Published in  
May 3, 2022

When Silence Speaks

I remember the night well. It was a warm summer night on the East Coast of Florida, and I had spent most of the day surfing. My bare feet pressed into the asphalt as sweat dripped down my forehead. This summer, my faith had become more real to me than anything I thought possible. 

I knew I was redeemed from my past and I now had a cascading desire to know more about Jesus. I had recently read the story of Moses in Exodus 33, where he asks to be shown the glory of God. I stood on the shoreline as the waves lapped against my feet and looked down at the dark hazy beach. With great zeal (and immaturity), I asked the Lord to show me his glory.

Looking back, I have to laugh at my prayer. Though I admire my younger’s self-ambition I’m not sure at the time I recognized what truly experiencing the glory of God would entail. God had made it known to Moses just a few short verses later, though I think I skipped over those in my reading, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (Exodus 33:20, NRSV).

But that didn’t stop me from asking to experience God in his fullness. At the time, this meant a Morgan Freeman-esque voice cascading from the clouds above as white doves swoop down from the heavens, joining in the heavenly melodic chorus. Golden rays would light up my face and I would know that God was really real.

As I asked God to show himself, to my amazement, a faint light grew in the distance. I could see, what looked like a glowing flame, emerge less than a hundred yards before me.

I wanted to pretend that I wasn't surprised, believing that somehow God obliged my request. Nevertheless, I stood in disbelief, amazed that my prayer might actually be working (or so I thought).

The dim flame had now grown to a sparking fire. Then, like a rocket, the flame soared high into the sky. “This is it!” I thought, “it’s really happening!” The flame flew through the sky and exploded into an array of colors like a firework from the 4th of July. Actually, that’s exactly what it was. A firework. Most likely leftover from the 4th of July, set off by some hooligans wanting a thrill of excitement at the expense of my epic mountaintop encounter with God's glory.

I shuffled my feet across the warm asphalt with embarrassment, vowing to never tell a single soul about the most anti-climactic moments of my life. Yet, here I am, writing a public piece about this experience. Why would I not keep that humiliating moment to myself?

Elijah, one of the greatest prophets in Israel’s history, had experienced victory in an epic showdown between himself and 450 prophets of Baal. A large crowd gathered on Mount Carmel to watch the 450 occult prophets call for their gods to reveal themselves. Instead, they looked like fools for hours since their gods never came.

Elijah, the lone prophet, called for Yahweh to show himself so that the nation would know that he alone is God. A great fire, most likely lightning, exploded onto the scene and consumed the sacrifice Elijah had prepared. We, probably a lot like Elijah, would anticipate an all-out revival after a moment like this. And yet, in the next chapter, we find Elijah exasperated and angry. Though the fire came from the heavens and the presence of God was seen, revival was absent. Shortly after this mountaintop experience, Elijah finds himself in a cave.

"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. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?" (1 Kings 19:11-13, NRSV)

While I cannot treat the complexities of this passage in this limited space, I want to focus on this story and its relationship to 1 Kings 18. In 1 Kings 18, Elijah, and all of Israel experienced God in a powerful way, reminiscent of their ancestral stories. But in 1 Kings 19, Elijah is dismayed, heartbroken from the lack of revival, and asks for his life to be taken from Him.

Yahweh now calls Elijah to a different sort of mountaintop for a very different sort of experience. God reveals himself, but not in the earthshaking fire and wind from heaven.

Yahweh seems to whisper in the silence to Elijah with a quiet voice.

Within action sports, the pursuit of excitement and adrenaline is glorified, and why wouldn't it be? Few things can compare to death-defying feats of athleticism and pushing your body to an extreme where even your mind pleads not to go. We pursue the mountaintop, just so long as it is the big, bad, loud mountaintop. We desire these sorts of experiences and wrongfully assume that they will be fulfilling enough because of their grandeur.

Yet the fire will fall, and the earth will shake, but we will not have eyes to see nor ears to hear, for we seldomly traverse the anti-climactic mountaintop that offers but a whisper with the quiet wind. And yet, we must. For if we cannot hear God nor trust him in the silence, then we might be like those on that night at Mt. Carmel and miss him in the exuberant.