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My Take: If you hear God speak audibly, you (usually) aren’t crazy
A woman prays in church. Many Christians say they can audibly hear the voice of God.
December 29th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

My Take: If you hear God speak audibly, you (usually) aren’t crazy

Editor's Note: Tanya Marie (“T.M.”) Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist and the Watkins University professor in the department of anthropology at Stanford University in Stanford, California. She is the author of "When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God."

By T.M. Luhrmann, Special to CNN

(CNN)—In the Bible, God spoke directly to Abraham. He spoke directly to Moses. He spoke directly to Job. But to your neighbor down the street?

Most people reading the ancient scriptures understand these accounts of hearing God’s voice as miracles that really did happen but no longer take place today, or maybe as folkloric flourishes to ancient stories. Even Christians who believe that miracles can be an everyday affair can hesitate when someone tells them they heard God speak audibly. There’s an old joke: When you talk to God, we call it prayer, but when God talks to you, we call it schizophrenia.

Except that usually it’s not.

Hearing a voice when alone, or seeing something no one else can see, is pretty common. At least one in 10 people will say they’ve had such an experience if you ask them bluntly. About four in 10 say they have unusual perceptual experiences between sleep and awareness if you interview them about their sleeping habits.

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And if you ask them in a way that allows them to admit they made a mistake, the rate climbs even higher. By contrast, schizophrenia, the most debilitating of all mental disorders, is pretty rare. Only about one in 100 people can be diagnosed with the disorder.

Moreover, the patterns are quite distinct. People with schizophrenia who hear voices hear them frequently. They often hear them throughout the day, sometimes like a rain of sound, or a relentless hammer. They hear not only sentences, but paragraphs: words upon words upon words. What the voices say is horrid—insults, sneers and contemptuous jibes. “Dirty. You’re dirty.” “Stupid slut.” “You should’ve gone under the bus, not into it.”

That was not what Abraham, Moses and Job experienced, even when God was at his most fierce.

For the last 10 years, I have been doing anthropological and psychological research among experientially oriented evangelicals, the sort of people who seek a personal relationship with God and who expect that God will talk back. For most of them, most of the time, God talks back in a quiet voice they hear inside their minds, or through images that come to mind during prayer. But many of them also reported sensory experiences of God. They say God touched their shoulder, or that he spoke up from the back seat and said, in a way they heard with their ears, that he loved them. Indeed, in 1999, Gallup reported that 23% of all Americans had heard a voice or seen a vision in response to prayer.

These experiences were brief: at the most, a few words or short sentences. They were rare. Those who reported them reported no more than a few of them, if that. These experiences were not distressing, although they were often disconcerting and always startling. On the contrary, these experiences often made people feel more intimate with God, and more deeply loved.

In fact, my research has found that these unusual sensory experiences are more common among those who pray in a way that uses the imagination—for example, when prayer involves talking to God in your mind. The unusual sensory experiences were not, in general, associated with mental illness (we checked).

They were more common among those who felt comfortable getting caught up in their imaginations. They were also more common among those who prayed for longer periods. Prayer involves paying attention to words and images in the mind, and giving them significance. There is something about the skilled practice of paying attention to the mind in this way that shifts—just a little bit—the way we judge what is real.

Yet even many of these Christians, who wanted so badly to have a back-and-forth relationship with God, were a little hesitant to talk about hearing God speak with their ears. For all the biblical examples of hearing God speak audibly, they doubt. Augustine reports that when he was in extremis, sobbing at the foot of that fig tree, he heard a voice say, “Take it and read.” He picked up the scripture and converted. When the Christians I know heard God speak audibly, it often flitted across their minds that they were crazy.

In his new book, "Hallucinations," the noted neurologist Oliver Sacks tells his own story about a hallucinatory experience that changed his life. He took a hearty dose of methamphetamines as a young doctor, and settled down with a 19th century book on migraines. He loved the book, with its detailed observation and its humanity. He wanted more. As he was casting around in his mind for someone who could write more that he could read, a loud internal voice told him “You silly bugger” that it was he. So he began to write. He never took drugs again.

Now, Sacks does not recommend that anyone take drugs like that. He thinks that what he did was dangerous and he thinks he was lucky to have survived.

What interests me, however, is that he allowed himself to trust the voice because the voice was good. There’s a distinction between voices associated with psychiatric illness (often bad) and those (often good) that are found in the so-called normal population. There’s another distinction between those who choose to listen to a voice, if the advice it gives is good, and those who do not. When people like Sacks hear a voice that gives them good advice, the experience can transform them.

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This is important, because often, when voices are discussed in the media or around the kitchen table, the voices are treated unequivocally as symptoms of madness. And of course, voice-hearing is associated with psychiatric illness.

But not all the time. In fact, not most of the time.

About a third of the people I interviewed carefully at the church where I did research reported an unusual sensory experience they associated with God. While they found these experiences startling, they also found them deeply reassuring.

Science cannot tell us whether God generated the voice that Abraham or Augustine heard. But it can tell us that many of these events are normal, part of the fabric of human perception. History tells us that those experiences enable people to choose paths they should choose, but for various reasons they hesitate to choose.

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sat at his kitchen table, in the winter of 1956, terrified by the fear of what might happen to him and his family during the Montgomery bus boycott, he said he heard the voice of Jesus promising, “I will be with you.” He went forward.

Voices may form part of human suffering. They also may inspire human greatness.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of TM Luhrmann.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • God

soundoff (7,767 Responses)
  1. arthatfield

    Actually the Bible teaches us how to hear God's voice any time that we want to. I have written more about this at my blog sitehttp://www.whatdidfathersay.com/

    August 31, 2014 at 5:35 pm |
  2. jcs6

    Adults with imaginary friends are stupid.

    August 17, 2014 at 5:46 am |
  3. LeveL 1001

    you can talk and talk and talk but face it you're dead wrong guy. sorry you feel like christianity or god rejected you.

    February 5, 2014 at 2:27 pm |
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    February 3, 2014 at 10:03 pm |
  5. therapies

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    a little comment to support you.

    January 9, 2014 at 10:04 pm |
    • LeveL 1001

      yeh that was a pretty good read.

      January 11, 2014 at 1:50 am |
  6. Captain Obvious

    1 john 4:1-3
     Beloved, many false prophets have gone out into the world. So do not believe or trust every spirit, but test the spirits to see if they are from God.
    This is how you can recognise God’s Spirit:
    Every spirit who confesses that Jesus Christ came to earth as a human [ in the flesh] is from God. And every spirit who refuses to say this about Jesus [does not confess or acknowledge Jesus] is not from God.
    It is the spirit of the enemy of Christ [ antichrist], which you have heard is coming, and now he is already in the world.

    December 28, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Will god say "Well done, good and faithful servant" when he considers the action of stealing another person's nickname on this blog?

      December 28, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
    • Dorian Mattar

      Captain Obvious, you OBVIOUSLY need psychiatric HELP.

      This is what happens when you take ancient books literally and use them as your guide in the 21st Century.

      Both you and the Muslims have stayed behind and are trapped in an ancient ignorant world.

      December 28, 2013 at 4:54 pm |
      • jeann

        I totally agree with you. Totally.

        December 28, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
      • LeveL 1001

        @Dorian

        I would reccomend you take the holy bible seriously.
        Christ never harmed anyone, but his healing and his tongue got him arrested and killed.

        @Dorian Matter you calling MLK Jr. was an idiot that was trapped?

        December 29, 2013 at 7:10 am |
        • Dorian Mattar

          I take the bible as what it is, an ancient book, written by sheep herders; words on paper and nothing more.

          "If a man lies with a male as with a women, both of them shall be put to death for their abominable deed; they have forfeited their lives." (Leviticus 20:13 NAB)

          So go ahead and take your bible seriously, I dare you, hell I double dare you.

          I don't even understand your question regarding MLK, since it reads as gibberish.

          December 29, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
      • LeveL 1001

        You said christians are trapped in an ancient ignorant world. So do u think MLK Jr was trapped in an ancient world? Btw that was a good Leviticus verse id take it literally and seriously i dont see the big deal is.
        I guess some of them were shepherds what do u think about Daniel and John and the messiah Christ himself? Just curious

        December 29, 2013 at 10:33 pm |
        • Dorian Mattar

          Was MLK a historian, a physicist, biologist? What about MLK is relevant to the truth of the conversation?

          MLK might have been a great leader for his people, and he might have been a great man, but that doesn't mean that he was an expert on the subject of biblical studies or any other relevant subject like evolution or physics.

          For all we know, he might have used religion as a catalyst to unite the different people on his cause.

          I can tell you one thing with 99.9% certainty, if he was born in Africa or ANY other Islamic country, He would NOT have been a christian, he would have been a Muslim.

          Daniel is a myth and his visions an impossibility, John is an attributed name by the Church to some of the letters that make up the bible and Jesus, unless you can provide credible evidence, is nothing more than a myth, an amalgamation of different religions and created as the last messiah, before Mohamed came along – oops and NEVER existed.

          December 29, 2013 at 10:57 pm |
        • Dorian Mattar

          So wait, you take the Leviticus verse seriously and literally and don't see what the big deal is? WOW!

          Then go ahead and take my dare.

          Yes MLK made progress, I never denied that, but that has NOTHING to do with the subject.

          MOST Christians don't believe in evolution, they fight science and they have always slowed progress. They have BURNED scientists alive in the past, Mr. Bruno for example, and have made books illegal for 300 years that would have allowed the man to progress.

          December 29, 2013 at 11:20 pm |
      • LeveL 1001

        Pretty good answers. Long and extra and not to the point but pretty good explanation. I still dont see how christians are trapped in the past. MLK Jr was a christian and he seemed to progress the nation on... racial issues at least. Did u think the Christ the man is a myth?

        December 29, 2013 at 11:14 pm |
        • Dorian Mattar

          Unless you can provide good evidence for a historical jesus, he is nothing more than a myth to me.

          I have searched everywhere for evidence of this jesus and have never found it.

          December 29, 2013 at 11:21 pm |
      • LeveL 1001

        Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions etc. I appreciate that and respect you and your views.

        December 29, 2013 at 11:32 pm |
        • Dorian Mattar

          Your welcomed. I hope you keep learning about the subject and make an informed decision.

          Knowledge and facts don't need faith.

          December 30, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
      • LeveL 1001

        thanks again, but just to be clear im not in agreeing with you, ive made my decision a 4 years ago, im christian (not catholic and not evangelist). but ive always had the faith and i love it. i just wanted to know your rebuttals, points of views, and conclusions, to learn about other humans and make me stronger. but I give u major respect for speaking your mind intelligently.

        December 30, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
        • Dorian Mattar

          Very disappointing to hear that a human will endeavor on a quest for information with their minds already made up.

          A very futile endeavor indeed.

          December 30, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
        • LeveL 1001

          you're still dead wrong, face it guy. sorry you feel like christianity or god rejected you.

          February 5, 2014 at 2:28 pm |
      • LeveL 1001

        im not on a quest for information lol. whats wrong with having your mind made up? i like reading and talking with people. im sad you feel that way about christians though. what was your goal here anyways? to ridicule? my goal here was to read what people think. see what you would say about the holy book and how you felt about MLK Jr, and if you believed all the characters in the bible were myths etc.

        how do you feel about the holy ghost/holy spirit?

        i already know what i think/believe/know, and being curious i like to see what other ppl think and what conclusions in life they have come too.

        December 30, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
        • Dorian Mattar

          Some things have to be ridiculed, otherwise the point doesn't get across an indoctrinated mind.

          In science, we NEVER EVER put ourselves in a position whereas we can't change. CHANGE is the basis of LEARNING. The minute you say you KNOW with 100% certainty, is he moment you are most likely wrong.

          In science we are led by NOTHING more than the evidence. We do NOT allow ANY dogma to interfere with our findings and if we are wrong WE CHANGE.

          Unlike believers of both Christianity and Islam who are set on their ways come hell or high water.

          As far as religions go, Buddhism is by far a superior set of ideologies that change with time and see the TRUTH. If they realize they are wrong in their teachings they CHANGE.

          You guys and the muslims both PICK and CHOOSE the parts of your book that suits you.

          There is plenty wrong with your believe system starting with the FACT that it's based on Faith.

          What is the point of learning if you are going to ultimately SUSPECT reason by way of faith?

          The truth can be right under your nose and you will completely ignore it.

          Good luck to you on that.

          December 30, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
        • Dorian Mattar

          I meant "suspend reason"

          December 30, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
      • LeveL 1001

        This is an issue that seems to be really eating you up. im christian not muslim stay focused, what's with you and islam lol?

        one last question and im done, i wont respond, you can have the last word too.
        how do u feel about the holy ghost/spirit?

        December 30, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
        • Dorian Mattar

          I know you are christian, I'm making an obvious comparison between the two. Why would that be eating me up?

          Your religion claims to be monotheistic, yet it incorporates three deities into one. On top of that, one of those deities sits to the side of another, while the main deity claims to have sent himself thru a virgin as a human form to return to himself but sitting next to himself after a ritualistic and bloody human sacrifice.

          What do you think I think of that? What else can anyone with a reasoning mind make of such a thing?

          What you call the ghost or spirit of your god, is nothing more than yourself being reflect back to you by your fears.

          You are projecting an idea in desperation to your own mind as an escape from reality.

          If you truly want to live this life as who you really are, go seek professional help. This is NOT an insult, the richest people on this planet have a REGULAR psychologist that they turn to ALL THE TIME because the world is TO COMPLICATED for anyone to deal with it on their own.

          So stop lying to yourself, and go get the help you deserve. You owe it to yourself.

          December 30, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
        • LeveL 1001

          @ Dorian, you just type alot of trash, I'm glad I asked you many questions to see how deep your rubbish goes, lol. You dug yourself a hole talking about the holy spirit like that. well you may have sealed your fate, and btw you're dead wrong on the whole issue. You will go to Hell if you reject Christ you idiot. Stop lying to yourself. May G-d have mercy on you you miserable beast.

          February 4, 2014 at 1:25 am |
        • Dorian

          Coming from someone like you, with the mind of a child and the knowledge of an ameba, I'll take it as a compliment.

          February 4, 2014 at 1:34 am |
        • LeveL 1001

          you're still dead wrong, face it buddy. sorry you feel like christianity or god rejected you.

          February 5, 2014 at 2:30 pm |
        • dorian

          I don't feel christianity or god rejected me.

          Children getting molested in church was evidence enough for his none existence.

          Your just to afraid to stand on your own two feet and need an invisible fried to survive.

          Children, when will they grow up?

          February 5, 2014 at 2:43 pm |
        • LeveL 1001

          Essenes

          February 6, 2014 at 8:13 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.