When Evangelical Christians Say God Speaks to Them

can you hear Gods voice

I am sure most readers know the joke about a person who hears voices in their head. Either they are mentally disturbed or an Evangelical Christian. While I don’t think that Evangelicals are mentally disturbed, I do find their belief that God speaks to them disturbing and, at times, dangerous.

Generally speaking, Evangelicals believe that God speaks to them:

  • Through the Word of God as it is read and/or preached
  • Through their conscience, as the Holy Spirit teaches, guides, leads, and corrects them

Some  Evangelicals take God speaking to them a bit farther. They think God speaks to them:

  • Through visions
  • Through dreams
  • Through speaking in tongues and prophecies

Some Evangelicals are so God saturated that God is speaking to them almost every moment of every day. These super-Christians have God on speed dial, and when they need a on-on-one with God, they press 1, YES GOD IS NUMBER ONE IN MY LIFE, PRAISE JESUS, and they are immediately connected to God. For these kind of Evangelicals, no task is too small for God to take time out of his busy day to talk to them about it. God tells them where their car keys are, which exit on the interstate to take, who to witness to, who to marry, what consumer goods to buy, and how much money to give to the church. For them, God is the ultimate micro-manager. (and people wonder where Evangelical preachers get it)

Most of us former Evangelicals can tell stories about God speaking to us. In a previous post, God Spoke to Me, I wrote:

We all have stories we could tell about emotional experiences we had as a Christian. I had  many emotional experiences when I was a Christian. I remember “God” coming upon me and leading me to preach a particular sermon or “God” leading me to have the church do this or that. I have sat in countless services and “felt” the presence of God.  I just KNEW God was in our midst. I have been in services where it was evident that the room was thick with God’s presence. I have preached sermons that God used in mighty ways, with countless people professing faith in Christ or getting right with God.

I now know that the many God spoke me moments in my life were emotional experiences that were very real. It doesn’t matter whether God exists or whether God was “really” speaking to me, These experiences FELT real and I emotionally and intellectually accepted them as such. These experiences were very much a part of the religious culture I was a part of. It was not uncommon to hear preachers and church members alike say that God spoke to them or that God was leading them. Most of the time these pronouncements were taken at face value. Occasionally, especially at church business meetings, there would be conflicts over what God was saying. As I look back on it now, I wonder, why did God tell different people different things?  One would think that the One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism God would convey the same message to everyone. But, he didn’t, and the How Good it is for Brethren to Dwell in Unity Church, continues to this day to fragment because God is saying one thing to person A and another thing to person B.

How do you know it wasn’t God, an Evangelical is sure to ask? I don’t. I can’t be certain that it was or wasn’t God speaking to me. But, if I can’t be certain, neither can the Evangelical.  There is no way to KNOW that a voice you hear in your head is God or not. Saying God spoke to you is a subjective experience beyond verification. This is why I look at God speaking to people from a sociological and cultural perspective.

Every sect and church has its own normal. Thus, in a church were tongues speaking is a normal, every day occurrence, most people speak in tongues.  In the Baptist churches I was raised in and later pastored, we had our own normal. There were certain emotional expressions that were OK, and the congregants tended to express themselves emotionally based on what was considered normal.  Baptist churches in the North are less outwardly emotional than Baptist churches in the South. In the Christian Union denomination I was a part of, some of their prayer meetings were quite bizarre. Everyone started praying out loud at the same time. This would go on for some time until one by one the pray-ers would stop praying and the last person praying would be the pastor.  Every sect and church would say that what goes on in their church is of God. I found the Christian Union prayer meetings to be quite disconcerting. More than once I found myself thinking, how does God even hear their prayers with all this confusion?  I am sure that these churches would say that they pray this way because this is how God wants them to pray. (in one accord)  However, the real reason they pray this way is because of their sect/ church’s culture. They pray this way because they have always prayed this way. So it is with God speaking to people. People who are part of a church culture that believes God speaks to people generally believe God speaks to them.

the way god speaks

Most of the time, God speaking to people, is of no importance to anyone but the person God is allegedly speaking to. But, as a pastor for 25 years, I told the churches I pastored numerous times that God spoke to me and we need to do _____________  or God is leading me to do _________________.  Based on God speaking or leading me, the churches I pastored bought buildings, sold property, bought copy machines and computers, started ministries, and stopped ministries. God speaking to me had a real world effect on the people I pastored. Sometimes, as moderator of the church business meeting, I would “lead” church members to hear the exact same message from God that I did. Surely, as the man of God, I have a direct line to God, right? (the answer is NO)

I now know that God speaking to me generally coincided with my wants, desires, and needs. So was God really speaking to me, or was Bruce speaking to Bruce? Again, I can’t know for certain, but what is more likely; a God I have never seen and I see little existence for speaks to me or the voice I hear in my head is my own? (or that I am schizophrenic)

Sometimes, an Evangelical believing God speaks to them can cause  serious, tragic consequences.  Just this past week, the Rolling Stone magazine published a feature story about the murder of Beth Deaton. Beth was married to a man who was associated with the International House of Prayer (IHOP), an Evangelical ministry that many people think is a cult. Central to the story is God speaking to people. In this case, God speaking to people led to the murder of a young woman. Here is a short blurb from the Rolling Stone article:

During the summer of 2007, (Tyler) Deaton  had traveled to Pakistan as a missionary, where he had a number of “supernatural” experiences. A boy with one leg, he told friends, had miraculously acquired another. During a visit to a children’s home, he had heard the words “The leader of this place is committing sexual sin with young boys.” Deaton informed the trip’s leaders, and learned that two boys had been caught performing sexual acts with each other. They and the home’s leader were removed.

Since his return, Deaton had been wondering how to access the supernatural in America. The answer came outside the Barnes & Noble. “What you just did in Pakistan,” God told him, “you are going to do at Southwestern.” The names of three friends “erupted” from Deaton’s mouth: “June,” “Justin” and “Bethany Leidlein.” In Deaton’s vision, their collective worship would “shift the spiritual atmosphere” on campus and catalyze a revival. Angels would descend and demons would flee, and Christians across the university would rush to join the group. Even non­believers would succumb. The “spirit of intellectualism” that held so many in bondage would be dispelled for good.

Tyler Deaton was certain God was speaking to him and he attracted other college-age adults who thought God was speaking to Tyler. What started out as a group of devoted Evangelical young people desiring to know more of God, turned into a cult, and as a result Bethany Deaton lost her life. (murdered by a man who says Tyler Deaton told him to kill Bethany)

This story is hardly unique. Every few months we read news stories about people committing murders or drowning or shooting their children because they believed God was telling them to. Bruce, these people are mentally ill, the Evangelical says. Sure, but how do we determine one circumstance is God speaking and a different circumstance is mental illness? Tens of thousands of people lost their life in the last Iraqi War because George W. Bush thought God spoke to him. Was he mentally ill? (for some, I know that is a rhetorical question) More than a few American political leaders are certain God speaks to them. They are certain God wants America to stand on the side of Israel even if it leads to Word War III. I am sure most readers of this blog would agree, God speaking has no place in the American political process. ( and this includes God telling people to run for office)

I make a distinction between hearing God speaking and feeling the presence of God. In America, it is primarily Evangelicals who say that God speaks to them. Many other religious people would never say God spoke to them.  Through worship, nature, and the things they experience in life, many religious people sense the presence of God. While I don’t think they are actually sensing God, how could I since I don’t think God exists, I realize these kind of religious people are harmless. (and I don’t mean harmless in a negative way) They would never suggest that God told them to do _______________ and that God is telling them to tell me __________________. They value reason and rational thought, yet they believe in transcendence. This transcendence is personal and they would never push their experience on to others. Both of us can look at the stars and planets in the sky and have a sense of awe and wonder. They sense the presence of God in the universe, I do not.

Were you once part of a sect/church where God spoke to people?  If you are still a Christian, do you think God speaks to you?  Are you a liberal Christian? Do you think God speaks to you or is God just a presence you feel? Whatever your experience, please share your thoughts in the comment section.

Comments (16)

  1. richardmarlowe236

    “Everyone started praying out loud at the same time. This would go on for some time until one by one the pray-ers would stop praying and the last person praying would be the pastor.”

    I have been in prayer meetings like this in Baptist churches. As a teenage “preacher boy”, I would join in. However, I would always end up listening to the others’ prayers. Then I get confused and start repeating what I’m hearing. Finally I would get frustrated with this and I would just quit praying! It always irritated me.

    Reply
  2. Oberon

    Many times when I was a Christian I would look for a sign, since I could never hear in my head if God was speaking to me. That’s probably just as dangerous since any coincidence could be a sign.

    I had friends who heard from God regularly on various things– where to build a church structure, who was in sin (everybody!), what others were supposed to be doing, that people should give the church more money (I heard that mostly from pastors), future events that did not happen and who was being oppressed by the devil.

    I still hang around a lot of Christians. These days when someone says “God told me” in my mind I translate that to “My electric hairdryer told me” for my own personal amusement. Sometimes it is difficult to keep from smiling at a dire prediction straight from God.

    Reply
    1. Lynn

      I love the hair dryer idea!

      Reply
  3. Tim

    How can you argue against someone who says “God told me…”? If you are in such a toxic system like this, you won’t. If you do, excommunication is around the corner.
    A former assistant pastor myself in 2 separate churches, I was pulled around by the pastors under the claim that God told them something. I was expected to follow even if “God told me otherwise.”
    Sadly every day millions are manipulated by these pastors. Some end up on the news for their crimes. My concern is for the countless others who damage lives, control lives, and continue to manipulate. Although many don’t commit illegal acts, I find their crimes just as heinous.

    Great post.

    Reply
    1. Lynn

      Since pastors can have such power over groups of people, you can only hope they are basically good people who have some sense and morality. After all, these huge groups of people-like you see on TV-are sitting there saying, “Amen!” to every word they utter. It makes you wonder how far it could go-how outlandish would the pastor have to get to where a lot of the audience would say, “Wait a minute, that sounds kinda weird.” If some of these very charismatic preachers had a word from God, I think they’d be able to convince many to do who knows what. Which reminds me-Huckabee’s gonna run for president again, I think. He’s a slick talker for sure.

      Reply
  4. Erin

    I was a pentecostal — god spoke to me audibly EVERY DAY. I had waking visions, I had lucid dreams, I had prophetic words, I wrote prophetically, and I spoke in tongues. I could see demons and they actually communicated with me when I tried to cast them out. Binding and loosing and passing things through fire. Laying on of hands, miracles, and instant “faith healing”. Of course, the sense of presence, speaking to me through the bible, all that, too. The whole nine yards (except snake handling, because that’s for the REAL crazies, you know. ;0)

    I also frequently experienced demons sitting on my chest when I slept. What they don’t tell you in pentecostal churches is that this is a completely normal phenomenon called sleep paralysis. There are SO MANY things they don’t tell you about this stuff, because they want the explanation to be god.

    Yes, I was completely nuts, but this was what I was exposed to for 20 years, it was familiar, and in my circles, all this stuff was completely normal. I lived and breathed it, until I woke up one day and regained my sense of reason.

    Today, I can logically explain every single one of these experiences. In fact, I can still “speak in tongues” on demand, and I’ve been a professed atheist for 3 years. None of my still-pentecostal friends can explain that (to their satisfaction, at least).

    I strongly believe in confirmation bias here. The explanation we looked for was god, so that was obviously the explanation.

    Reply
    1. peteraknz

      Wow great post, very interesting thanks.
      Humans are so suggestible…

      Reply
    2. John Arthur

      Hi Erin,

      I was once a Bapticostal (Charismatic Baptist) . Some Pentecostals told me that my Christian life would be revolutionized by the experience of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit with the initial evidence of Speaking in Tongues. I was told that the bible would come alive, miracles would happen and God would speak to me directly, not only through the bible but through prophecies, word of knowledge, dreams and visions etc.

      I received this so-called experience and, indeed, my life (for a time) seem to be revolutionized. But this didn’t last that long. Soon I was back on the same old daily drudge with Jesus.

      I began to notice some Charismatics were dying of cancer. I never saw one of these miraculously healed. Healing that was alleged to occur seemed to be psycho-somatic. I never saw one organic healing occur. Apparently, God could not or would not perform these.

      I began to have false prophecies spoken over me and false ‘words of knowledge’ given to me by Charismatic crazies. I began to think that tongues and their interpretation, prophecies, words of knowledge and ‘revelation’ knowledge’ etc. all came out of the human imagination and were not from God.

      It struck me that Pentecostal and Charismatic groups attract crackpots like bees around a honey pot. There seem to be a higher proportion of crazies in these groups than in most non Charismatic evangelical churches, though I may be wrong here.

      I think you summed it up well as ‘confirmation bias’ and in Pentecostal and Charismatic groups people expect that God will speak to them through tongues, interpretation,and words of knowledge etc. So when these things happen, they are conditioned to think it is God speaking and do not seem to question or notice if the prophecies etc. are false. It’s as if the service has put them into a hypnotic state and conditioned them to follow what is said.

      Shalom,
      John Arthur

      Reply
      1. Erin

        Yep that was pretty much my experience…no one was ever really healed, and false prophecy spoken in the name of god, especially when coming from a “spiritually mature” person is one of the most dangerous aspects of charismania. It’s funny, but I also still have random coincidences that I once would have considered to be miracles…in fact, my experience of life in that regard is no different today than it ever was.

        Reply
    3. Lynn

      I’d love to hear your story of how you came out of all that after being in something so intense for so long. Also what you described made me think of how we all tend to do what those around us do and what is expected in a given atmosphere. We know what’s expected at work, at home, at church, at any group we’re a part of. We are greatly influenced by what the group expects and approves of. It’s a rare person who will do something totally different from the group and risk disapproval.

      Reply
    4. Aram McLean

      Brilliant comment!

      Reply
  5. Matilda

    Here in the UK we’re more cynical I think.
    At a Retreat this week, we discussed this. Here are 2 stories told by participants.

    A guy went to his priest and said ‘God has just told me…..blah blah..’ ‘That’s odd’ said the priest, ‘I spent the past hour talking with God and He didn’t mention you or your ideas once’.

    The speaker at a conference caught someone trying to sneak out of the front door and asked why she was leaving when a session was about to start. ‘The Holy Spirit told me I need a break’ she said ‘and that shopping would be good for me’. The speaker responded ‘What a pity the Holy Spirit didn’t mention all shops in this town observe half-day closing this afternoon’.
    Must be lots of funnier stories than this to share…..please!!!

    Reply
  6. Texas Born & Bred

    A very large man in the church I attend said god told him not to cut his hair or beard. He looks like crap. A little old lady in the church told this man that she prays intensely and god told her to tell this guy he needed to cut his hair and clean himself up. This guy thinks a bit and tells the lady she is listening to demons. The little old lady says the same thing back to the guy. I just love to watch these fights for their entertainment value!

    So which is it? Hair or no hair?

    Reply
  7. TW

    @John Arthur & Erin,

    Hi. I also have a Pentecostal background (A/G to be exact), and was a youth pastor & worship pastor (not at the same time, youth for 13 years, worship for 10 years). I would very much love to talk to both of you and share experiences. I left the A/G at the end of 2011 (out 2 years now), and while I am still a believer, I completely denounced all of the BS nonsense that the A/G promotes, like speaking in tongues, faith healing, etc.

    If you are both amenable to chatting further, Bruce (if he doesn’t mind doing this), can forward my email address to you both and you can contact me, just let him know. And Erin, I know exactly what you mean when you say you can still “speak in tongues on demand”, haha!

    Bruce, this post really touched a nerve with me. When I was a young christian during my teen years, I always wondered how people “KNEW” God was speaking to them. Within the A/G, it was always more confusing, because they did the tongues/interpretation thing, and of course the “language” NEVER sounded like any discernible or recognizable tongue, yet I would wonder just HOW did the interpreter know what was being said? I asked one person whom I knew that was “used” in this “function” and said person told me, “it just came to them”. The sad thing is, I accepted that explanation! Mother-f***ker! It pisses me off and angers me that I was so naive, I asked the question, but then just accepted at face value the explanation offered.

    OK, I need to stop, otherwise I will descend to the depths of despair over what I now feel was such a wasted period of my life. Great post.

    Reply
    1. Erin

      TW: I appreciate the offer, and respect that you’ve left the AG, but because you are still a believer, I would want to know a little more what you’d like to “chat” about. :) As a former-christian-now-atheist, I’ve run into these “chats” a few times before that really only have one ulterior motive. I’m not assuming this is true of you, but I’d like to know more what you’re thinking first. Thanks!

      Reply
  8. John Arthur

    Hi TW,

    I am glad that you have managed to escape the Pentecostal movement.

    You say that you are still ‘a believer’. Does this mean that you are a Fundamentalist or an Evangelical or have you moved to some form of non-Evangelical Christianity? If the latter, I am open to the idea of chatting with you further about the Pentecostal/Charismatic movements.

    I have informed Bruce that he can pass me email address onto you and you can contact me. Even if you are some kind of open evangelical, I am willing to discuss the ‘tongues movement’ with you further.

    What I am not open to is any subtle or direct attempt to try and reconvert me to Fundamentalism/Evangelicalism. If you do try to attempt this, I will close off further discussion. I consider both Fundamentalism and most of Evangelicalism to be religions of psychological, emotional and intellectual oppression and don’t wish to be sucked back into those camps, ever again.

    So, if you are willing to stick to topics related to the Pentecostal/Charismatic movements and their problems, i am open to further discussion with you.

    Shalom,

    John Arthur

    Reply

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