“The gentle whisper” (1 King 19:12) in the original Hebrew context means “sound or voice, thin silence” or “small and low voice”. It’s the same “voice” that spoke to Elijah, interpreted as “a place of silence”. God once made spectacular miracles on Mount Carmel, particularly letting the fire of the Lord come down from heaven, but He was silent in this place. There was a great and powerful wind outside the cave, but God was not in the wind. He was found in the sound of a gentle whisper. God chose to speak to Elijah in the sound of sheer silence. For us, it is also only in sheer silence to hear Him, a way of shutting down the hustle and bustle of the outer world and returning to the peace and safety of our inner world. This testifies what God has promised to us -- “in repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15)
Although the voice in the place of silence is small, the word is as heavy as the thunder of rumbling sound. As the Chinese litterateur Lu Xun said in his poem “listening to the thunder in the place of silence”, it can still offer a thunder-like trembling experience to our body and mind. In the writings of The Zhuangzi·Knowledge Wandered North, it mentioned that “look for it but has no form, listen but it has no voice” (Translation by Burton Watson), with the general idea of hearing in the sound of silence and perceiving in the formless place. Therefore, Christians need to enter the inner room, be excluded from internal and external distractions and seek a place of silence for themselves and God only, so as to have no interference to find and listen to His faint whisper. In the poem Introspection composed by Rev. Jia Yuming, the pastor said that “One shall be in compliance with the voice of conscience, and listen to it though the voice is small. If you turn blind to it, condemnation will follow with a thunder-like voice.” Following the Last Supper, that evening in Gethsemane, Jesus didn’t listen to His disciples’ words of dissuading nor Peter’s promise of not betraying Him. Instead, Jesus prayed to God in a place of silence, listening to the voice of God with a peaceful mind. Here’s another deeper lesson God wants us to learn: one can be joyous and grateful in the bustling fellowship life, and can also place oneself in a completely silent place devoid of praise, applause, and honor, only to pray and listen to the voice of God.
As a student of Sacred Music, I served in a hometown’s church in the sacred music ministry during school holidays. I often busied myself assisting church members to conduct praise meetings, sacred music training, etc. Every day after the serving, I came back to my room and tried to get loosed. I walked into the inner room and went to bed rather than spare time with God. This year in particular, due to the Coronavirus outbreak, the suspension of services and school opening rendered me an unexpected “extra-long holiday” to stay at home. No ministry serving. No intense burden of academic learning. All original plans had to be rescheduled.
As a result, like a lot of young adults -- treating the smartphone and the Internet as two best friends -- I spent all days with my phone browsing online news of all sorts, indulging in social networking and hitting the thumbs up buttons under my friends’ updates. However, such days of lacking self-discipline, control and order suddenly ended one day in the middle of the long holiday. I was diagnosed with a swimmer’s ear because of the infection caused by fungus and a moist environment. Acute as it was, my ears were muffled and I could almost hear nothing at all. The hearing impairment resembling a bold from the blue then struck me with anxiety, worriedness, and self-condemnation and I was like being in a land of vast darkness.
The good news is that the treatment given by the doctor made steady progress, which allowed me to hear little sounds, and then gradually even much clearer and louder ones, little by little. And personally, the process of hearing recovery was also a process of self-toughening and renewal. The days of deafness I suffered was another experience. And without any bothersome noises, the evenings were so quiet that I could hear the gentle voice from the inner world of myself which I hadn’t heard for a while. The gentle voice louder than heartbeats is what God wants me to hear and keep, involving His teachings, condemnations, comfort and encouragement.
Being in a silent world allows one to listen to the gentle voice of God, whose word is like an eagle that stirs up its nest (Deut. 32:11), or the double-edged sword that penetrates to dividing soul and spirit to judge the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb. 4:12). Since the COVID-19 outbreak, people have been forced to stay inside because of the safety concerns. The wisdom of “self-discipline” here is not to start, believe or spread rumors, so as to keep your tongue from sin (Psalm 39:1). We shall imitate the prophet who “practiced with faith” as a role model, always being watched over by God. Pray for the country. Pray for the society. Pray for the people. Pray for the church…
In our daily life, we do need a place of silence where we can enjoy the solitude, empty our mind, purify the soul, and talk to God. Most importantly, we can lead a simple and abundant life by erasing fetters and unnecessities. It is a lifelong task to always bear in mind listening to the gentle whisper of the Lord and keeping watchful. As it has been said: “He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.” (2 Cor. 1:4)
The original article was written by Guo Ruiling, a theological student of East China Theological Seminary, and published in Tianfeng (Vol. 492), December 2020.