Hearing Disturbing Voices

Not all voices are disturbing. “Hearing voices” may be associated with a sincere search for God’s will. It may also be God trying to reach an individual. The voices are often associated with a “vision” or daydream or vivid night dreams. Jewish and Christian history is strongly rooted in these kinds of experiences. Abraham, Jacob, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Samuel, Elijah and most of the prophets experienced a variety of visions in the records of the Hebrew or Jewish scriptures. These same scriptures are the “Old Testament” of the Christian Bible. Mary, Joseph, Jesus, James, John, Peter, and Paul are an incomplete list of people who experience either voices or visions in the “New Testament,” the writings that complete the Christian Bible.

Jewish and Christian traditions and histories cite many others. Honi the Circle-Drawer and Hanina ben Dosa were Jewish Holy Men in Galilee, Jesus’ native area. Augustine, Joanne of Arc and Francis of Assisi are among later Christian visionaries. The histories of other religions also have roots in dreams and visions of instruction. Marcus Borg, in Jesus, A New Vision, published by Harper and Row in 1987, argues that these experiences indicate that there is another reality besides what we ordinarily see and hear. That reality is the realm of the Spirit.

Yet, in psychiatric circles, “hearing voices and seeing things” that others do not is often, if not always, considered a symptom of mental illness. We have already discussed delirium and the hallucinations and delusions that may accompany it. And it is well known that certain street drugs are highly hallucinogenic. Prior to modern chemistry and laboratory experiments, those hallucinogenic substances were found mainly in plants.

Initially, we see at least two sources for these visionary experiences. One is spiritual, seeking and receiving in relationship with God. The second is impairment or alteration of the physical senses due to physical conditions. These may be delirium, chemically or drug induced; biochemical changes due to excessive stress, either physical, emotional, or spiritual; or the result of other physical causes, such as a tumor, deficient blood supply to the brain, dehydration and electrolyte imbalance, sleep deficit, or aberrant electrical impulses in the brain as in some forms of epilepsy.

An interesting parallel to these two sources of visionary experience is found in reading chapter 2 of Genesis in the Bible, the beginnings of the Jewish and Christian beliefs. In this account, God breathes spiritual life into Adam who becomes not just body and soul as we often think, but who becomes body and “living soul.” In this condition, Adam and Eve converse with God, have no guilt or shame, hide nothing and find good in everything (Genesis 1:31)—except, in the tree of knowledge of good and evil, against which God had warned them.

When they ate of that plant their experience of themselves, their environment, and their relationship with God changed. Their vision was altered. They saw themselves differently. They saw their nakedness. Their emotions and self-concepts were altered. They felt differently. They felt ashamed and guilty. Their behavior was altered. They acted differently. They hid from God. Their cognitive processes changed. They thought and talked differently. They blamed others for what she herself and he himself had done.

Whether this account is read as a literal, physical happening or as a figurative, psychological happening, two conclusions are apparent. At worst, Adam and Eve’s experience from eating the fruit was a “negative trip” that altered the rest of their lives. At best, it was a mixed experience, for now they knew both the good and the evil, the pleasure and the pain of life. Isn’t it ironic, that the plants that provide substances with the potential for hallucinations and perceptual distortions often provide also the blessing of pain relief from the evils of life.

A third source of altered visual and auditory perception or “hallucinations” exists. In the apparent absence of religious experience, delirium and toxic chemicals or drugs, hearing voices may still occur, and more rarely, seeing what others do not see.

When the voices are derogatory, taunting, or aimed at something bad for you or others, you will need to control them. You can command them to stop, in a loud voice, and if necessary for emphasis, stomping your foot at the same time. This is called “thought stopping” and is also advised by therapists who are not writing in a religious framework.

These “bad voices” or “audible thoughts” that are destructive would have been called “demons” in Jesus’ time. Today it might be thought of a “psychosis” because others do not hear an external source for the voice. This label helps doctors choose the kind of medication that has helped some others with the same problem. Today the voices are also explained as daydreams that break into our consciousness when we have not had sufficient sleep or rest. If you believe demons are afflicting you, you may want to seek out a pastor or minister with special training to help you before or in addition to seeking a medical therapist.

Another explanation today, for people who have had a very traumatic life, is that the personality has splintered when the person was overwhelmed. As one part of the person “gave up,” another part arose to try to carry on. This may happen more than once and is sometimes diagnosed as “Multiple Personality,” particularly if one part of the person is not aware of other parts.

People who are severely traumatized are often angry, vengeful, and bitter, but may be fearful. Denial of certain feelings, loss of memory for certain events, behaving and even looking like “different persons at different times” are indications that you might be helped by a specialist in the treatment of multiple personalities. The treatment usually is aimed at helping you develop an integrated self, reconciling all the splintered parts so that you can lead a productive and satisfying personal life that is closer to your ideal of yourself. “Closer” to our ideals is as close as we are able to come; we are not seeking perfection in the usual sense of the word, but maturity and wholeness of personhood.

In the severe conditions we have been discussing, reading is not sufficient. Medical consultation to seek the basic causes of the problems is necessary. In addition, you will need to talk with others who can help. You may contact a counseling center, a community mental health center, a private counselor or specially trained minister. Contrary to many impressions, the mental health centers do provide services to prevent mental illness. Going to the mental health center does not mean that you are mentally ill. It is a sign of mental health when we realize we need help and ask for it.

Since the Affordable Care Act, most insurance programs do pay something in mental health benefits. Check it out beforehand so that you can make realistic financial plans. There are programs of “Brief Therapy” that are quite effective. In any case, if your emotional life or physical health is at risk, YOU are worth taking care of, and you may prevent greater future financial and emotional costs by taking action now.

A new creation, a new YOU, is possible. At times of deep distress, many people turn to God. God hears you. God cares. In Christian religious terms, when you ask God into your life, (some faiths may use somewhat different wording) you become a “New Creature” or “New Creation.” You become related to Jesus as a child of God by the Holy Spirit, also called the Spirit of Love (AGAPE in the Greek language).

AGAPE is a strong kind of love that loves all of us regardless of worthiness, sins, faults, failures or weaknesses. With that love comes the power through God’s Spirit to change, to begin to love ourselves and others, and to live as we believe God wants us to live. Then, what had been our weaknesses, now become opportunities to praise God as we overcome those tendencies and temptations.

As a New Creation, New Creature or New Person, we have the opportunity in some ways to “start over.” According to Paul the Apostle’s experience, the “old person” dies and the old things “pass away, yet still lives, now a new person.” Sometimes, the new person is still tempted, would like to act in the old ways, but has new resources, strength of character, wisdom and judgment. The new person is also advised to seek advice from the older members of the faith in order to face and deal with problems. Today we also have the Bible and many other books to read and study to help us in our decisions. Asking God for daily direction and guidance in behavior and decisions is essential to growing in the new life.

… you have listened to Him and been taught by Him according to the truth in Jesus: That you are to rid yourself of the old nature with your previous habits, ruined as it is by deceitful lusts; that you be renewed in your mental attitude, and that you put on the new nature that is created in God’s likeness in genuine righteousness and holiness.

Ephesians 4:-21-24 Modern Language Bible (MLB)

In some religious groups, the “new person” is baptized and/or given a new name. As “new persons” we listen and study to learn more about what is expected of each of us and what we can expect as a new person. As we become older in faith, we do well to “take stock” from time to time to see if there is anything more that God would have us do that would bring us closer to being the best person we can be—to bring peace and harmony into our part of the world to the glory, praise, and honor of God.

Excerpt from At Eden’s Gate: Whole Health and Well-Being Revised and Updated, by Evelyn Maxwell, available as e-book at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

At the 2016 Kansas National Association on Mental Illness conference in Salina, Kansas, the leaders of a workshop on Hearing Disturbing Voices presented a program by Pat Deegan. Experiencing the simulation of disturbing voices made concentration on task of finding sequences of numbers very difficult and required a lot of physical energy. Go here https://www.patdeegan.com/pat-deegan/training/hearing-voices-training to learn more about the simulation program and where to order for your organization.

You have my permission to copy and distribute this paper. Please include the author and name of book as above.

Best wishes,



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