Superstitions, Signs and Saint Patrick’s Day

Superstitions, Signs and Saint Patrick’s Day

By Stacey Tuttle

Along with all things green, Saint Patrick’s day conjures up ideas of four leaf clovers, leprechauns, pots of gold and the luck of the Irish.  While I may not linger long on the idea of leprechauns, four leaf clovers and “luck” lead me to ponder a little deeper about the notion of providence and “signs”.  What I’m getting at is this: superstitions presuppose that there is a force of some sort at work in the world. Without that belief there would be no reason to fear a black cat or look for a four leaf clover.

 If we take it a step farther, superstitions not only suggest a wide-spread belief that there is a force at work in the world, but also the belief that this force communicates in some way with us.  Let me explain:  say a person was offered a lucrative career opportunity and, while pondering that opportunity, stumbled upon a four leaf clover.  They might take that as a sign of good luck and be inclined to accept.  Why?  Because they believe on some level that that particular good luck clover, delivered at that particular time, was a message.  They may not know – or even think consciously about – who the message might be from, but still they see it as a message.  This kind of thinking happens every day in the world around us.  Maybe not with four leaf clovers as the key signaling mechanism, granted, but nonetheless the belief in sign-speak is so common we rarely even notice it. 

Here is the thing:  mankind almost universally believes that something out there bigger than us communicates with us.  This belief is common even among those who don’t consciously believe in any god at all.  Instead of a belief in God, maybe it’s just a vague sense of karma or superstition, but even the most devout of atheists will often look for – and ascribe significance to – signs (often without even realizing it).  

Why is this?  As a Christian, I believe it is because we were created to communicate with our Maker.  This need for communication, this sense of it, is so innate that even if we don’t believe in God, we still cannot ignore the belief that something beyond us is communicating with us.  

Even more interestingly, our search for signs suggests a belief that these signs are indicators of things we ought or ought not to do, which in turn indicates a deep-seated belief that the Sign-Giver has a better understanding than we do of what is best for us.    In other words, the entire concept of a sign indicates that we innately believe not only that God communicates with us, but that He communicates with us about His will for us. 

If there is a God who communicates with us about the best course of things, then it would make sense that it would behoove us to learn how to better read those signs.  Dr. Craig Smith’s book, The Voice (Shepherd Project Press, 2008), is all about how to read those signs and discern God’s voice.  In it, he talks about some of the signs that “earlier God-followers” used to look for as they tried to discern God’s will for their lives. 

I suspect that earlier God-followers had a greater awareness of the possibility that God might have a specific will for not only our lives but for the myriad of details that fill our lives.  One piece of evidence for this is the practice of “casting lots” found in the Bible. … [reference Acts 1:21-26 where the disciples cast lots to find a replacement for Judas.]…

Casting lots probably involved something like putting the two candidates’ names on small tiles and throwing them down to see which would land face-up.  To us, this seems like a strange way to discern God’s will, but it probably reflects a long-standing tradition dating back into Old Testament times when people used something called the Urim and the Thummim to “inquire of the Lord”[1]. We don’t know exactly what the Urim and the Thummim were, but they seemed to have been physical objects used to see if God wanted to communicate His specific will for a decision.  We know this because they were kept “in the breastpiece of judgment” worn by the priest Aaron and his descendents (Exodus 28:30).  (p. 44-46)

Casting lots, the Urim and Thummim…these were just Old Testament “signs” (OK, New Testament signs too, as believers cast lots in Acts – but you get the point).  The early God-followers believed that there was someone bigger and wiser than them who wanted to communicate with them about the best way.  And they sought communication with Him through these signs.  And interestingly enough, while our very modern selves will often scoff at people who are superstitious or look too much to “signs” to guide their life, the Bible does not appear to scoff at people who look to God to communicate with them through signs of various sorts.  In fact, the Urim and Thummim weren’t just acceptable signs, they were literally God-ordained.  Apparently, the point was that people were looking for God to communicate with them about the best way to do things.

So, Dr. Smith asks a good question:

Why don’t we cast lots or consult the Urim and Thummim today?  Primarily because the playing field changed radically when Jesus promised to give the Holy Spirit to his followers.  The Holy Spirit, according to Jesus, “…guide[s] you into all truth…” (John 16:13).  This means that Christians have a level of access to God that people in the Old Testament didn’t.  Where they sometimes had to rely on things like the Urim and Thummim, we always have God himself living in us.  It’s probably important to note that after the Holy Spirit came powerfully upon the disciples of Jesus at Pentecost (described in Acts 2), we don’t see any mention of the practice of casting lots anymore.[2]

The important thing about casting lots and consulting the Urim and Thummim, however, is that earlier God-followers seemed to live in the expectation that God might have a specific will for decisions they had to make and they wanted to make sure they were open to Him communicating that will to them. (p. 46-47)

While those specific modes of sign-seeking (i.e. casting lots and the Urim and Thummim) may not be in practice today, and while we do have the Holy Spirit to communicate with us more directly, we still find that God ‘s Holy Spirit often chooses to communicate with us through “signs” of various sorts.  He opens and shuts doors (I’m talking about the proverbial kind) to various opportunities.  He speaks through other people, through circumstances, through dreams, etc. etc. etc.  I had a friend who even looked to God to speak through a coin toss when he couldn’t choose between colleges.  (It’s the modern version of casting lots!) 

Here is the big distinction though:  the modern world looks to the signs themselves for guidance, without knowing – or even asking – where the signs come from.  As such, they are often lost as to how to interpret the signs.  Many supposed “signs” are ambiguous or inconclusive.  For example, if a door to some opportunity closes it may not be clear if that is an obstacle that simply needs to be overcome or if it is a sign that that is the wrong way to go. 

For the Christian, signs are not the end. They are not the communicating force, they are simply one of the methods which God chooses to use to communicate with us.  So, the believer looks to God for a relationship above all else.  And the signs are important because they are methods of communication in that relationship.  This is important because, when the signs are ambiguous or inconclusive, they know where to go for clarity.  And, as God-followers get better at following God and at hearing His voice, they get better at knowing how to read the signs. 

While our culture is comfortable speaking of signs in a nebulous, generic sort of way, we have rather missed the obvious; that those signs lead us to Someone behind the signs with a specific will to communicate through them.   I think as Christians we have two key opportunities here:  first, we need to be looking for ways to help others see beyond the signs and introduce them to the all-knowing, all-powerful God for whom signs are but a tool to communicate His love and guide them in the best possible way.  Second, we need to start asking God to speak to us, and looking for the “signs” when He does.  As Craig says, we need to “cultivate an attitude of expectation, because until we begin to think of our daily decisions as things that God may have something to say about, we can’t expect to be able to discern, and act upon, God’s will for our lives” (p. 48). 

As you head into Saint Patrick’s Day, may all things green and lucky remind you of the God who cares enough to send any number of signs to communicate His love and His way to you.

Click here to purchase a copy of The Voice: Hearing God in the Crowd by Dr. Craig A. Smith.

[1] For an example, see Num. 27:21.  See also Ex. 28:30, Lev. 8:8, Deu. 33:8, I Sa. 28:6, et. Al.

[2] Interestingly enough, though, there are still some Christian groups that use the practice.  Some Korean churches, for instance, cast lots to decide between equally qualified candidates for the position of elder or pastor.  They do this primarily as a means of avoiding church division, with some people lobbying for one individuals and others lobbying for another.