The still small voice: How to listen for God in our broken world

The Lord wasn't in the storm...Pixabay

It's difficult to read books like 1 Kings as a Christian in the West in the 21st Century. It's full of violence, bloodshed and suffering of the kind that most of us have never had to face in our lives.

In the US and UK, while we have many struggles, most of us live fairly comfortable lives. The threats of violence and suffering are limited. We are in an incredibly comfortable position.

Occasionally this bubble is burst in a spectacular and frightening way. The people of Charleston are today remembering the horrific attack on a Bible Study at Mother Emanuel Church in which nine people were shot dead last year. The city of Orlando is reeling after the worst mass shooting in American history. In the UK we are in a state of shock over the vicious murder of a dedicated public servant – Jo Cox MP, attacked in cold blood on the street of a small Yorkshire town.

Despite these awful examples, the majority of us remain relatively safe. So when we come to read some passages of the Hebrew Bible – especially the difficult bits, like 1 Kings – we can struggle to relate.

Does God really advocate for the slaughter of children? Were the people of Israel supposed to behave like that? How can we discourage violence from other faiths, when our own Holy Book contains scenes of barbarity?

Surprisingly, maybe, part of the answer to these questions and to the sense of deep sadness and horror we feel about Orlando and the murder of Jo Cox, is to be found in 1 Kings as well. Chapter 19 follows the story of Elijah and his conversation with God. In a pre-figuring of the story of Jesus in the wilderness, Elijah wanders and lies down to sleep.

Then an angel wakes him up and says, "Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by." At this point Elijah may have expected God to appear to him in splendor – in the form of fire or cloud or some other kind of dramatic phenomenon.

In fact, the very opposite happens.

Verse 11 picks up the story, "Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains," it says, "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."

Surely God wasn't going to choose silence to reveal himself to Elijah? As so often in the Bible, God chooses to do something surprising and unexpected and to reveal himself in a way that wouldn't have been obvious.

The translation which renders the voice of God as "sheer silence" might seem contradictory. How could Elijah hear God in the silence? Well, for century upon century, Christians from various strands of the Church have experienced God in the silence – some traditions specifically setting aside time to hear God's voice in the quiet.

Looking at some other translations of the same verse will help us too. We know that God wasn't in the fire, the earthquake or the storm. The Authorised version tells us instead that he was in the "still small voice." According the The Message, God spoke in "a gentle and quiet whisper."

This is significant not only as an explanation of the way that God communicated with Elijah and the way that he may want to communicate with us today. It says more than that – it's about the character of God. To interpret the violent passages of 1 Kings and other Old Testament scriptures correctly, we need to look through the lens of the New Testament and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Yet even here in the heart of some of these violent narratives we have verses which tell a different story. A story of the God who could have arrived in fire, wind and earthquake. Instead, God spoke in a still, small voice of calm.

For those of us who wrestle with the violent passages which surround this one, the idea of God communicating with the still small voice is an oasis. It shows that our God isn't interested in only being portrayed as powerful and mighty (though they are aspects of his character). Instead he appears as a still, small voice.

We can choose to listen to that voice, rather than the voice urging revenge, even when our communities have suffered such senseless and gut-wrenching violence. The great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen puts it like this: "Many voices ask for our attention. There is a voice that says, 'Prove that you are a good person.' Another voice says, 'You'd better be ashamed of yourself.' There also is a voice that says, 'Nobody really cares about you,' and one that says, 'Be sure to become successful, popular, and powerful.'

"But underneath all these often very noisy voices is a still, small voice that says, 'You are my Beloved, my favor rests on you.' That's the voice we need most of all to hear."