There is sand between my toes and waves lapping the shore not too far away. The cool breeze, the warm sun, and the laughter of my children and nephews have created an environment that is, in its own way, still, calm, and peaceful. My phone has largely remained inside our beach house and my apple watch is only worn when I sleep. I feel more present and at peace than I have in quite a long time. Needless to say, this has been a very relaxing few days with plenty of time to read, spend with family, and commune with the Lord.
A benefit of the peace and quiet is that I’ve been able to dwell on a passage from the Old Testament that has been stuck in my mind for quite some time—1 Kings 19:11-12:
“And [the Lord] said, ‘Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.’ And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks 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 the sound of a still small voice…”
The whole scenario seems strangely and beautifully unexpected. Eugene Peterson described this passage as “subversive” in its display of God’s activity—exactly the opposite of what we’d expect but accomplishing more than we ever would’ve thought.
The scene describes God showing Himself to Elijah when he thought he was utterly alone in his devotion to God. The Lord, after Elijah airs his grievances, descends from heaven to have a conversation with Elijah about his circumstances, His approach being preceded by several wondrous exhibitions of glory. I’m sure Elijah felt that each theatrical display of power was the Lord’s presence manifesting itself, but the plot twist is that they were only an accompaniment of it. To any God-fearing person with a proper understanding of the holiness, glory, and majesty of God, the mountain-cleaving wind would have surely been interpreted as a sign of His company, but no, “the Lord was not in the wind.” The earth-shaking tremors would have certainly been an indication of God’s presence, but no, “the Lord was not in the earthquake.” The blazing embers would have obviously been a notice that God was near, but no, “the Lord was not in the fire.” Those events were merely precursors, preparing Elijah’s heart to truly hear from God, albeit in an unexpected and seemingly unfitting way: in the sound of a still small voice.
I’m not certain, but I’d like to think that perhaps God was teaching Elijah a lesson, that grandiose acts of His power weren’t what Elijah needed in that moment. Most can easily sympathize that with each successive phenomenon, and each subsequent realization that “the moment” had not yet arrived, Elijah’s anticipation would’ve grown. I imagine Elijah’s expectations of the act that would finally reveal the Lord only became more and more fanciful with each failed display. But God flipped that script, and after the wind, fire, and earth prepared His arrival in such violent ways, He decided to finally reveal Himself in a calm, peaceful manner—a still small voice. Elijah, a scared man on the run who desperately needed God to contend for him, didn’t need a God who could wipe out His enemies in a single blow, or a God who could rescue Him from the pit of despair he found himself in; Elijah only needed a God who was there. Calm, still, and quiet; a God who was simply present.
I’ve often sought out and yearned to see God in the sorts of experiences that Elijah had: power, might, and ferocity. But more and more, as I remember the most pivotal moments of my life, the assurance and awareness of God’s presence and care has nearly always come in the calm and the quiet; the peaceful moments of serene contemplation and rest. We do not need hurricane-strength revelation to be convinced that God is speaking to us, yet that’s what we expect. We do not need a tsunami of shekinah glory to surround us with the thunderous voice of God directing us in what to do, but that’s what we feel we’ll be most convinced by. We only need to be able to slow down and realize that the God-man who lived a mundane, obscure life for 30 years is just as comfortable and pleased to speak to us in the ordinary moments as well as the magnificent. John Starke reminds us that extraordinary phenomenon are not necessary for us to know we’ve been in the presence of the Lord: “We don’t have intimate and joyful relationships with hurricanes, nor can we embrace the sun—but here we are with God.”
Hurricanes and monsoons are occasions that most of us don’t delight in, let alone go looking for. These are simply events that happen to us as a result of being human. The single mother isn’t fond of the whirlwind of responsibilities thrust upon her by the world, forcing her to devote her time and attention to activities required simply to live, but she can find peace in knowing that these conditions can prime her heart to hear from God, who is simply there. The overworked and overlooked warehouse worker doesn’t delight in the storm of activity that accompanies holiday season, the rush of work that keeps him from his bible, but even a mandatory fifteen-minute break every three hours could be the divinely ordained space in which he hears a still small Voice, right there in the musty break room. Most people’s circumstances do not afford them the undistracted time, unlimited energy, or undefiled space we feel we need in order to meet with God. But Elijah’s cave-encounter with the Lord shows us that God’s presence permeates the cracks of our lives. At times, that calm presence may only be able to seep in after a tumultuous fracturing takes place, after a mountain-slicing wind blows through, oozing out of the walls we’ve been confined to. And then, when all understanding seems lost, a peace that surpasses our confusion can be felt. In a world as chaotic and disorderly as ours, what better grace could God give us than the blessing of His presence in the calm?
I admit, though, it is hard to see these means of communion with God as a grace. Creating environments of calm and peace are seriously hard work these days. We have to give up so much and say no to so many opportunities. But on the flip side, some of this is our own doing. Many of our lives are so full of hurry, noise, and amusement that the only way we can experience this still small voice is to cut off everything that drowns it out. But we shouldn’t be surprised; sacrifice has been Christ’s requirement for communion with Him for the last 2000 years (Matthew 16:24).
Perhaps much of the spiritual malaise we experience is due to the fact that we are looking for God in all the wrong places. When we need to hear from Him, our expectation is that He will adapt to our circumstances. We expect Him to fight through all the barriers we’ve erected that prevent us from hearing Him. At times, God will surely be merciful and, despite our arrogance, allow us to receive the guidance that we need. But this expectation we place on Him is a misguided one. When we do so, we essentially reduce God to a servant who will ignore the spiritual apathy that we’ve lived in for months, sweep under the rug all the sins we’ve not repented of that grieve and quench His spirit, and deliver the precise guidance and direction we need in order to make a decision that will allow us to go on living our lives as if He is disposable and subservient to our wills. Like Eugene Peterson’s description of the adolescent Christian, we look for God to jump in our lives at just the right time and then butt out, to provide us “a way in which [we] may bypass grace and walk on our own.” This is what we expect of God, but how God has decided over and over again to reveal Himself is not the least like what most have ever expected.
However, if we truly believe calm is what we need—not skies rending open, not mountains being leveled, not oceans roaring and tossing—if we truly believe that what we need is to slow down enough to cleanse our hearts of all the noisy distractions, then perhaps we too will hear a still small voice, and be comforted by the fact that God is just simply there.