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 waters— from 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.