I Kings 19.9-18
Ours is a culture of “how-to’s.” We love eight simple steps. With corresponding pictures. And a toll free number to call if we mess it up. If you Google the words “how to,” the autofill will suggest that perhaps you mean to finish your sentence in one of the following ways:
How to tie a tie
How to boil eggs
How to hard boil eggs
How to get rid of ants
How to get rid of fruit flies
How to remove a tick
How to cut a mango
How to make French toast
How to train your dragon
Mostly very practical. Some odd. But things that are pretty functional and hands-on. But add one word, and things get interesting. If you type in “How not to…” into Google, the autofill suggests that perhaps you want to search one of the following:
How not to be wrong…
How not to be boring…
How not to be clingy…
How not to cry…
How not to be jealous…
How not to be lazy…
How not to be nervous…
How not to kill your husband…
I thought it was fascinating how many “how not to’s” are more likely to be emotional and/or relational. We want simple steps to everything in life, including some of the most complex emotional processes known to humanity.
Not to be outdone by Google, I thought I would make my own “How Not To” list. It is inspired from pages of I Kings and the passage I read a few moments ago. The Bible is filled with heroines and heroes for us to emulate, but today I hold up to you the example of the prophet Elijah and the list: “How Not To Listen to God.” In four simple and obvious steps today, you will discover in the next 20 minutes what not to do if you want to hear God’s voice.
The first simple and obvious step: Listening to God is not a simple or obvious process! In other words, how not to listen to God? Expect God’s voice to be loud and clear and evident. Just like our Google searches for a simple solution to complex emotional and relational topics, we run into trouble when we think that 8 simple steps will lock us into God’s voice.
Elijah was coming off of a time in his life when faith was easy and he was clear. He and God together had just rained fire down from heaven and defeated the prophets of Baal. At his fingertips, the very power of God was incarnate. His victory was complete, and the clarity with which God spoke was crystal. But not anymore. Now he was alone and afraid. And so his method was to try and recreate his mountaintop.
And he did it by emulating one of the most important mountaintop experiences in Hebrew history: the event in which Moses received the 10 commandments.
• Moses had gone to the top of Mt. Sinai…so Elijah went to the top of Mt. Sinai (aka Horeb).
• Moses had gone to receive a word from the Lord…so Elijah went to receive a word from the Lord.
• Moses had seen the presence of God passing by…so Elijah hoped to see the presence of God passing by.
But here is where God failed to show up. At least not in the majesty and simplicity that Elijah expected. There was an earthquake. But God was not in the earthquake. And there was fire from heaven. But God was not in the fire. And there was a great wind. But God was not in the wind. But after God failed to speak in the earthquake and the fire and the wind, there came sound of like sheer silence. A silence so palpable, it was as if it actually made a sound. And that is where the voice of God rested.
Because God’s voice is not always in the obvious or the grandiose. In fact, it rarely is. Christian writers and mystics through the centuries have pointed out the fact that when we hear God, it is often in the quietness. Not in the majestic and miraculous, but in the solitude and silences of our lives.
Quaker spiritualist Douglas Steere writes of “tiny promptings” and “gentle whispers”. He describes the life of faith in this way: “if we (are) sensitive and listening, there come clear insights of things to be done. Often they come in that receptive silent waiting after we have opened our needs and where we do nothing but wait for direction. …they may come during the day and push their way in between events that seem to bear no connection with them. These insights are precious and to be heeded if we are to live in response to that which we feel in prayer.”
If we are to hear these insights in and for our lives, we must look to the silences, and not just to the grandiose! Step One in how not to listen to God? Expect God’s voice to be loud and clear and obvious. It is a sure-fire way to be disappointed.
Step two how NOT to listen to God: be sure to listen to voices of negativity. It’s an excellent way to miss what God is actually saying.
Elijah found himself on the mountain because he was on the run from Ahab and Jezebel. Not entirely happy that Elijah had just defeated all of their prophets, they swore vengeance on him, vowing to kill him if it was the last thing they ever did.
The voices ringing in Elijah’s ears were voices of negativity and vengeance and his response to those voices was complete and utter and paralyzing fear. Read again his words: the enemies of God are after me, and I am all alone.
Now, the larger passage clearly says that he was not alone. That he had several allies on his side. But that’s the thing about paralyzing fear, isn’t it. It is not a rational thing. Counselors will often use the phrase “emotions are not facts.” But how often do we treat them as if they were? How often do we listen to those voices in the middle of the night that tell us how to behave or what to feel? And they feel so real and so terrifying and so palpable, but they are not facts and they are not rational truths. But that does not mean that they are not real. And it does not mean that they are not powerful.
Today, who is your Ahab? Who is your Jezebel? Who are the voices of negativity and fear and helplessness that ring in your ears? Is it the voice of your father or mother, who never believed that you would live up to their expectations? Is it that ex-husband or ex-wife whose justification for leaving the marriage was to eviscerate and blame you? Is it the boss or co-worker who never speaks a positive word about your performance or ability? Is it the “friend” who is always judging, always questioning your judgment, always cutting you down? Who is your Ahab? Who is your Jezebel? Whose voice are you listening to instead of God’s?
Elijah could not listen to the facts and realities of his life because he was overwhelmed by fear.
He could not listen to the voice of God because he was spending too much time and energy listening to the voices of Ahab and Jezebel.
One of the best ways for us to miss the voice of God is to let it be drowned out by so many other voices of negativity and fear. Step two: choose the chorus of negativity around you, instead of the grace and hope of God.
Step three how NOT to listen to God: do the same thing over and over again.
Look again at this pattern that Elijah engages in. He is on the run from Jezebel and Ahab. He runs off and hides in a cave. He hears the voice of the Lord asking “Why are you here?” And Elijah answers just like a stereotyped teen-aged daughter on any most show produced by the Disney Channel in the last 20 years. “Well, because everyone hates me even though I’m just trying to do the right thing. But I had to run off and hide in this cave and now I’m the only one left and everyone is trying to kill me.”
In response, God says go out to the edge of the cave and listen for me. And Elijah comes out and sees the wind and the earthquake and the fire and then God asks again “Why are you here?” And Elijah says the exact same thing: “Well, because everyone hates me even though I’m just trying to do the right thing. But I had to run off and hide in this cave and now I’m the only one left and everyone is trying to kill me.”
The exact same thing. God just showed up in the power of sheer silence and IT HAD ABSOLUTELY NO EFFECT on Elijah. Do you think that is God’s fault, or Elijah’s?
Of course, we shouldn’t be too judgmental of Elijah. How often do we get stuck in these patterns in our lives? We do the same thing again and again and expect a different result. For Elijah, he already had it in his mind that he was a victim and nothing that God said was going to change that. It didn’t matter what God said because Elijah’s god was this pattern of helplessness.
If we want to miss God’s voice of transformation and change and hope, be sure to get stuck in patterns of hopelessness and helplessness. Do the same thing over and over again, and expect a different result.
Number four how not to listen to God: Expect God to coddle you.
How often do we fail to hear God’s voice because we fail to hear God telling us what we want God to tell us? We are only listening for God to tell us what will make our life easier. What is most convenient for us. The answers for which we are longing.
What if God’s gentle leading is more often about how to help others and not how to help ourselves?
For Elijah, when he did finally discern the voice of God, the message was clear. He was to be a sending prophet. His marching orders were not to call down fire in the name of God. Nor to command a thousand armies for the Lord. But instead, it was to empower others instead of himself. Look again at his to-do list from God: 1. Anoint a new king of Aram. 2. Anoint a new king of Israel. 3. Anoint a new prophet to take his place.
All examples of empowering others. How often is our call the same? God is telling us there is work to be done, and it takes a listening spirit to hear and discern what that work is. Again, it is Quaker Steere who explains that prayer is what he calls “incipient action.” It is the beginning of a life of response. The dawning of a life of service to others. The first step of the work of God. He explains that listening to God in prayer opens the door to what God is calling us to do and be:
Here is the unformed side of life’s relationships – the letters to be written, the friends to be visited, the journey to be undertaken, the suffering to be met by food, or nursing care, or fellowship. Here is the social wrong to be resisted, the piece of interpretive work to be undertaken, the command to ‘rebuild my churches,’ the article to be written, the wrong to be forgiven, the grudge to be dropped, the relationship to be set right, the willingness to serve God in the interior court by clear honest thinking, and the refusal to turn out shoddy work.”
Who is God calling you to serve? To care for? To pray for? To fight for justice for?
Because perhaps there is an Elisha out there who needs our encouragement and support.
Perhaps there is a future king out there waiting to be anointed and empowered.
Perhaps there is someone that needs us to stop whining about our own problems and care for their needs.
I am not saying that we should never pray for ourselves. But sometimes, when we think our life is so difficult and we are dealing with so much and we are hurting so badly, what God is really saying is to stop spending so much time focusing on our own problems and look to the needs of others. It sounds harsh, but God does not seem to have the desire to coddle prophets who sit in caves and whine about how horrible their lives are.
God might well be asking you today, “Why are you here? I have somewhere else for you to be. Something else for you to do!” God has a job for you. And for me. And for us. So in the name of hope and grace, let’s wrap our mantles around us, and get to work!