“I Have a Question,” Ensign, Dec. 1994, 60–61
Answered by Jonathan H. Stephenson, curriculum writer, Church Educational System.
Some signs are miraculous or unusual events that demonstrate the existence, power, or wisdom of the Lord. They have been an important part of his work since the beginning, when he put the sun, moon, and stars in the sky “for signs” (Gen. 1:14; see also Alma 30:43–44).
Scriptures contain accounts of the Lord’s use of signs. A rainbow, for example, is a token or sign of the Lord’s covenant with Noah (see JST, Gen. 9:21–25). With great signs and wonders, the Lord led the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the promised land. The birth and death of Christ himself were accompanied by signs both wondrous and terrible. When the Lord walked the earth, he showed many miracles and signs. He said that “the works which the Father hath given me to finish, the same works that I do, bear witness of me, that the Father hath sent me” (John 5:36; see also Acts 2:22). The annals of Church history testify of the Lord’s continuing use of signs up to the present day.
Although we may not see clearly the Lord’s reasons for giving some signs, we can see principles that help clarify our understanding of the purposes of divine signs.
Signs can cause the wicked to fear and tremble (see Ex. 12:29–33; Jer. 10:2; Luke 21:11; Alma 14:26–29; 3 Ne. 1:16–18). The prophet Mormon compared this awful fear experienced by the wicked to fear of a “goat [fleeing] with her young from two lions” (Alma 14:29). Thus the wicked are warned to repent, and if they choose not to do so, they are “left without excuse” (D&C 101:93) and stand to perish of their own accord (see Hel. 14:29–31; D&C 63:11). At times the wicked are even provoked to anger and fight against the work of God (see JST, Ex. 10:27–28; 1 Kgs. 19:1–2; John 5:16; 1 Ne. 19:13; Hel. 9:24–25). When the Spirit withdraws from the wicked, they are left to “persecute the saints, and to fight against God” (D&C 121:38).
Signs can help the weak in faith begin to develop faith in God (see Ex. 4:30–31; 1 Kgs. 18:37–39; Acts 8:9–13; Hel. 14:12–13, 28–29). It is also interesting to note instances in which divine signs seem to have preceded belief in the Lord, thereby giving unbelievers convincing cause to believe (see Ex. 7:3, 5; John 4:46–53; John 20:26–31; Hel. 14:28–29). But though the convincing evidence of signs and miracles can nurture the desire one may have in his heart to believe, a sign or miracle cannot be the sole basis of faith in the Lord and a testimony of his gospel (see Alma 32:17–19).
Signs can symbolically teach us of Christ and the gospel (see 2 Ne. 11:4; Mosiah 3:15; Moses 6:63). For example, in America there was no darkness and a new star appeared when he who is the Light of the world was born; destructive forces and three days of darkness followed when he who is the Life of the world died on the cross (see 3 Ne. 1:19–21; 3 Ne. 8:2). In the Eastern Hemisphere, the birth of him who is the Good Shepherd was heralded by a new star and angels appearing to shepherds “keeping watch over their flock by night” (see Matt. 2:2; Luke 2:8–14), while the death of him who is Mediator between God and man rent the temple veil and then opened the graves of the dead (see Matt. 27:51–52).
Signs can tell of important impending events in the world, such as Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection; the restoration of the gospel through the Prophet Joseph Smith; and the second coming of Christ (see Luke 21:25–28; 2 Ne. 26:8; Hel. 16:4; 3 Ne. 1:9–14; 3 Ne. 8:3–4; 3 Ne. 21:1–2, 7; D&C 45:39–40).
Another significant aspect of the Lord’s signs has to do with seeking or asking for signs from the Lord. The scriptures contain stern warnings about the foolishness of asking for signs as dramatic proof from the Lord in order to believe in him. For example, the Savior repeatedly rebuked sign-seeking leaders, saying, “An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign” (Matt. 12:39). Sherem and Korihor were smitten by the power of God when they said, “Show me a sign” (Jacob 7:13–15; Alma 30:48–50).
In fact, throughout scripture the Lord has strongly counseled the wicked to not seek after signs (see Matt. 12:38–39; Matt. 16:1–4; Luke 11:29–30; Jacob 7:13–14; Alma 30:43–50). Elder Neal A. Maxwell, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, has said that the wicked are prone to “demand signs as a condition of belief” and that they “live by sensations,” whereas “disciples … walk and ‘overcome by faith’ (D&C 76:53), accepting gratefully the evidence of things not seen which are true (see Heb. 11:1; Alma 32:21) and using quietly God’s spiritual gifts” (Ensign, Nov. 1988, pp. 31–32).
We have also been warned that Satan has power to counterfeit signs and to tempt us to disbelieve the signs of the Lord (see Ex. 7:10–12; Matt. 24:24; 2 Cor. 11:13–15; 2 Thes. 2:8–10; Alma 30:53; Hel. 16:23; 3 Ne. 1:22; 3 Ne. 2:1–3). And we must understand that signs alone do not convert a person to the Lord (see Num. 14:11; Hel. 16:23; 3 Ne. 2:1; 3 Ne. 8:4; D&C 63:9). An active and saving faith in the Lord comes by the power of the Holy Ghost and is the result of one’s sincere and diligent obedience to gospel principles.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks, of the Quorum of the Twelve, has said, “The true church does not convert by signs and wonders, but by the testimony of the Holy Ghost. The Lord’s way of teaching religious truths is not by a public miracle or sign, but by a personal testimony” (The Lord’s Way, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1991, p. 88).
And Elder Boyd K. Packer, of the Quorum of the Twelve, has said, “I have come to know that the witness does not come by seeking after signs. It comes through fasting and prayer, through activity and testing and obedience. It comes through sustaining the servants of the Lord and following them.” (Ensign, June 1971, p. 88.)
Therefore, before asking the Lord for a sign or manifestation of his power, the righteous must exercise caution, remembering that “blessed is he that believeth in the word of God, and is baptized without stubbornness of heart, yea, without being brought to know the word, or even compelled to know, before they will believe” (Alma 32:16).
The scriptures, however, also make it clear that signs can confirm a person’s faith in the Lord (see 3 Ne. 1:8, 22; 3 Ne. 11:14–17); indeed, the Lord has promised that signs will “follow them that believe” (Mark 16:17).
He has said that when these signs are given to those who believe, they are given “for [our] profit and for salvation” (D&C 84:65–73; see also Mark 16:17–18; Morm. 9:21, 25; D&C 35:8–9; D&C 46:7–9). The scriptures record examples of people who asked the Lord in righteousness for signs or miracles and whose desires were granted (see Judg. 6:11–24; 2 Kgs. 20:8–11; Mark 9:20–27; Luke 1:34–38; Hel. 11:1–5; JS—H 1:29–30).
Nevertheless, we must remember that “signs come by faith, not by the will of men, nor as they please, but by the will of God” (D&C 63:10; see also D&C 24:13). And the Lord has admonished us that we “receive no witness [or sign] until after the trial of [our] faith” (Ether 12:6).