The Psychology of 'God's Voice' Experiences
Making sense of the mystery.
Posted October 21, 2020
I am grateful to California-based journalist Ian Lecklitner for asking recently, "What are people really hearing when they say, 'God told me to do it'?" It's complicated and I had to really think. Ian explained that some people give this reason after committing horrible acts. This does not seem right to me, so I decided to reply to the question in terms of authentic spiritual experiences, of which "hearing the voice of God" might be one.
Spiritual experiences are more likely to be authentic if they happen to a relatively stable personality and are of benefit in some way to them, to others and/or to humanity at large, especially to the extent that these experiences can be called 'transformative', that's to say making a permanent difference for the better. By definition, then, 'horrible deeds' can not be considered the result of authentic spiritual experiences. Others, though, thinking in terms of demons, devils, djinns and Satan himself, might disagree; but this is not a psychological interpretation, and I prefer to think that such an experience is unlikely to be authentic (although it still could be) whenever it occurs under conditions of stress or anxiety, of depression and other forms of mental ill health (notably as a hallucination during an episode of psychosis), under conditions of sickness and deprivation (hunger, thirst, fever, withdrawal syndrome, etc.), or through intoxication with alcohol or some other form of mind-altering substance, except perhaps when used strictly according to certain types of traditional ritual or other form of disciplined protocol.
On the other hand, spiritual experiences that are genuine and positive, resulting in wholesome thoughts, words, and deeds, may seem out of character, such that the person experiences the impulse as coming from somewhere other than who they normally think of as "me." I refer to this familiar locus as the "everyday ego." As a person grows in terms of wisdom and spiritual maturity, the less familiar source, what I call the "spiritual self" (sometimes also called the "true" or "higher" self, or even "the soul") becomes increasingly influential. The spiritual self can be thought of as somehow permanently attuned to the seamless greater whole of the universe, the sacred unity, which some people might choose to refer to as "God." A range of spiritual exercises or wisdom practices (notably including meditation, mindfulness practice, or "silent prayer") help a person gradually improve the shift from the mainly self-centered "everyday ego" towards the wiser, more compassionate and loving 'spiritual self'. Whether they think of their experiences as coming through "God's voice" or in some other way (for example, "My conscience told me"), with time and familiarity, people grow to trust what is happening to them. They feel better generally, more contented, usually less regretful about the past and less anxious about the future, and more engaged with life in their community and with nature. Others benefit too as the kindness and wisdom of such people flows ever outwards.
I think this kind of experience is fairly common, and perhaps especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic when folk are increasingly finding themselves behaving unexpectedly with acts of generosity and compassion towards strangers. It's the kind of reaction to be expected when people wake up to the various needs, both practical and emotional, we all have, and the shared suffering that we all encounter on a daily basis.
There's something more to say about all this, too. Ian's question, "What are people really hearing when they say, 'God told me to do it'?" made me think at first of brief, individual acts of apparent obedience to "God's voice," but soon I was also thinking about the notion of "vocation," which speaks of a more enduring spiritual influence directing a person's life, for example towards becoming a doctor, nurse or teacher. Such an impulse has the characteristic of being "incontrovertible." You may not immediately take to it, but it persists and ultimately cannot be denied as a guiding force in your life. The holistic nature of the experience also means it is a healthy one, and one that permits no 'either/or' duality, therefore no doubt or uncertainty, and this often provides the strength of character and courage to see it through, despite inevitable setbacks from time to time. It also often seems subjectively that providence or fate steps in to assist someone in achieving the goals that have been set. Each vocation then seems to come with a kind of promise that the mission is possible, and that help will arrive when required.
Ian's straightforward question, it seems, opens up the possibility of a grand personal search for spiritual truth, prompting a quest to last a lifetime. It's big and complicated, so I will finish with just a few final thoughts. If human beings can hear and respond to God's voice, the experience will necessarily be full of contradictions. For instance, the voice seems to come from everywhere and nowhere at once, as if both inside the head and outside at the same time. It also arrives with perfect timing, and from a source that represents the totality of the universe, but not a closed totality, one that is paradoxically endless, infinite in time and space. The voice emerges out of silence and so, because nothing else impinges on the ears at that moment, it can seem extremely loud. And finally, some say the "Voice of God" is never silent... That it can be heard in the bleat of a young goat, the rustle of leaves stirred by the wind, and the babbling sound of a mountain stream. All we have to do, once we turn off the intrusive technology surrounding us, and quieten our ego-driven inner chatter, is listen.
Copyright Larry Culliford.
Ian Lecklitner is a staff writer at MEL Magazine. You can read his article here.
Learn more about my new book, The Big Book of Wisdom.