At the hardest point of my life, when my mind had been shattered by self-imposed pressure, I could barely pray. I had worked myself to the bone through ministry, never pausing to have fun, until my mind gave way and I was reduced to a shadow of my former self. Trauma took hold, and I couldn’t return to the activities which had led me to such a pass – praying, ministering, studying the Bible, preaching, leading worship, prophesying and sharing the Gospel became impossible, causing a frightening psychological backlash. I had to give up all spiritual activity, because it was spiritual activity, or at least the overemphasis of spiritual activity, which had caused me harm.
I wallowed in this broken state for years, until at last I began to heal – the first steps in a decades-long journey of recovery. In the darkest, hardest times, when I couldn’t turn to the Bible for comfort, God would whisper two assurances to me – that he loved me, and that I was going to be okay.
That whisper meant everything to me, though it was harder to believe the second statement than the first. I couldn’t imagine being okay. I couldn’t see myself rising, having a productive day and then going to sleep at night, without being seized by terrible fear. My feelings and my faith were separated by a vast gulf, but I held to hope that one day, the two would align.
In 1 Kings 19, 9-13, Elijah was caught in despair. His faith and feelings were riven from each other, and he was afraid.
‘And the word of the Lord came to him: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’
He replied, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.’
The Lord said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.’
Elijah was a broken man. Everything he’d been working to achieve seemed to have come to nothing, and he was running for his life. He hid in the shelter of the rock, waiting for the Lord to speak, enduring a storm, an earthquake, and a fire, but the God was not to be found in these destructive forces. The Lord can speak in dramatic ways, of course. The giving of the Mosaic Covenant was heralded by darkness and storm, and Elijah himself had called down the fire of God, but when under pressure and in need of reassurance, the Lord spoke to his prophet in a gentle whisper, just as he did to me.
It was there, in the whisper, that God ministered to Elijah’s needs. Our God is gentle and tender-hearted. He takes infinite care of his children, and his eyes are always on the downtrodden. In our moments of greatest need, the whisper of God leads us through. 2 Corinthians 1, 3:
‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort.’
Psalm 23, 4:
‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.’
Psalm 145, 9:
‘The Lord is good to all,
And His tender mercies are over all His works.’
Perhaps some readers are where I was. Perhaps your back is against the wall, and you are assaulted by storm, earthquake and fire; the wind that shatters the rocks. Whatever your circumstance, however dire, there is a way out. There is always a way with God. I encourage you to listen for the whisper of God – the comforting assurance of the Almighty. If you’ve never heard his still, small voice, nor felt his gentle, comforting presence, I pray that you will begin to do so. The verses quoted above, which speak of God’s gentleness, kindness and tender mercy, are good to dwell on. To ingest them, read them out loud, slowly, reflectively, repetitively, allowing the Holy Spirit to minister to you through them. Let him speak through your imagination, as the verses come to life in your mind and heart. You may well be surprised by his closeness, and the assurances he offers. Perhaps you could also reassure yourself by speaking aloud a few simple truths:
- Life will not always be like this.
- I will not always feel like this.
- Another form of existence is possible.
- My pain is temporary.
After a while, as the Lord leads you out, you might find that the truths he whispered to you, which can be difficult to accept in the time of trouble, become pillars of certainty you will never question again. Faith starts to grow when we choose it over our emotions – not that we ignore our emotions, but that in the processing of them, we acknowledge that they do not necessarily reflect the truth. Mature faith is when your emotions have come into line with your faith, and you feel your beliefs in your bones. I no longer have to assure myself, for example, that God loves me. I feel it in every fibre in my being.
We are all facing challenges of some sort, be they challenges at work, or the challenge of being out of work, difficulties in our bodies, our health or our mental health. Some readers will be stressed to the limit, others in financial difficulties, and some families will be in crisis, relationships falling apart. What is the situation you need to hear God about right now? What is your earthquake, your storm, your fire? As you listen for God’s still small voice, what is it he wants you to hear?
(P.S. For those who want to delve into this in more depth, it is based on a talk I delivered during lockdown, and can be found here.)