Looking for Angels


An obsession with angels seems out of place in our age of e-mail and laser surgery. But books on angels sell like hotcakes, new stores open just to peddle angel paraphernalia, and movies and TV specials speculate on angels. One explanation for this interest is that we are spiritually hungry. Perhaps in the 21st century, our 20th-century focus on empirical reality will be matched by our concern with spiritual reality. The change in cancer treatment is an example. Once the focus was solely on pathology and chemical and radiation therapy; now most treatment plans include the spiritual, emotional and psychological aspects of healing.

Of course, some of us never lost sight of life’s spiritual dimensions. Religious people have kept the awareness of sacred mysteries alive. I think we would all agree that some aspects of the spiritual are beyond our knowing or proving, and that angels are like that. While the Bible does not present a uniform image of angels, their role is fairly consistent: angels usually act as agents of God, and are responsible for bringing messages to humans.

An angel brought Zechariah the joyous news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Another angel made Sarah laugh bitterly when he predicted she’d have a child in her old age. An angel shocked Mary with the news that she would give birth to the Savior. Another told Hagar that her best plan was to return and serve her harsh mistress, Sarah. Angels beckoned the shepherds to come see the Christ child and later told Joseph to take his family and run to Egypt. An angel displaced Jacob’s hip before sending him to a new land. An angel reassured the women at the tomb that they’d see Jesus again. God does speak to us, in many mysterious ways. One of those ways was and will continue to be through angels.

But it is very important to be careful about what we believe and encourage others to believe about angels. To begin with, it’s hard to defend the idea of guardian angels, the idea that an angel is appointed to each of us to protect us from harm. It’s pretty obvious we aren’t safe from danger. In a recent television show about angels, a woman said she was prevented from entering a building by her guardian angel. While she remained outside, another woman was murdered in the elevator. Was the murder victim’s guardian angel asleep? Does God give only some people guardian angels and leave the rest of us to fumble along on our own? The concept raises a lot of questions.

A typical angel story tells about a tribal uprising in East Africa in 1956. The Mau Mau band slaughtered every inhabitant in a village of 300 and then approached a private boarding school for children of missionaries. When they were finally close enough to throw their spears they turned and retreated.

Later at their trial, the Mau Mau leader was asked why they suddenly had halted. Now, he had never read the Bible or heard the teachings of missionaries, yet he answered: “We were on our way to attack and destroy all the people at the school, but as soon as we came closer, all of a sudden between us and the school there were many huge men, dressed in white with flaming swords. We became afraid and we ran to hide!” (Illustrations Unlimited, 1988).

Again, the story makes us ask why some people would be saved by angels while others are not. Many Christians lost their lives in mission and on battlefields; they were not saved. Why does God intervene sometimes and not others? Why do some receive a miracle while others do not? Why do angels visit some people and not others? It is dangerous to encourage people to believe in a personal guardian angel because they may quickly be disillusioned.

But there is an even greater hazard in promoting belief in angels. If people focus primarily on angels, they can miss God entirely and develop a shallow spirituality. Angels are like God’s shadows; they make a poor substitute for God. They are only helpers-not the source. Angels are a sign of God’s interest in us, of God’s desire to guide us. In the Bible, God uses angels to guide people to begin new ventures, to protect themselves, to wait and trust. There’s no reason to believe God has stopped guiding people in that way.

My advice is to keep a look out for angels, but not to be myopic. Angels take many forms-the current interest is too focused on the two-winged, haloed sort. Here are some other places to look for them.

First, look for an angel’s voice in your own heart. When we are receptive, when we are open, when we make time to listen, God often whispers in our own inner voice. When we ask for guidance, words enter our minds-inspired words like “Don’t do it,” “It’s now or never” or “Go for it!” Hunches, intuitions and gut feelings may be an angel giving us a nudge in the right direction.

Second, look for angels in your dreams. In Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph is visited by angels in his dreams. God may use the people, places, images, symbols VW and stories of our dreams to speak to us. An oriental man appears in my dreams when I need to reorient myself, and a professor appears when I need to reassess my academic ambitions.

Third, look for angels who take the form of people around you. My angels are often church members who surround me with their love, or friends who say something that disturbs me for weeks, or family members who make me laugh when I need it most or strangers whose words make me see life a new way.

Fourth, look for angels in the form of loved ones who have died. Dr. S. W. Mitchell, who was a well-known neurologist in Philadelphia, told the following story. After an exhausting day, he retired early but was awakened by a persistent knocking at the door. It was a little girl, poorly dressed and deeply upset. She told him that her mother was very sick and needed his help. Even though it was a bitterly cold, snowy night and he was bone tired, Mitchell dressed and followed the girl. He found the mother desperately ill with pneumonia. After treating her, Dr. Mitchell complimented the sick woman on her daughter’s persistence and courage. The woman gave him a strange look and said, “My daughter died a month ago. Her shoes and coat are in the closet there.” Dr. Mitchell went to the closet and opened the door. There hung the very coat worn by the little girl who had knocked at his front door. The coat was warm and dry and could not possibly have been out in the snowy night (Illustrations Unlimited, 1988).

I’ve heard too many stories from people who have sensed the presence of recently departed loved ones to dismiss this story out of hand. I don’t spend much time wondering about ghosts. However, I do believe that people live on in spirit and can send blessings our way from the other world. Paul paints a wonderful picture when he describes a grandstand filled with those who have gone before cheering on those of us who are running the race now. I have done so many funerals for people I cared for and who cared for me that I have a strong sense that they direct good will toward me from the afterlife.

Fifth, I suggest we remain open to the idea that some people are visited by celestial beings they call angels. Much of spiritual reality remains a mystery to us. I wouldn’t set my heart on having such a visit, though, since it is a very rare phenomenon.

If you find yourself fascinated with angels, take it as a healthy sign. It means you’re interested in the great mysteries of life. Take it as a sign of spiritual hunger and begin to find ways to nourish yourself. Remember that first and foremost, angels are a sign of God’s desire to guide you. Develop a willingness and even a plan to receive such guidance. God will speak to you one way or another. Keep an open mind. Listen for divine messages. Look for angels.