Sunday, June 12, 2011

Prayer and Listening to God Part 6: The Myth Of The Still, Small Voice

(This is Part 6 in a series of posts on Prayer and Listening to God. Click here for Part 1).

I've been writing on the topic of prayer and listening for God's voice because it's an important doctrine to get right. Many people today believe that we should expect to hear God speak to us apart from his voice in Scripture. They teach that we should be "tuned in" to God's inner leading in order to learn his will for a decision we must make, for instance. I don't believe the Bible teaches this at all, and that in fact, it teaches something far better.. This is the sixth in a series of articles explaining why. So far, here's what I've talked about:

Part One: A lot is at stake in what we believe about prayer and listening to God (the way we view Scripture, for starters). Every Christian needs to understand his own position on this.

Part Two: The Bible itself teaches what biblical prayer is and what it isn't. The Bible teaches that prayer is our speaking to and making requests of God. I'm trying to make the case that the Bible does not teach that we are to listen for his voice (apart from his word) as part of prayer or at any other time.

Part Three: There is a history about how we've come to believe that listening for God's voice in prayer is taught in the Bible. It is a belief that has been infiltrating conservative, orthodox Christianity over the past 50 or 60 years. It's largely based on misuses of Scripture.

Part Four: Though we are not to listen for God's voice in prayer, we do enjoy fellowship and communion with God in the ways the Bible teaches. Thank God for His Spirit, the Spirit of truth!

Part Five: There is a correct and fairly straightforward method (though not always easy) of interpreting Scripture (2 Timothy 2:15). Taking care to read the Bible in context will help us get the right meaning and purpose of biblical texts.

This sums up where I've gotten to so far. If you haven't had a chance to read those articles, it might be helpful to do so before reading this one. As promised, I'll now offer an example of  a misinterpreted text. The misuse of one simple phrase in this passage seems to have been the cause of a lot of misunderstanding about prayer. It all has to do with the concept of the "still, small voice." The story is in 1 Kings 19:9-18.

... he [Elijah] came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He said, ‘I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts...

And he [God] 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 low whisper. 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?’

The "low whisper" (as the ESV translates it) was indeed a sound Elijah heard, just as he'd heard the wind, the sound of rocks splitting and breaking, and the roaring of the fire. But the low whisper was not words God spoke to Elijah. (Notice that God did speak words,  both prior to and after the sound of the low whisper. But the low whisper was not verbalized communication. Elijah heard the words God did speak next and responded to them, like one does with words, and they are recorded for us.) The low whisper, though, was not words, and seemed to serve as a metaphor of God's dealings with his prophet and as a revelation of His ways.Here's what I mean.

The great wind, the earthquake, and the fire all testified to God's awesome, even fearsome power. They seemed to reveal something about the God who governs all things, who shakes the earth and who is a consuming fire. Elijah cowered in terror before these demonstrations! But when Elijah heard, at last, the low whisper, he wrapped his face in his cloak, signifying his meekness before this awesome God, and took courage to step out onto the mountain. The still, small voice (maybe better translated "sound" from the Hebrew) was not God speaking to Elijah, and this passage is not mean to teach us to seek a similar experience. But the passage is meant to teach us something true about God-- that he is compassionate, merciful and kind, as illustrated by his gentle dealing with his repentant prophet.

Arthur Pink, an esteemed teacher and preacher in the 20th century, comments on the passage:

It evidenced afresh the kindness and tenderness of the Lord, who would assuage Elijah’s disappointment and cheer his heart. Where the soul is reassured of His Master’s love the servant is nerved to face fresh dangers and oppositions for His sake and to tackle any task He may assign him. It was thus also He dealt with Isaiah: first abasing him with a vision of His glory, which made the prophet conscious of his utter sinfulness and insufficiency, and then assuring him of the remission of his sins: and in consequence Isaiah went forward on a most thankless mission (Isa. 6:1-12). The sequel here shows the Lord’s measures were equally effective with Elijah; he received a fresh commission and obediently he discharged it.
More could be said, but maybe this will suffice to illustrate the need for care in using this passage, and this phrase, to teach that we should listen inwardly for God's voice. The passage in 1 Kings 19 is certainly meant to instruct us, but not to teach us to listen for a message from God. Rather, it teaches us important things about God's dealings with men, and about His character and his ways. It's also a historical narrative, important simply for that sake. The history in the Old Testament is the heritage of every believer, and we should be well acquainted with it!

Next time I'll talk a bit about a couple of other ideas along this line: how the ideas of "feeling led" and "having a peace" about decisions (and such) have been used in ways the Bible doesn't use them! Eventually, I'll try to tackle this whole concept of listening for God's voice from a positive angle. God does speak! And he does guide us. The truth about that is very reassuring... and freeing.

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