There was fire in the Smoky Mountains last November, and 280 miles away I smelled the smoke from the flames spreading across Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
Two hours from where I grew up in South Carolina, Gatlinburg has long been my family’s weekend get-away. My parents were there the weekend before the wild flames burned around the chintzy T-shirt shops and the elaborate aquarium, through the mountainside putt-putt golf course and the wedding chapel.
We shouldn’t be surprised that He was found in the stillness, after the noise and stir. After all, He told us, “Be still and know that I am God.”
Elijah has just received a death threat from the evil Queen Jezebel who was more than a little perturbed that he had just killed her false prophets. This mighty man of God, who only days before called fire from heaven, runs for his life and winds up at Mount Horeb, the mountain of God, where he camps out in a cave.
Now, when you spend the night in the God’s Mountain Hotel, you should probably expect a visit from God himself. And sure enough, God asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
The proceeding explanation is riddled with self-pity, exaggeration, worry, self-righteousness, and a hint of blame: “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; because the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.”
“Then [God] said, ‘Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.’
“And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces 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” (I Kings 19:11–13).
In this narrative, it seems that God asks Elijah to do something backwards—to leave shelter before an emergency. Only after Elijah emerges from the cave of comfort and shelter come the fire, the wind, the earthquake—and, yes, also the still, small voice.
And God asked again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
This time, Elijah wraps his cloak around his face, more humble than before, though his reply is the same. “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; because the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.”
God responds by giving him new orders, among which is to anoint Elisha to take his place, and confirms that indeed Elijah is not alone—there are still 7,000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal. He gives Elijah new purpose and direction—but not until after He got Elijah’s attention.
How often have we felt the scorching fire of a car accident, the bone-rattling earthquake of a failed relationship, the chafing whirlwind of financial ruin. And after these crises we hear God’s still, small voice: “What are you doing here?”
Suddenly, we’re humbled, and we realize that these disasters were only the means through which God got our attention. They weren’t the real emergency at all. Who we were becoming in a cave of complacency—that was the real disaster. We are jolted out of our rebellion, our selfishness, our dependence on something other than God. Or, like Elijah, out of our self-pity.
How curious in this Scripture passage the many God-esque things that God was not in: wind, an earthquake, fire—things associated with God elsewhere in Scripture. We shouldn’t be surprised that He was found in the stillness, after the noise and stir. After all, He told us, “Be still and know that I am God.”
Only days later, the Gatlinburg fires were contained. Dolly’s people went back to their homes, back to their jobs, back to their lives—but never back to normal. What fire has touched is seared forever. But amid the soot and ash, we’re prepared to hear the God of Heaven whisper peace; among the loss and destruction, we find His comfort; and after the fire, if we’re listening closely, we can hear a still small Voice.