Theology

thy word is a lamp unto my feet

In college I picked up Beth Moore’s So Long, Insecurity while browsing in a Lifeway. You’d think, given my interests, that would be a book I’d be excited about– and initially I was. But, in her introduction, she spends (what seems to my recollection a significant amount of) time telling us that So Long, Insecurity is a book that God wanted her to write, a book that God gave to her, and that she heard God audibly speaking to her about — and I found the whole thing off-putting.

It wasn’t the first time I’d encountered the idea of God speaking audible, actual, words to Christians– that God does this is a pretty common idea in evangelical culture. But it wasn’t something I’d ever personally experienced, and the thought of hearing God’s voice inside my head, to be quite honest, freaked me out. My instinct was that if that ever happened, it would be a sign of a significant mental illness. I was solidly certain that God did not do that, it did not make any sense, and all those people who said they heard God talking to them were either a) in genuine need of psychiatric help, b) lying, or c) confusing “God’s voice” with something else.

I still don’t think I’m wrong about that.

Interestingly enough, I’ve bumped into this concept again a few times in the past few days. At the end of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Joshua relates a story of how his parents met and fell in love. His mother, sick and tired of men hitting on her, prays that Gregg– his father– won’t call her. Gregg almost has his mind made up to call her, when this happens:

But that night Dad encountered something different. He clearly sensed God speaking to him. “Gregg, don’t call her.” (207)

There’s an interesting word there– sensed. The following muddied that up a bit, but that was the sort of thing I used to comfort myself way back when. God hadn’t actually talked to Gregg Harris, he’d just sensed something, and that was how the Holy Spirit chose to work in that moment … yadda yadda.

I spent a lot of time– a lot of time– trying to understand this Christian phenomena of people hearing God’s voice. When people were talking about it, I tended to point to two incidents in my life that felt like they were an approximation of what everyone else was going on about.

My sophomore year in college I was facing a decision: did I want to continue on in the piano performance major, switch to piano pedagogy, or completely change tacks and become a music education major– a major designed for employment (a serious question for a Stay-at-Home-Daughter). One day, as I was vacuuming my dorm room, it suddenly crystallized for me: I wanted to be an education major. The only thing holding me back, I realized, was my old church which we no longer attended. It was like an epiphany– all the doubt and worry I’d had evaporated. In relating this experience to others, I depended on language like God’s calling. At the time it felt true, but looking back it was a fairly ordinary moment. I’d been chewing on the problem for a while and had finally made a decision. When I’d finally made up my mind, I felt a sense of rightness about it– and I was convinced that was God’s doing.

The second reference point I had was after the man who raped me broke our engagement. For the next month devastated doesn’t quite encompass the despair I felt. I was rudderless, broken … and I felt ruined. Looking back over that time, I feel almost positive that if he’d asked, I would’ve taken him back in a heartbeat.

Which makes it weird that I didn’t.

About a month after he’d dumped me, he called my dorm room and asked if we could have a do-over, to ignore that the last month had ever happened. I remember everything about this moment vividly, even sharply. I felt my lips shape words, felt my jaw slide up and down, felt my lungs forcing air through my throat, felt everything get cold … and it all felt like it was happening to someone else. I told him no.

For several years I talked about this incident as though God had saved me from myself, that something had happened that made me speak those words. Today, though, I’ve learned about disassociation, and I know now that’s what happened. He called me, and hearing his voice, his needling little manipulative voice, caused me to disassociate. That floating, out-of-body, numbing experience is fairly common for trauma survivors when they encounter a trigger … such as their abuser trying to control them again. But, when I told this story to others, I attributed the dissociation to God’s intervention, to God’s voice.

I still don’t know what other Christians experience when they say they hear God’s voice.

All I know is that I was able to dress up a handful of experiences as being “God’s voice,” and everyone around me accepted it. I’m led to believe that maybe my experience isn’t unusual. Maybe we’re all dressing up our experiences as being some monumental, mystical thing when in reality they’re all fairly ordinary events.

***

Outside of the weirdness that is God speaking directly into our thoughts with things like “become a music education major” or “don’t call her,” there’s a slightly more common version. The experiences I’ve related above are generally recognized as special– even Joshua notes how God saying “don’t call her” was “something different.”

But God speaking to us is part-and-parcel of the Christian cultural experience. If you’re not experiencing God revealing Themself to you, well …

This seems to come about in a myriad of ways. Feeling peace about a decision. The tug of your conscience. Events lining up in a particular way, like a fleece being wet or dry. By far it seems the most common of these is when Bible verses spring up into you head, seemingly unbidden, at important moments. I spent the bulk of my childhood, teenage, and early adult years memorizing and hoarding Bible verses. From AWANAS, to my entire church memorizing whole books and lengthy passages together, to the endless stream of verses I had to replicate on quizzes every week in college, those are still at my fingertips.

It struck me yesterday as I was again trying to figure out what the hell Christians mean by “God’s voice speaking to them” that it’s probably nothing more significant than that. The Bible is sprinkled with apparent directives to memorize it— to write Scripture on the “tables of your heart,” and we do it because those verses are supposed to be helpful. In a moment when we’re faced with temptation, if we have God’s Word at our fingertips we’ll have the strength to defeat it. If we need to make an important decision, we’ll be impalpably guided by those verses.

It’s not that I don’t think that Scripture can be a guide, a reference point, or that it can’t be helpful. It’s a beautiful library, rich with human experience and wisdom of all kinds. I still — mostly– appreciate having so much of it knocking around inside of my head, even if it is all in Elizabethan English. And maybe it’s a good thing so many of us endeavor to make our sacred religious text a primary touchstone for our lives.

But it doesn’t necessarily mean that every time a Bible verse comes to mind that it’s God directly using that to speak to us. I memorize things easily, so I also have a lot of song lyrics and movie quotes at my disposal, and those have always come up as often as Bible verses in my walkaday life.

The problem with believing that every time a Bible verse comes floating out of long-term memory (and yes, I just saw Inside Out so I’m referencing that) is that it’s coming to us not just with the verse, but with the sermons we’ve heard about the verse, the interpretations we have about that verse. If it is God, it’s not just God– it’s our culture, our lives, the way we’ve recorded our experiences, the ways our recollection is shaped and molded over time.

I’ve gotten to the point when I can hear a phrase like God’s justice rolling down like the watersfrom Amos 5:24– and I’m not cringing away from it. It doesn’t have associations with God’s wrath and judgment. I used to hear that and picture a flood washing away a city, with dogs and children being air-lifted away from rooftops. Now, I see the way a river like the Nile or the Jordan enriches a land, how they make it possible for life to grow, for people to to thrive on their banks. That shift happened because my way of thinking about that verse shifted. My whole theological system surrounding a concept like “justice” transformed.

Nothing about those words, that verse, changed. I changed. There’s new meaning in that verse for me– it’s one of my favorites, now. But today I know better than to confuse how I understand a verse with God’s voice.

photo by Andres MH
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  • I believe I once heard God’s voice, audibly, in college when I was still an evangelical. It came as a resolution to something I was in a lot of internal conflict about, in that way college-age believers get. I remember it clearly, and I’ve always cited it as a sign of how thick-headed I have to be, that God would need to be that direct.

    I now joke that it was right before he abducted me and took me for a ride on his flying saucer, but still…

    Yeah.

  • I’m one of those who tends to think in terms of conversations anyway, probably related to the fact that I’m a storyteller in my heart and soul, and I there was always a sense of confusion in my mind about the whole concept. Am I hearing God’s voice through the conversations in my mind? or is it just my own imagination? I’m somewhat used to hearing my characters speak to me within the silences of my mind, either with words or just with feelings and images, so it’s not something out of the ordinary for me.

    Ultimately I think I decided that it doesn’t matter, at least to me. My understanding has shifted over time to seeing God as being an integral part of each and every person, not some external entity. Or at least, if there IS an external entity, then there’s a piece of that entity that’s buried within my own soul and THAT is what I end up communicating with more often than not. It’s why I don’t consciously “pray” as much anymore, but I do thoughtfully consider things, sometimes for a very long time, before taking a stand.

    It’s part of why I drew the line in the bedrock of my beliefs, a line that not even God would cross. Because I can use that line to judge any thought that comes to my mind purporting to be from that being. If the thought crosses that line, then it is not of God. It’s a simple enough razor’s edge, if it causes harm to real people, to children, to the marginalized of any sort, then it is not of God. This is how I know that bigotry isn’t of God, abuse isn’t of God, violence and hitting children under the pretext of discipline isn’t of God. Because it causes harm. If God is Love, then causing harm is Not Love.

    In the end, it’s all I can do. My mind is predisposed to do what it does, so this is how I interact with myself and my thoughts.

  • Melody

    “All I know is that I was able to dress up a handful of experiences as being “God’s voice,” and everyone around me accepted it.”

    I felt really sad for my brother that he didn’t feel that God spoke to him, because He had spoken to me several times (or so I believed). My dad wasn’t suprised about this as he’s very much a ‘the Bible guides us’ kind of guy: he didn’t have any real experiences of God speaking to him either, other than through the Bible.

    Now that I don’t believe anymore, I can understand why God didn’t speak to them, both of them being pretty down-to-earth. The few times I felt God speak to me were at very emotional times when I really needed some sort of support or divine permission, maybe? With God in my corner, it felt safer somehow. Funnily enough, they still do believe, even without hearing God’s voice on occasion.

    I agree that it seems that some people have God speaking to them all the time, and they are usually very much focused on seeking those feelings and affirmations. I don’t necessarily think that there’s anything wrong with that, just that it is highly personal and subjective. And that the old ‘if God tells someone you have to do something, better wait for God to tell you yourself’ always counts.

  • gexpl

    I do think the things you describe are the exact same types of experiences that people attribute to “god speaking” based on my own experiences and those described to me by devout believers. Everyone gets epiphanies, sudden and unexpected emotional reactions, intrusive thoughts, mood shifts, etc. If we’re trained to expect god’s (or satan’s) intervention in our lives, these things can easily be read as supernatural meddling. This is especially true if the “voice” seems to fall in line with what you expect god might say.

    I had many such experiences that I attributed to the supernatural. The most powerful one I attributed to “god saving me from killing myself.” Some time later, it occurred to me that the abrupt and intrusive thoughts and near-hallucinations were probably a result of the extreme mental and physical stress and highly altered state of mind I was in while I was planning out my suicide rather than anything divine. Add to that the fact that I was only suicidal due to the actions of Christians who were claiming that they were also following god’s voice and commands and that pretty much was one of the triggers to collapse my faith. I don’t believe god talks to people, and anyone who claims otherwise I fear is perpetuating a horribly dangerous idea that is a deadly weapon of spiritual abuse.

    • Kevin

      Abe Lincoln observed that during the US Civil War both sides claimed God was on their side, and President Lincoln realized that at least one of them has to be wrong. He said all he can do is follow logic and reason. I definitely noticed a lot of times when people claim divine guidance it seems to uncannily line up with their agenda, and differing claims contradict each other. (Church leadership didn’t agree with the conclusions some of my friends came to on how God was leading them, because it went against the party line.)

      • gexpl

        Yep, yep! People will often try to deny that they’re just listening to their own biases. Like “oh, that’s not what I wanted God to say, but that’s what he told me.” The thing is, even if it might not be what they claim to have wanted, it still generally will line up with their preconceived ideas, and it also generally doesn’t involve some great personal cost to them that they aren’t willing to pay.

        Example: my sister insisted that she didn’t want god to tell her that it is sinful for me to marry a woman because she knew it would cause pain and grief for me and the family. Unfortunately that’s totes what he said so don’t blame her, blame god. However, I can’t help but notice that a) she’s not the one who had to suffer the majority of the pain, b) if she chose to side with me, she’d be against our parents, so neither option was much better for her than the other, c) siding against me gave her more power and control than siding against our parents, and d) “homosexuality is a sin” is still the default assumption so it’s hardly surprising that “god” would confirm that for her.

  • What if there isn’t a difference between God “speaking” to us and a particular moment of clarity in our inner dialogue?

    We don’t think twice about attributing to God “healing” someone through doctors and perfectly normal practices. We pray for it and we thank Him for it when it happens.

    I credit God with my recovery, but it didn’t happen as an isolated, supernatural event so much as a long slog that I’m still going through in some ways, although at a much better place than when I began – a place that, in the beginning, I wouldn’t have dared to hope for.

    Jesus said God makes the rain fall and the sun shine.

    Maybe God’s communication with us that moment of caring or wisdom given from another person or an insight that arises in our own being.

  • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

    When people told me that God communicated something to them I was always accepting towards them because I know how painful it is to have a (supposed) Christian friend tell you that there is no way God said that, and dismiss an experience you value as ‘just your imagination.” I got this response from a number of people when I expressed an interest in going to seminary. The problem was that I’m a woman, and many Christians have very strong feelings that God’s will is for seminaries to be female free. The experience of interacting with God, and receiving guidance in life, is such an interior experience that describing it to others can seem impossible. One thing I think is important is to respect what other people of faith tell me about these experiences.

  • Alice

    I thought “The Illusion of God’s Presence” by John Wathey was a good book on this topic because even though I’ve always been uncertain about my spiritual experiences, I’ve always thought it’s too dismissive to say everyone’s “just making it up” or is mentally ill.

    I appreciated that Wathey is not a militant atheist. For instance, he writes, “This book is not for everyone. If you have encountered crushing burdens in your life, your appeal to a higher power may be a sustaining source of strength, salvation, or unconditional love. Although this book is unlikely to diminish your faith, you might not find it helpful.”

  • Angela

    In case you’re interested in the physiologic explanation for what you’re describing, the temporal lobe of our brains is where auditory stimuli is processed and language is interpreted. It also is the portion of the brain that is associated with religious/spiritual experiences. People with more active temporal lobes are more likely to identify as religious/spiritual and to report more experiences such as you describe. Given that it occurs in the same part of the brain, it’s not too surprising that religious experience is often interpreted as an auditory stimuli. Interestingly enough, the temporal lobe is also where seizure activity originates and it is extremely common for people to have powerful religious visions and experiences associated with seizures. This explains why so many cultures revere those with epilepsy as shamen or spiritual leaders. It also is probably where Christian holy roller traditions originate (not that followers are necessarily epileptic, but epilepsy is likely where the idea caught on that such behaviors are associated with spiritual visions).

  • Kevin

    My Evangelical/Fundamentalist background is Charismatic(probably would be considered NAR[New Apostolic Reform], although we never used that term), meaning that everything from the Bible(tongues, prophets, apostles) are all for today. We were urged to hear God’s voice, but as our pastor was considered an apostle/prophet, every service we got “Thus saith the Lord”, and people individually often got such Words of the Lord, as they are called. For a time most of the young men ended up working for a guy at church for next to nothing, and I was given a prophetic word saying if I didn’t accept the job, my marriage and ministry would be delayed. When I expressed a desire to live in different countries, I was asked what God said. I thought that living abroad broadens your perspective, breaking you out of the cave of provincialism. I wondered why God would want someone to remain in their bubble, leaving their prejudices unchallenged. (Someone from church actually told me my desire to go overseas was exactly the same thing as a guy who was convinced a certain young woman was to be his wife[I heard said woman doesn’t even like him. Anyway I don’t remember anything on consent growing up; I probably heard more about it in the past 14 months of being on Twitter and commenting on blogs than I had in my entire lifetime.)
    Recently a number of my friends concluded God was calling them to move on and change jobs — church leaders told them they were rejecting God’s Will for their lives, and people started lying about them when they changed churches.(And they remained Evangelical!)
    Personally I believe God communicates, but we shouldn’t be dogmatic about it, as people often project their preconceived notions onto God. I think God wanted me to go beyond Fundamentalism, and interact with the liberals I was warned about, to listen and learn, to embrace my own doubts; and I think I have biblical support.

  • Kevin

    Thinking of this post reminded me of a Russian proverb: Богу молись а добраума держись.
    Bogu molis a dobrauma derzhis. Pray to God and hold onto a good mind.

  • Yeah, so, I’ve heard voices. I don’t consider myself ‘significantly mentally ill’ in that I am usually happy and functional … but I view sanity as more of a spectrum, anyway.
    I wouldn’t actually trade some of the things I’ve heard for the ‘sane’ label, though. I’ve heard some precious words from a voice that makes me feel loved. Is it God? Well, if God talks like a child sometimes, maybe.

  • This is something I’ve been wondering about for a long time too- what do Christians actually mean when they say God told them to do something? And actually I’ve been thinking about writing a blog post on it- but from a mental health point of view. Specifically, I’m kind of afraid of flying- every time I get on a plane I worry about dying in a crash. Evangelicals love to tell stories about how God “spoke” to someone and warned them not to go somewhere which seemed perfectly safe, or maybe they just had a *feeling*, and it was totally illogical, but they obeyed the warning and later found out some terrible tragedy would have happened if they had gone there (usually with red-shirt victims, only there for the purpose of demonstrating that the danger was real, nobody ever asks “wait, why didn’t God save them too?”).

    And if I believed in that, I would NEVER be able to fly anywhere, because EVERY SINGLE TIME I get on a plane, I have a *feeling* that we’re going to crash and die, but I know that fear isn’t realistic and I need to just read a book and try not to think about it and everything is fine. This is a mental health issue, an anxiety issue. Can you imagine if I thought it was God speaking to me and I needed to take it seriously, or at least analyze and obsess over it in order to decide if it was God or just some random thought? Oh geez- from a mental health point of view, that would make EVERYTHING WORSE. It would reinforce the fear, and it would just get worse and worse in the future.

    (And I’m an American living in China, I really need to be able to get on planes.)

  • Jackalope

    I don’t know. I’ve had a few times that I’ve felt strongly that God was talking to me directly. Some of those times could easily be dismissed, but.. one of my favorite examples was when I was in mid-elementary school. My class and another class traded teachers for an hour or two a day for a little while as an enrichment experience or something (don’t remember the details, as it was a long time ago). They saying the names of all of the students to make sure everyone was there (I would guess that this was one of the first times we did the exchange and the other teacher didn’t know the students well enough to recognize them yet), and they said the name of one little girl from the other class. I heard this voice inside my head saying, “She’s going to be your very good friend.” I kind of went, “Huh,” and filed it away. About that time (a little bit afterwards, if I remember correctly) my mother died in an unexpected accident. The next year the other little girl and I were in the same class (small school district). We became friends (which she initiated; I didn’t, even though I remembered that little voice), our parents met and got married, and she’s been my best friend and sister ever since (almost 3 decades later). I wasn’t particularly looking for new friends at the time — it was partway through the school year — and I certainly had no idea that something like a stepfamily would ever apply to my life since my parents were married and both fine.

    I’ve had a number of times that I believed God was talking to me but acknowledge that it could have been something else (my own conscience, being in a bad mood, having worked something through). Then there were times like this that are much rarer, but genuinely felt like God was the one speaking. I’m sure someone could find ways to explain it away, but God speaking to me seems like a reasonable interpretation of the evidence.

    (And I TOTALLY think God speaks to us through literature, movies, etc., and not just the Bible!)

  • Stephanie Gertsch

    I’ve heard many people claim God “spoke” to them, but I’ve always been on the skeptical side. Now that I’ve gotten out of the Christian bubble a bit, I’m inclined to believe that the temporal lobe explanation is the right one. In the end we really are our brains, and brains can be sneaky.

    Even back in the day, I never felt comfortable saying “God guided me to,” or “God put it on my heart to tell you.” Because everything I did seemed like something I had a logical reason for doing. No need to invoke a deity. And everything other people did seemed like something they would have done anyway. They just needed the extra coolness factor of pretending it was God’s guidance.

    In short, I never heard God speak to me because I lack the sheer ego to attribute divine will to the workings of my own brain. Which, when I type that, makes the whole thing seem even sillier than it already did.

  • Amanda

    In my experience, usually when people talk about hearing God’s voice they mean ‘God told me to do such and such.’ And people get upset when they don’t feel like God told them to do any particular thing or make a decision one way or the other, like they’re not spiritual. The problem with this is it assumes that God primarily relates to us by directly controlling what we do. Which is not a marker of any healthy relationship. I also have to question the belief that we need to have God’s rubber stamp of approval on everything we do. To me that speaks way more of insecurity than piety. Unfortunately a lot of the church is trained to mistrust themselves (‘your heart is evil,’ after all) and therefore are completely unaware of how to understand their heart and take responsibility for their lives. Taking responsibility/action is actually is portrayed as a sign that you’re not trusting God. This hasn’t been my experience with every church or person, but it’s unfortunately a widespread theme. I personally like to approach it as, if I feel God has said something to me, through the Bible, through a person, through ‘non-Christian sources’ (gasp!), I’ll take it with a grain of salt and if it turns out to be accurate, cool, if not, also cool. It’s one factor involved in a decision and it may be more or less important depending on the decision. My faith doesn’t depend on getting it ‘right’/’accurate’.

    Coming from a charismatic background, I’ve had a lot of experience with prophetic ministry. Some wonderful, some very foolish. I do think that we can ‘hear’ from God about specific things, but it’s important to recognize how your experience and/or the person who is prophesying’s experience (if it’s not you), as well as theology and worldview, influence the message that comes through. Nothing should really be taken at face value. I also think a main marker of real prophecy is that it is encouraging and affirming, not telling you what to do with your life. If someone is abusive or controlling and stamps ‘prophetic’ onto it, that definitely isn’t God. This is where belief systems come in to play again, because if your belief is that God uses shame to speak to you and that he’s controlling, you’ll accept this. I know for myself personally, until I got a better understanding of what healthy human relationships looked like, that is the way I viewed God speaking to me.

    The whole God speaking issue I think in part comes down to whether you view God and humans as being in partnership, or whether you view us as inherently opposed to each other. If God and humans are in partnership, then there’s dialogue (however that happens), there’s misunderstandings, there’s room for growth. If we are inherently opposed, then of course God needs to speak to us and tell us exactly what to do.