Visualize the concept of God working in human lives. What image do you come up with? Do you see Peter preaching to thousands on the day of Pentecost? Jesus teaching the multitudes? Moses at Mount Sinai?
Do you see Joshua leading the charge around Jericho? King David defeating the enemy armies? Or is it Jesus restoring a man's withered arm? Peter touching a dead woman named Tabitha and restoring her to life?
Those were all instances when God worked. Some are more impressive than others, of course, but who could say which is more important? In the events of ongoing life, we can say, "Oh, well, it would have happened anyway." Or we can discern God's activity and proclaim, "It was a miracle!"
As I continue my own adventures with prayer, I'm trying to discern the miraculous hand of God at work. Such divine interventions happen in many ways. It could be the timing of events. Or it could be that someone said or did the right thing when it was most needed. Maybe an elder prayed for a seriously ill church member who recovered.
There is one way God works that many of us tend to ignore. It's when God whispers. I noticed this in an odd story in 1 Kings chapter seventeen. A rugged prophet named Elijah confronts 450 prophets of the idol Baal on Mount Carmel. He challenges them to prepare a sacrifice and pray for Baal to appear from heaven and burn their sacrifice. They pray, scream, and cut themselves while Elijah taunts. No answer comes and they give up. Then it's Elijah's turn. He orders water thrown on the sacrifice before he prays. Immediately, fire comes from heaven and licks up the sacrifice.
Isn't that a great victory and triumph for God's people? But that's not the end of the story. The wicked queen threatens Elijah's life. Elijah is worn out, so he runs. Eventually, he hides in a cave. And that's where God's whisper comes in.
Here's the way the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates the story:
He [God] said, "Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by." Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" --1 KINGS 19:11-13
Elijah expects God to come with drama and noise. Instead God comes in what several translations call the "still small voice." The NRSV gets closest to the Hebrew, and it could be translated, "the sound of a gentle stillness."
The prophet feels the presence of God in the quietness. A sense of fear and wonder hangs over him and he covers his face in reverence. The earthquake has shaken the earth's foundations, the fire has fallen from heaven,. And both of them must have been impressive and powerful. Although Elijah has witnessed God's activities, he isn't hearing God's voice.
Only in the awe of stillness does he feel overwhelmed and cover his face as if he were afraid to look on the glory of God.
Whatever God said in the cave, the writer found it impossible to put into words. It was obviously one of those times when the experience went beyond human expression. One scholar said, "The voice of silence spoke."
I understand that term, because I've experienced that voice of silence-except that it's not really silent. It communicates. It penetrates somewhere deep inside. That's why I call it the whisper of God. It comes in those moments as an "audible silence."
I prefer God to communicate through activity, through events, through visible evidence. I like being active, on the go, and always involved in something. I'm part of that personality type who gets things done, runs fast, and stays involved in a lot of activity. We're those who are prone to believe only in the whirlwind, the earthquake, and the fire. Sometimes we even try to help God make those things happen. We want to advance the kingdom of God. We tend to assume that God's not working unless life happens on a large scale.
If our church had only two new members last year, obviously we weren't as effective as the megachurch four miles away that took in over a thousand. If our personal giving doesn't measure up to the percentage of the top givers, we must be holding back on God. We look for the spectacular, conclusive signs fo God's mighty revolutionary energy. God does work and paint on gigantic canvases-sometimes. But it's only one way.
Sometimes God forces us into caves as he did Elijah, so we can hear the quietness of God-the whisper.
In recent years, however, the whisper of God has nudged me to listen more, and to hold back and wait instead of jumping into activities, no matter how good they may appear.
I'm not a contemplative by nature. I've tried to pray for a couple of hours at a time, and it just doesn't work with me. Try twenty minutes or a half hour. I'm not the kind who can kneel indefinitely in prayer without falling asleep. But it's disturbing to people like me when we realize that we're not getting enough bang for our bucks, or enough fireworks from our rockets.
"What's wrong, Lord?" we ask. "I thought I was doing your will."
When we get really frustrated, then we might listen-truly listen-and we might hear the whisper of God that comes in the silence.
Silence is important, but we need quiet spirits, quiet places, and quiet times. Even around noise and confusion we can find that quiet center.
I think I've figured out why the writer of 1 Kings had so much trouble expressing what happened in the cave. It was silent and it took place in utter solitude. My experience works this way. In utter quietness, away from the family, the TV, and the noise of the day, I can listen. For a short time, I can set in contemplation. I try to clear my head of all the things I want to talk to God about or think about.
I take time to listen. Sometimes I do it by paying attention to my breathing. Other times I imagine my body as a big empty space and I wait for the Spirit of God to fill it.
Then-in those quiet moments-the silence of God comes to me. But silence needs expression. That silence, in ways I can't comprehend, translates into thoughts. I hear my own words, what I sometimes call my inner voice, but I prefer to call it God's whisper.
I have no formula to explain how and when God speaks in this way. I can't even be certain that it's God and not my own desires-I get them mixed up at times. But I can think of occasions when I heard the whisper so clearly that no one could have persuaded me it wasn't God.
One day I was walking in Chicago, in a reflective mood. Hardly aware of my surroundings, I was in the "waiting mode" and had been asking God for guidance. I looked up just then and saw a theater marquee with the film Tanganyika (now Tanzania), and that whisper said, "That's where you're going." I never doubted that I had heard God's whisper. Four years later, we went to Kenya, but we lived on the Tanganyika border and did much of our work in that country.
When it's the real whisper of God, we know on some deep level. "I know without knowing how I know," a friend once said of her experience. "But it's so certain, no one could talk me out of it."
That's the whisper I want to hear more regularly. As I pray and worship, I provide the Lord with an opportunity to whisper.
Be still and know that I am God. --PSALMS 46:10, NIV
Then there came a voice to him that said ... --1 KINGS 19:13a, NIV
whisper to me.
Teach me to listen in utter silence,
so that I may be ready,
and open to your silent whisper. Amen.
For more from Cec, please visit www.cecilmurphey.com.
Cecil Murphey has written more than one hundred books on a variety of topics with an emphasis on Spiritual Growth, Christian Living, Caregiving, and Heaven. He enjoys preaching in churches and speaking and teaching at conferences around the world. To book Cec for your next event, please contact Twila Belk at 563-332-1622.