The Bravest Prayer
After the fire came a gentle whisper.
—1 Kings 19:12
On the morning of August 27, 1883, ranchers in Alice Springs, Australia, heard what sounded like gunshots. The same mysterious sound was reported in fifty geographical locations spanning one-thirteenth of the globe. What those Aussies heard was the eruption of a volcano on the remote Indonesian island of Krakatoa 2,233 miles away!
That volcanic eruption, possibly the loudest sound ever measured, was so loud that the 310-decibel sound waves circumnavigated the globe at least four times. It generated three-thousand-foot tidal waves, threw rocks a distance of thirty-four miles, and cracked one-foot-thick concrete three hundred miles away!
If you were to drill a hole directly through the center of the earth, opposite of Krakatoa, you would find Colombia, South America. Although the sound of the eruption wasn’t audible in Colombia, there was a measurable spike in atmospheric pressure because of infrasonic sound waves that caused the air to tense. The sound may not have been heard, but it was felt, all the way around the world. According to science journalist and New York Times columnist Maggie Koerth-Baker, “Just because you can’t hear a sound doesn’t mean it isn’t there.”
At low levels sound is imperceptible.
At high levels it’s unignorable.
If sound exceeds 110 decibels, we experience a change in blood pressure. At 141 decibels we become nauseous. At 145 decibels our vision blurs because our eyeballs vibrate. At 195 decibels our eardrums are in danger of rupturing. And death by sound waves can happen at 202 decibels.
The act of hearing is detecting vibrations of the eardrum caused by sound waves, and the intensity of those waves is measured in decibels. On one end of the sound spectrum is the sperm whale, the loudest animal on earth. The clicking noise it uses to echolocate can hit 200 decibels. Even more impressive, researchers believe that whale songs may travel up to ten-thousand miles underwater! Next to the sperm whale is jet engines (150 decibels), air horns (129 decibels), thunderclaps (120 decibels), and jackhammers (100 decibels).
What’s on the other end of the sound spectrum?
A whisper, measuring just 15 decibels.
Technically speaking, our absolute threshold of hearing is 0 decibels. That corresponds to a sound wave measuring 0.0000002 pascals, which causes the eardrum to vibrate by just 108 millimeters. That’s less than a billionth of the ambient pressure in the air around us and smaller than the diameter of a hydrogen atom!
Juxtapose that with this:
"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."
The ESV calls it “a low whisper.”
The NASB calls it “a gentle blowing.”
The KJV calls it “a still small voice.”
We tend to dismiss as insignificant the natural phenomena that preceded the whisper because God was not in them, but I bet they got Elijah’s attention. God has an outside voice, and He’s not afraid to use it. But when God wants to be heard, when what He has to say is too important to miss, He often speaks in a whisper just above the absolute threshold of hearing.
The question, of course, is why.
And when and where.
Those are the questions we’ll explore and seek to answer in the pages that follow.
The Sound of Silence
The Hebrew word for “whisper,” demamah, can be translated “silence” or “stillness” or “calmness.” Simon and Garfunkel weren’t far off with the title of their 1964 hit single, “The Sound of Silence.” The same Hebrew word is used to describe the way God delivers us from our distress: “He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed.” And that psalm foreshadows the way Jesus would stop a storm in its tracks with three words: “Quiet! Be still!”
His whisper is gentle, but nothing is more powerful.
My dictionary defines whisper as “speaking very softly using one’s breath without one’s vocal cords.” The use of breath instead of vocal cords is significant. Isn’t that how God created Adam? He whispered into the dust and named it Adam.
Adam was once a whisper.
So were you.
So was everything else.
Whispering is typically employed for the sake of secrecy. No form of communication is more intimate. And it seems to be God’s preferred method. The question again is why. And I won’t keep you guessing any longer.
When someone speaks in a whisper, you have to get very close to hear. In fact, you have to put your ear near the person’s mouth. We lean toward a whisper, and that’s what God wants. The goal of hearing the heavenly Father’s voice isn’t just hearing His voice; it’s intimacy with Him. That’s why He speaks in a whisper. He wants to be as close to us as is divinely possible! He loves us, likes us, that much.
When our children were young, I would occasionally play a little trick on them. I’d speak in a whisper so they would inch closer to me. That’s when I’d grab them and hug them. God plays the same trick on us. We want to hear what He has to say, but He wants us to know how much He loves us.
“The voice of the Spirit is as gentle as a zephyr,” said Oswald Chambers. “So gentle that unless you are living in perfect communion with God, you never hear it.” Aren’t you grateful for a gentle God? The Almighty could intimidate us with His outside voice, but He woos us with a whisper. And His whisper is the very breath of life.
Chambers continued, “The checks of the Spirit come in the most extraordinarily gentle ways, and if you are not sensitive enough to detect His voice you will quench it, and your personal spiritual life will be impaired. His checks always come as a still small voice, so small that no one but the saint notices them.”
Once a Whisper
For the past two decades, I’ve had the joy and privilege of pastoring National Community Church in Washington, DC, and I wouldn’t want to be anyplace else doing anything else with anyone else. I’m living the dream, but that dream was once a whisper.
The genesis of the dream goes all the way back to a cow pasture in Alexandria, Minnesota, where I heard the still small voice of God. I had just finished my freshman year at the University of Chicago, where I was a PERL (politics, economics, rhetoric, and law) major. Law school was Plan A, but that was before I asked God a dangerous question: What do You want me to do with my life? Of course, it’s far more dangerous not to ask Him that question!
In retrospect, I’ve dubbed that summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college my “summer of seeking.” For the first time in my life, I got serious about getting up early in the morning to pray. And it wasn’t just a religious ritual. I was desperate to hear His voice, and maybe that’s why I finally did.
At the end of the summer, our family was vacationing at Lake Ida in Alexandria, Minnesota. I decided to do a long prayer walk down some dirt roads. For some reason, walking helps my talking. I’m able to pray with more focus and listen with less distraction. At one point I went off road through a cow pasture. As I meandered my way around cow patties, I heard what I would describe as the inaudible yet unmistakable voice of God. In that moment at that place, I knew that God was calling me into full-time ministry. It wasn’t words as much as it was a feeling, a sense of calling. And that one whisper prompted me to give up a full-ride scholarship at the University of Chicago and transfer to Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. That move made no academic sense whatsoever and was second-guessed by more than a few people in my life, but that’s often the way His whisper works.
Those who dance are thought mad by those who hear not the music.
That old adage is certainly true of those who walk to the beat of God’s drum. When you take your cues from the Holy Spirit, you’ll do some things that will make people think you’re crazy. So be it. Obey the whisper and see what God does.
More than two decades of ministry have come and gone since that prayer walk through a cow pasture. National Community has grown into one church with eight campuses over the past twenty years, but each campus was once a whisper. I’ve written fifteen books over the past ten years, but each book was once a whisper. Every sermon I preach and every book I write are echoes of that one whisper in the middle of a cow pasture in the middle of nowhere.
Nothing has the potential to change your life like the whisper of God. Nothing will determine your destiny more than your ability to hear His still small voice.
That’s how you discern the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.
That’s how you see and seize divine appointments.
That’s how God-sized dreams are birthed.
That’s how miracles happen.
The Bravest Prayer
There are days, and then there are days that alter every day thereafter. For me, one of those life-altering days is July 2, 2016. Next to the day I was married, the days my kids were born, and the day I almost died, no day is more sacred. In fact, I can tell you exactly how many days it’s been from that day to this day.
I was kicking off a series of sermons titled “Mountains Move” and challenged our church to pray the bravest prayer they could pray. By bravest prayer I mean the prayer you can barely believe God for because it seems impossible. It’s often the prayer you’ve prayed a hundred times that hasn’t been answered, but you pray it one more time anyway. For me the bravest prayer was that He would heal my asthma. And it was brave because asthma is all I had ever known.
My very first childhood memory is of a middle-of-the-night asthma attack followed by a frantic trip to the emergency room for a shot of epinephrine. That routine was repeated more times than I can remember. There weren’t forty days in forty years that I did not need to take a puff of my albuterol inhaler, and I never went anywhere without it. Never ever. Then I prayed my bravest prayer, and I haven’t taken a single puff of an inhaler from that day to this day. That’s why I literally count the days, because each day is more miraculous than the last.
Over the span of forty years, I must have prayed hundreds of times that God would heal my asthma. But for reasons known only to Him, those prayers went unanswered.
Why did I keep praying?
The short answer is one whisper.
Right before my freshman year of high school, I was hospitalized for a severe asthma attack that landed me in the intensive care unit. It was one of a dozen such hospitalizations during my younger years. When I was released from Edward’s Hospital a week later, Pastor Paul McGarvey and a prayer team from Calvary Church in Naperville, Illinois, came over to our house, laid hands on me, and prayed that God would heal my asthma.
God answered that prayer for healing but not in the way I expected.
When I woke up the next morning, I still had asthma, but all the warts on my feet had mysteriously disappeared. I’m not kidding! At first I wondered if God had made a mistake. Maybe the signals between here and heaven were mixed. I couldn’t help but wonder if someone somewhere was breathing great but still had warts on his or her feet. I was a little confused, but that’s when I heard the still small voice. It wasn’t an audible voice; it was Spirit to spirit. And it was loud and clear: Mark, I just wanted you to know that I’m able!
All these decades later, it still sends a chill down my spine. I was fourteen years old, and it was the first time I heard God’s whisper. Was I disappointed that He hadn’t answered my prayer the way I wanted Him to? Of course I was. But those two words echoed for three decades: I’m able. And He’s not just able; He’s “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.”
Let me connect the dots.
Without that whisper I’m not sure I would have had the faith to pray the bravest prayer. And if I hadn’t prayed that prayer, how could God answer it? After all, God doesn’t answer 100 percent of the prayers we don’t pray! You can guess where this is going, can’t you? My miracle was once a whisper. And that’s true of every miracle. As I survey my life, I realize that the genesis of every blessing, every breakthrough is the breath of God. It started out as nothing more than a still small voice.
Ebenezers, the coffeehouse on Capitol Hill that our church owns and operates, is a perfect example. When people walk by Ebenezers, they see a coffeehouse, but when I walk by it, I hear a whisper. That’s all it was two decades ago. Actually, it was a graffiti-covered building with cinder blocks in the doorframes. Then one day I walked by and a Spirit-inspired thought fired across my synapses: This crack house would make a great coffeehouse.
That thought came out of nowhere, which sometimes indicates something supernatural. I call it a God idea, and I’d rather have one God idea than a thousand good ideas. Good ideas are good, but God ideas change the course of history.
That God idea turned into a brave prayer, which turned into a coffeehouse that has been voted the number-one coffeehouse in DC more than once. Since opening the doors a decade ago, we’ve given more than a million dollars to kingdom causes from its net profits. But every shot we pull and every dollar we give was once a whisper.