Does hearing God's voice mean that we are mentally ill?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: Hello. I’m a Christian. So, the following is not a personal objection. But I’ve read some things in Scientific American (among other places), and I would like to know how to respond. The challenge goes something like this.

How can you separate religion from mental illness? After all, you claim to hear the voice of God… right? Can’t that be a mental illness like schizophrenia or psychosis? And what about the Jehovah’s Witnesses who refuse blood transfusions? That sounds crazy to me… and I’ve read where psychiatrists admit that it’s very hard to distinguish between religious fervor and mental illness a lot of times. So, how is Christianity different from all this craziness?

Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for touching down with us at Mainsail Ministries. It’s good to hear that you are investigating these claims, and it will be my pleasure to respond to your issues today.

According to NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. — 43.8 million, or 18.5% — experience mental illness in a given year. ( That’s a large number — and God does not categorically exempt believers from this or from any other disease. As such, Christians should expect to experience mental illness with the same frequency as the general population… all other factors (like country, race and socioeconomic status) being equal.

But what does this mean to this challenge? Just as our congregations have people with glaucoma or rheumatoid arthritis, so will we have the mentally ill… and we should not be surprised if one in five of us suffers from an episode during the year. Just note that this is not a function of being religious. It’s a function of being human.

Now, it’s possible that some of these mentally ill Christians are among those who claim to hear the voice of God audibly. But it is also possible that their hearing God’s voice is not because of their mental illness… because there are many people who are not mentally ill who claim to hear God’s voice, too.

You see, religious and nonreligious people tend to suffer from mental illness in roughly the same proportions, so we cannot “separate” them as your question asks. When it comes to mental illness  — as it is true of Crohn’s disease, cancer or migraines — it is a statistical non-issue when we compare believers with non-believers. It is true that some diseases may be more prevalent in certain races, countries or socioeconomic groups, but all of humanity is affected by this aspect of the curse.

So, my first point is this: since mental illness occurs in both groups relatively equally, we cannot say that it is a characteristic of one group. As such, mental illness will exist in a subset of people who claim to hear the voice of God, but that merely reflects its normal distribution among all people.

Next, this challenge asserts that “we claim to hear the voice of God” — and I agree. But I do not agree that most Christians claim to hear the physical voice of God… not like Samuel heard it when he was a child (1 Samuel 3) … or like Jesus heard it at his baptism (Matthew 3:17). Hearing God’s voice like that is not a common experience among believers… but this question assumes that it is.

What does this mean for this challenge? Equivocation occurs when definitions are subtly shifted so that the object changes identity. In this case, Christians who hear God’s voice metaphorically are changed into people who hear God’s voice audibly. This is a logical fallacy. As such, this challenge begins with a false premise — and we can’t logically address it using those shifted definitions.

Here’s the thing: most believers understand that we “hear” God by communing with him in prayer, reading our Bibles, studying his creation and pondering his nature… but this challenge shifts that understanding into the equivocation that what we “hear” is the same kind of voice that the mentally ill hear. As such, it cannot be answered per se. But as long as everyone knows that we do not accept the challenge as it stands, we can continue to discuss the issues in this challenge without engaging its false premises.

Take the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ refusal to get transfusions for example… which your question links this to mental illness. This, too, is equivocation and a false premise. Sure, a ban on using blood products is part of their doctrine. But the fact that it is just that — an official doctrine — means that these are people who can make the complex moral decisions needed to follow the rule. Such people are not mentally ill by category. It takes a congruent and well adjusted Jehovah’s Witness to follow this rule when they or a loved one are in that jeopardy. It’s just not a rule that is followed by most of the public.

Now, I do not agree that the Bible teaches us to refrain from blood transfusions… and I do not believe that it is good stewardship of our bodies to follow such a rule — especially considering the advances in modern medicine. But it is not the sign of mental illness when a person follows a well-vetted rule that is also followed by millions of other people in the same way. It would be unreasonable to assert that these millions are insane. Just note that statistically speaking, a subset of these is likely to suffer from mental illness — but for unrelated reasons — just as discussed in the first point.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ rejection of transfusions is not unlike the phenomenon of people rejecting vaccines. In my opinion, both groups are handling the data poorly. I’m one of the people who think that not vaccinating a child is unwise — and this ties into your question: risking your health or the health of a loved one by not receiving blood transfusions or by not getting vaccinated may be unwise… but it does not equate to mental illness… no matter how “crazy” I think people are for refusing these treatments.

As to Christians who hear God’s voice being like schizophrenics, some schizophrenics hear voices that the rest of us do not hear. But this phenomenon is not limited to them… because non-schizophrenics can hear voices too. But the assertion that anyone who claims to hear God’s voice is, therefore, in the same category as these people is illogical… although I’ll not argue that some of the people who claim to hear God are deluded — not mentally ill… and who knows? Perhaps a number of them are indeed hearing the voice of God!

But for the sake of your argument, let’s say that a fervent believer who was not mentally ill was claiming to hear the voice of God. Can’t you see how it is not logical to say that he is the same as a mentally ill person based on that one characteristic? Nevertheless, it would indeed be a true statement to say of him that it’s “very hard to distinguish between religious fervor and mental illness a lot of times.” Now, this statement implies that it would be tough to pick him out at a schizophrenics’ convention... but it falls short of saying that he is mentally ill.

So, how is Christianity different? God has revealed himself through the physical creation (Romans 1:18-20) and through the conscience of humankind (Romans 2:14-15) so that we know when we are doing right and when we are doing wrong. When we treat our fellow humans as we should by responding to what we know is right, it can be said of us that we are well adjusted. But God also revealed himself in the Judeo-Christian Scripture, and the laws and morays of Western nations — whether expressly stated or implied — are based on the Ten Commandments.

People are said to be well adjusted when they do things like hold down jobs, pay taxes, raise their children to honorable adulthood and treat each other and governmental entities with patience and respect — and, although we often fail at it, this is pretty much the blueprint for Christian behavior. But my point is that being well adjusted is the antipole of being mentally ill… and we Christians are the ones who purport to live by the standards that made Western society possible.

Christians understand that mental illness — like any physical illness — is the result of Adam’s fall into sin. That’s another way we are different. People who hold a physicalist’s worldview — as I’m sure many of the people who write for Scientific American do — do not understand the universe this way. Keeping a Christian worldview gives us perspective on how mental illness is different from hearing God’s voice… even while we look to hear it!

So, be it audibly or be it metaphorically, I thank God for all his manifestations… and I pray this discussion helped you. God bless you…and come soon, Lord Jesus.

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