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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. Lori

    who created that precise heart?????????????

    December 31, 2012 at 2:21 am |
    • Moby Schtick

      It's a "what" not a "who." The answer is complex fluid dynamics and the willingness of the mammalian brain to interpret meaningless shapes as meaningful. Pareidolia is the scientific term.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:24 am |
  2. tallulah13

    I once bet on a horse that had a logo on it's blinkers that reminded me of a cloud formation I'd seen that day. The horse finished second, but I won anyway, as I'm a pretty conservative gambler and bet him to show.

    December 31, 2012 at 2:21 am |
  3. Lori

    look at photorankr.com under- divine heart

    December 31, 2012 at 2:21 am |
  4. Anath

    Man followed the devil who tricked man into thinking he was God. He said do not build alters or statues of my likeness to worship(Organized religion) Man just had to build churches and then tell others what God was thinking. God was so disappointed that he turns all religious hypocrites into dung beatles.

    December 31, 2012 at 2:20 am |
    • tallulah13

      Would these dung beatles be called John, Paul, George and Ringo?

      December 31, 2012 at 2:24 am |
  5. Brian Smith

    news flash, this is not news

    December 31, 2012 at 2:18 am |
  6. Lori

    go to:www. signsandmiraclesfromgod.com

    you can still doubt but I have much more!

    December 31, 2012 at 2:16 am |
  7. Lori

    The Bible speaks about clouds formations

    In Job 38:36-37
    Who put wisdom in the cloud layers. Or who gave understanding to the sky phenomenon. Who can exactly number the clouds in wisdom. Or the water jars of heaven who can tip them over?

    Psalms 99:6-7
    Moses and Aaron were among his priests, and Samuel was among those calling upon his name. They were calling to Jehovah and he himself kept answering them. In the pillar of the cloud, he continued speaking to them.

    2 Samuel 22:10-14
    And he proceeded to bend the heavens down and to descend. And thick gloom was beneath his feet.. And he came riding upon a cherub and came flying and he was visible upon the wings of a spirit. Then he put a darkness around him as booths, dark waters, thick clouds.
    From the brightness in front of him burning coals of fire blazed up. From Heaven Jehovah began to thunder ,and the most high began to give forth his voice.

    Revelations 14:14-16
    And I looked and behold a white cloud, and upon the cloud one sat like unto the son of man, having on his head a golden crown and in his hand a sharp sickle. And another angel came out of the temple crying to the one who sat on the cloud, Thrust in thy sickle and reap: for the time has come for thee to reap; for the harvest of the earth is ripe. And he sat on the cloud, thrust in his sickle on the earth and the earth was reaped.

    To see the most recent– Click on the Blog... button above and look under to see the latest pictures and stories. Follow at the bottom of the page to the previous pages–Including a special Miracle Jesus Cloud with a Star of David.

    Also go to: http://www.photorankr.com for these photo shots with even greater clarity

    For a beautiful video of these miraculous cloud formations and their stories go to:http://youtu.be/ZROOqwy52GU

    December 31, 2012 at 2:15 am |
  8. Lori

    The pictures are all there, I have many cloud formations posted on photorankr.com, look under L.Hovey==you will see them all!

    December 31, 2012 at 2:12 am |
  9. Moby Schtick

    Holy crap this blog is getting weird. Do these people really believe that they were demon possessed and that clouds that look like clouds prove anything but that they should NOT be believed about anything?

    December 31, 2012 at 2:11 am |
    • tallulah13

      Is it a full moon?

      December 31, 2012 at 2:17 am |
    • douglasjbender

      Experience trumps theory and inexperience, every time. Yes, I REALLY DO believe (I KNOW) that God cast a demon out of me. Part of the evidence for this is in the pudding (so to speak): I would not be here, now, telling you this, and defending the reality of God, if NOT for that experience back in October of 1989. I went from being an absolute atheist to being a faith-filled Evangelical in a matter of seconds. A 180-degree turn.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:44 am |
  10. Sir to ye

    This is why we need strict gun control in this country.

    December 31, 2012 at 2:09 am |
    • BurstBubble

      This nothing to do with strict gun laws. Besides you can't legislate a fix for that problem. Guns aren't the problem, yet people like you who believe they are is actually a real danger and a much bigger problem.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:12 am |
  11. BurstBubble

    This article is quiet intriguing and I don't think the author knows what she is talking about. She lumps feels, thoughts and claimed phrases that an individual thinks of as "God" speaking to that individual.
    Hum, I have experienced it twice in my life so far. It was voice that spoke one sentence each time. Each time I was JOYFUL after hearing this voice. Maybe the voice was an angel and not actually God?

    December 31, 2012 at 2:08 am |
  12. Sir to ye

    What do shepherds do with sheep? When they can't fleece them anymore, they lead them into the house of long knives.The bible is a cookbook.

    December 31, 2012 at 2:07 am |
  13. Lori

    On Christmas Eve I took a photograph of an angel near the clouds it is posted at http://www.photorankr.com under Angel Gabriel.

    On the day before the Newtown Shooting I took a photograph of a Marliin in the clouds. The outline was distinct and precise. Adam Lanza used a Marlin Rifle in his shooting rampage, he killed his mother with this rifle, it is one of the three he took with him to the school. Marlin Rifle used to be in North Haven CT. They merged with Remington and Bushmaster, the other two guns Adam Lanza Used. I took the photo on my iphone and can prove the date it was taken. This photo is also posted on photorankr,com

    December 31, 2012 at 2:07 am |
  14. douglasjbender

    I have been a fervent Evangelical Christian since October of 1989, when God Himself cast a demon out of me while I was driving alone on a street in Elkhart, Indiana early in the evening. At the time, I had been an ardent atheist for at least two years, and I was not seeking God, nor hoping that Heaven was real, nor curious about the afterlife, or anything like that. I viewed the Bible as a crude and ignorant mythology for the most part, and Christians as fearful and scientifically clueless, or even just plain stupid. God simply took the initiative, gave me a choice, and cast a demon out of me, as I was still driving, when I chose to repent and ask for His forgiveness.

    Since then, I have "heard" God speak to me a little more than a dozen times, but never in more than one short sentence (such as, "You did not love them" [Jesus], and "It is woven into the fabric of time" [Jesus], and "Where is the love?" [the Holy Spirit]). It is just as though I actually "hear" another's voice, in my mind. And I can tell which member of the Trinity it is Who is speaking - I can tell when it is God the Father, or Jesus, or the Holy Spirit (and they have Each spoken with me roughly equally; Jesus and God the Father about equally, and the Holy Spirit slightly less often).

    I have never heard an actual, audible, voice. I suppose that might be mostly because, given my analytical nature, it would be too shocking for me. But I don't know for certain why I haven't.

    December 31, 2012 at 2:06 am |
    • sam stone

      what makes you think there was a demon in you?

      December 31, 2012 at 2:09 am |
    • tallulah13

      I was a believer until I considered the reasons for my belief. Then I considered the nature and history of what I was believing. Common sense drove the belief in god right out of me. Since then, common sense has as.serted itself many times, preventing me from falling prey to people trying to take advantage of any perceived gullibility.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:16 am |
    • Moby Schtick

      So you were an atheist, without belief in god or spiritual beings, but somehow you realized:

      1. Demons exist
      2. God exists
      3. A demon was in you
      4. God removed your demon
      5. Your reasons for being an atheist were incorrect

      Do I have that right?

      Because, Watson, that makes no sense whatsoever, no way, no how, nada.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:16 am |
    • dale

      great testimonial about God revealing Himself to you!

      December 31, 2012 at 2:36 am |
    • douglasjbender

      @Sam Stone: "[W]hat makes you think there was a demon in you?"

      Well, without getting into all the detail, I can summarize it by saying that after I repented and asked God's forgiveness, I felt a tingly sensation (like when your hand is "asleep" from not having enough circulation to it) from the bottom of my left foot at the left toe, in a hair-thin line all the way up to the top of my head on the left side, move through my body from my left to my right. As it moved, the left side of my body felt "clean", and as if a weight was off of our out of it; and the right side of my body, by contrast, felt "dirty", and as if a weight was on or in it. Finally, that hair-thin, body-length, line of "tingliness", along with all of the feeling of "dirtiness" and "weight", ended up on the extreme right side of my body, in a hair-thin line. The rest of my body now felt completely "clean" (inside and out), and "lighter" (less weight). And then (and this is the best I can describe it, though I didn't really see or feel anything), God reached His finger into my head from my left side, and "flicked" something out. As He did this, I heard (in my mind, but quite clearly), a very panicky, "No!! NO!!", and then the tingly sensation and the "dirtiness" and the weight were gone. And I felt completely "whole" and "renewed" and "cleansed".

      December 31, 2012 at 2:51 am |
    • douglasjbender

      @Moby Schtick:

      "So you were an atheist, without belief in god or spiritual beings, but somehow you realized:

      1. Demons exist
      2. God exists
      3. A demon was in you
      4. God removed your demon
      5. Your reasons for being an atheist were incorrect

      Do I have that right?"

      No. The sequence was this:

      1. God revealed Himself to me, as I was driving, and gave me a choice.
      2. I realized that God exists, and that I had a choice.
      3. I chose to repent, and I then asked God's forgiveness.
      [At this point, I had no idea that I had a demon.]
      4. God began "pushing" a tingly, dirty, weighty sensation through my body, from my left side to my right, until it was in a hair-thin line along my right side.
      5. God then "flicked" this thing out of me; and as He did so, I heard (in my mind), a very panicky, "No!! NO!!", and then the sensation was gone.
      6. I concluded/knew then that I had had a demon, and that God had just cast a demon out of me.
      7. Since I now knew that God was real, I also knew that atheism is false, whatever "reasons" I might have had for being an atheist (that would take another, long, post to describe).

      "Because, Watson, that makes no sense whatsoever, no way, no how, nada."

      And that is perhaps because it is the result of your own reasoning, and not mine.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:56 am |
    • douglasjbender

      @Dale: "[G]reat testimonial about God revealing Himself to you!"

      Thank you. It's simply the truth, and shows that God is real, and forgiving, and powerful.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:58 am |
    • douglasjbender

      @tallulah13: "I was a believer until I considered the reasons for my belief. Then I considered the nature and history of what I was believing. Common sense drove the belief in god right out of me. Since then, common sense has asserted itself many times, preventing me from falling prey to people trying to take advantage of any perceived gullibility."

      I was in a similar state, when I was an atheist. I became an atheist when I bought into the lie of Evolution (being taken advantage of by so-called "experts" in science whose authority and confidence duped me in my gullibility). But God is patient, and when the time was right, He showed me His reality. For whatever reason, He chose to work in my life in that way. Each person is unique, and God has His Own purposes.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:02 am |
  15. Sean

    BOGUS!

    December 31, 2012 at 2:06 am |
  16. Sir to ye

    Man created God in his own in image, in order to control women.

    December 31, 2012 at 2:04 am |
    • douglasjbender

      Dang it, we've been found out.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:12 am |
  17. Lori

    HCT's of 19 for someone without a Leukemia spells death. Normal HCT levels for a woman are around 42.

    December 31, 2012 at 2:02 am |
  18. Lori

    Ok, first on August 23, 1988, records intact– I delivered my daughter my HCT level went from 37 down to 19, I bled all night long.

    The trauma of my childbirth of my daughter who was born posterior nearly took my life. Yet I survived–yes by God.

    In May of this year, I broke my ankle in two spots, they said I quite probably would never walk again, I had what was called a non-union fracture. The doctor described it as the gap being as large as the Hudson River. That was in May. I am now walking with the aide of a boot, but I am no longer wheel chair bound and the bones have begun to heal. I do have the medical reports to prove what I say!

    In addition to these personal health miracles, I can offer more.

    December 31, 2012 at 2:00 am |
    • Moby Schtick

      Lori, do you happen to have the slightest idea why "cool stuff happenin'" doesn't prove any god for any reason whatsoever?

      December 31, 2012 at 2:04 am |
    • tallulah13

      It's sad and downright ungrateful when people give credit to god for work done by doctors.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:05 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      I am happy things turned out for you, but if I am to believe god intervened on your behalf than I also have to believe he does not intervene for thousands and thousands of people who suffer and die every day. That would not make god loving or just...it would make him a jerk.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:07 am |
    • If you truely hear voices....

      There is always a ration explaination- always. some people die on the spot from relatively minor injuries, while someone else gets drug 150ft down a highway under a semi with a mangled bike and pulls through. many many variables involved.

      there is always a rational reason, even if nobody sees it. 10 million children on average, under the age of 5, die every year of disease, famine, violence, natural disasters ect.... If i had to pick one group that needs a shot at life its that group... wheres the miricles, wheres the devine help? ... the answer is ..there is nobody on the other end of the prayer phone.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:17 am |
    • adrifter

      Lori... I am glad you are recovering, but it doesn't prove anything about a god. Does thousands of people around the world being killed in accidents, being injured or dying of disease every day prove that there is not a god? No it doesn't. When good things happen to people, the same thing. It doesn't prove anything. You are falling for an old logical fallacy – giving god credit for the good things, and ignoring the bad things in life. It's like a plane crash where everyone is killed except one passenger. It's hailed as a miracle that one person survived, while the hundreds of victims are not blamed on god. That makes no sense, if you believe there is a god with control of everything that happens in this world.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:43 am |
  19. Otis

    So you compare Oliver Sacks' meth-induced benevolent auditory hallucination to the faithful hearing God speak directly to them and THEN make the claim that the latter aren't bonkers? I always thought tweakers and blind believers were on the same page, but having a scientist back me up is reassuring!

    December 31, 2012 at 1:52 am |
    • raforrester

      Her point was not that God was actually speaking, but that hearing a voice is very common, and not necessarily a part of schizophrenia. Sachs responded to his voice, which he knew was a hallucination, by becoming a writer. You can tell if a voice is giving you good advice. If you think it is God, that's OK, and it's still good advice. If it is bad advice, you don't think it is God, and you don't follow it anyway.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:12 am |
  20. Bob

    God isn't real.

    December 31, 2012 at 1:49 am |
    • Wisdom4U2

      You're not 'real', tool of Satan.

      December 31, 2012 at 1:56 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Satan in a tool of your god.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:02 am |
    • Wisdom4U2

      You know nothing of 'my' God, so move along, clown.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:10 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Your god is nothing...as in non-existent.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:22 am |
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