“Jesus answered, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign…’” (Mt. 12:39).
When I first started believing that God still heals and performs miracles just like He did in New Testament, this verse would always trouble me. Because of it, I placed ‘miracles’ in a special category of prayers I wasn’t allowed to pray. If God wanted to do miracles of His own volition, I certainly wouldn’t stand in His way. But I also wouldn’t go out of my way to ask Him for one.
Then I came across another prayer that seemed to validate the request for miraculous signs and contradict my understanding of how to pray. In Acts 4:28-30, Jesus’ best friends pray this: “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to Your servants to continue to speak Your word with all boldness, while you stretch out Your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of Your holy servant Jesus.”
God stamps this prayer with divine approval by sending an earthquake to punctuate their ‘amen’. The earthquake was a sign of what God would do spiritually in Jerusalem in answer to their prayer.
So What’s the Difference Between the Two Prayers?
The request in Matthew 12 comes from religious leaders who consistently contest Jesus’ authority. Their request springs not from a genuine heart that struggles to believe; it springs from a heart that refuses to believe no matter how many signs are performed. On another occasion, Jesus multiplies five barley loaves and two fish into a meal that feeds five thousand, and the skeptical onlookers have the audacity to ask Him for ANOTHER sign to prove He’s the Messiah (Jn. 6:30).
For the skeptical sign-seeker, no number of signs will ever be enough. Their craving is not for truth, but for proof. Such a person positions himself as God’s Judge, as if to say, “The burden is on You to prove Yourself, God!”
Jesus says, “No, I’m the Judge, and the burden is on you to believe. I’ve given you all the evidence you need.”
The Apostles and their friends have an entirely different motive when praying for miraculous signs. Instead of saying, “God, prove yourself to ME,” they pray, “God, prove Yourself to THEM!” Their request springs not from a heart that refuses to believe, but rather, from a heart that believes so deeply, they’re willing to risk crucifixion in order to bring others to the same faith.
The difference between the two prayers is not so much content, but heart.
What If I Need a Sign Because I'm Scared and Confused?
One more example of requesting a sign comes neither from a proud Pharisee nor a bold Apostle, but a scared saint named Gideon.
God tells Gideon that he will rescue Israel from Midianite oppression, and Gideon responds, “If you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said, behold I am laying a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said” (Judges 6:36-37).
Gideon WANTS to believe, but defeating an army of tens of thousands is understandably terrifying. "Maybe the ‘sign’ was a coincidence," Gideon tells himself. Haven’t we all been there before? We discount the amazing miracle, the strange coincidence, the answer to prayer. So he asks for another:
“Then Gideon said to God, ‘Let not Your anger burn against me; let me speak just once more. Please let me test just once more with the fleece. Please let it be dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground let there be dew’” (Judges 6:39).
Recognizing the danger of “asking God for a sign” like the proud sign-seekers of Jesus’ day, Gideon humbly says, “Let not Your anger burn against me…” His heart does not scream, “God, prove Yourself to me!” but rather, “God, please help me!”
God is our Father, and He never gets angry at our cries for help.
If you want to ask God for a ‘sign’, ask yourself some questions first:
Am I asking for a sign because I require God to prove Himself to me?
Am I asking for a sign because I long for God to show Himself to others?
Am I asking for a sign because I’m confused, scared, and need a little help?
When it comes to prayer – for a sign, or anything else – the content of the prayer is never as important as the heart behind it.
As always, that’s what God is really after.