During a recent conversation I asked a friend how I can pray for him as he headed into a three-day silent retreat. His answer? "Pray that I will hear the audible voice of God." He explained, that he had never heard the audible voice of God and longed for such an experience. I did pray for my friend to experience what he longed for. Truth be said, I did not know whether I had faith that he would indeed hear God speak in the way he longed for. After the three days, he did not hear God's voice in the way he had longed for. He did hear God speak tough, communicating the words that he needed to hear in his circumstances.
In the Old Testament book of 1. Kings we read the amazing story of Elijah, prophet of God, confronting the people of Israel, including its king and queen about idol worship. Elijah had an amazing public ministry, accompanied by miraculous sings and what seems to be the pinnacle of his ministry, a very public showdown with 950 heathen priests and prophets of Baal and Asherah (1. Kings 19). That public spectacle in front of all the people of Israel ended with fire coming down from heaven, the people falling prostrated before God declaring: “The LORD – he is God!”, all the false priests and prophets slaughtered and rain coming down ending a three-year draught. Speaking of success in ministry…
As a result, Elijah received a death threat from the queen which understandably made him run in fear. One does not mess with the king and queen and live in those days. Anyway, Elijah ended up in the desert under a broom tree. He was alone, depressed and utterly exhausted. I can only imagine what happened in those days between the dramatic victory on Mount Carmel and the despair under the tree in the desert. Hopes of revival, people turning back to God and dramatic experience of God’s power to a depressed believe of lies, such as “I’m the only one left…”. His experience reminds me of the expression of the two disciples of Jesus waking on the road to Emmaus saying: “We had hoped for, but…” (Luke 24:21). There are so many of those ‘but’ in ministry.
The disciples on the road to Emmaus needed an encounter with the risen Jesus. And in the same way, Elijah was invited to meet God at the lowest point of his life. After his physical needs had been taken care of (food, water and rest) he walked with renewed energy to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God, where he went into a cave to spend the night.
God asked Elijah a very gentle question: “Elijah, what are you doing here?” God, obviously, knew exactly what Elijah was doing there. However, God invited Elijah to share his heart. What Elijah expressed was not factual truth. Still, it was the truth that Elijah believed in and experienced. Graciously, God did not correct Elijah. God did not point out the fact of what had happened on Mt Carmel just before Elijah run for fear of his life. God did not tell his servant off for running away or being overwhelmed. God did not even engage in a conversation about what Elijah believed to be true. What Elijah needed was an encounter with God! And that is exactly what God invited Elijah to experience.
“Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” (1. Kings 19:11)
Instead of correction, rebuke or rejection, Elijah heard an invitation to step into the presence of God! This, my friend, id God’s character and I know that I need to be constantly reminded that this is who God is. God actively invites us to come into his presence – just as we are! When we fail, when we do not live up to our expectations or other people’s expectations, when our feelings shout louder than the truth, or when we simply dwell in the well of self-pity…
So, Elijah waits. As he sits in the cave, he hears and experiences a great and powerful wind, so strong it shatters the mountains. After that, there was an earthquake. And after the earthquake, a fire. However, God was not in any of these. God’s presence was not in the powerful wind. God’s presence was not in the earthquake. God’s presence was not in the fire. God was not in them – so Elijah waits.
Our theological brain screams that God is omnipresent (present in all places all the time) – however, Scripture clearly tells us that God’s presence was not in those three loud and obvious happenings. I do not believe that this presents us a theological problem we need to solve. Rather, this is a picture that God is often found in the places we do not expect him. In order to notice God’s presence, we need to slow down so we are able to pay attention and notice!
After the loud manifestations, there was a ‘gentle whisper’, some translations use ‘the sound of sheer silence’. As Elijah heard that gentle whisper, or the sound of sheer silence, he knew that God was present. While he stayed in the cave during the wind, earthquake and fire, he covered his face with his cloak in reference and responded to God’s invitation to experience the presence of God.
Elijah noticed God’s presence in an environment we hardly notice. He noticed God’s presence in the silence, the stillness, the absence of noise. In order to notice it, he first needed to pay attention where God’s presence was not. God was not in the loud, noticeable and earth moving manifestations. God was not present in the circumstances Elijah could not help but notice. Elijah had to calm down, quiet his body soul and spirit and listen so he was able to not only hear the silence but hear God speak in the silence.
Sometimes, our circumstances, experiences and emotions seem like gales, earthquakes or firestorms. The noise of our winds drives out everything else, the violent shaking of our earthquakes makes us grab anything that offers stability, and the raging fires in our lives consume everything in its path. Alice Fryling, in her book ‘Seeking God Together’, follows Elijah’s experience on Mount Horeb by asking which of our circumstances, relationships or ideas seem like winds or earthquakes? Which areas are making the most noise? And which are all consuming like a raging firestorm?
Often, at least in my own experience, God does not speak to us in the loud and earth shattering moments that are impossible to miss. God seems to speak in the much easier to miss moments of silence: in the quiet whisper in our soul that we so easily miss or mistake as my own thoughts or feeling. And because of that we need times where we, like Elijah, head into a cave, especially during the storms, winds and firestorms. We need to find ways to quiet ourselves, slow down and become silent – so we can hear God’s voice in the sound of sheer silence, the gentle whisper inviting us into the presence of God.
How about you? What are your winds, earthquakes and firestorms? How do you manage to quiet yourself and notice the gentle whisper of God? In your present circumstances, what question is God asking you?
Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash