It may be that God is saying “Yes, Tony. I am here and real and I will grant your request for a sign.” But God knows what the best sign for us is.
Think about if I said, “Tony, prove you love me by paying off my credit card!” Now, you definitely could pay off my credit card out a motivation of love, and you do want me to really know how much you love me, and you know that if you did what I asked I would feel loved by you… but you still say to me, “Sorry, Simon. I do love you, but I won’t pay off all your credit cards.” In fact you may chose to respond that way out of love – even if I didn’t feel it. Even if I felt hated by that response!
Now, apart from not simply wanting to bail me out of debt when I should work that out myself, one of the reasons why you might not play along with my testing experiment, is because you want me to know that you love me for other reasons. You do want me to be confident of your love, but not because you paid off my credit card, but because of your kind deeds, your thoughtful words and your genuine affection for me as your brother (I’m guessing here, by the way). You don’t want my confidence in your love to be based on the wrong thing – or an arbitrary thing. You don’t want it to be built on the wrong foundation.
Likewise, God may not want your belief in his existence to be based on a “stone moving” miracle. He may want you to be confident that he is real, but he may want the foundation of your faith to be something else. In fact, like the “love” analogy, he may be more content that you don’t believe in him at all, rather than you believe in him based on a sign like the “two jars”. Why? Well, maybe for God, believing in his existence is not really the be all and end all. Sure it’s important – vital even, but atheism doesn’t send people to hell. Think about it… even Satan is a theist. As Jesus’ brother, James wrote, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (James 2:19) God is much more concerned about us being reconciled with him, and maybe moving the stones in the jars would have gotten you only as far as a demon – believing that God is there – but no closer than that.
The Promised Sign
The third passage that you quote from in your blog, “Pray em if ya got em” as an example of “testing prayer” was from Isaiah 7:10-14. Here it is:
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.” Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”
Now here, God wants King Ahaz to ask him for a sign. Why? Well, not because “testing prayers” are something God wants us to experiment with. It’s because he has a sign that he wants to give him: The virgin will be with child and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel. As you know, the apostle Matthew picks up this passage and in Matthew 1:18-24, he says that this sign that God promised to give to King Ahaz is fulfilled in Jesus.
Maybe Jesus isn’t as immediately impressive as stones moving from one jar to another. Maybe from the outside, you can only investigate Jesus through old manuscripts that you have serious doubts about as well, and the experiences and lives of those that already have a relationship with him – which seems pretty shaky ground as well. I concede, the record and the testimony of the gospel seems pretty weak compared to a miracle in your own backyard. But that is what God choses to use and he uses it every day to bring people from being a stranger to God to a friend.
The Sign of Jonah
Jesus himself was confronted with people wanting a miraculous sign that he really was from God. Understandably so, as Jesus made crazy claims like, “Before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58). In all four gospels this issue of a “testing prayer” in regard to Jesus is discussed and grappled with. If you want to get your head around what does the God of the Bible say about asking for a sign to prove his reality, then these would definitely be passages you would have to at least factor in. I will include two times in Matthew that Jesus tackles this question:
Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you.” He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here.” (Matthew 12:38-42)
The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away. (Matthew 16:1-4)
Jesus calls the Pharisees, “wicked and adulterous” for asking for a sign, but clearly he doesn’t do this because God’s not keen on giving signs, as he goes on to say that he plans on giving them a sign – the sign of Jonah. I think their wickedness and especially their adultery points to their “wicked” motivation which is not inspired by a love for God, but a desire to test Jesus to see him fail publicly. Jesus sees through their motives and tells them that the only sign they will get is the sign of Jonah. And what is the sign of Jonah? Well, in Matthew 12:40 he makes it clear that it’s his death and resurrection. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and then emerged, and Jesus will be in the tomb for three days and will then emerge.
God understands our need for a sign. He understands that we can’t just swallow epic claims without testing them first. As you write, “I think if you are going to claim that ‘Magic happens’ for example then you ought to be able to show it happening.” I think Jesus gets that, but like the analogy of the “proof of love”, not just any sign will do. God has set up one major sign that he wants to be our primary foundation – the resurrection of Jesus. This is supposed to so be the base block of Christianity, that if you take it out the whole thing falls down like a theological game of Jenga. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:17, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.”
It is the Resurrection that is the sign of God’s existence (as raising the dead is far more impressive than moving stones), but at the same time, on top of that, it also points you to Jesus’ authentication as the one to be followed and worshipped. AsPeter preaches in Acts 2:32 & 36 “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact… Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”, and as Paul preaches in Acts 17:30, “[God] commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”
Now I know that the Resurrection of Jesus has never been a very compelling sign (especially as it is not happening today in your backyard, but happened 2,000 years ago in another part of the world). In a comment on my previous blog, “How God Proves His Existence”, you wrote, “I don’t really understand how to respond to the biblical accounts of the resurrection. I put them in pretty much the same category of documentation of witches and werewolves or demonic possession or all sort of eyewitnessed events that just don’t correspond with my reality.” I understand and sympathise with this. I wish I could show you some magic tricks to prove God’s existence. I wish Jesus would dance like a monkey at my command so I could get him to prove himself to you. But he’s not a trained monkey, he’s an untamed lion, and I trust him when he says, “no sign will be given except the sign of Jonah”. So, I will continue to bang on about Jesus and continue to point you to him and to the Resurrection, even if you never find it compelling.
My Prayer for You
I was very moved by your desire to give God an opportunity to prove himself to you. I know you expressed some form of relief and even joy at the fact that your experiment failed – which does lead me to maybe question the sincerity of your motives – but either way, I do think God hears and responds to our prayers, even when they are half-hearted or prayed with mixed motives. I’ve always been confident that what matters is not the strength of your faith, but the strength of the thing that you are putting your faith in.
And so, if there was an element of your prayer that was putting your faith in God to respond to you, God is big and strong enough to hear and answer.
Also, despite everything I’ve just said about the Resurrection being the primary foundational “sign” of God, I do believe God is active in this world here and now. There are several experiences I have had that are, for me, clearly God working miraculously, and there are thousands more that I experience week in and week out, where I see God at work (though in a less miraculous way). God has proved himself to me, fully and completely, which is what makes me so sad that he hasn’t done the same for you.
But like unfairly-named “Doubting” Thomas, God sometimes provides us with a clear, undeniable sign of his existence and work in Christ. I don’t know if that’s what you really need in order to see and respond to the gospel. If it is, then you have my prayerful support.
To be brutally honest, I don’t think you were wise, biblical or fair to set up the “two jars” experiment. But I do believe God has heard the first part of your prayer: “Yahweh, if you are there and real please grant me a sign.”
I am praying that God will one day either give you a sign, or make the “sign of Jonah” compelling to you. I know you think that God spectacularly failed your “two jars” test and it has allowed you to “put to rest” the idea of a real, personal, interventionist, biblical God. But I am writing this blog to you to encourage you to let God answer your “testing prayer” in his own time and in his own way.
I hope your testimony will be to one day recall your experiment with fondness and that you can share how you prayed a simple prayer that God heard and answered, even if it took longer than one night and was in a way you didn’t expect.
Until then, I will try to remember to pray on your behalf.
Yahweh, I know you are there and real. Please grant Tony a sign, so he can know that too.
I love you, my brother.
p.s. If you’re wondering what the image is from at the top of the blog, it comes from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Enjoy the video below.