Many evangelical Christians say they speak to God and He responds. Anthropologist TM Luhrmann on what she learned about people who converse with the divine--and how she came to hear His voice, too.
I know what it is like to hear God speak. I am not a Christian. I am not even sure what I mean, speaking for myself, by the word "God." But for ten years I have been doing anthropological research among the sort of evangelical Christians who experience God as interacting with them. They believe that prayer is a conversation in which they talk to God and God talks back. They will say that God "told" them to do something--to talk to the stranger next to them on the bus, or move to Los Angeles. To other Christians, this can seem incomprehensible, even dangerous.
People often spoke to me about the first time they had recognized God's voice. Usually, this happened in prayer ministry. They realized that an apparently random thought or mental image was uncannily relevant to the person they were praying over, and they thought that God was telling them what the person they were praying for needed to hear. One woman remembered the first time this happened when she prayed for a stranger. "I didn't know what to say. I was really scared. And then, I remember, I saw something. It wasn't a vivid picture. It was more like my words described the picture more than I saw clearly what the picture was. When I described it to the person I was praying for, he just started to cry. Then he explained why he was crying, and with that information, I was able to pray for him more. It was the most powerful thing."
Once people began to feel confident that they heard God speak to them as they prayed for other people, they began to experience God speaking to them about their own lives. They would talk to God with their inner voice, about something that was vexing them, and they would wait for his response--some inner word or image that would give them guidance. Sometimes it came immediately; sometimes it took time. They call this practice "listening."
What I saw was that they were learning to pay attention to their inner world in a different way. The church taught that words from God should feel as if they "pop" into the mind, a spontaneous break from the flow of thought.
Let us put to one side the question of whether God is really speaking, and examine the practice anthropologically. The first thing to notice is that the practice takes advantage of what we might call the "texture" of mental experience. We have thoughts that are more startling and surprising than others; thoughts that seem a piece of the psychic river of awareness and thoughts that seem to come out of nowhere. These Christians treat these contours as significant.
But they do more than attend to thought differently. The church teaches congregants to pay attention only to certain of these striking thoughts--to good thoughts, thoughts that are the kinds of things God should say. That is, those thoughts should be relevant, wise and loving. ("God does not tell you to hurt yourself," people said.) You should feel calm when you have them. When you hear God correctly, you should feel peace, and if you didn't feel peaceful, it wasn't God.
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SOURCE: The Daily Beast