“Models are only as good as their assumptions.” You may have heard this line. It is about how the correctness of our predictions are only as good as the assumptions we plug into our predictions. We model things every day. Every step we take is an incredibly detailed physical model of where we expect our foot to land. Our assumptions are plenty. One is that we are not walking on a hologram projection. Another is that we won’t die in the next second. But every day, thousands of people die before they can take their next step. They get hit by a car, or shot, or suffer immediate cardiac arrest. Their assumptions were wrong. They made a model of the world, and the model failed. And they died.
Many of us, who live in rich countries, who see everything largely working around us, make models of the entire world that we think are safe. Our models of the world are deeply spiritual. Even the most ardent atheists make deeply spiritual models. We pursue love, and status, and sex, and money, and fame, and food and drink with spiritual zeal, and we model our lives off of the pursuit of these things. Many of these things give us purpose. Make us feel alive. Until we don’t. Until we die.
Alternatively, and this is increasingly evident with people of my generation, we don’t pursue any of these things. We don’t know what we are trying to pursue in the first place. We are grappling at unknowns and half-truths, and as the Bible says, “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” (Eph 4:14) In doing so we don’t create models, but we go along with the world’s models, with the world’s algorithms for how they can take our money, keep us going from store to store, keep us fat and wanting and clueless. And then, by the way, we die.
The greatest failure in the models that rich Westerners make about our own lives is that we assume we aren’t going to die. Which is completely untrue, of course. But because everything in America is so clean, and we don’t see dead bodies lying naked in the sun like they do in repressive governments elsewhere in the world, because we have enough distractions and because people market us things that tell us that we can prolong and enhance our lives, we can delude ourselves fairly convincingly into not thinking about death at all. We make our models based on the assumption that our lives are immortal. This feigned immortality allows us to believe that things like sex, and money, and fame, etc. are actually valuable, because this world is all there is. So why not pursue worldly things?
How would our models for our lives change if we actually believed that the world and our lives are decaying, and that death is inevitable? I would want to know what happens after I die. I’d be looking for every sign I can find to give a hint, a clue, as to what I may find after this world is gone.
I would be seeking and putting my mind on the eternity that potentially awaits me afterwards and the God that governs it.
But why hasn’t God appeared to me? Why is it that a God that supposedly wants to be found would not simply reveal Himself to all men, and to me?
Faced with aggressive questioning from some town intellectuals asking for “a sign” to confirm that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus answered them “an evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three day and three nights in the heart of the Earth.” (Matthew 12:39-40)
I think this is the best explanation yet for why you may not have seen “a sign from God” yet. I think Jesus’ response here is the most truthful response you can expect to see from a God who cares about us, who loves us, and who wants us to seek Him. For Jesus said to the intellectuals that they are part of “an evil and adulterous generation… no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” I believe Jesus here is saying that for people as evil as us, as ignorant and prideful about our own immortality as ourselves, even if He gave a sign, would that lead us to change our heart? Would we even see it?
By now it is commonly taught in basic psychology that the human brain is wired to see only those things that we value. It is why you can walk down a busy street corridor, texting someone on your phone, and run headfirst into a sidewalk pole. Even God’s most favored nation, Israel, was showered with many signs and wonders, and still blew off God and His commandments many times. (Judges 19:6-17, for example) He sent mana down from Heaven and fed his people for weeks with bread falling from the sky! And despite such a clear and obvious sign from God, the Israelites still worshipped other gods and golden calves (Exodus 32). They still did not follow Him. Before asking for a sign from God, it is worth asking ourselves: would that lead me to change my life at all?
Because God has already sent us a sign. A stark sign. An incredibly urgent sign that most of us don’t even see. It is “the sign of Jonah” that Jesus was talking about. It is the sign of all human suffering and sin, borne within the body of Jesus Christ, and then conquered on the third day through His resurrection.
When Jonah disobeyed God’s command to preach to the Ninevites, God sent a giant fish to swallow him up for three days. For three days, Jonah suffered inside the belly of a fish. Still, in the midst of his suffering, he had a choice, because experiencing the reality of human suffering forces us to reckon with the reality of the world as a place of great suffering. It makes us long to get away from suffering. It makes us long for a world in which people do not have to suffer. In which we don’t have to see our grandpas die from lung cancer or our hospital workers get infected with coronavirus.
It doesn’t matter who you are. You have seen suffering, or you will see suffering. And then you will wish for a world with no suffering.
Jonah wished the same. And he prayed and grieved those three days in the fish. He cried out to God for His forgiveness, realizing that his life was terribly mortal, not immortal, and that running from God was never going to solve his problems or conquer his fears. He cried, as so beautifully recounted in the Book of Jonah,
“Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their hope of steadfast love.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
Will sacrifice to you;
What I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the LORD!”
“And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.” (Jonah 2:8-10)
When Jesus talks about the sign of Jonah, He is referring to this story, this incredible and moving account of God’s perfect forgiveness of sins. As per the beauty and awesomeness of the Bible, He is also referring to Himself, as the three days Jonah spent in the fish also parallels with the three days Jesus would spend between His death on the cross and His resurrection. And just as Jonah’s disobedience was punished in the belly of the fish, so was our disobedience punished on the cross borne by Jesus Christ.
So the Sign of Jonah is the sign of sin, and the suffering incumbent upon sinners, finally redeemed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is what Easter commemorates. The triumph of God’s love over death and despair.
So let’s stop making models of our life based on false assumptions of our immortality. Let’s wake up to the reality of our death and search for the eternal truth. Let the moment of Jesus’ death in our place and His resurrection conquer death once and for all, convict us and show us the deep and unbreakable love of God. The beautiful, amazing story that despite our inevitable deaths, we may gain eternal life because of the work of God – if we accept His free gift of salvation.
Only then, will it become clear that this world, this material world we live in, is but a false model of reality. I find that the more I seek God, the more He reveals His signs to me. And the more I turn away, the colder I feel from God. This is the reality of what Jesus said when he said “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (Matt 25:29) The more we seek, the more we gain of God and His riches. And if we refuse to even seek, then even what little we have will be taken away, at our time of death.
To the struggling Christian or nonbeliever, there is only one prescription I have, and it is not even mine: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not in your own understanding. In all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Prov 3:5-6)
I believe that if we take one step today towards God, whether it be to pray our first prayer or whether it be to quit a lifestyle we know is killing us and rotting us inside, whether to walk away from that next drug or one-night stand or power play that we know is from the devil, that God will welcome us in with open arms, will say gently, cradling our weak and broken arms, whisper in our ears, “your sorrow will turn into joy.” (John 16:20)
For Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the father in my name, He will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:23-24)
Will you stick with your model, your models of the world, and take it with you to the grave? Are you really set to bet your life on that? Or will you dare to pray a word, say to God as the men in the Bible did, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 10:3)
To my LORD, to my Savior, you have helped me overcome my deep anguish, my anger at those who love me. For I was broken, chasing every idol in the world, seeking to be popular, seeking the attentions of the world, seeking to build myself in my status, and in the process, turning far away from You. And I hated myself for who I was, everything from my social awkwardness to the color of my skin. I took it out on the world, on those I loved, and my life was spiraling out of control. But I was invited to enter into the Gospel, and I took it, and LORD, you rebuilt my life. A colossal gift I received; you healed by hate, my spite, and my misery; you gave me the greatest family and friends I ever had. You helped me to take comfort in my stages of life instead of always wanting more; LORD, as you calmed the storms of the ocean, you calmed the storm of my heart. You built in me miracles I could have never anticipated. You protected me when I was about to fall, you allowed me to love myself and live for others. Now I see how blind I was to the reality of your Kingdom. Now I see the futility of the world; LORD, now use me and my story to bring others to Christ so they too might see the breadth and depth of your goodness! Of your goodness, my LORD! My LORD my God!