Hearing Voices

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah…– Jonah 1:1

When I was a kid, my dad used to tell my sister and me Bible stories at bedtime. He didn’t need to read from a book; he would tell the stories from memory, embellishing along the way. One of the stories I requested most often was the story of Jonah and the Whale. “Jonah and da whale!” I would squeal night after night. And he would tell it again. The story goes like this:

Jonah hears the voice of God telling him to go to Nineveh and warn the people there to shape up or face destruction. Jonah, however, gets scared, so he runs away to a ship to hide from God. Once the ship is underway, a terrible storm begins to rage. The crew becomes suspicious of Jonah who eventually admits that he’s running from the Lord. So they throw him overboard, WHERE HE IS SWALLOWED BY A WHALE. (That’s still my favorite part. I mean, how crazy is that?!) From the belly of the whale, Jonah finally faces up to what he’s done, realizes he can’t hide from God, and prays for rescue. After three days and three nights, the whale vomits Jonah onto the shore (eeek!) and gives him a second chance. Jonah listens to the voice the second time around, and Nineveh is saved from destruction. And they all lived happily after. (Sort of. The 4-chapter book of Jonah is worth a read if it’s been awhile.)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about hearing voices. I co-led a retreat last weekend for 15 young adults from my church around the theme of discernment. Many of us are in times of transition, and we’re seeking guidance on making decisions. One of the main insights from the retreat is that there is only so much external research and advice-seeking you can do to help make decisions. Most of the work is internal. And… it might involve hearing voices.

Last week author extraordinaire Elizabeth Gilbert wrote an amazing post called “Start Knowing.” In it she tells about one of her academic friends who interviewed a number of highly successful women from a variety of fields of work. The women didn’t have much in common…except for one thing. Here’s an excerpt from the post:

But then there would come a moment in each interview where EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THESE WOMEN would seem to get bored with the questions, or maybe she was just feeling mischievous. Then each woman (EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM!) would ask my friend to turn off the recording device. Then the woman would lean in really close to my friend, and say in a conspiratorial whisper, "But do you want to hear what REALLY happened?" And then EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THOSE WOMEN would report how — at some point in her life — she had heard a voice. A mystical voice. An otherworldly voice. A powerful and certain voice. A commanding voice. A voice that could not be explained away rationally. And each of these women reported that this voice had told her exactly what she needed to do next. And she had done it.

"I know it sounds crazy..." they would say. But it was true.

They had heard a voice, and they had followed the voice.

As we’ve seen from the tale of Jonah and countless other stories, there’s a long Biblical tradition of hearing voices, dreaming strange dreams, encountering heavenly beings, and even, on occasion, talking to dead people. One would assume that Christians are perhaps more likely to listen to and follow these voices. But, like Jonah, we often refuse to hear the voices even when we believe that the spirit of God communicates through our internal voices.

We might double-down on the relationship that everyone approves of but just doesn’t feel right. We might persist in applying to graduate schools to follow in our parents’ footsteps even though we feel literally sick whenever we start writing our personal statement. We might stay in a job we hate because of the status it gives us, even though we routinely cope through alcohol or other addictions.

A tempest is raging around us, and we refuse to believe that we’re the ones causing it. Some of us wait so long to listen to the voices that we end up in the belly of the whale, swallowed by darkness, and utterly alone. Except for that still small voice that reminds us that there’s another way.

So how do we get out of the belly of the whale? How do we listen to the voices? How do we start knowing, as Gilbert put it?

Several of our sessions at the retreat last weekend involved getting quiet and paying attention. Prayer, meditation, journaling, and attending a retreat are all ways to get in touch with those internal voices. Also, don’t underestimate the power of listening to your body and how it reacts to certain options. When you’re deciding between multiple options, try to tune in with your physical sensations. Do you feel cold, rigid, a tightness in your gut or chest when you consider an option? Or do you feel open and at peace with easily flowing breath? All of these practices take time and intention, and they must be repeated often.

If you’ve been ignoring your voices for awhile, there’s good news: we get second chances. Even the worst storms don’t last forever, and the whale will eventually vomit us back up onto a new shore. The better news? You can avoid the trauma of the storms and of the belly of the whale by quickly taking action when you hear voices. We get better and braver each time we trust the voice and take those first shaky steps.

Is there a voice calling to you today? Is there something your brain is desperately trying not to know despite what your heart is saying? What can you do to pay attention and take action this week?

I’d love to hear your comments in the space below. And, as always, thanks for reading!

Unwanted Journeys

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