(Learn to Discern, Principle #8)
Have you ever prayed for a sign? Maybe you were in the midst of a confusing situation, or discerning different alternatives, or just plain old frustrated and unable to tell what the best path was.
Praying for signs seems to be a pretty common human experience, whether someone considers themselves to be spiritual or not. We all have moments where we want a very clear answer about what to do.
But the problem with signs, I’ve noticed, is that they are difficult to notice!
Sometimes that difficulty is a result of our own over-thinking; sometimes it’s the result of our own blindness; and sometimes that difficulty is actually the sign we have been looking for all along.
Let me explain. First, the over-thinking scenario: we really aren’t sure about the future, we’re drawn in two or more different (but good!) directions, and so we ask for a sign. If we ask for a general sign (“if I’m supposed to leave this job and get a new one, let me get a job offer!), and we get it, sometimes we can’t interpret it (“oh shoot, I’ve just gotten two offers, which should I take?”).
We start to over-think what we perceive to be the sign: “if I’m offered both, does that mean I’m supposed to take neither? Or maybe I’m supposed to take both part time? Maybe it means that I asked for the wrong sign. Maybe I should ask for a different sign? Or maybe it means that I asked for the right sign and now I have to ask for a further sign, like one to offer me a higher salary?”
Then there is the “blindness” scenario: we ask for a sign and then we get the sign, and we start to try to ignore it or interpret it differently. “I know they just offered me the job, but when I said I wanted a job offer as a sign, what was implied was that I wanted an offer from the other company. I have two offers, and not that third one, so these two make the whole sign thing void anyway.”
See what’s going on here? The difficulty in figuring out the signs is the sign.
Our own response to a “sign” reveals something to us about the state of our own desires and inclinations in the discernment process.
In the first “over-thinking” case, it’s clear that we haven’t yet fully discerned our own priorities. Given two good options, why move towards one over the other? If we can’t see why one is better than another, we aren’t yet sure what “better” is for us. (“Better” in this case, not being about morality, but being about our life priorities.) It reveals to us that we need to spend some time considering what we value most for ourselves and those whose lives we affect. Is salary the most important aspect of a job? Quality of life? Flex time? Benefits? Corporate progress?
When we know what we value, when we know what our “bottom line” is, we can hold up our options in light of these priorities and feel confident in our decision. (Or, if we don’t feel confident, it might be a sign that we’ve got our priorities wrong! If I say that salary is most important, but I when I mentally “try on” the job with the higher salary and less flex time, I hate it, it might be a sign that actually, flex time is my priority over salary.)
In the second “blindness” case, our own response reveals what we actually want. We try to re-interpret the sign until it aligns with what we wish that it would be – revealing our own desire very clearly! So long as the options are good, we should be willing to accept our own deep inclinations as possible indications of the way forward.
(For those of us who ask for signs because we’re afraid of doing the “wrong” thing, there’s a real opportunity to consider how life paths work. Are they fixed, with no variants? Or is a life path the fruit of an interactive dialogue with a living God?)
But what about another, very common situation: we ask for a sign, and we don’t seem to get it? What then?
I would suggest that our response to a lack of the sign is just as indicative of our inner desires as our response to a perceived sign. Are we relieved we didn’t get the sign? Are we frustrated? Can we articulate exactly what we were hoping the sign would tell us? Ask yourself: “what exact sign would I need to receive in order to make the change I am thinking about making?” Your answer may be the exact sign you are looking for.
What sign are you looking for? And how would you respond if you got it?