By Rob Manzinger
“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?’ (I Kings 19: 11b-13)
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27)
A friend of mine recently revealed in a sermon that he had only twice heard an audible, at least to him, voice of God: the first time, he was lying down and he heard, “Follow Me,” his call to Christian ministry; and the second time, while as a pastor trying to turn away a malodorous homeless person seeking use of the church bathroom, he heard God saying: “Whose house is this--yours or mine?” The congregation was leaning forward, listening intently to his message. What intrigued them was not so much that both instances of hearing God’s voice appeared to be circumstances where their pastor had to be hit over the head to hear God clearly, as much as that God only twice spoke to him in an audible voice. He was their pastor after all--why didn’t God speak to him more regularly; God speaks often to pastors, but also, perhaps less often, to the rest of us--isn’t that what we have been led to believe? The beloved Gospel of John passage where the sheep hear the voice of Jesus, and the cherished hymn, In the Garden, where “He walks with me, and he talks with me” seem to indicate that which we Christians believe and hope is the norm. God is speaking audibly much of the time. We want to hear the voice of the Lord.
Yet what if God’s audible voice is one of rebuke, a directive to repentance, or a call to a task that we do not want to perform? Would we want to hear an audible voice then? And what if there is a “famine of the Word of God” such as was found in the time of the prophet Amos, where the audible voice of God is only rarely heard? What if God’s speech is most often not a loud voice but a gentle whisper, a summons to the sound of silence?
The Elijah passage above cites what I believe to be the primary form of divine communication, the silent voice of God. In Elijah’s case, it is followed by the much less prevalent audible voice that here functions to rebuke and challenge Elijah’s self-justification and excuses. This drama unfolds as Elijah retreats into a cave and waits for a dramatic revelation outside the cave such as the fire he called down from heaven. The LORD does not disappoint, displaying the more sensational manifestations of God’s glory in nature. But the audible voice of God does not speak even though nature supplies all the pyrotechnics of an earthquake, wind, and fire. Through it all, Elijah remains waiting inside the cave. Finally he comes out of hiding from the cave but only when he hears the silence of God. It took the silent voice of God to get him out of the cave, before the audible voice spoke to him. But then the audible voice of God finally speaks, “What are you doing here?” Elijah knows he is in the wrong place and that he will not want to hear what is spoken next. He has already formulated a familiar and well rehearsed response. Elijah launches into a litany of “I am the only one in Israel who is truly following you Lord, and woe-is-me for being the only one who is following you.” The Lord graciously listens to him before giving him a final mission to perform.
As my friend intimated in his sermon, God’s audible voice is often a rebuke--”What are you doing here?” In this case, Elijah’s hearing the voice of God was followed by “a mission from God,” one where he was much more reluctant to undertake than the Blues Brothers of that same name and film fame. God gives him three things to do; Elijah only does one of the them. He anoints Elisha, someone from another Hebrew tribe, begrudgingly, and then fails to anoint either Hazael or Jehu, leaving this unsavory task of anointing evil kings to Elisha. The audible voice of Yahweh to Elijah serves as a response to Elijah’s self-righteous whining with a mission, no doubt, a mission that Elijah likely presaged before this point but ran into the cave to avoid. The longed for audible voice of God delivers the twofold punch of a rebuke along with a call to perform undesired tasks. Nonetheless, Elijah finally responds to the silent speech of God.
It was the still small voice of silence, not the Kantian “sublime” or the British Romantic poets awe-inspired response to the majestic power of nature, that drew him out of the cave. This was the voice of the divine shepherd that Elijah knew to be God. Perhaps he came out of the cave hoping that his mission had changed. But he knew without question that God was leading him out of his self imposed isolation in the cave to move forward in his life once again. He knew this was the same silent voice of God that he heard leading him when he heroically stood up the to 400 prophets of Baal. That was the “High Noon” battle of the ancient world, and the LORD and Elijah had prevailed. Now this same voice was urging him to go forward to do what he must do before God called him home. This silent voice of God had become difficult to hear in the cave, mainly because it was calling Elijah to hear what he did not want to hear and do what he did not want to do. Yet it was what he needed to hear. And once he he heard it, he knew it to be true. His response to the answer of God after hearing the audible voice was neither glib nor pious at this point. It was obedience. Well, at least to do the most important of the three tasks that he was given to do. And then the drama of the Elijah tale concludes when Elijah bypasses the grave and is translated directly into glory.
The New Testament has another dramatic story of someone who struggles to hear and do what the Lord directs, but who thwarts the Lord’s plans instead. Elijah passively retreats to the cave to avoid God, but Saul actively persecutes the followers of Jesus with a fire breathing passion. In the book of Acts, Saul is tracking down the followers of Jesus to drag them back from Damascus to Jerusalem, where he had earlier consented to the execution of one of their leaders, Stephen. The only way to persuade Saul to cease his activity is for God to knock him to the ground, blind him, and then finally to speak in an audible voice heard by Saul and those traveling with them. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (Acts 9: 4-6 NIV). Paul is taken to Damascus where he sits blinded for three days before he hears a voice from one of the persecuted party, Ananias, who is skeptical of Saul’s conversion. Promised in a dream that Saul will suffer, Ananias heals, feeds, and prophecies to Saul. Saul becomes Paul, a converted follower of the Way. After this, he spends three years in Damascus testifying to his new found faith. Saul hears the audible voice of the Lord, but only after he is rebuked, blinded, converted to the faith of his enemies; then he suffers and is persecuted for his new beliefs. Fewwould deny that the conversion of Paul was seminal to the movement of the Way; however, few would also want to go through the same process as Saul did in order to hear the audible voice of the Lord.
The audible voice of God seems to be one that occurs either to rebuke us or to guide us (when we are too recalcitrant to follow God). It often occurs when we have no doubtalready heard God’s silent voice. That is, the audible voice of God occurs most often, not due to our piety, but due to our unwillingness to listen. The silent movings of God lead us to the point where we don’t wish to follow God; and then God intercedes with a voice that we cannot ignore. God leads us into the kingdom of God, the narrow road, of which it is difficult to follow Jesus. When we resist and go astray, God guides us back home, back to the narrow road. It is on the narrow road where we are best able to hear the silent speech of God.
That is why it is particularly troubling to hear some Christians talk as if they constantly hear the voice of God, audibly or otherwise as if they never leave the narrow road. Their “God-talk” of “Jesus told me to take this flight to Los Angeles,” or “God told me to buy this pair of shoes” or “an angel saved me this parking spot” all illustrate a God overly interested in our self absorbed concerns. The justification for this kind of God-talk is that God has a concern for the sparrow, how much more so than for all of us humans, and for every detail of our lives. The ancient Jewish rabbinic logic of “the lesser to the greater” is then invoked; God is concerned about the sparrow and the birds of the air, how much more so for me! Never mind that modern logicians would regard this logic as fallacious. If bole weevils destroy cotton, or a tapeworm succumbs a cat, it does not logically follow that this must also apply all the more to humans. Conversely, from the higher perspective of a God figure, that is metaphorically speaking of God’s concern for higher species over lower ones in anthropomorphic language, my own personal experience has taught me that any number of women cared much more about their cats or gardens than some of the men in their lives--and they chose the wiser path!
The point here is that God does not take the time to speak with us daily, in detail, over much of our everyday concerns or selfish desires. Much of this confusion is generated by notions of a Calvinist predestinating God who orders every detail of our life. As a Baptist, I reject this idea. God has little to say about the shoes we put on, the tie we wear, or where we park. The truth is that we have a great deal of freedom to do what we like in much of our daily activity. God is primarily concerned with shaping our character, and in terms of circumstance, with larger matters and the more pronounced turns in the road that lie ahead. And while some churches have a visionary who comes up with a new project that “God laid on my heart” nearly every other month, at least they realize that God is more concerned with things that transform our lives than merely make them run more smoothly.
And now this calls for a theological sidebar. Paul Tillich once said that God never tells us what to do. This does not eliminate God’s guidance or voice, but only the compelling or coercive nature of that voice. In process theology, this issue of power hinges on whether God’s power is either coercive or persuasive. Process theologians proffer that God’s power can only be persuasive, never coercive, Never mind that the boundary line between coercive and persuasive is a rather tenuous one, one in which the boundary line is often transgressed and the power issue remains unproved. What it takes to persuade one person may appear coercive to another. Any number of movies have offered that bribery is merely quibbling over price; at some point everyone has their price, monetary or otherwise. We are all persuaded; the only instance is the cost.
However, process theologians are correct that God’s power, or to use Paul Tillich’s famous phrase, “love is the power of justice,” runs along persuasive lines, if nothing more than to prove that God does not regularly appear in an audible voice, telling us what do, that is, coercively. God resists the appearance as an audible voice, because it is the Holy Spirit’s small voice of silence that moves us forward as we take one step forward in response to God, and then another step as God continues to nudge and persuade us in the right direction.
Today we have to be careful that the voice of the Spirit is not restricted solely to the words of the Bible; Martin Luther’s sola scriptura (Bible alone) has been twisted to mean that “word” and “scriptures” mean the same thing (for Luther, there is word alone and scripture alone--each has a voice; he also has God alone, Christ alone, and faith alone, but sadly, he has no Spirit alone). The result of this modern reduction of God’s speech to scripture alone is to shove the Holy Spirit’s silent speech to the margins. We need to listen to the Spirit’s voice that is present in all of our inner and external experiences, and not just yearn to hear a text, or a word, speak to our external circumstances. It is no wonder that this focus on the written word or spoken words has prompted atheists or agnostics to demand (the biblical text for them is optional), or even the spiritual seeker to expect, that God will speak to them audibly, if it happens at all.
However, if we need a written witness to our inner yearnings, I Thessalonians 4: 17 reveals that the will of God is concerned more with our internal life than external circumstances. The God who we yearn to speak to our external circumstances does not need to be bent to our desire for otherworldly Platonic accuracy, that is, one and only one path given from an all knowing God for us to move forward. God does not need to be coercive in directing us to one and only one path--any number of alterations in our situations could accomplish the same needed change in our character. So why is it that many remain more concerned about hearing God’s voice of direction on our outside circumstances rather than that which we are experiencing on the inside, that is, God’s shaping of our character? Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer to this question but part of it exists in a desire to hear God speak audibly to our circumstances. Yes, what God ordains today in my external life, my job, my position in life, my neighborhood or my family is important. Yet what happens in our circumstances, these persuasive influences on our lives, is far less important than the transformation of character that God is effecting on the inside.
However, what this does illustrate for those of us, especially those of us who are in a hurry to hear God’s Word, is that God is not pressured, nor anxious, nor compelled to move forward with any of our timetables. So while we struggle to hear God’s voice, audible or otherwise, concerning our circumstances, God does not share our sense of urgency here. It is our inward character that God wishes to build, especially during these interim periods of our lives, when God’s voice does not appear to be heard.
But let’s be clear-- if we are patient enough, God always speaks; that is, when we remove our own expectation of an audible voice, human or otherwise, and are ready to hear God when God is ready to be heard. We need to put aside the urge to seek after the voice in the burning bush, or incline our ears to listen for the more dramatic voice, the audible voice, the pyrotechnic voice Elijah sought; but God remains steadfast such that the LORD must be heard in the silent voice, lest others hear what was not meant for them. The truth is that we often think we are attuned to hear God audibly when what we actually hear is an echo of our own desires. Here, I can only impugn myself.
How many times have I adjured God to speak to me in an audible voice? How many times have I railed against God, demanding an answer to my insolent pleading, and then discovered like Balaam, that the ass I was riding on had veered off the road, in order to save me from pursing the path of destruction that I was determined to chase (Numbers 22: 22-35). The audible voice of God, more often than not, first appears as a voice of rebuke, as it did to Saul before he became the Apostle Paul; only then will it be heard as a voice of call or direction, when we refuse or are ill equipped to hear any other voice. As the old saying goes, “be careful for what you ask for because you might get it” when you seek after the audible voice of the divine.
Conversely, claiming to hear God’s voice on a daily basis, and knowing with certainty that it was God who we heard, is merely the insolence of Saul (before Paul). We often expect God to do what we want, and then affirm it with an audible human voice that we can label the voice of God. Like a child who adjures one parent in order to receive what they want, and when refused, turns to plead with the other parent, so we too are trained to seek after an audible human voice to confirm our own desires and elevate that agreeable voice to become the Word of God.
The process theologians are right in that the primary way that God leads is through persuasion, in the still small voice of silence; it is through these gestures, noddings, urgings, pleadings, pointings, elevations, nudging, and gazes of divine direction that God guides us silently through the day. Hearing the audible voice of God is no badge of piety, but the result of spiritual pride gone amok. But remain calm--God is still speaking to us in silence. It is our humble response, when we try, but appear to fail in hearing God’s voice, that God reveals to us that we are headed in the right direction. We merely need first to be willing to eat the crumbs that drop off the masters table before we are invited to sit and dine with God at the messianic feast.
Rob Manzinger is a pastor, scholar, writer, and theologian curmudgeon. He resides in Pennsylvania and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org