There was a story in the news a few weeks ago. It was one of those things that was so confusing that I can’t decide whether it’s funny or pathetic. A psychologist at the University of Virginia asked individuals in a test group to sit alone in a room for fifteen minutes. They were to do nothing but sit quietly and think. Many of the test subjects reported that they found the experience to be unpleasant. When asked to do the same quiet thinking at home, the test subjects reported that it was even more unpleasant than in the test room.
The psychologist then gave the test subjects a mild electric shock. When the test subjects were asked if they would like to be shocked again, they all replied, “no.” The psychologist sent the test subjects back into the room, but gave them the button that activated the electric shock. You can probably guess where this is going. Many of the test subjects chose to shock themselves rather than sit in silence. The women in church today can probably guess about the differences between the men and the women who participated in the experiment; men were three times as likely to shock themselves as women.
The psychologist concluded that the impulse to be busy, regardless of one’s age, is often much more compelling than the benefits of reflective thought. I would add that the occasional period wasted in thought might lead some people to avoid self-destructive actions. The test results also provide a valuable corollary to the life of faith.
This Sunday’s first reading tells the story of the prophet Elijah’s deep disappointment over the his failure to bring Israel back to faith in the One, True God. Elijah had defeated eight hundred and fifty false prophets in a test of the efficacy of prayer, but the King and People of Israel continued to worship the foreign gods of King Ahab’s pagan wife, Jezebel. Despondent over his failure, he fled into the desert. God called him to climb Mount Horeb (Sinai), where the prophet took refuge in a cave from what appears to have been a volcanic eruption. The Scripture says, “after the earthquake, fire—but the Lord was not in the fire; after the fire there was a voice from heaven.” * (1 Kings 19:12)
Upon hearing the voice from heaven, “Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. The voice said to him, ‘Why are you here, Elijah?'” (1 Kings 19:13) Evidently, God expected Elijah to be busy with the work of being a prophet rather than sulking over a minor set-back. The “voice from heaven” in this passage was a command to Elijah to resume the work of his vocation. It seems that Elijah had acted much like the people in the psychology experiment; he preferred self-destructive behavior to reflective thought.
Elijah isn’t the only person who has ever ignored another’s voice. It is routine for us to ignore or disregard those people whom we consider inconvenient or impertinent. Each of us feels offended when someone does this to us, but our tender feelings never seem to prevent us from doing this to one another. We even go so far as to ignore God, and disregard God’s voice. This isn’t merely rude, or even faithless; it’s self-destructive.
The easy place to assign blame is modern technology. How many times have you heard (or said), that the many technological gadgets we use have the tendency to degrade the quality of our communications, and even, our lives? The psychologist who did the experiment at the University of Virginia tested that hypothesis, and found that people who didn’t Tweet, text, Tumblr or talk were no more likely to tolerate fifteen minutes of silence than those who used those technologies and social media. It seems that, if we took time to think about what’s good for us, it might be beneficial; unfortunately, we don’t, so it isn’t.
If the participants in the psychological study had given some thought to their actions they might, at least, have come to the conclusion that it was a bad idea to press the ‘shock’ button. Similarly, if Elijah hadn’t spent so much time in self-pity he might have paid attention to his own preaching: that God’s will would not be thwarted, even by the concerted effort of all the unbelievers on earth.
Sadly, both the test subjects and Elijah took refuge in distraction. Their attempts at distracting themselves give us an insight into an action that all of us engage in, from time to time. The test subjects found it unpleasant to engage in reflective thought. Elijah found it discouraging to preach repentance to the faithless Israelites. Each chose to run away from things that, in other circumstances, would have been judged valuable.
Reflective thought appears to be a valuable activity; the same is true of repentance. Most of us would agree that others would benefit from solitary thought and/or repentance, even though we might prefer to distract ourselves from participating in those activities. Elijah, and the test subjects, distracted themselves from the thing they most needed.
It is safe to assume that the case is the same for all people, including ourselves. The things we avoid, run from or ignore are, in most cases, the things that we need most to pursue. Consequently, our distractions and objections very often turn out to be self-destructive. The things we avoid in life are things that hold great power for us, and often great fear; they might also contain the possibility of an epiphany – if about nothing else than our need for God’s help.
The “voice from heaven” is ubiquitous in the Scriptures. The epiphanies of God are not always described with the words “voice from heaven,” but all revelatory events are, in one way or another, God speaking to God’s People. In every case, the consequences of not listening to the voice of God are disastrous. Listening to God’s voice exacts a price of fidelity and repentance, but it is a price that always affords us greater knowledge of God and greater holiness of life. How should we go about listening for God’s voice? Perhaps it would require little more than looking in the direction of those things we would prefer to avoid.
(*) 1 Kings 19:12 is one of the most often quoted, and most often mistranslated, lines in the Hebrew Scriptures. The current translation of the Lectionary says that Elijah heard “a tiny whispering sound.” The Hebrew text says, “bat qol.” The word “bat” means “daughter” (as in bat mitzvah, a daughter of the commandment). The word “qol” means “voice.”
For a few decades this phrase was rendered as “a little girl’s voice,” a completely erroneous translation; the phrase “little girl’s voice” in Hebrew is “qol yalda.” More recently, “bat qol” has been rendered as “a quiet voice” or, as in this Sunday’s reading, “a tiny whispering sound.”
The diversity of opinion about the meaning of the phrase derives from the nature of the Hebrew language. Hebrew has a very small vocabulary, and relies heavily on metaphors and idiomatic sayings. The literal meaning of the Scriptural phrase “bat qol” is “the daughter of a voice.” In Hebrew usage, it means “an echo.” In the Scriptures, it means “a voice from heaven” or “a divine voice.”
There are numerous examples of “a voice from heaven” in the Scriptures. The Hebrew prophets often heard a heavenly voice speaking to them. Even some pagans in the Scriptures heard God’s voice speaking. After Jesus was baptized in the Jordan “a voice came from the heavens, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’.” (Matthew 3:17) These are examples of a “bat qol.”
In some places in the Scriptures, the “bat qol” is a soft voice; in other places, it is a booming or commanding voice. In all of these cases the Scriptures use the term for “echo” to denote a voice from heaven because an echo seems to come from nowhere, and everywhere, at the same time. A “bat qol” is a disembodied voice, the sort of unusual phenomenon one would expect to experience when God is speaking.
The preference in translations for renderings such as “a quiet voice,” “a light silent sound” or “a tiny whispering sound” is, in part, the result of western religious sensibilities. We live in a culture that privatizes everything, including God. The notion of “a quiet voice” or “a whispering sound” appeals to the western sense of interiority and a twenty-first century self-absorption. These are values not found in Hebrew religion. Interiority and individuality were concepts and experiences unknown to the biblical authors.
The references to a “voice from heaven” in the Scriptures are references to public theophanies, God’s self-revelation in history. Rather than private experiences of one person, or a few people, these theophanies were meant to have social and political effects. It is probably shocking to most believers today to think about the possibility that God’s revelation in the New Covenant is not addressed to them individually. We tend not to have much social consciousness. The Scriptures, in speaking about God’s voice, offer a needed corrective to our tendency to privatize everything from physical objects to other persons, including divine persons.