The Voice of God

One of the most confusing aspects about living as a modern day Evangelical/Charismatic Christian is dealing with the issue of the voice of God. Many Evangelicals and basically all Pentecostals or Charismatics believe that God actually speaks to people personally. However, God does not typically speak in an audible voice but rather as a “still small voice” that a person hears only inside themselves. Literally, it is a voice inside their head. Many Christians claim to hear this voice, indeed I myself believed that I was hearing it for a number of years during my Christian life. But likewise other Christians, perhaps more discerning, acknowledge that they do not hear the voice of God. I found that the more experienced I became in my Christian walk the less I heard the voice of God. And it was indeed the act of testing the voice of God to determine whether or not what it was saying was true that became one of the key components in being able to acknowledge that God was not talking to me at all.

Some Christians say that believers hear the voice of God less and less as they mature in their Christian walk due to the fact that God doesn’t want them to depend on hearing his voice. But this stands in direct opposition to what other Christians say: that God always wants to be in communication with us, and that it is a key part of having a relationship with God. What a surprise, the Christian community is at odds with itself over another issue!

What is the origin of this phenomenon? The idea of hearing the voice of God is expounded all throughout the Bible, beginning with the patriarchs. Interestingly Adam and Eve never heard the voice of God as far as we are aware because God came and visited with them person-to-person as it were.[1] However, in scripture there are no accounts that come to mind of people hearing the voice of God inside their heads. Rather, God seems to speak plainly and audibly to them. This would of course cut out a lot of confusion and would be the ideal manner for God to speak to human beings if he wished to do so. The problem with talking to someone inside their own head, is that there is plenty of company in there. Inside your head is where you do your thinking, and where your self-talk takes place. This means that it is extremely easy for the voice of God to become confused with one’s own thoughts. This is at the heart of my argument. Obviously, I do not believe that God talks to people, he would have to exist for this to happen. But the fact that these conversations take place within an environment which is already busy with words means that the Christian is able to interpret things going on inside their head as being derived from God. Ironically, Christians talk about the idea of discernment, and interpreting the voice of God. But a little study of neuroscience might help them to understand exactly what is going on here. In his book “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain” David Eagleman explains that the brain is a closed system and that “the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it.”[2] He recognises that the voices in our brains are a result of cognitive battles that can reveal themselves as conscious awareness. Of significant importance is the fact that the voices that appear in our minds are not just random, rather, they are the results of an arduous and competitive set of processes deep within our brains. This conflict is not apparent, or accessible to the conscious mind. It is happening behind the scenes, deep inside the brain where the vast majority of our cognitive processes take place. G Elijah Dann, himself a person of faith, asks “how often do we attribute our more profound thoughts and abilities to divine guidance when, in fact, they are rather the fruit of processes deep within the magnificent brain?”[3] This idea of hearing a divine voice is also not unique to Christianity. Going back even earlier Socrates claims to have experienced a divine voice. The term for this is a daemonion or daemon.[4]

The Audible Voice of God

There’s an old joke that goes “When you talk to God, we call it prayer, but when God talks to you, we call it schizophrenia.” Auditory hallucinations are considered by many medical professionals to be the most frequent and reliable symptom of psychosis.[5] Fortunately, if you do hear an audible voice, you’re not necessarily crazy. Apparently 1 in 10 people acknowledge having heard what they perceived to be an audible voice at one point in time or another. About 4 in 10 people acknowledge having unusual perceptual experiences between sleep and awareness. Only about 1 in 100 people is diagnosed as schizophrenic and they tend to hear voices with a negative inference.[6] Those who report a sensory experience also claim physiological experiences such as the feeling of being touched on the shoulder or a burning feeling in their ears. Neurological conditions can manifest themselves in a variety of different ways, and the human body is extremely complex. Over the years I have felt a wide variety of different physical sensations in my body which are due to the neurological pain condition that I have. But these types of sensations are not limited to someone who has a serious condition. It is possible for anyone to experience sensations of heat, cold, twitching or sensitivity in isolated parts of their body. These seem to be strongly associated with susceptible or vulnerable neurological states. When a person expects to experience something, the body can often oblige. Just think about your own body’s ability to make your hairs stand-up on end when you experience an emotionally moving piece of music or cinematography. Christians frequently incorrectly attribute these types of experiences to an external supernatural force. In reality they are just unusual, but normal, communications between the body and the mind. There are a variety of reasons for people having a paracusia, or audible hallucination, ranging from the serious: schizophrenia, mania or psychotic disorders through to the benign: stress, sleeping disorders and high caffeine consumption. They can also be caused by lesions on the brainstem, tumours and abscesses.[7] So if you are hearing audible voices I suggest you get it checked out by a doctor. I’m sure that in their diagnosis they will eliminate hearing the audible voice of God as a cause quite early on.

The Power of Imagination

I remember being schooled by an apostle in the “art” of receiving visions from God. The key component was not to suppress the imagination. This expert described the imagination as the vehicle for God to communicate with us. I practised this with enthusiasm and had a whole variety of “visions” and spiritual experiences, so many so that I had a journal to write them in. Reflecting back on this, all it shows is how powerful our imaginations are. If we let our imaginations run wild they can come up with phenomenal things: sounds, images and feelings. The perfect example of this is dreams. When we dream we are completely caught up in the dream experience, we believe it wholesale. Even when we reflect back upon the dream later and wonder why the Alsatian was riding a pogo stick, the ridiculous things that we can easily identify when we are fully conscious seem completely valid in the dream state. Dreams can also be creative, the brain constructs stories that can involve people we have never met and places that we have never seen, or it can draw upon our past experiences and amalgamate them together into fresh narratives. The power of the brain seems unlimited in terms of creating dream stories. But of equal importance is our lack of ability to discern truth and reality while in the dream state. If the brain is capable of creating such immensely detailed stories in the form of dreams, is it not just a simple procedure to create the impression of internal or external voices and feelings? Our brains are incredibly powerful on the subconscious level, but extremely limited and vulnerable on the conscious level. The ability of our minds to play tricks on us is legend. This same cognitive process is at work in a person who has an irrational fear. The person can know that their fear is irrational, but they have it anyway. Because the subconscious mind is so much more powerful than the conscious mind.

Still Small

Psychiatric medicine recognises a number of facets of an inner voice. The internalisation of the voice is a process that happens during early childhood and can be separated into 4 distinct levels: level I (external dialogue) encompasses the capacity to maintain an external dialogue with another person; level II (private speech) encompasses the capacity to maintain a private external dialogue, as observed in children voicing the actions of dolls or other toys; level III (expanded inner speech) is the first internal level of speech. It encompasses the capacity to carry out internal monologues such as reading to oneself or going over a list silently; level IV (condensed inner speech) is the final level of the internalisation process which encompasses the capacity to think in terms of pure meaning without the need to put thoughts into words in order to grasp the meaning of the thought.[8] These are all normal thought processes that should be developed by adulthood. However, problems can arise causing a disruption to the internalisation. An individual who experienced such issues would not interpret their own internal voice as belonging to them. Another problem can arise known as re-expansion in which a disruption occurs during the process of re-externalising ones inner voice. This would result in an apparent second voice that seems alien to the individual.[9] Fortunately when most Christians refer to hearing the voice of God they are not talking about actually hearing the voice. Typically what they are referring to is an impression that they receive in regards to a particular issue. You might be saying to yourself that it just sounds a lot like intuition, and you would be correct.

Self-Convincing Behaviour

The belief that one hears the voice of God is a self-convincing cycle. Firstly, it is motivated by a desire to hear the voice of God. Other believers around you tell you that they can hear the voice of God, so if you can’t there must be something wrong with you. This frequently results in a tendency to convince oneself that they are in fact hearing the voice of God. The phenomena can also lead to a “subconscious God complex.”[10] After all, a person claiming to hear the voice of God can claim to be speaking for a higher purpose and a higher being, giving them a greater sense of self-importance. If you really think about it you can probably recall a number of experiences in your church life where people have implied that you really need to listen to what they have to say because God is speaking through them. The tendency for Christians to want to climb the ladder of spirituality also makes them far more likely to indulge in self-convincing behaviour in regards to hearing the voice of God. Obviously, the more you hear the voice of God the closer you must be to God, and resultantly the better Christian you are. This type of ridiculous behaviour creates an environment where everybody comes to feed at the trough of self-indulgent spirituality.

Testing the Voice of God

During the latter part of my Christian experience I noticed that whenever I would ask God for advice on something important I would never get an answer. But I would hear “what I thought was” the voice of God in regards to other random unimportant things. This was baffling. It’s probably worth mentioning here that I have never heard the audible voice of God, when I speak about God talking to me I am referring to what Christians would call the “still small voice,” which is basically an impression inside your head. When God spoke to people in scripture it was generally about very important things, and there is no indication that anyone in scripture had any difficulty hearing his voice. This is because within the stories of the Bible the implication is that God was speaking in an audible voice. Over a long period of time I came to realise that I was not hearing accurately, initially I blamed myself for this, as Christians are like to do. I heard God say that X would happen on a certain date. This occurred on a number of occasions and in every instance the voice was wrong. So I began to put the voice to the test asking God to reveal certain things to me so that I knew that it was him who was actually speaking. Or, to show me signs. There were no occurrences in which the still small voice was able to accurately tell me anything about the future. And the signs were a no-show. This process took a number of years but at the end of it I stopped listening. If God was not going to accurately talk to me then why should I listen?

What is the Still Small Voice?

As it turns out, the still small voice is not actually the voice of God. Rather, it is the work of our extremely powerful subconscious minds implanting thoughts, or suggesting ideas to us. We receive an impression, which we interpret to be from an external source. However, this is how our intuition works: we get impressions or feelings about things. You’ve probably heard the phrase “trust your first impression” which implies that our intuition is often accurate. This means that when the still small voice gives us an impression and it turns out to be accurate it simply means that our subconscious mind is doing a good job. It does not mean that an external supernatural being has whispered something into our ear. This is simply another form of the over-detecting agency response that I mentioned in the Psychology of Faith article. The impression that we get comes from our own brain which is powerful beyond our understanding. It is common for people to misinterpret this as being wisdom which is derived from an external source. My challenge to you as a Christian is to do this: put that voice to the test. Do it in a way that your own subconscious mind could not possibly meddle with. Ask the voice to tell you what will happen in the future. And don’t do it in a way that you could easily guess. Don’t look at the weather report and then ask the still small voice if it’s going to rain on Friday, that’s way too easy. You need to ask that voice to tell you specifically what is going to happen on a given date. If you don’t receive an answer it is simply because your subconscious mind doesn’t know the future. Commonly, people pray for advice from God when they already know the answer to the question deep down. This results in confirmation bias and is no true test of God’s voice at all. Go forth and trust your intuition, but don’t misreport it as the voice of God. Imaginary creatures don’t send telepathic messages.

 

[1] A concept which in itself defies a number of articles of faith within the Christian community. For example: the idea that no person can look upon God and live, or that seeing God would remove someone’s free will because his glory is too awesome to behold.

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/g-elijah-dann/god-and-neuroscience_b_1106192.html.

[3] Ibid.

[4] A Metaphilosophical Outline of The Main Concepts of Socrates’ Philosophy. http://waldemar.pycka.com/artykuly/artyku%C5%82-1.

[5] http://brainblogger.com/2009/09/22/hearing-voices-underpinnings-of-auditory-hallucinations/.

[6] http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/12/29/my-take-if-you-hear-god-speak-audibly-you-usually-arent-crazy/.

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auditory_hallucination.

[8] This involves both semantic and syntactic changes. The language that is to be internalized becomes abbreviated, so that inner speech becomes a ‘note-form’ version of the external dialogue from which it derives. It is effectively thinking in pure meanings. We are still using language, but it may not subjectively seem like spoken language. What do we mean by ‘thinking’? Charles Fernyhough PhD. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-voices-within/201008/what-do-we-mean-thinking.

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auditory_hallucination.

[10] I came up with this one all on my own. J

8 thoughts on “The Voice of God

  1. I find this article interesting at the end, how you talk about testing the voice of God, because I did that very thing last year when I was living on farm land in Pukerua Bay,
    I was out hunting rabbits one night and I hadn’t seen anything, so I said out loud to God ‘where is a rabbit’, in my head I heard the word ‘Right’
    I looked to the right using my flash light and saw nothing then i walked about 3 meters to the right, and through a fence i saw a rabbit. Question, was that chance or something else.
    I certainly didn’t read the weather report before hand to know that a rabbit would be there.

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    • Hi Phil, good to hear from you. Unfortunately, the event that you described does not fall into the category of testing the voice of God that I suggested. My question for you is simple: Is it possible that what you described just happened by chance? The answer is of course a resounding yes. If you read my article on the Psychology of Faith you may get some insight into just how powerful the subconscious mind is. Had you actually seen the rabbit and just failed to perceive it consciously? That is quite possible. This is the exact kind of subjective situation that I described in the article. People choose to “read into” events. Now what would have been really impressive is if you had heard the voice say “up” and then found a rabbit floating above your head.

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  2. Phil,

    Can you tell when:
    – it is the unconscious dynamics of your mind at work?
    – it is God who is speaking to you/inserting thoughts into your mind?

    Are you able to make that distinction?

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  3. For some reason the last line of Denise’s post does not appear, the whole thing should read:

    Phil,
    Can you tell when:
    – it is the unconscious dynamics of your mind at work?
    – it is God who is speaking to you/inserting thoughts into your mind?

    Are you able to make that distinction?
    If not, then how can you conclude that it was God who spoke to you/inserted the thought into your mind?

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  4. About ten years ago I was in a dangerous situation, and I heard a voice which seemed outside myself say”be still and know that I am”.I became very calm after that. I had never heard a voice outside myself, before, or after that. I also had never read the bible, and had not been to a church in thirty years. I grew up barely Catholic. I probably stopped listening in church by the 10th grade.
    This started me searching the christian faith and believing for a while. But I admit, I had a really hard time when I actually read the bible. It seemed like sci-fi to me and I was never a big fan. And Jesus seemed meaner than what I had thought him, when I was young. A lot of it was horrifying or ridiculous to me. I had way to many unanswered questions about life, that I think always kept me in doubt. But it has still sucked me in on and off.
    So, what the heck was that? It’s kind of hard to believe I would remember a passage from the bible, I possibly heard in a church service, over 30 years ago, and my mind would know how to put it in context??
    I sort of buy into Jung’s “collective unconscious” theory, so maybe I tapped into a big belief system. But I do hate the way it has left me one foot in the faith and one foot out.
    I read your article. If you can give me any clarity on this I would appreciate it. Enjoying your website.
    I also live with chronic pain. You have my empathy on that score.

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    • Hi Sue,

      Thanks for sharing. I think it must be very difficult trying to live with one foot in the faith and one foot out. Even the Bible says that “I wish you were hot or cold, if you are lukewarm I will spit you out” (that’s as close as I can remember without looking it up). I think it is unhealthy to live with that kind of cognitive dissonance. But here is the key that I would work off: experience is questionable, facts are facts. You looked at the Bible and you saw that it is full of crap. As someone with a postgraduate theological qualification I can confirm that. So the facts are that the Christian faith is based upon a ridiculous archaic series of documents and there is no real reason to believe any of it. You have had experiences that make you believe that “something is out there.” Everybody has these types of experiences, that’s just a part of our primitive mental make-up. I suggest that you read my article “The Psychology of Faith” it will give you more insight into the reasons for this. The human brain is incredibly powerful, and I’m not talking about the conscious higher brain, I’m talking about the subconscious primitive brain. It can make you think that you have seen and heard things that never actually happened. Memory is also a highly questionable aspect of brain function. In tests people remember things that were shown to have never actually happened. As psychologists like to say our modern skull houses a Stone Age mind. I hope some of this helps.

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  5. Thanks! Right after I wrote the comment I thought of that same quote, about Jesus spewing me out of his mouth! Lol! How awful that He would do that!
    It kind of gave me some clarity after I wrote it though.Well, maybe not clarity, but some options other than” it was God”. Yes I really never could find most of the bible believable and that is hard for me. As a catholic, you didn’t really have to connect Jesus to the bible in my day. It’s the sacraments and the church! But when I read the bible, the catholic church kind of seemed like baloney. But then so did a lot of the bible.Yet I feel guilty for saying that!
    I will read the article you suggested. Thanks for your response. It was helpful.

    Like

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