Elijah obeys.

The prophet feels a breeze. A gust of wind lifts his hair in all directions. He brushes a handful out of his eyes before scrambling inside the mouth of the cave. A thunderous wind shatters the mountainside, scattering rocks in all directions. Despite its power and ferocity, God is not in that wind.

Hesitant to step outside the cave, Elijah feels the ground vibrate beneath him. He loses his footing and falls to the ground as the earth convulses. Still regaining his composure, he squints when a shaft of fire descends from the sky and a wave of heat blasts across his face. Smoke fills his nostrils. Elijah wonders what’s next. A lightning bolt? A volcanic eruption? A flood?

He waits. Finally he hears a thin silence like a gentle whisper. Elijah knows the presence and recognizes the voice. He stands up, dusts himself off, and pulls his coat over his face.

Approaching the opening of the cave, God calls Elijah by name and asks the prophet a second time, “What are you doing here?” Elijah offers God the exact same answer as before, as if God hadn’t heard him the first time. Only now does God answer Elijah’s concerns with specific directives reminding him that he is not the last prophet — seven thousand others refuse to bow their knees to Baal.

As with Job, God doesn’t give Elijah a full explanation and grant him understanding. Instead God offers and reveals himself. As Elijah is sitting in a musty cave in the midst of a Middle Eastern mountain range, God makes contact with the prophet. Rather than manifest himself in all his brilliant glory and splendid power, God chooses to whisper.

The image of a whisper speaks to the posture of our relationship with God. Whispering is ineffective if the person we’re trying to communicate with is on the other side of the room. God doesn’t desire a long-distance relationship, but an intimate one. Though the clamor of the wind, earthquake, and fire garner Elijah’s attention, the stillness of the whisper grabs his heart and brings him to a place where he is able to receive God’s answer. Elijah’s story demonstrates God’s ability to speak into any situation. No matter the darkness I might be in, God has a way of bringing me to a place where I can encounter him. Like Elijah’s, my pilgrimage is often difficult, riddled with silence and self-doubt. Like Elijah, I don’t always get the answer that I want, but the one I need.

I’ve wrestled with God over the issue of my health. I’ve experienced days when I’ve wanted to call it quits. Over the last five years I’ve visited countless doctors to try to find a diagnosis and remedy for a stomach illness, which often leaves me fatigued, writhing in pain, and unable to keep food down. Even after eliminating wheat and full-fat dairy from my diet, and adding a regimen of drugs and vitamins, all too often I still find myself in bed with nausea and stomach cramps. Looking at my travel bag of prescription medicine, I feel like a walking pharmacy. I joke that my medicine cabinet could become our retirement plan.

Just this morning, I became ill after eating an apple. My body rejected the food. I feel the raw sting in the back of my throat. On this day, as on hundreds of others, I’ve asked God for healing and restoration. I’ve also wrestled God through questions like, Why? Why do you allow this? Why don’t you heal? I know nothing is impossible for God. The Gospels are littered with stories of healing, and I’m begging for the scraps. Despite thousands of prayers, I squat in the silence longing for a healing that I have not yet laid hold of.

I often think of Paul, who pleads for God to remove the thorn in his side.5 Some scholars believe the thorn is a metaphor for a physical malady. Whatever form the thorn took, God refuses to remove it, reminding Paul that divine grace is sufficient. The experience must have challenged Paul’s relationship with God. The malady kept him pleading, and yet the experience also taught him to trust God in his own discomfort.