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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 • Evangelical • God • My Take

soundoff (7,761 Responses)
  1. Salim Graham

    This happened to me in 2002, but not only that, the voice of God told me to do something and I did...I would like to speak with someone about it.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Try a psychiatrist

      December 30, 2012 at 9:02 am |
  2. Leopold Stotch

    All you libtards are going to burn in hell. Have fun!

    December 30, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      How very Christian of you to revel in the thought of people being tortured infinitely. Says volumes about your true character.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • YoHi60

      Is politics your religion?

      December 30, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  3. Name*penguin

    Just further proof that some well educated people with teaching positions at well respected universities are stupid. I just scratched Stanford off my list of Universities I would want my kids attend.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • dreamer96

      Stanford supplies the top Scientists to our best Governmental Labs....Ironic...You do not like them anymore because of one article....

      December 30, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  4. Lisa

    Excellent article – thank you!

    December 30, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  5. dreamer96

    My Favorite Line from the Movie LadyHawk...

    Phillipe: Sir, the truth is I talk to God all the time, and no offense, but He never mentioned you...

    That was a great line...

    December 30, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  6. I M Probulos

    All world religions are a result of the very nature of man's evolving brain and over 40,000 years of denying the 12 Unthinkable Horrors of Human Existence:

    1) There is No Afterlife
    2) God does not answer prayers
    3) Life is chance
    4) Life is not fair
    5) There is no eternal justice
    6 God is the invention of man.
    7 A single mistake can ruin your life
    8 Man is not special
    9 There is no absolute Truth
    10 Free Will is a Myth
    11 Experts can be Wrong
    12 Romantic Love is a Myth

    I. M. Probulos

    December 30, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • dreamer96

      You forgot

      Nothing in our world is wasted...every particle of mater continues to exist..or is changed into pure energy...E=MCsquared...
      and so I would ask..is our body, our brain a single piece of matter...or is it a machine for the soul to use?..
      Why have they found when a person dies they body gives off a burst of energy..is that the soul leaving the body?...

      December 30, 2012 at 9:02 am |
  7. Paul

    So if the voice tells you to kill your firstborn, you should obey?

    December 30, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • Hmmmm

      Usually tells you to build a baseball field in Iowa

      December 30, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • Albert

      Abraham did as ordered but Abraham had faith in God. The answer is no, murder after the ten commandments is forbidden, and every murder since Jesus of nazareth is illegal. The voice God speaks in is outside of schizophrenia, if you want a psychiatric breakdown that's the Thanatos self destructive side working with the ID. The voice of God is thoughful clear and distinct and reasonable. The befuddled hear the evil inclination and confuse themselves like in Jonestown or 9/11, or even Hitler who heard voices too, but it was not God he heard, but satan (may the Lord rebuke him)

      December 30, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • GOD

      Abraham had too much wax build-up in his ears. I told him I wanted to make his son a sack of rice.
      A sack of rice.
      Then he says I wrestled with him when he actually fell down a cliff when he was drunk. Blamed the whole thing on me.
      Oh, he was a pain, let me tell you...

      December 30, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • Upmuchtoolate

      God didn't allow it to happen, though, right? He wanted to know if Abraham would be loyal to Him above all else, and to illustrate His only sacrifice for mankind...allowing His own only son to be killed for us.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  8. Albert

    God does speak to people directly in thoughts and dreams and especially in prayer or instinctually, also through signs and especially through other people. These experiences are mystical and inward theycan be shared. I once awoke from a dream in whivh God shouted "haziq!" For years I ignored the word, until this year: it means skillfull. I once saw Jesus at the point of death my own and he reassurred me id live but a vow was required, to cease drugs. My mother just had an operation and she sas a beam of light that reassured her she would heal. And Jesus said "the holy spirit will tell you what to say" in certain instances. I always found Jesus to be rational able to hear God's voice and will in prayer and when persecuted. My son Simon saw the death of Bin Laden two weeks before it happened.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  9. David

    God is imaginary is my take on this article, I couldn't agree more. There have been a couple of time that I've heard things that were not there. Being neither good nor bad things, they were simply interesting auditory experiences. Those that wish to hear the voice of God think that they do but that does not mean God is real.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • Rich in NJ

      David: I wish you would read her book. She is very clear that she takes no position on whether the voices are "real"; as an anthropologist, she is concerned with the impact of the voices on the people. Whether the voices are "real" is actually unimportant; what matters is whether they change people for the better, and she argues that they can.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • David

      Rich, I don't disagree with any of that. She simply provides an explanation for the possibility that God is imaginary even if some people hear him "speak".

      December 30, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  10. Tony

    It was just such an experience that revolutionized my walk with God

    I had an open position to fill, and i was interviewing a potential candidate. He confessed he had a mental illness and had been unable to work for the past 2 years.

    Logically. ( and iam a very logical Math graduate with a Stanford MBA) it madeno sense to even think of hiring him. I thought of liability issues if i hired him. He might go on a rampage and hurt someone. Most assuredly having not worked for 2 years there was no reason to believe he would even show up if hired.

    But that was the first time i heard God's voice. God simply said "Hire him." I did and he turned out to be an outstanding employee who never missed a day.

    He was tremendous with details, and he wanted to do an excellent job. He was a tremendous hire. Seeing that God cared about Joe liked that changed my whole concept of God. I never really had thought of God as personal. He was running the universe. What time did he have for me or for Joe.

    Years later he told me he was "doing pretty well for someone who was on the garbage dump. He had a wife, two beautiful daughters, and himself was now a manager.

    God does indeed speak and its true the bmore time we spend in prayer the better able we are to recognize his voice.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Interesting. Did you actually hear and audible voice? Or was it an internal voice? And how do you know it was the voice of god?

      December 30, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • GOD

      That wasn't me. It was a minor epileptic seizure, asymptotic and moribund. It allowed your subconscious to pretend to be me.
      I don't do hiring decisions and don't go around helping people do them, either. If I could, I'd be talking to everyone, not just some slightly-unhinged fringe elements like you seem to be. Why would I care about your business when I kill 26 thousand children by starvation a year? Are you that self-centered? Get over yourself. You heard a mental echo of some part of your own thoughts.
      That's it. End of story.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  11. Shawn Irwin

    Religion is for people who can't handle reality.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:54 am |
    • carol

      I'd say it's the opposite. People who deny the existence of God can't handle reality.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • Dan

      This is definitely true for some, but not most. Comments like this paint non-believers as simple-minded. Many were just brought up that way and don't care to spend the time to look into such matters.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • Blah

      Carol, the burden of proof is on you.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  12. Scott

    Aaaaannnnddd cue the rabid atheists

    December 30, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • Ken

      True Scott. Ever notice how much time the God haters spend fighting against something they don't even believe is real? Yet they speak of others being stable or logical. I guess they never try a little honest self examination or maybe just try to live in reality. Talk about living in a fantasy world!! Go figure.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  13. Blah

    There is no Jesus, there is only Zuul!

    December 30, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • GOD

      Zuul passed out after mixing white lightnin and wine last night. I packed him up in a spiritual wheelbarrow and tossed him through his front door about 3am. He's not the sharpest tool in the shed if you know what I mean...

      December 30, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  14. Manuel J.

    Don't you non-believers find it ironic how. it might not be the end of the world as you would envision or understand it but our country is suffering many ills which seem to correlate with our casting God aside these past 30 or 40 years?

    I prefer going to my grave believing in God and "risk" looking like a so-called fool to non-believers than facing the almighty and saying I was mistaken.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      What if there is a god who punishes believers and rewards people who exercise rational thought? Then you've chosen the wrong team. What if God is Allah? You've followed the wrong religion. Google "Pascal's Wager"

      December 30, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • PK

      I believe in God but your logic is flawed! What if you kept on believing in something that didn't exist and only in the end you realized how big of a fool you were? Whether someone believes or not, it's their personal choice, why make them feel guilty or stupid for their personal believes?

      December 30, 2012 at 9:02 am |
  15. salathieljones

    Reblogged this on The World Outside of Yourself.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:51 am |
  16. Insight

    "If you search God out side of you, then that God is not an absolute God"- Buddha
    "Aham Brehmmasmi"= God is within you -Hinduism
    "Kingdom of heaven is within you"- Jesus

    December 30, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • Imagine No Religion

      "There ain't no jesus gonna come from the sky.
      Now that I found out, I know I can cry." – John Lennon

      December 30, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  17. patrick

    if you really do hear God speaking, PLEASE GO GET HELP!

    December 30, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • Jaxon

      God is as real as Santa. You really think that you are going to die, and then go to a place where people have wings and play earthly instruments? Where gates are made of GOLD? An earth metal? God/Heaven is man's way of dealing with death and the eventuality of it. Religion is the MAIN cause of this world's ongoing wars. Before "Jesus" was even born, there were many other civilizations living life in other parts of the world. The bible only references that small area of "middle-eastern" countries, that just so happen to be the same ones that hold the MAJORITY of uneducated adults who blow themselves up over the same stated religions. You people are sheep.

      December 30, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  18. Blue Skys

    But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people. 2 Timothy 3:1-4

    December 30, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • Jeff

      Hi Steve! Well said!

      December 30, 2012 at 8:54 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Oh, yeah? Well, mark THIS:

      "During the rectification of the Vuldronaii the Traveller came as a very large and moving Torb. Then of course in the third reconciliation of the last of the Meketrex supplicants they chose a new form for him, that of a Sloar. Many Shubs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Sloar that day I can tell you ! " Clortho 8:19

      December 30, 2012 at 8:54 am |
    • Blah

      Sounds like my kind of party! Hope god raptures all the christians sooner than later, and while she is at it...take all the other religions as well. Well, except buddhists, they are chill

      December 30, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • Blah

      There is no Jesus, there is only Zuul!

      December 30, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  19. Ed

    If you hear a disembodied voice in your head and the voice tells you its God, how do you know it is? Religious literature is filled with all sorts of evil beings that would happily invade your thoughts and say they are God. You really can't accept the voice's word at face value. Lacking any evidence to the contrary the voice obviously originated in the brain that is "hearing" it. And while this may not manifest into sociologically dangerous behavior I would recommend a discussion with a mental health profession and not a con-man (i.e., priest, minister, witch doctor).

    December 30, 2012 at 8:49 am |
  20. ted

    there are over 100 predictions in the old testament which accurately predicted when jesus came the first time and things he would do. Some are in psalm 122. There are 200 predictions in the new testament telling of the 2nd comming

    December 30, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Bull

      December 30, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • Mo

      The new testament was written decades to centuries (depending on the book,) after the death of Jesus. There is absolutely no evidence outside of the bible that Jesus ever existed. The writers of the New Testament were all very familiar with the old testament, thereby making it easy to say that the things came true.
      And yet, there's discrepancies even between the 4 gospels (only 2 mention a virgin birth, which is a pretty major part of the first prophecy!)
      Look at how many of the Republicans said that God told them they were his pick for president!! If 5 people say it, at least 4 (probably 5, considering the outcome,) were lying.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • morovia

      Greek mythology was a better predictor of Jesus than any prophesy in the O.T.
      The details of Christian theology were worked out when the Christians were trying to convert the Greeks. That may be why.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
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