Miracle Fatigue and the Still, Small Voice

Elijah had had enough. He left his servant at Beer-sheba, walked a day’s journey into the desert, and sat down to die. What was going through his head? “O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.” He prayed, then lay down under the juniper tree and waited. The sun beat down on the bare earth, and Elijah watched the shadows crawl. A dust devil drifted aimlessly by, then dissipated as it passed a grizzled bush. “Yes, just like that,” he thought, “back to dust.” Elijah was done. There was nothing left to do. Elijah was as close to God as a person can be on earth, right? What would explain this level of depression?

Elijah had proved to his people, in the most spectacular fashion imaginable, that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who had led them out of Egypt, was the only true God and as real today as He had ever been. Elijah had gathered all the people to watch as he settled the question with the priests of Baal. Four hundred fifty priests of Baal had set their altar, prayed, danced, and yelled all morning and all afternoon, even let out their own blood, with no result but growing hoarse and looking foolish. Elijah then had walked to his altar, called to his God, and fire from the sky had consumed the offering, vaporized the water in the trench, and melted the rocks underneath. If that did not convince Israel, nothing would. He could turn the earth into a sea of glass, and the point would not be any more clear. Of course, the people had prostrated themselves and confessed. They had obeyed his order to kill the lying priests of Baal. Yet just hours later, it was as though none of this had occurred. A message came from Jezebel that she was going to kill him, as though Jehovah were merely a rival to her pathetic throne. Israel had wondered at his display, but still seemed utterly deaf to their covenant with God. What more could he possibly do? Elijah went to the desert and waited to die. Is this an example of sorrowing for the sins of the world? Elijah’s encounter with the grief that made the heavens weep?

An angel woke him, and bread appeared from nowhere: “Arise and eat.” “Very well,” Elijah said, “I am yours alive or dead, but I am ready to die.” He ate and lay back down. He ate again, walked forty days to Horeb without hunger, found a cave, and lay back down. “Go forth and stand,” said the Lord, and a wind rent the rocks, but Elijah knew the Lord like he knew his own breath. “Yes, Lord,” he said, but lay on the ground. “Go forth,” said the Lord, and the earth shook, but Elijah knew the Lord like he knew his own pulse. “Yes, Lord,” he said, but lay on the ground. “Go forth,” said the Lord, and sent a blazing fire, but Elijah knew the Lord like the heat of his own skin. “Yes, Lord,” he said, but lay still on the ground. Could it be that even to a prophet, such miracles eventually fail to leave an impression? Then came a still, small voice: “Elijah,” he heard, and it pricked his heart. He arose and went.

(see 1 Kings 18:1719:13)

The Hebrews, after being freed from Egypt by the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea, build a golden calf in the wilderness because Moses takes too long, talking with God on the mountain. In 3 Nephi 1, even as greater and greater miracles are being performed among them, people doubt the prophecies of Christ’s birth. Christ comes, and they turn around. Then just three years later (3 Nephi 2:1-3), they “wax strong in wickedness”!

From Laman and Lemuel to the Jews who called for Jesus’ crucifixion, there are lots of other examples. Miracles just aren’t enough to put us on the right track. We need something more subtle.

24 comments for “Miracle Fatigue and the Still, Small Voice

  1. Ben, this is a remarkable combination of truth and beauty. I’m deeply impressed.

    I wonder if there is such a thing as still-small-voice fatigue. Is the principle here that of the orator, who must sometimes raise his voice and sometimes lower it to keep the attention of his audience? Or is it that the voice of God in our soul changes us in a way that external happenings cannot? I bet some of both.

  2. Beautiful Ben,

    When I converted, I had some experiences which I consider miraculous. I thought at the time that the memory of these experiences would give me strength while in my valleys.
    However, when those times have come it has not been the past experiences that have pulled me through. Rather, it has been the whisperings of the spirit during prayer, study and meditation that have enabled me to stay on course.

  3. This is awesome. I am in awe, and oh so grateful, that Heavenly Father is so persistent and caters His pleas to our needs. That is merciful on many levels.

  4. Thanks, all, for the kind words.

    Adam, I like your comparison. If God is going to give us constant guidance, most of the time fire from heaven is not going to be a good fit . . .

    John, it’s funny how that works, isn’t it? I have noticed some of the same sort of thing in myself. Partly perhaps there are messages that can be straightforwardly conveyed with miracles, and others it is harder to convey that way. Sometimes a vision is worth a thousand words, but sometimes you need the words to make sense of the vision, and the words, or more subtle forms of guidance, come in the form of the still, small voice. I suppose this is related to Paul’s point about prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14. But in Elijah’s case, information doesn’t seem to have been what was lacking. Sometimes we just need God to reach into our heart and reorient it.

  5. Ben,
    If you read most of Churchill’s oratory, most of it is pretty straightforward discussion of facts and reasons. The sudden bursts of oratory are deliberately kept to a minimum so they have more impact. Lincoln’s longer speeches are the same way.

  6. Even when I think back on what I consider to be the miracles I have seen in my life (which certainly pale in comparison to the fire called down from heaven, but have still had significance for me), what I draw strength from is not the miracle itself. For me, I think, the event serves more as a marker that calls me back to a place in time, but what was important was not the event but the clear feelings, the accompanying still small voice, that allowed me to recognize the event as a miracle. And then when those same feelings are replicated in situations that are not overtly miraculous, I am better able to recognize the subtle hand of the Lord.

    Thank you for a beautiful post.

  7. Ben, you are a gifted writer, but this stands among your best writing. Thanks. (Warning: I’m likely to steal this for a Sacrament talk.)

  8. Ben,

    Great thoughts—I enjoyed reading your article.

    I think it\’s important to remember that “miracles” come according to the will of God. He doesn’t make mistakes. When there is a miracle it usually comes because of faith, but not always as you pointed out in the example of the contest between Elijah and the priest of Baal.

    I’ve wondered why the Lord provided this kind of miracle. On the other hand, there is the example of Aminadab and associates preparing to kill Lehi and Nephi, the Lord intercedes with a big time miracle, and the result is “the more part of the Lamanites were convinced…because of the greatness of the evidences…” Helaman 5:50.

    I would classify the appearance of the angel to Alma and the four sons of Mosiah as a miracle and there subsequent conversion to the Lord being due to fire and the Holy Ghost. In my mind, the “still small voice” seems to be reserved for those who are experienced in the workings of the spirit.

    I’m an active member of the church because of a miracle like that which happened to Alma and the four sons of Mosiah, except he who visited me wasn’t an angel from God. I learned about the still small voice later when I had repented.

  9. A fine piece of prose, Ben. Ever considered becoming a scriptwriter?

    I wonder if Elijah’s mental depression might have something to do with a sense or responsibility for the deaths of 450 people? Had all Israel suddenly vaulted back toward fidelity to the God of Israel, their sacrifice might have been more easily justified. But for their deaths to have accomplished little must have been a real downer for Elijah.

  10. Great stuff Ben,

    While I agree with the basic sentiment I have to admit I went through a bit of a trail of faith for a little while several years ago. Yet what maintained me through it was the fact I’d had some big experiences which just were logically undeniable.

    As important as the still strong voice is – and ultimately that is all that is important – the still strong voice is much more easy to explain away for those familiar with science.

  11. Jared and Clark, I quite agree that there is an important role for miracles in the right times and places. I’ve also had times when I needed and found real strength in recalling some miracles I’ve experienced, in the form of events that were quite empirical, even though they would not have attracted much attention from passers-by. It does a lot to confirm the source and reliability of the more subtle experiences. Like Amy, though, I think a lot of their value is in confronting us with the need to listen to the Spirit, and those who resist the Spirit despite seeing miracles . . .

  12. Yes, Dave, this is the kind of perspective I was trying to piece together. This is an important point I hadn’t thought of. I bet he felt real pain over killing those prophets, as messed up as they may have been, and as right as it may have been to do so.

    Jared, to amplify a bit: of course, one of my links is to the story of how the visit from the angel turned Alma the younger around. It’s interesting how in that case, he clearly was scared into opening himself to God, and yet until he did so, what he felt was not faith but damnation, “the pains of a damned soul”. This is a nice illustration of Amy’s point, cognate to the point Moses makes about needing to be transfigured in order to endure the presence of God. If we don’t receive the Spirit, miracles easily become damning (which might sometimes be a reason for them too). Thank God for the times when we manage to get them both together : )

  13. Ben, I can look back on my life and pinpoint quite a few experiences that I consider to be truly miraculous. They are amazing beacons from my past – events that form obvious peaks that can be seen no matter the depth of the valley where I might end up at any given moment. However, the innumerable whisperings of the Spirit are what keep me from descending into the valleys in the first place. They are the real foundation of my testimony and my peace.

  14. #16 Ben,

    I like the way you put it, “confronting us with the need to listen to the Spirit”.

    Extreme confrontation is how I would describe the experience I was given. But it led to my returning to activity in the Lord’s church. I came away with a knowledge that there are two powers in the universe. The power of God and the adversary.

    This experience came about because I decided to read the Book of Mormon, and if true I said, I would embrace it, if not, then to hell with religion. This was my frame of mind at a cross roads in my life. I didn’t even open the Book of Mormon until months after this experience. It was then, I learned about the still small voice confirming the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon as I read and prayed about it.

    When the Lord says he will leave the 99 in pursuit of the 1, he means it. We worry about our youth who stray from the church, and we should. But I have faith, based on my experience, that the Lord knows how to claim or reclaim those who stray (at any age) when the time is right.

  15. BTW, I think Elijah’s experience highlights the difference between seeing God’ power and hearing His voice. Jezebel and the others saw the demonstration of power as fire destroyed the priests, but God wasn’t in the fire, so they did not experience or hear Him.

    I have had some truly remarkable experiences with the power of God that rival Biblical events, but my most miraculous memories (those peaks I mentioned) usually were nothing more than very intense exposure to the still, small voice. I might have been able to rationalize away the witnesses of God’s power, but I can’t rationalize away the witnesses of the Spirit.

  16. I halfway wonder if during dramatic experiences Alma and others react the way they do precisely because of the small quiet moments in their past. That is those smaller more subtle events determine how we react to the big ones. Thus Laman perhaps reacts so differently. Of course we don’t know not having more comprehensive accounts.

  17. I’m reminded of Elder Hales talk from this past weekend where he called revelation (the quiet, still, small type) a miracle in and of itself.

  18. I like this, Ben. I wonder if, perhaps, a surge of divine indwelling brings about a kind of joy that cannot be found in any other kind of experience, electrifying as they (e.g. miracles) may be.

  19. Ben, I love posts like this. I wish I were capable of writing something this good (maybe some day). Thanks for this.

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