A Still Small Voice

Be still and know I am God. Psalm 46:10

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a still small voice. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. 1 Kings 19:11-13

God speaks to His people in a still small voice. As far as we know, there are no neon signs flashing “God is in the House,” no host of angels rapping “Yo there, he’s here. Have no fear.” God doesn’t speak through earthquakes, floods, forest fires, hurricanes or tornadoes anymore today than he did in Elijah’s time.

Truth is, we have to listen quietly and mindfully to the clear still voice of God in our hearts. She speaks in a gentle whisper. And when I say “whisper,” I mean whisper as in the sound of the sycamore leaves in a gentle breeze, the hot sun on your back on a white sand beach or the rush of a mountain stream in the spring. Our heart hears through our senses — touch, taste, sight, sound and smell — the knowledge our senses hold and how it makes us feel in our bodies and emotions.

Hearing God’s Voice with Our Senses and Bodies

The clear still voice does not speak the language of words; rather it speaks to our emotions and bodies. We get a sense of calm when something feels right. We have “aha” moments when disparate threads of thought and emotion come together. We get clarity about something that has nagged at us just below our consciousness. And we feel waves of emotion and the body sensations that accompany them. The tension in our shoulder muscles eases. Our breath slows and deepens. The ball in our stomach isn’t there anymore.

In our modern Western culture, most of us are not attuned to these subtle shifts in our emotions and bodies. We are talking or thinking most of the time. Or we’re plugged in to our electronic devices or tuned into our friends. Somehow our minds and bodies are almost always anywhere but present when it’s time to listen. We’re in a hurry. We’re worried. We’re bored or tired. We can’t settle long enough to listen, much less hear and understand the subtle voice of God’s spirit within us.

Our mind is busy with more “pressing” matters, things more tangible and urgent than listening in silence for that still small voice within us — even when we’re alone and the electronic devices are all turned off our thoughts distract us. We’re thinking about a conversation we just had or one we need to have. We’re thinking about what we need to get done today. We’re worried we hurt someone’s feelings.

Noticing Our Urge To Avoid

Most of us will do most anything to avoid listening in silence for God’s gentle whispers. Simply put, we are afraid. What if I don’t feel his presence? What if she wants me to do something I don’t want to do? What if he wants more of me than I’m willing to give? What if I don’t recognize God’s voice or I mistake my ego for her voice? What then?

Like the Psalmist (139:1,6-7), we are afraid of being known by God. We are afraid we won’t be good enough or worthy enough or faultless enough. You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. … Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? In reality, we want to come to God perfect by our own means. Like a defiant toddler, we want to do it by ourselves. We want approval and acceptance on our terms. We only want grace when we ask for it.

Whether conscious or unconscious, the urge to avoid God comes to us unbidden, like an ex-smoker’s craving for a cigarette with coffee or the compulsion to watch just one more episode of our favorite series. When we notice the urge, we can choose how to proceed. When we are on autopilot, the urge goes unnoticed and we smoke the cigarette or watch the next episode.

When we have the urge to avoid God, we can act on that urge or we can choose to listen to that still small voice. We can react without thinking which leads to separation from God or we can respond thoughtfully which leads to freedom in God.

Turning Our Minds To Acceptance

The Psalmist (139: 23-24) eventually turned his mind from fear to acceptance. He responded thoughtfully and asked God to: Search me, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. Creating the space needed to respond was not easy for the Psalmist and it is less easy for us in our plugged-in, always on-the-go 21st century lives.

Silence is the only way — not just the absence of sound but the absence of ceaseless chatter in our minds. We need silence to settle our minds, to invite God in, to hear God’s gentle whispers, to discern what comes from our ego and what is God’s spirit within us. Putting ego first in a Christian sense is putting my desires before God’s desires for me. In other words, choosing thoughts and behaviors that separate us from God.

Silence is a Choice

n Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. Above all else, solitude and silence give us that space to listen to God’s clear still voice. Without that space, we are conditioned to react to stimuli on autopilot based on the desires of our ego.

Silence is a choice and not an easy choice for us humans. We resist being alone with ourselves. In silence, we are confronted with our darkness and light in the interior of our minds. Our darkness scares us. Isaac of Nineveh, a 7th century Eastern Orthodox theologian, explains the importance of silence.

Many are avidly seeking but they alone find who remain in silence … Every man who delights in a multitude of words, even though he says admirable things, is empty within…. Silence like the sun will illuminate you in God and will deliver you from the phantoms of ignorance. Silence will unite you to God himself…. More than all things love silence: it brings you a fruit that tongue cannot describe. In the beginning we have to force ourselves to be silent. But then there is born something that draws us to silence. May God give you an experience of this “something” that is born of silence. As quoted in Thomas Merton. Contemporary Prayer.

Practice Makes Silence Easier

The heartening part of what Issac of Nineveh writes is In the beginning we have to force ourselves to be silent. But then there is born something that draws us to silence. It gets easier over time. Silence becomes a habit. What Issac of Nineveh observed, we know as neuroplasticity. The brain is constantly changing in response to our repeated thoughts and behaviors. Just as snow melt runs down a mountain following the path of least resistance so our brain follows the most used neural pathway. If our habit is to avoid silence, then that’s what we do when we are on autopilot.

The miraculous thing about neuroplasticity is this. If we intentionally create space between stimulus and response and choose silence repeatedly, two things happen. Over time the new neural pathway becomes the path of least resistance and the brain prunes the less used pathway. So Issac of Nineveh was onto something!

In The Way of the Heart, Henri Nouwen describes silence as the link between solitude and prayer. Solitude is the place of the great struggle where we encounter God within us. The prayer of the heart opens the eyes of our soul to the truth of ourselves and to the truth of God. In the space between, silence makes us pilgrims and teaches us to speak. This Celtic Christian prayer, taken from the Ortha Nan Gaidheal, a collection of Scottish oral literature, describes how we create that silent space.

I weave a silence onto my lips, 
I weave a silence into my mind. 
I weave a silence within my heart. 
I close my ears to distractions. 
I close my heart to attractions. 
I close my heart to temptations.

Calm me, O Lord, as you stilled the storm. 
Still me, O Lord, keep me from harm. 
Let all tumult within me cease. 
Enfold me, Lord, in your peace. 

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