The expression "putting out a fleece" comes to us from the biblical story of Gideon. Gideon was one of the leaders that God raised up to direct His people during the period of the Judges in the early days of Israel's history. During a time of invasion by the armies of Midian, God called Gideon to rally the Israeli troops and defeat the foreign invaders. Before Gideon would commit himself to battle, however, he wanted to be sure that God was going to give Israel the victory! In Judges 6:36-40 we see that Gideon asked God to make a fleece of wool wet with dew on one morning, then totally dry on the next morning. The fleece was to be the sign that God would definitely rescue Israel from the Midianites. God gave Gideon the sign that he asked for, and Gideon then went out and defeated the forces of Midian.
Should we follow the example of Gideon and "set out fleeces"? Does Judges 6 teach us that it's a good idea to ask God for signs of His approval, either of our plans or a decision that we think might be His will? How far do we carry this practice of putting out fleeces? Are fleeces reserved only for special occasions or should we expect God to give us signs every day? Is "putting out a fleece" evidence of a mature faith or an immature faith? Is our faith strengthened by fleeces or is it better not to ask God for signs?
These questions--as well as many others--come to mind as we read the account of Gideon. We know from Romans 15:4 that this Old Testament portion of Scripture was written and included in God's Word for our instruction. There are many great lessons for the Christian in the overall account of Gideon, but what is the lesson God wants us to learn from "the fleece event?"
Before we look at the textual evidence for the quality of Gideon's faith, let us remind ourselves of one of the important principles of interpreting Scripture: the narrative is always subject to the didactic. That is, the accounts of historical events recorded in the Bible are always subject to the straight-forward teaching passages of the Bible, and we must always distinguish between what did happen from what should happen when we read Scripture. For example, in Genesis 12:10-20, the fact that the Bible tells us that Abraham lied about his wife and put her in danger in order to protect his own life should not be interpreted to mean that it's OK for us to lie and put our family members in danger when we think our own life is at stake!In the same way, the story of Gideon and the fleece is an account of what did happen, but it is not necessarily what shouldhappen. We need to look at the context of the Gideon narrative and see whether Gideon's actions were the actions of a strong, mature faith or a weak, immature faith. We must ask ourselves if the overall context of the narrative teaches us that we should follow or avoid the actions of the character in the narrative. And we must consider the rest of the Bible and see if there are any straight-forward teaching passages that touch on the subject of "putting out fleeces" and asking God for signs.
Twice in the Book of Matthew the Lord Jesus taught that asking for signs was not a commendable attitude towards God (12:39 and 16:4). In fact, He said on both occasions that "an evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign." Obviously, the motives behind an evil and adulterous generation seeking a sign from God would be different from the motives of a believer wanting a sign from God. However, the Bible indicates that even a believer is evidencing an immature faith when he needs signs.Remember that our Lord rebuked the lack of faith of "doubting Thomas" with the statement, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (John 20:29). We could say, then, that the rule of thumb for the growing Christian should be, "We walk by faith and not by fleeces!" Or, to quote 1 Corinthians 5:7 properly, "We walk by faith and not by sight." So we see that the straight-forward teaching passages which bear on the subject of asking for signs would tend to indicate that setting out fleeces is not the most mature expression of faith or pleasing response of faith towards God.
When we look at the story of Gideon (what did happen) in light of these teaching passages (what should happen), it becomes clear to us exactly what the fleece event illustrates. Gideon was not operating on the basis of a strong and secure faith, but rather on the basis of a weak and insecure faith. When Gideon asked God for a sign it was after God had already promised Gideon, in no uncertain terms, that He would rescue Israel from the Midianites. The Lord first commissioned Gideon to go and defeat the Midianites: "Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian's hand. Am I not sending you?" (6:14). Then the Lord promised Gideon that he would be with him and he would definitely defeat the Midianites: "I will be with you, and you will strike down the Midianites as if they were but one man." (6:16).Furthermore, God had already given Gideon a confirming sign in the way He had responded to Gideon's sacrifice! "Miraculous" fire, indicating God's acceptance of Gideon and his offering, consumed the sacrifice that Gideon brought. What further evidence did Gideon need to know that the God of Israel was eager to give Gideon a complete victory over the Midianites? And yet Gideon had the audacity to say to God, "If You will save Israel by my hand as you have promised..." (6:36).
How disappointing--and yet how very familiar! So often we, like Gideon, doubt the very promises that God has given us in black-and-white Scripture! Why, for example, do we risk stress-related physical problems when we have clearly been told to "Cast all your anxiety on Him, for He cares for you" (1 Peter 5:7)?
The fact that we've all put out fleeces and maybe even seen God answer with "miraculous" signs does not mean that God is pleased with this approach in our walk of faith. Just as parents will sometimes accommodate themselves to their young children's clinging and fearful requests for assurance or affirmation, so God acquiesces at times to the requests of our feeble faith. But parents want their children to mature to the point where they don't need continual reassurance or unusual demonstrations of affirmation!In the same way, God wants His children to grow in faith to the point where we don't need to put out fleeces and ask for signs. The point is not that the story of Gideon is teaching that it is wrong to put out fleeces or that it is wrong to ask God for signs, but that the account of Gideon and the fleece is included in Scripture to show us that it is the unsure, wavering faith that desires signs and it is usually the timid, immature believer who sets out fleeces. However, a very encouraging lesson that we don't want to miss in the story of Gideon and the fleece is that God tolerates our lack of faith and continues to work with us in spite of our immature faith. He may even give us the signs we ask for in order to bolster our weak faith!
Although it is clear from the Scripture that Gideon was not a giant in faith, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that he did have genuine faith. While he didn't have a bold faith like some of the other Old Testament heroes, it must be stressed that Gideon was not without faith. When God told Gideon to tear down his father's pagan altar, by faith Gideon obeyed (6:25-27). Because he was too afraid to do the job by day, he did it by night. But he did it! Faith does not have to be bold to be genuine. How encouraging for us who are so often midgets in faith!Again we see Gideon fearful right before the battle, needing a dream to encourage him to step out in faith (7:9-15). But God knew all about Gideon's weak faith, and after stating categorically once again that Gideon would defeat the Midianites (7:9), He said to Gideon, "If you are afraid to attack, go down to the camp with your servant Purah and listen to what they are saying. Afterward, you will be encouraged to attack the camp" (7:10-11). How gracious God is! God's amazing tolerance and His accommodation to the weak faith of Gideon (who put more stock in a Midianite's dream than in the explicit Word of the Lord!) shows us the extent of His grace to those of little faith! What an encouragement for us who so often, like Gideon, become more courageous by seeing "proofs" than by simply believing the promises of God's Word. But, praise God, "He knows our frame and remembers that we are dust" (Psalm 103:14). The fact that Gideon made it into God's "Hall of Faith" (Hebrews 11:32), in spite of his shortcomings, shows us that from God's perspective the fact of our faith is ultimately more important than the strength of our faith! All of this encouragement for us, however, is not the stamp of God's approval on fleece setting or weak, timid faith!
Not only is the practice of setting out fleeces an indication of an immature faith, but it has some built-in problems associated with it. One problem is that you can never be really sure with a fleece! Suppose you ask God for a sign from heaven in order to know if you should go on a certain trip or continue a certain relationship, and three days later you see a shooting star! "Wow!" you say. But then you begin to wonder, "Was that a sign from God or just a coincidence?" So what do you do next? Chances are that you'll do exactly what Gideon did--you'll "tighten the boundaries" on the sign to be really sure. "Lord, may I see three shooting stars in the northern sky in the next 48 hours, if my decision is Your will!" But can you ever put out enough fleeces to be 100 per cent sure? And where does faith end and manipulation of God begin?
Tightening the boundaries leads to another built-in problem. Fleece-setting may not be wrong but it comes dangerously close to testing the Lord, which definitely is wrong. When the Pharisees and Sadducees asked Christ for a sign the Scripture says that they tested Him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven (Matthew 16:1). The Bible explicitly teaches that putting God to the test is a sin. "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test" (Deuteronomy 6:16). If you walk across an Interstate highway and expect not to get hit by a truck because God promises to protect us, that's testing God!A Christian who puts out a fleece and asks God for a sign isn't exactly putting God to the test, but when we begin to tighten the boundaries on the signs we request we're moving in that direction. If we ask the Lord to, "Make the phone ring by noon tomorrow if You want me to take that new job (or move to that new location)," we've really boxed God in--into a box of our making! We have set the conditions and we are forcing God to confirm His will for us on our terms! Doesn't this come perilously close to testing God? The more we tighten the boundaries to force God's hand, the closer we come to the "Interstate" illustration. How much better to use the normal means that God has given us to make decisions (primarily the guidelines of Scripture--including sanctified common sense!), and then ask God to confirm our decisions or guide us to different decisions in ways of His own choosing.
Asking God to confirm our decisions without restricting Him to doing it our way is not the same as setting out a fleece. To request that the Lord show us in some clear way if we've made or are about to make a decision that is not in accordance with His will is not the same as demanding a particular sign from God. The Lord does not play games with us. He desires that we make right decisions, and He delights to confirm us in these decisions! We do not have to put out fleeces to remind our heavenly Father that His well-loved and intimately known children need His perfect confirmation in their walk of faith. We really can trust His promise: "In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths" (Proverbs 3:6).