How to Hear God’s Voice

How to Hear God's VoiceI would like you to try a thought experiment. With your mouth closed, silently say to yourself, “Open the door.” Alright, say it again and listen to the voice carefully. Does it sound like your own voice? Now, again, in your mind only,  this time whisper silently “Open the door.” Next,  yell it loudly (in you mind).  Listen to the differences.  It is odd to call it “listening” because there is no sound, but you all know what I mean.

Now, in a completely different voice, try saying “Open the door” silently.  If you are a man, use a woman’s voice or you women folk, try a man’s voice.  Make up a voice or imagine someone you know saying it.  Can you hear it?   Does it sound like you?

If you ask people who say God speaks to them, they will describe God’s voice in one of four ways:

  1. By circumstance
    The believer may report it like this: “Well, it was the only college I got accepted at, so God must be speaking to me”.
  2. By an emotional feeling
    The believer may report it like this: “I felt a sudden peace come over my heart and knew it was God speaking to me”.
  3. By a voice in their head
    Congratulations, that is what you just did above. You now know what it is like to hear God’s voice. God may say to you, “Go speak to Mary”, “I want you to become a missionary.” or many other things. Oddly enough, God rarely comes up with something you could not even imagine.
  4. By loud normal voices
    This is due to an abnormal brain — either frank psychosis, stress or a strange constitution.

Let me add one final detail to the phenomena in # 3. Have you ever played with an Oija board? Well, it is a divination board that you lightly touch which mysteriously spells out words.  The Japanese use a similar tool called Kokkuri-san where a penny moves on a piece of paper.  In both of these divination methods the pointer is moved by people (not spirits), but the question is, how intentional is the movement.   Likewise, when you ask your mind a question, it can sometimes speak to you without your present intention of creating the voice, but nonetheless, it is your mind’s voice.  This unintentional conversation with yourself can happen to folks even when they are not seeking God’s voice, it happens even to nonbelievers.

Have you heard voices?

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Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy & Religion

37 responses to “How to Hear God’s Voice

  1. Steve Wiggins

    This is a very interesting experiment. I never considered before that the voices in my head (when I was saying the word in my mind), differs from my physical voice, but it is clearly recognized by my brain. My favorite book on voices in the head, although outrageously dated, is still Julian Jayne’s The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It has gotten me into trouble more than once!

  2. Julian Jayne did spark a lot of conversations (although it sounds like the history of his ideas might go the way of Freud and Freudian ideas — cool fun story to initiate the study, but eventually put on the shelf and only occasionally footnoted).

    This certainly provides an explanation as to why believers put a lot of weight in the ‘personal experience’ of gods. How else can you experience your super-natural god, and be so convinced, other than from striking possession and personalized direction and authoritative commands?

    It also sheds some light on the refusal, by some, to analyze any experience with calm, rational thought. Some people want to live in the emotional realm.

  3. societyvs

    Got the Avalos book – read the inroduction – seems like a very good read.

    As for this phenomenon, I have had it happen and I have also had this ‘speaking to one’s self happen’ (a lot)…I have begun to realize there is a difference. How to explain that difference is the fun part.

    I don’t put much stock in the hearing God thing because I am just not sure how important that all is what the plethora of biblical writings the person has at their fingerttips for direction. Some of this kind of seems like laziness to me on behalf of the believer.

  4. To be frank, I’ve rarely hear “voices” – most of the time I manage to identify them as mine. The only voices I’ve ever heard would be someone calling out my name, which I’m not sure what the cause would be.

    As for Oija board, I’ve only heard of it through your post, but I know of a similar tool – it’s literally translated from Chinese as “pen fairies”, and is very popular (and feared) among Chinese teenagers in East Asia (Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Malaysia, Singapore etc).

    It works like this: usually 2 guys will hold a pen using one hand each. Then, the pen will be held vertically on top of a piece of paper. Then, the both of them will “ask” the “fairy” to come. The process may take around 15 minutes, but it depends. Then, questions can be asked, and the fairy will answer each of them by moving the pen to create words on the paper. When all is done, the fairy must be sent away politely, or those involved will get cursed or possessed. At least, that’s the general idea.

    There are a few requirements, though:
    (1) Firstly, the players must have faith in the existence of fairies and ghosts – it’s explicitly stated that the ritual won’t work if a skeptic/naturalist is involved.
    (2) The players must be fully concentrated during the process, and they must not think of anything else. Sorta like getting into a state of hypnosis.
    (3) It should be done at night, but not after midnight (increases chances of meeting an evil ghost)
    (4) Only simple questions may be asked (Example: who am I? Can I get promoted)

    These requirements strongly point to one thing: “Pen fairies” are nothing more than subconcious personalities of the players themselves manifested through the ideomotor effect. Why do the players need to have faith in ghosts? If the ritual works, then surely it will work on anyone. And when the players concentrate for some time, their awareness decreases, subjecting them to hypnotic effects, causing the ideomotor effect. Lastly, the fact that the “fairies” are only capable of answering simple questions is a sign that it is in fact the players who are answering questions subconsciously. This has been confirmed when scientific tests (forgot the source) showed that whenever questions which they players didn’t know were asked, nothing except random circles appeared.

  5. No, I haven’t heard voices. I’ve had great ideas, though, and because they were so good, I thought they couldn’t be mine.

    Yeah, it’s an issue of self-confidence. If we have great ideas or do an excellent job at something, we have such a hard time believing that it was us, and we have to give the credit to god.

  6. CRL

    I have heard voices, however, I have never confused a mental voice (the form that 100% of my thoughts take) with an external voice. There was a study, published in Scientific American a while back, that said something about internal voices involving subtle motions of the vocal cords.

  7. @ Steve
    Thirty years ago, when I read Julian Jaynes, it made my head spin–I loved it. As I became learned more I doubted his theory thought it seemed fantastic. You are an ancient language guy. Do you really have the feel that the ancients did not have the same sense of self as you or I?

    @ Andrew
    Yes, you get my drift exactly !!

    @ Society
    (1) I will e-mail you about Avalos – maybe start in a week or so.
    (2) Glad, even as a believer (of sorts), you see my point

    @ Darren
    Pen Fairies !!! I loved that. I think your analysis (I have read similar) is spot on. Thanx for the comparison.

    @ Lorena
    I would imagine EVERYONE has heard their own voice in their head. Certainly there must be times when you practice saying something in your head. Aren’t there times when your brain is saying something and you are just hearing it? My guess: we are so accustom to hearing our own chatter that we don’t hear it any longer. Or heck, maybe I am just strange. We are all so different from one another !

    @ CRL
    I like the vocal cord thing — makes a lot of sense. Seriously, though, you have never been surprised by another voice. I wager we all have them at times and just don’t pay attention. Or am I delusional? 🙂

  8. Steve Wiggins

    Yes, Sabio, I believe the ancients were constrained by different thought abilities than we have. I had started a book on this subject back in 2005, but my career has been so bumpy that I haven’t been able to work on it. I think there is evidence that ancients had a brain that saw the world differently than ours does. My initial paper earned me a lot of angry glares at the conference where I presented it!

  9. @ Steve
    Certainly our brains have evolved and thus were very different at different times. It is a matter of degree for 3 – 5,000 years ago as you are claiming — correct?

    Do you believe, like Jaynes (in a Gouldian fashion), that the change was cataclysmic and thus responsible for the great loss of civilizations?

    (two questions)

  10. I agree that most people who claim to hear God “speak” to them describe the experience as some version of 1, 2, or 3 above. I also agree that such “speech” is unlikely divine communication and most likely self-talk. However, I have sought such communication in the past and may even do so now subconsciously despite being skeptical (at least) on a cognitive level. I don’t know if that tendency comes from conditioning or human nature.

    Side note: Granting the truth of popular Darwinian (gradualistic) evolution, our brains would be almost exactly like the the humans of 5,000 years ago. Perhaps today we do think differently than they, but that would be due to the evolution of thought not of the brain itself.

  11. CRL

    I have “heard voices” in that I’ve heard my name called out when no one I know is around, but that is seperate from my internal “thinking voice.”

  12. Ian

    I heard the voice of God when I was a teenager. He told me to ask out a particularly cute girl in my church youth group. Unfortunately he didn’t bother to tell her the plan. And she turned me down.

    I realised that God wanted me to ask her out so that I could understand that she wasn’t going to be mine, and so I could get past the crush I had on her and dedicate more of my emotional energy on my relationship with Him.

    Sometimes you just have to look at a deeper level to see what God is *really* saying to you.


  13. @ Laughing Boy
    Since all religions do it, I am pretty sure talking to yourself for purposes of guidance or magic or such is probably human nature.

    Since you shared with us that you are a Christian, tell us if you changed your mind of the issue of “hearing god”. And since you don’t feel the ancients were very different from us, then they should not have heard God either, right?

    Many Christians are dispensational in their thinking on this issue: God spoke to men (and occasionally women) in days of old, but now chooses to speak to us through the Bible (“His Word”). Just curious how you put that all together. Because I know there are as many Christian theologies as there are Christians.

  14. @ CRL
    When you were a Catholic, were you just a “do the right thing” catholic but never sought God’s voice?

    @ Ian
    Very nice — got me smiling ! But alas, a perfect, true, common example.

  15. CRL

    “When you were a Catholic, were you just a “do the right thing” catholic but never sought God’s voice?”

    I was never that into it, and am naturally skeptical of anything claiming to be ‘god’s voice’ or ‘a miracle.’ I’ve never believed that God answers prayers or speaks to us, even in ways we cannot understand. Since I didn’t believe in the bible, I couldn’t even look for God in there!

  16. I would agree that seeking to hear God’s voice is part of our human nature, since God created humans with the intent of relating to us.( I don’t see a good explanation for this phenomenon) from a naturalistic perspective.) God may have spoken to Abraham, Moses, the Prophets, etc. in a manner closer to audible speech than He does to us today, i.e., since Christ. The written Word is a much more effective, reliable, and authoritative method of communication. This view is pretty standard fare within Christian theology, held by many millions through the centuries.

    I don’t think God speaks to us in way that could be confused with self-talk. (The Old Testament characters didn’t seem to have such a problem.) He doesn’t tell us who we should marry, what job to take, or what socks to wear, etc. Our primary objective is seek God—not his so-called leading, but he himself—and within that frame of reference we exercise our own will in making life’s significant and mundane choices.

  17. Earnest

    Great post and comments. Schizophrenia is typically “voices in the head”, onset in young adulthood. Intensity of illness is thought to correlate pretty well with the loudness and “comprehensableness” of the speech.

    I had a really interesting patient who said that he was waiting for Jesus to tell him who the Devil was. When he received this holy sign, he would then do everything in his power to kill this person. The sign had not yet been given to him.

    Me: “So am I the devil?”
    Him: “No, you are OK”
    Me: “Great! Let’s keep talking…”

    I gave another patient a new diagnosis of schizophrenia, and he was a devout pentacostal Christian. He was clearly not having a good day when I met him. Very intelligent, exceedingly frustrated, fervently praying with his pastor, unmedicated at that point. He looked at me in desperation and asked, “What happened to me?”

    I told him he was possessed by the Devil.

    It looked like a lightbulb clicked on in his head, like everything suddenly made sense. He seemed grateful that I had given him a goal of fighting the voices instead of continuing to wonder if they were holy commands he should obey.

    So what if we have vague mumbly voices that say nothing in particular? Or, like me, have songs that just won’t stop for hours on end?

    The brain is a strange place indeed.

  18. Ian

    “I told him he was possessed by the Devil.”

    Wow. Really? You’re a mental health professional, and you’re giving patients a diagnosis of satanic possession that you know to be untrue? Isn’t that just extraordinarily unethical, not to mention potentially dangerous?

  19. @ Laughing Boy
    So, I think I understand that you believe:
    (a) God spoke out loud in the OT
    (b) God MAY speak out loud now but you doubt it
    (c) In place of the OT verbal God you now can hear him through certain letters and stories collected from the 1st and 2nd century.

    Am I right? (trying to keep it simple)

  20. Earnest

    @ Ian:

    Right. The point is cultural sensitivity. He was so enmeshed in his religion that saying this phrase, which to you would be jarring and quite out of place, was actually applauded by his pastor and my security guards who suddenly did not have to be on guard to fight this guy.

    Do you have an alternate strategy to give me? And again, let’s make sure it is compatable with a radical Christian viewpoint in the setting of florid psychosis.

    @ Sabio: Sorry I guess we are getting a bit afield here but with all due respect Ian and I are still talking about voices in someone’s head.

  21. Earnest

    Another way of looking at it was a “buy in” for the pastor. He appeared to be perhaps the only person who could convince this guy to comply with his new medications. So this comment had community support structure function as well.

  22. Ian

    @Earnest – fascinating. You’re right – it would jar me. But then again it wouldn’t jar me to hear a news headline “Psychiatrist faces charges of professional misconduct after telling patient he was possessed by the Devil.” 🙂 Maybe that’s another Europe / US thing as well.

    Needless to say, I am not a mental health professional! I wouldn’t presume to venture another strategy. I was just shocked to hear that would be considered acceptable. I had no idea.

  23. Earnest

    I think it worked but I would be very reluctant to use such a turn of the phrase again unless the exact encounter parameters were duplicated!

    Back to the “original intent” of the article, if we are supposedly psychiatrically “normal” and hear a voice in our head is it a spillover of excess “creative energy”? Is it simply something our brains do because we evolved human problem solving and gaming strategies etc? Sorry I have not read as much about the basic science as others.

  24. @ Ian
    You are right. Such a ploy could indeed get someone into a terrible law suit here in the USA and for good reasons. Earnest seems to have been intuitively fortunate in this case.

  25. (a) God communicated directly to certain persons in the OT; however, being incorporeal (thus lacking vocal cords), he does not speak like we speak. When audible, God’s “voice” may have been mediated through some agency. I think most instances of God speaking in the OT were not God’s voice causing vibrations in the air that were received by the hearer’s aural organs. OTOH, I don’t rule it out, either.

    (b) What God could do in the OT he can do now.

    (c) God is revealed to us primarily, but not exclusively, through scripture, both OT and NT.

    Neither of us is simple.

  26. @Earnest,

    Just wanted to give a guarded applause to you on how you dealt with the patient. It was a calculated risk, but in terms of communication you recognized and used the language that he would actually understand and respond to.

    Dialogue comes from finding those common words, and it tends to foster growth and change. Well, at least much better than debate does, which tends to challenge or test growth and change…

  27. Earnest

    @ Sabio: agree it was a risky move that worked for that solitary event. I have been over 10 years in the business and haven’t done that before or since.

    @ Andrew: that’s a really beautiful way to put it. Thanks.

    @ Laughing Boy: I find your comments very resonant. They make me feel a strong sense of nostalgia. They are very consistent with what I personally get from the text. However, I can’t decide at present if my feelings in and of themselves make what you say true for anything other than my own view of the world.

  28. dreadpiratescetis

    i feel somewhat attacked by the picture illustration… however, i have heard voices. sometimes they are my own, other times it is some creative leap that connects dots that were already in my mind but now seen and connected in a new way. i have no idea how i did it, and i am left feeling like it was not me who connected yonder dots.

    maybe i be a little more honest in embracing me schizo-typical behavior that we all have (or so says behavioral biologist Robert Sapolsky in his book “The Trouble with Testosterone”). I tend on the more “Christian Realist” stance and use a hermeneutic of suspicion on these matters and largely find it is myself… yet there are times….

  29. 1, 2, and 3 pretty much describe my experiences of God speaking to me when I was a Christian.

  30. @ Mike:
    Yeah, Mike, I had 1,2 & 3 as a Christian too. Hindus, Muslims and many more do the same.

    @ Pirate
    Why would you be offended?

  31. dreadpiratescetis

    I be offended that ye thinks that ministry be all ego. That be yer implication. Calls be specific and yer trying to rule out any mystical elements. I eye yer scrawlings with scorn.

  32. Earnest: I can’t decide at present if my feelings in and of themselves make what you say true for anything other than my own view of the world.

    No, they don’t.

  33. @ Dread Pirate
    Remember, I am an atheist — meaning, I don’t believe in the chattering of spirits, spooks, ghosts, gods, archangels, demons or the like.
    I have no idea how you are using the word “ministry” or “mystical” but if they include any of that, then I am here to gladly offend thee and welcome thy scorn.

  34. Earnest

    @ Laughing Boy: thanks, agree.

    @ pirate: I’m entertained by you but not convinced.

    @ Sabio: that sounds better than my version!

    @ Luke: nice link, thank you. It gave me hope that my “Spackle God Jesus” will remain relevent for me for the foreseeable future.

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  36. Interesting. Of course you’ll get a whole host of views on God speaking to people but of course the Bible’s view is that IT is God speaking to people. Most of the problems you outline above (which are valid issues with “Voices” are over come when we realise that is God’s primary revelation. Once God’s voice and the Bible become separated all manner of bedlam ensues.

  37. @ clapham
    Few thoughts:
    (1) Remember, I think the Christian and Jewish anthology (“Bible”) contains the opinion of people like you and me and so don’t hold its writers to carry any special insight. So, even if the fictitious stories of Moses (we know the exodus never happened) say a bush on fire spoke to Moses, we can assume that is fiction too. Don’t you think?

    (2) Also, the Bible does not have one opinion — see my post here about “The Bible’s says…”. Check out the other posts listed there.

    (3) Many Christians like to think that reading the Bible is the only real way in this dispensation for Christians hear God’s voice. Is that your camp? Have you ever heard God speaking to you outside of reading the Bible?
    I imagine you are against Pentecostal church doctrines concerning the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the spirit?

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