And it was so, when Elijah heard it.
I Kings 19:13
A few weeks ago I was speaking to some friends about a controversial topic. And, as is often the case following such dialogues, the next day I replayed the conversation in my mind, thinking of all sorts of great things I should've said to make my points more emphatic and effective. Had I just been better able to marshal my righteous arguments, my fanciful thinking went, that rush of adrenaline, that victorious feeling of forcing my interlocutors into a dramatic surrender would have been mine.
The problem with this notion, of course, is this isn't the way things really work. Even if our point of view seems sound and righteous to us, human minds aren't typically changed by pithy "drop-the-mic" declarations, clever social media memes, or even superior arguments. They are changed over time through a series of subtle moments and thoughtful exchanges with those we are in relationship with—through an almost imperceptible process of evolution by which the vision of who we are and how the world works around us is slowly adjusted. I'm reminded of C.S. Lewis's account of how, after years of self-study and conversation with friends on the subject of faith, he realized on one sunny morning in transit to the zoo, he had become a Christian. "When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, and when we reached the zoo, I did," Lewis wrote in his book, Surprised by Joy.
Although God has famously given us a series of commandments to follow—ten in fact—there's also good evidence that God is aware the human mind is often more readily nudged than commanded. The encounter the prophet Elijah had with God, as told in I Kings 19, bears this out.
And behold the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke 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. And it was so, when Elijah heard it.... (I Kings 19:11–13, KJV)
A little study of this passage's context reveals that, out of a well-founded fear for his life, Elijah really didn't want to get back into the "prophet-to-Israel business," but God changed his mind through a quiet voice that seems to equate closely with Elijah's own conscience. It was listening to this inner dialogue—not the blustery wind, nor the shaking of the earth, nor the dramatic fire—that changed Elijah's mind, suggesting it's this miraculous capacity we have to talk through things internally that really evolves our thinking and has the power to redirect our moral vision. This compelling narrative also raises one more crucial point: This quiet voice of conscience, the one we should always be listening for, often speaks to us in inconvenient ways.
In her collection of soulful essays entitled, When I was a Child I Read Books, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson laments, "The language of public life has lost the character of generosity." And while Robinson's essays give us some direction to how this virtue might be recovered, my recent interaction with my friends has directed me also to my own. The first step, I think, is to mistrust that rush we feel when forcefully arguing for what we think is a righteous cause. Perhaps, in fact, we ought to resolve to question ourselves most when we receive that boost of adrenaline we associate with putting someone with whom we disagree in their place. That's not the voice of God. In fact, I'm afraid it's much more likely when God speaks to us it will be accompanied not by an adrenaline rush, but by a quiet feeling of inconvenience that urges us to treat one another not as rivals but with an extra measure of grace, an open mind, and a deeper sense of generosity.
Rather than wishing I had capped off the evening with my friends with a windy, emotionally satisfying, earth-shaking, firestorm mic-drop of a moment in which I had magically commandeered their moral imaginations from them, what I should be after is another chance to sit down with them, find my own still small voice, and hope that I encounter theirs.
God — Help me to hear and listen to Your inconvenient voice. Amen.
— Greg Funderburk