I have a history of depression, and this makes me uniquely qualified to talk about hearing the voice of God.
If this seems counter-intuitive at first, let me explain. Many people who have never heard God’s voice, or never experienced mental illness, make no distinction between the two. In my experience they are very distinct.
There are many types of mental illness, and each one offers a counterfeit reality. I’m only qualified to talk about depression, since that’s what I’ve experienced. During bouts of severe depression, I’ve heard other ideas that present themselves as internal voices. I think other people who aren’t severely depressed probably have too. Depending on your theology, there are different views on the origin of those ideas. My own views are beyond the scope of this post, we’ll get to them later.
I also have years of experience hearing God’s voice. How do I know? How do we know anything, really? We perceive, we observe, we verify according to the perceptions of others. But we don’t ever really know. We’re finite, and we’re very susceptible to perceptual errors.
But if I were a betting woman, I’d bet on a God who is real and speaks to people. In fact, I’ve bet my life on it.
My first attempts to hear God’s voice were born out of confusion. I remember being about 10, sitting in mass ,suddenly being overcome with panic. I realized that I had no idea how to please God. My mom, at a loss and unable to comfort me, suggested I read the bible. So that afternoon I let my bible fall open and begged God to speak to me.
Well, that’s not true. I landed in some surreal passage in the book of Ezekiel, and my confusion compounded. A parent or a pastor could have guided me to a more straightforward gospel presentation. I might have read it, prayed a prayer and been appeased. Millions of people have been offered an easy way to know God, and, thinking they know all there is to know, they quickly get bored. But God gave me a great gift that day. He piqued my curiosity.
” I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel who call you by your name” Is.45:3
God was elusive at times, and very mysterious. But sometimes, as I read the bible ,the words were suddenly infused with meaning. I saw things I hadn’t noticed before, even if I had read the passage many times. Other times, I heard what’s been described as the “internal audible voice” of God. I think that’s an apt description, but it needs clarification.
The internal audible voice of God is not:
- The thundering sound Charleton Heston heard in “The Ten Commandments”
- your own thoughts
- the voice of your conscience
- the “good” angel that sits on your shoulder and tells you what you should do, while the “bad” angel reminds you of what you really want.
These all strike me as inaccurate. First, God doesn’t need to shout to get our attention. Second, the concept of your thoughts or your conscience implies knowledge you already have, but God’s voice can reveal what you previously didn’t know. Finally, the cartoon image of the two angels arguing on someone’s shoulder is biased. The bad angel almost always makes the more convincing argument. The truth is, the more you listen to any voice, the more attuned to it you become. The more you listen to (obey) God’s voice, the easier it is to hear, and the less convincing any counterfeit sounds.
There are several ways to distinguish God’s voice from an imposter. First of all, God says things I would never think of. No, really. I once felt God tell me to punch a complete stranger (in church!). One of the best ways to discern what God is saying is to share what you’re sensing with someone whose judgement you trust. Usually God reveals one facet of truth to an individual, but to see the whole picture we need to be in ongoing communication with him and each other.
I’ve spoken about how reality becomes distorted when you’re in the grip of depression. Even when I couldn’t trust my own thoughts, I could still distinguish God’s voice from other thoughts or ideas. Even when I didn’t obey his voice, it was sometimes the only stable element in my topsy-turvy inner life.
I know some atheists believe that weak people imagine themselves relating to a loving God because this delusion provides them comfort. Here’s the problem with that idea:
God’s voice is not comforting.
At least not in a sugary, escapist kind of way. The voice of God in my life confronts me, challenges me with hard truth, sometimes forces me to alter long held opinions. The comfort I receive is the kind of comfort you might feel in being convicted of a crime you did commit. It’s the comfort of being totally exposed for who you really are, and not having to waste energy pretending to be somebody else. This may not sound particularly loving to some of you. I feel God’s love when He speaks to me, but it’s a consuming love. It’s a costly love. The cost is your life. You can’t hear God’s voice or experience his love without being permanently and painfully altered.
We’re celebrating the biblical feast of Shavuot (many of you know it as Pentecost) this weekend. It commemorates God’s revelation to Moses on Mt Sinai. Christians also celebrate the outpouring of the Holy spirit on the infant church years later on the anniversary of that event.
It’s troubling to me that many Christians celebrate the historical events, yet believe that the days of hearing God’s voice are over. They have the Bible, and they claim to need no further revelation. But Jesus said, when speaking of the people who would follow him, that they would follow because they know his voice. I can’t imagine a life worth living without a relationship in which I hear his voice and know I am heard by him.
How has God revealed himself to you? When have you heard his voice clearly in your life? If you’ve never sensed him speaking to you, what hopes or fears do you have about what it might be like? The bible says (and my experience has been) that God rewards those who earnestly seek him, and I believe hearing his voice wasn’t just for a few people in the distant past. You don’t even have to be crazy.
(but it might help)