When God is in the Whisper

In the midst of suffering we often want relief, but would settle for being seen and loved in our sorrow. But what do you do when God, the one who should see and care, seems utterly silent? How do you navigate feeling abandoned by God in the midst of sorrow? The seeming silence of God is often more about our ability to hear than it is about His actual silence.

This is not a condemnation of sufferers! That’s an important caveat to put out front. In the midst of our sorrow the last thing we want is one more person telling us what we’re not doing right. Well-meaning Christians, in an effort to be helpful, will sometimes speak as if the sufferer just needs to find that one key activity or belief that will unlock their suffering and allow them to move forward. That is not how suffering works. And in suggesting that we are struggling to hear God, I am not suggesting that sufferers are doing something wrong. There are several reasons why we might be struggling to hear God, but it’s not because God is actually silent.

An event from the life of Elijah actually illustrates this point well. In 1 Kings 18 Elijah has his epic showdown with the Prophets of Baal. He not only embarrasses their god but he demonstrates the superiority of Yahweh. It’s understandable that after such a victory the Prophet would anticipate that the people of Israel would return to worshipping the one true God…but that is not what happens. As chapter 19 opens we find that Queen Jezebel is prepared to kill Elijah! There’s no repentance; no turning from idolatry. Instead, there is a threat on the Prophet’s life, and so he flees into the wilderness.

Here, in verses 4 we see how despondent and despairing the Prophet is:

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”

“It is enough!” Elijah has come to the end of himself. He has no energy and no hope left. He asks the Lord to take his life. He wants to die. His hope has been so shattered that he doesn’t have the will to go on. God ministers to the prophet in this moment giving him just enough strength to go a little farther (I’ll have another blog forthcoming about God’s ministry here). But as Elijah goes up Mount Horeb and enters a cave God meets with Him again.

In the cave God asks Elijah why he is here and the Prophet explains his despair again:

 He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”  (v. 10)

He feels disappointed and discouraged. He has served the Lord faithfully and yet, nothing has changed. He tore down idolatrous altars and called the people to repentance, and still he is utterly alone and scared. It’s in this hour of deep hurt and need that God reveals Himself to the Elijah, but it’s important to notice how He reveals Himself:

And he 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. 12 And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. 13 And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (v. 11-13)

God presents Elijah with all these dramatic events, all these powerful displays, and yet God Himself is not in the midst of any of them. Instead, God chooses to speak to Elijah through a “low whisper.” What’s the point of this? Why does God choose this format to speak to the broken man? After all, God has displayed Himself in the dramatic. Elijah knows God’s booming presence in displays of fire! The point of the whisper is to give Elijah hope that even when you can’t see God working, He is still there.

Think about a “low whisper.” It’s impossible to hear at times. Depending on the setting you could be sitting right next to a person and if they whispered in your ear you might still not catch what they are saying. When the noise of our suffering is blaring all around us, when the waterfalls of chaos and sorrow are pouring down on us you cannot hear the “low whisper.” But God is still in it.

The point of the text is that even when God seems silent, He isn’t. The issue is not His actual silence but our difficulty in hearing Him. We might find it difficult to hear God because the noise of our own suffering is too loud. We might struggle to hear God because we are waiting for Him in the wind, and the earthquake, and the fire, and we miss the whisper. We might struggle to hear God because we don’t know how to listen for whispers. We might not hear God because the whisper is intentionally low; He makes it so to work on our faith. Those aren’t failures on our part; they are realities of life. They are part of the hardship of suffering and living in a broken world. The key for us as sufferers is to reflect on the point of the passage: God is in the whisper even when we think He is silent, even when we can’t hear Him.

This is what faith is all about. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for…not seen” (Heb. 11:1). We trust God is in the whisper because we know His character and history. The silence of God is really a matter of our perspective, says Randy Alcorn. It’s not that He is actually gone, absent, unhearing, uncaring, or silent. We just can’t hear the “low whisper” in the midst of our trouble. So, what do we do, we hold on to faith.

Here are a few ways to do that when you can’t hear the whisper:

  1. Meditate afresh on the gospel – the gospel is how we know God’s love when it feels far from us. Read Romans 8:32 and reflect on how the gospel helps us to have faith in the midst of other needs. Read A Gospel Primer by Milton Vincent or Assurance by William Smith. These are two simple devotionals rich with gospel reflections for struggling believers.
  2. Be on the look out for the tiniest of evidences that God is still working – You don’t have to choose between honoring your pain and acknowledging God’s kindness. Sometimes we are afraid to identify simple gifts from God because they don’t seem to offset our pain and therefore they feel trivial. But you can acknowledge both, without needing to compare them. You don’t have to justify your sorrow by finding a comparable joy. Just look for simple ways God is still working. Keep a list.
  3. Meditate on the character of God – knowing God’s character, who He is and what He does, can help us when we can’t hear the whisper. We are able to fall back on what we do know about Him when darkness seems to hide his face. Read Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund or God Is by Mark Jones.
  4. Lastly, learn to pray and lament. Take your sorrow to God and talk to Him about it. Learn to press into Him even when you feel He is silent. I highly recommend utilizing the Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy Devotional Journal by Mark Vroegop. This is such a helpful guide in learning to incoporate the Bible’s laments into our own prayers.

God is not silent! He is never far from those who are broken hearted (Ps. 34:18). He may not show up in the ways that we feel we need Him, but He is still there. He is just in the “low whisper.”

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