The Right Question: Who’s Talking and Will I Listen?
Trigger alert: Those with suicidal thinking may find parts of this post triggering. Support is available 24/7 by texting 741741 (Crisis Textline) or calling 800-273-8255 (Suicide Prevention Lifeline).
My brain is full of voices. Right now, I can hear a faint echo of Jim Bleikamp’s voice reading the 5:30 news on WCME, the radio station I was listening to during my commute home. The voice of this essay is running faster than I can type, and I type really fast. The voice that whispers “no one really cares what you have to say” is quiet for the moment. So is the musical soundtrack that accompanies all the hours of my day when I’m swinging high into a hypomania. In this quiet house, the hissing voice of my tinnitus is buzzing nearly as loud as the humming refrigerator. Even so, I can hear the out-of-sync ticking of two clocks, plus the rattle in the kerosene heater’s blower. If I stroke the lush black cat who’s just settled in beside me, his rumbly purr will add to the quiet cacophony.
Lots of voices. And that’s still a slow night in my brain.
I remember once when my husband and I were on a road trip together. “What are you thinking?” I asked him.
“Nothing,” he said.
He had to be evading, I was sure. It was not possible to simply think “nothing.” I pressed him.
“No, really,” I said, “what are you thinking?”
“Nothing,” he said. “I’m just driving.”
I couldn’t believe him, because I had never experienced what he was describing. My head was pretty much always full of voices, ideas, urges. People with bipolar disorder can hear a lot of voices. So, too, may people with other diagnoses.
Bipolar mania hears, “This is the best idea anyone has ever had! Everyone needs to listen now! Hey, you! All of you! Wake up! Get on the bus or get run over!”
Bipolar depression hears, “That oncoming bus is really convenient … you can step in front of it now.”
Social anxiety hears, “Just stay home. No one will talk with you. You’ll look like an idiot if you go.”
Chronic depression hears, “It’s too much work to get dressed. And people will be happier if you don’t show up.”
Anxiety hears: “Don’t even try going. You’ll mess up. Like you always do.”
The popular psychology of my young adult years held that the voices in our head were just looping recordings of voices we’d known … childhood memories that we can turn off if we chose to. On the one hand, I wanted to believe that idea. It seemed so simple. On the other hand, I couldn’t figure out what childhood voice I would have recorded shouting Yiddish vulgarities at me and telling me that I was a f— up who f—s everything up. I mean, sure, I probably had heard the f-word at school. But “schmuck”? In 1960s Maine? Not very likely.
So where did that hectoring voice come from? And the voice that urged me to die? And the voice that said everything is worthless because eventually the universe ends and it all vanishes? And was there a difference between the voices that caused me so much discomfort – the ones that harangued and insulted me – and the voices that gave me useful direction?
Because there was at least one useful voice. At a particularly rough moment, that voice told me that if I didn’t have a reason to live until spring, I should plant bulbs. I did, and still do, almost every fall.
And while I could recognize one of the helpful voices as God, I wondered why was there more than one voice that knew what’s what and could accurately predict circumstances.
I had learned to recognize God’s voice during a year or so when I attended a traditional silent Quaker meeting. In a “silent” Quaker meeting, there is no preacher and no musicians. But if anyone among the congregation feels moved by God to speak or sing, they stand up and do it. After the meeting, the people who spoke, if their words have resonated with others – that is, if their words are believed to have been inspired by the Holy Spirit – receive affirmation from others.
In the meeting I attended, which held to some very old Quaker traditions, people would come up to me quietly after the meeting and tell me, “Thou speakest to my concerns, sister.” Sometimes one person. Sometimes three or four. Over time, I learned to recognize in myself what were the signs of God’s presence in the room to speak through someone, God’s presence to speak through me, and God’s presence to speak through me right now.
But there were still those other voices. The nasty ones, which I did my best to push away. And one day, an unfamiliar voice came to me offering seemingly harmless advice.
I was preparing to sell my 1978 Volkswagen Beetle, the well used and gratefully owned first car that carried me to my first job after college. I’d bought it privateparty from a classified ad, so taking a classified ad to sell it made sense.
Then a voice told me: “Take it to Al Guregian’s. Someone there will pay more for it.”
Well, Al Guregian owned the junkyard where I’d bought most of the parts I replaced over the years, so I knew the guy and the place. I drove up and walked into his office. We started talking.
An employee kept sticking his head in and interrupting our negotiation. Al kept waving him out. We finally settled on a price. He handed me the cash; I signed over the title; and it was done.
As I walked out the office door, the employee sidled up to me.
“How much did he give you for it?” he asked in an undertone.
I told him.
He gasped with frustration. “He won’t sell it to me for twice that!”
Hmmm, I thought. The voice was right. There was someone at Al Guregian’s who was going to pay more for my Bug. But the voice wasn’t God’s voice. How could a voice that was not God give me information that was true?
I let that conundrum drop into a back corner of my brain for processing. A couple of days later, the answer emerged.
God knows everything. God doesn’t just know truth, God is truth. He is the way, the truth and the life. (John 14.6). When we know God, we know the Truth that sets us free (John 8:32).
But a spirit who is not God can know our material world as readily as I can – more so, because without the constraints of a physical body, a spirit potentially has access to much more information. So a spirit who is not God can be in the room when one of Al Guregian’s employees is talking with a buddy about wanting to buy an old VW to fix up. A spirit who is not God can observe Al Guregian’s sharp business dealings and anticipate accurately how he will behave when a car comes onto his lot for which he knows he has a ready buyer. And most of all, a spirit of greed – who is most definitely not God – knows in what direction greed can push an ordinary series of business transactions.
So the spirit who knew someone at Al’s garage would pay more for the car … that was the greedy spirit that set the employee up to pay Al more than double what Al paid me.
And a spirit of greed had told me what greed was doing. Just because a voice speaks truly doesn’t mean the voice is God.
That recognition, in turn, pushed me to a startling insight about my mother’s remarkable ability to see future or remote events – bad events, exclusively.
I remembered in particular one day when she’d come home from shopping. She hadn’t gotten all the way through the door before she demanded, “What happened to my blue cup?”
She couldn’t see, from where she stood in the entryway, the fragments of her blue porcelain mug in the dining room. I can’t remember who knocked it over or how it was broken. I just remember that Mom knew something had happened to her blue mug before she even made it into the house.
Mom was, I came to believe, “wired” for hearing from the spirit world. And not having committed herself yet to Jesus, she heard readily from spirits who were not God. They spoke truth, but not on behalf of the truth that sets us free. Mom was like the fortune teller who truthfully told all the world that Paul and Silas were “servants of the Most High God”, but lost her special knowledge after Paul ordered the spirit who gave her information to depart from her (Acts 16:16-19).
My own ability to hear voices represents the same kind of spiritual atunement. When a Christian listens to God, we call it prophecy. But in my experience, this special ability to listen in on the spirit world, a gift intended for good, is usable in some measure by any spirit who might pass by. The responsibility I hold, as a Christian who has that gift, is to discern among the voices I hear and choose which voices I will attend.
This is what Jesus talks about when he tells us that his sheep know his voice and they will not follow any other (John 10: 2-5). He doesn’t say that we won’t hear any other voice. Just that we’ll refuse to follow it.
(Please note: I only acknowledge that Christians may hear from passing spirits. I am not suggesting that any unholy spirit has access to enter and hold the temple of God which is the believer’s life.)
The voice I have to ignore most frequently is the one that tells me that on any given day, I can choose to end my life. This voice dogs me. It pretends to be comforting me. “Today was hard … you don’t need to do tomorrow,” is its seductive message. “You can stop right now. Forever.” Although it has never spoken as gently as that. Nor has it made its separate existence evident by addressing me from the second person.
This unholy voice speaks in an urgent, first-person shorthand that sounds like my own voice. “I can suicide,” it says to me on my pillow as I try to fall asleep. Night after night, year after year.
And night after night, day after day, year after year, I choose instead to listen to God: “I set before you this day life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life …” (Dt. 30:19).
It’s like Martin Luther said: “You cannot keep birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” The thoughts come. It took decades before they finally (seem to have) stopped. But even when they came nearly every night, when they pretended to be my own thoughts in my own voice, I refused to give them a home.
In the 21st century, people like me who hear voices are labeled as suffering from psychosis. It’s considered to be a symptom of a very serious mental illness that creates dangerous life situations.
After hearing many different voices for more than 40 years, I would say – with Jesus – that hearing voices is as ordinary as seeing sheep follow their shepherd. The only danger is if the sheep pay attention to voices other than God.
As long as you choose to follow God, you will learn to know God’s voice. And, as Jesus promises (John 10:8-10), you will follow God, and God alone, into the fold and out into the pasture and you will be kept safe.