The Still Small Voice
The expression “still small voice” has its origins in Hebrew scripture. The prophet Elijah was on the run from Jezebel, wife of King Ahab, fearing for his life. He escaped to the mountain of God in Horeb where he waited for communication with God in a cave. Elijah sought to know God’s will for him and stood at the mouth of the cave. In the often-quoted King James Translation (1 Kings 19:11-12):
“… And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake 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 a still small voice.”
Hearing God’s voice inwardly (still small voice) wasn’t God’s normal way to send a message. Usually God would speak in a declarative voice that could shake the ground – one interpretation of the meaning of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and mighty storms with punishing thunder and lightning – all external experiences of God’s greatness and power. This novelty that God could communicate with prophets inside their heads opened a new realm of inner rather than outer God/human communication.
Jesus advanced this even further. Many of Jesus’ ideas were about the internalization of the law of Moses rather than conforming to it with outward display. What mattered wasn’t just what you did, but why you did it, your inner motivation. Matthew 5:27-8 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus would turn aside to pray. He communicated with God in prayer inwardly and directly not through interpretation of outer revelations in the Torah.
This is all well and good for the Prophets of God – what about us regular human beings. Can we turn inward and listen for the still small voice? Is that still small voice God communicating with us … or could it be … maybe Freud’s Superego? Is it a construct of our social conditioning of what the good and right thing to do is? Maybe it is a connection to something larger than us, a collective unconscious that Jung identified? Or is it just a vane fiction of our imagination projecting itself into the voice of God? Or something more elemental and/or more mysterious?
The Quaker worshipful practice of sitting together in silence is an attunement process to that still small voice. They call it the inner light and the inner teacher. George Fox, founder of the Religious Society of Friends, believed he could take direction from Christ by listening within for that still small voice. Many Quakers today might have a more secular take on its source but still listen inwardly for its consolation and inspiration as well as challenge and reproof.
Whatever this inner source might be, many of us take it very seriously. Some of us have made life changing decisions based on this inner sense of what the right thing to do or not do is. What confirms the choice can be a strong emotional sense of its rightness, a sense of certainty that inspires confidence.
And yet there isn’t anything substantial to back up the decision beside that inner sense of confidence.
In the abstract, the concept of the still small voice or the inner light are difficult to work with. Yet through personal experience, the meaning and the way are discerned – in a sense it can be no other way.
Three momentous decisions in my life were made this way. I didn’t decide to start practicing mindfulness meditation through a rational, analytical process. The first meeting of the meditation class I attended I immediately knew this practice could lead me to the answers I was seeking. I knew this practice is what I would do for the rest of my life. The call to follow the path of ministry felt like being chosen through an inner clarity that happened at one discrete moment and has unfolded ever since. My attraction and decision to marry Philomena got an inner “yes” of confirmation.
Not that every inner sense has been right. The inner attraction to Sarvodaya and Sri Lanka didn’t bear the fruit I expected. ARISE didn’t become the community organizing project I imagined it would be. Following one’s still small voice involves risk. It may involve some misinterpretation or misunderstanding.
Our self-interest can be a confusing factor in discerning this inner sense accurately. Carl Jung put it this way: Through pride we are ever deceiving ourselves. But deep below the surface of the average conscience a still, small voice says to us, something is out of tune.
The practice of deep listening is one way to seek out that small voice and that inner light. May this be a month for us to explore inwardly and perhaps connect with a higher power.