How to Hear the Whisper of God

Posted September 26, 2011

John H. Hampsch, cmf

“When all is said and done, more is said than done.”

Among the 10,000 one-liners in Henry Youngman’s Encyclopedia of One-Liners, (Ballymore Books, NY, 1989) that particular one-liner applies most appropriately to divine revelation. Even in the most succinct examples of divine revelation, like the Ten Commandments, certainly “more is said than done.” If anyone actually fulfilled all of God’s expressed mandates, accepted his many invitations, heeded his countless promises, reveled in his proclaimed glory, melted in his awesome love, or surrendered to his offered embrace of mercy and compassion, such a person would merit instant canonization.

The holy word of God, in a most poignant way, shows not just what the Lord wants us to do, but also tells us also how we can become more receptive to it. For instance, in Chapter 19 of the First Book of Kings, we find the premiere prophet Elijah learning a basic lesson in how to discern the voice of God. That pericope clearly and emphatically demonstrates how he speaks to us and guides us even personally in any specific calling or even our life-vocation. He does this, not by ostentatious means (as he showed Elijah by his divine silence in the violent wind, the earthquake and the fire). On the contrary, as he taught that great prophet, the Lord speaks very softly, by “a gentle whisper.” At times, this can be a mere “soul-whisper”—one intended to be perceived and exquisitely discerned only in quiet prayer.

Elijah had come to Mt. Horeb by his own decision, not by God’s direction, as he had done in previous journeys. By God’s “whispering voice” (in this occasion, it was a personalized word of God called a “rhema”), Elijah was told to return to the Desert of Damascus, where he was to encounter Elisha, whom he was to anoint to become his protégé and pre-eminent successor-prophet (verse 21). Because he acted without first consulting and listening to the Almighty, Elijah had to face the arduous task of retracing his steps.

The lesson here is that we should listen for the word of God, which most often, but not always, is uttered in “divine whispers.” “His sheep follow him because they know his voice (John 10:4). God’s “voice” may communicate very subtly through a compelling insight of a biblical passage, by a simple spiritual inspiration, by a nudging of one’s own well-formed conscience, by an ecclesiastical norm, by a holy tradition, or even by an inspiring example of another person. To dispose ourselves to receive from the Lord any revelation, whether subtle or trenchantly forceful, with the generous intention of implementing it in our life, we must cultivate an ever-present mental posture patterned after that stated in Psalm 85, verse 8: “I will listen to what God the Lord will say.” In its context, the psalmist’s assertion suggests an ongoing mentality of eager waiting to learn what God wants of us in response.

Once we have definitely established that mentality, we’ll be overwhelmed with the conviction that, in the Creator-creature dialog as it relates to us personally, God in his revelation has said much, while we have done little in response. The epithet in that setting is seen as more than a clever bromide; it is viewed as a humbling heaven-uttered indictment: Truly, “when all is said and done, more is said (by God) than done (by us).”