EXPERIENCES of hearing God’s voice are very diverse. For some people, it happens once in a lifetime; for others, it is a daily occurrence. Some hear God “out loud”; others describe it as being as though “God put a thought into my mind.” Yet others have no particular experience of “hearing a voice”, but, rather, encounter God in scripture, nature, and other people.
Research by Tanya Luhrmann, in the United States and elsewhere, and by Simon Dein and Roland Littlewood, in the UK, has shown that Christians hear God when praying more commonly than might have been supposed.
In a study by Dein and Littlewood in a Pentecostal church in north-east London, 25 out of 40 Christians who completed questionnaires indicated that they heard God’s voice in answer to their prayers. The voice was clearly distinguished from their own thoughts, and usually focused on immediate and practical issues. Fifteen respondents had heard the voice speaking aloud, although this was usually a once in a lifetime experience.
As Luhrmann indicates in her book When God Talks Back, spiritual practices commonly encountered in both Evangelical and Catholic circles can lead to a state of absorption in prayer within which there is an intense inner focus. If, as is often the case, this is associated with an expectation that God will speak, then, sometimes, sensory overrides occur.
Sensory overrides are experiences in which perception overrides the actual sensory stimuli that the brain is processing. When this occurs in prayer, then God — who is not material — is experienced in a sensory way.
Luhrmann leaves open the question of the theological interpretation of such experiences, but she notes that, within the churches that she studied, there is an awareness of the need for discernment. It should not automatically be assumed that the voice is from God. For example, is it the kind of thing that God might reasonably be expected to say? If the voice contradicted scripture, it should not be believed. And the question should always be asked: might this simply have been my own thought?
Not everyone is equally able to enter the state of absorption which seems to facilitate sensory overrides. It seems likely that different prayer practices are more likely to generate sensory overrides than others. Few people can have spent as much time in prayer as Thomas Merton, and yet there is no indication that he ever heard a voice in his prayers.
Moreover, Christian spirituality has traditionally been wary of placing too much weight on such experiences. St John of the Cross, for example, warned that they leave people open to deception, pride, and a diminishment of faith.
GOD’s voice is not heard only during states of intense prayer, and is sometimes completely unexpected. Mother Teresa first experienced the voice that called her to her work with the poor when she was on a train journey to Darjeeling.
Mary Neal, an orthopaedic surgeon, in her book To Heaven and Back, describes her multi-sensory, near-death experience during a kayak accident. Susan Atkins, serving a life sentence in prison for her part in the Manson murders, writes in her autobiography of hearing the voice of Jesus in her prison cell. Hugh Montefiore, later Bishop of Kingston, heard Jesus speak to him when sitting alone, a dejected teenager, in his study at school.
We now know that voices are heard by many ordinary people, religious or not. Voices have been traditionally associated with serious mental illness, however, and the hallucinations and delusions experienced by people with psychosis frequently include spiritual and religious content. Typically, this is not the positive kind of experience reported by Luhrmann, or by Dein and Littlewood.
While the voices heard may be understood to have a divine origin, they may also be experienced as demonic, and may be deeply distressing.
Negative voices of this kind are associated with significant stigma. Research suggests that Christians have variable experiences of support from their church communities. Potentially, at least, churches can provide positive networks of support which are deeply valued by those undergoing experiences of this kind. Prayer can also provide an important coping resource.
BECAUSE voices span such a wide spectrum — from heavenly to hellish — there has been much debate about how to distinguish between the good and the bad. One approach, which I do not favour, is to offer a guide to differential diagnosis: to distinguish the signs of voices that are associated with mental illness from those that are “true” spiritual experiences.
There are problems with this model, not least that it seems to imply that God does not talk to people who are mentally ill, only to those who are well. This is really just a mirror image of the approach that dismisses all religious or spiritual experience as an indication of mental illness. Surely, the reality is much more complicated than this, and why should God not have more to say to those who are undergoing deep emotional turmoil?
THE approach taken by St John of the Cross would seem to have much to commend it. Voices, whether appearing to be from God or elsewhere, should not be accepted uncritically, and should not be sensationalised. Criteria for discernment are needed. Sometimes, however, it would seem that God really does talk back.
Professor Cook is a co-investigator on the Wellcome-funded project Hearing the Voice, at Durham University: http://hearingthevoice.org.
He is keen to hear from readers who are willing to share their own experiences of hearing spiritually significant voices. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: In last week’s article, the quotation was incorrectly attributed to John Woolman. It was that of George Fox.