Listening for God

The still, small voice that speaks in the quiet

Written by Linda Douty

He said: "Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord,for the Lord is about to pass by." 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—and then there came a voice to him that said, "What are you doing here Elijah?"
—I Kings: 19:11-13

O that my people would listen to me…
—Psalm 81:13

Try an experiment: Be as still and silent as you possibly can for the next 30 seconds or so. Listen as intently as you can, noticing the sounds you hear. How many sounds? What are they?—Close your eyes and begin to listen. Pause: Did you hear 1 sound—2? 3? 4? 5? Did you hear the ticking of the clock? Heater noise? Birds? Traffic? Voices? Your own breath? Your heartbeat? Ringing in your ears?

We are seldom still enough to hear the subtle sounds. Most of us suffer from a steady dose of noise pollution: TV, radio, conversation. Constant sound bombards us until the naturalness of silence sounds foreign, unnatural, threatening, and we'll do just about anything to cover it up. In a significant way, we are in fact addicted to noise. The constant blaring of the TV is for many an electronic companion whose presence we take for granted; Muzak fills the elevator; we jump in the car and switch on the radio to fill the uncomfortable void; a lapse in social conversation is viewed with alarm, and someone has to rescue the moment by talking. Even in church, if a few moments of silence are called for in worship, most church members have this internal response: "When will this be over?"

Often we use noise to cover up our feelings, thinking, and seeing. Just like Elijah, we allow our own personal whirlwinds and those of our society to drown out our honest thoughts, mask our true feelings, and obscure the voice of God. Let's suppose we decide to do something differently and close our mouths. After all, we can't hear God if we're constantly talking; so we commit to spending more time in prayer and solitude. Even then, we are apt to fall into a distorted definition of silent, listening prayer—one in which our mind keeps talking to God, petitioning, thanking, adoring. These are good things, certainly, but still prayers controlled by us, the product of OUR efforts. We've simply decided to close our lips! And the internal chatter continues…

Let's crank this dilemma up yet another notch. Suppose that we decide not only to turn down the volume in our lives, but also in our thoughts: We'll cease our powerful internal chatter and really listen to God. What noise pollution occurs THEN?? Plenty! We experience yet another chorus of clanging voices that seem to have been living inside us without our knowledge; and now they're competing for our attention too! "Wonder if I should have said that to Joe?" " What will I do if Mom has to go to a nursing home?" " Did I leave the kitchen light on when I left home?" " Wonder what Susan meant when she said that to me?" Or that old reliable standby…"I SHOULD have said…" Given this behavior, our chances of really hearing the voice of God are just about nil. And yet, "the still small Voice is speaking: can you hear it?"

The good news is that God understands our barriers and limitations, so great is God's longing for us. And in spite of all, God is much more willing to speak than we are to listen. I'm convinced that it takes only one thing to develop a listening heart, and that is willingness. But this is a special kind of willingness—a willingness grounded in the longing that tugs at your heart—not a legalistic striving: "I OUGHT to learn to listen better…I SHOULD hone my listening skills…I MUST commit 30 minutes a day to silent prayer." I'm speaking of a longing so deep, an openness so wide, so basic to the soul's survival, that it feels like the thirsty deer spoken of in Psalm 42, who longs for flowing streams.

Listen to the words of a middle-aged woman seeking to express this longing—recorded in an issue of Weavings several years ago. A counselor tells this story:

A few years ago, a woman I shall call "Catherine," an affluent 67-year-old widow of a local physician, came to me for counseling. She complained that something was not quite right with her life, but she had not been able to determine what was wrong. … She claimed that despite the fullness of her life, she was missing something. "You know, I've kept very busy all of my life: I've always had something to do, somewhere to go, somebody to be with. But now I don't want to do any of that; I don't SAVOR anything! …"

I asked her about her spiritual life. "I go to church every Sunday morning and Wednesday evening—have for years. I have taught Sunday school for the past 26 years, and have been president of one church committee or another for my entire adult life. But sometimes church isn't speaking to the way I'm feeling right now. It's just another activity."

"That's your CHURCH life," I said. "What is going on between you and God?" There was a long pause. "Nothing", she replied "and to be perfectly honest, there are times in the middle of the night when I wonder if there really is a God who is concerned with the minutiae of human life. Yet there are other times when I crave God, but I can't seem to make the connection."

She paused, then her eyes widened, as though she had just discovered something. "I know what it is that I want—and nothing else will do. I want to experience God. It seems as though I've been behaving well and working for someone I've read and heard about, but have never actually met."

In the words of Thomas Merton, "Silence is the first language of God; all else is a poor translation." Catherine's good intentions, her activity in the church, her persistent efforts, her very life in God had become lost in the translations of religious experience rather than the experience itself. But now she was ready to make the crucial transition from leading a good Christian life to falling in love with God.

In other words, she was ready to LISTEN: to turn toward God in a way that seems to say, "I want to know you; however you want to speak to me, all the doors of my heart are open; you're as close as my breath—just help me to know it, to listen to it, and to hear."

Yes, the still small voice is speaking. Can you hear it? Catherine heard it at last. If I believe in anything at all, I believe God will answer your longing—you can count on it. You don't have to try harder. This is not about your efforts; it's about your willingness to be surprised by God. This means letting go of your agenda, of your assumption that you know how and where God will lead you.

Let's face it, we usually listen for those things that will confirm what we already think. We want God's stamp of approval on what we've already decided. We aren't willing to be blindsided by grace.

Many of us are like Elijah, straining to hear the voice of God over the whirlwinds and earthquakes of our lives. But the truth is, life seems to constantly intrude on that process. Our best intentions get derailed by deadlines and burnt toast! Unfortunately, we can't move to a monastery. The task is to house our own portable sanctuary in the hallowed center of who we are—that place where we become so familiar with the sound of that still small voice that we can hear it in the MIDST of the whirlwind, in the very ebb and flow of our daily lives.

So how has God wired you for listening? Does a sunset leave you breathless? The still, small voice is speaking—can you hear it? Does the swell of an anthem bring tears to your eyes? The still, small voice is speaking—can you hear it? Does the cry of a child in need call to you? The still, small voice is speaking—can you hear it?

We can listen deeply through holy Scripture; we can listen to the words and experiences of saints before us. The shared stories of others can stir our hearts.

God is constantly reaching out to us through our special wiring. So notice what moves you, what excites you, what revs your engine, what stops you in your tracks, what makes you lose track of time. And listen to the message that God whispers in your heart. Let yourself fall in love with God.

I'll leave you with one other piece of advice that someone passed along to me one fortunate day. I was told that to develop a listening heart, I needed to live with two phrases, two brief prayers moving on my breath as I made my daily rounds: "Thank you" and "What next?"

And the still, small voice WILL speak—I pray that we will hear it.

Copyright © Linda Douty.