‘If you hear God speak audibly, you (usually) aren’t crazy,’ says psychological anthropologist

Posted by Lucy Luginbill on February 26, 2013 

In a whisper. On a mountaintop. Within a bush afire. All were miraculous ways the God of the Bible spoke to individuals in that long ago time.

But can this same God of yesterday speak today?

Tanya Marie (T.M.) Luhrmann, psychological anthropologist and Watkins University professor in the anthropology department at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., has explored this very question.

In a CNN Belief Blog I discovered online, she tells about her research for the past 10 years that has been among evangelicals who want a personal relationship with God — and expect to hear from Him.

“For most of them, most of the time,” this professor and author of the book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, relates that in her study she learned from interviewees that “God talks back in a quiet voice they hear inside their minds, or through images that come to mind during prayer.”

But many of the people she interviewed also said they had actually felt a physical touch or heard an audible voice with their ears, a sensory experience of God.

In the online article I read, My Take: If you hear God speak audibly, you (usually) aren’t crazy, Luhrmann reassures readers that hearing a voice — one that is good — is rarely schizophrenia. "The unusual sensory experiences were not, in general, associated with mental illness (we checked)."

People who have schizophrenia hear voices frequently, and with ugly connotation. But not so with the people Luhrmann interviewed.

"These experiences were brief: at the most, a few words or short sentences," the researcher reports. "They were rare. Those who reported them reported no more than a few of them, if that."

The result of these unusual sensory experiences, she learned, is not a feeling of distress, although they were always startling and disconcerting. Instead, the person feels more deeply loved and closer to God. Sometimes, it can even be a life-changing experience as it was with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1956.

Nevertheless, Luhrmann knows from her research that Christians who have heard God speak audibly are hesitant to admit it, partly out of their own doubt and the judgment from others.

I know that feeling. But here is my personal story:

The year was 1978. I was discontent with my lot in life — stuck in the Mojave Desert.

For nine years my husband and I had lived in Barstow, Calif., a place some called a “latrine stop” between L.A. and Vegas. For a young woman who had sometimes cruised Hollywood’s Sunset Strip in her youth, the change to a main street in a small isolated town was distressing.

Then, when our plans to move on to another teaching job in Oregon failed in those first few years, we gave up on our dream of moving to the Northwest. Still, I couldn't accept it — and I complained to God ... often.

It was in the ninth year of living in the sand and constant wind, that I was in the middle of a "pity party." Whining to God during my morning shower, I nearly shouted, "You don’t love me!" as the water washed my tears.

And that’s when God spoke in an audible penetrating voice, "But what if I want you to stay here?" (Emphasis on the "I.")

Startled, and with realization pouring over me, I understood whose words I had just heard. Here was the once-little girl who had promised God she'd be a missionary anywhere, now stubbornly demanding her own way.

At that moment my attitude changed. And then my life changed.

By the end of the tenth year, we were moving to Kennewick -- a result of the hand of God and His perfect timing.

So in answer to the question whether God speaks to individuals today, I say "yes." It may not be in a biblical burning bush, but for me it was in the shower.

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