“Are you going to take the voice seriously?”

The historian Paul Johnson writes in his spiritual memoir about having once called the prime minister’s office and, instead of getting the secretary’s secretary, the prime minister herself answered. “It happened to me once with a prime minister,” Johnson writes. “But with God it happens all the time.”

I don’t know if Johnson’s experience is like mine, but from that day on, when I prayed, I almost always received a verbal response, often with quite specific guidance. At first, it just seemed an oddity that went too much against my agnostic worldview to be taken seriously. Once my son had classical music playing in his ear all the time. It turned out to be an ear infection, causing buzzing signals that his brain skillfully translated into Mozart. Maybe my prayers were like that.

I would tell Abigail about these odd experiences. While I always disdained paranormal reports, near death experiences, and the like, she did not. I assumed she put the voice in that category. I didn’t really know because, usually, she just took in what I told her and didn’t say much. She explained to me later that she thought I was engaged in a sensitive communication and did not want to create static.

Then, one day, she did speak up. “Are you going to take the voice seriously, or is this just entertainment?”

She had put her finger on the contradiction I was living. The voice was too real and benign and authoritative to ignore. Yet I could not imagine acting on it. Well, actually I could and did act on it, but without taking it seriously. I would be told to do this or that. Sometimes the guidance was about some matter facing me that day, and following the guidance usually worked out pretty well. Other times I received arbitrary directives which, since harmless, I followed. For example, one morning, Abigail and I had just sat down to breakfast when I was told,

Don’t eat.

So I just sat there for maybe fifteen or twenty minutes.

You can eat now.

I always did as I was told, but it was still more like a game of Captain-may-I than a life imperative. I was not ready to answer Abigail’s question.

On a visit to Boulder, where I used to teach, I told a former colleague about my experiences. I was afraid he would think, “poor Jerry, he has gone daft.” But he listened with interest, and recommended that I read American philosopher William James’s classic essay, “The Will to Believe.” An influential British scientist had declared, as a principle of the ethics of belief, “It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” The scientist had religion in his crosshairs.

James responded that there are some beliefs that, if you accept them, will shape your whole life. And shape it in a different way if you do not. You cannot remain neutral; yet evidence is inconclusive either way. You just have to decide which belief you would rather live with.

My situation seemed to be exactly what James was describing. Facing a similar choice between belief and unbelief, the seventeenth-century philosopher Blaise Pascal, had seen it as a wager. If I believe in God and am wrong, well, I’m dead anyway, so I haven’t lost much. But if I don’t believe in God, and there is one … well, you might say, there’s hell to pay.

I faced my own wager. Either I follow the voice or I don’t. If I follow the voice and it is not divine, what is the worst that can happen? Well, I would be a fool, maybe a laughingstock, and would say goodbye to an excellent career. But, if I decide not to follow the voice and it is divine, then I would have missed my purpose in this life. What if Moses had done that? Or George Fox, the founder of the Quakers? The Old Testament is full of people called by God, who at first demur and only reluctantly heed the call. Even Moses worries (“suppose they do not believe me”) and feels inadequate to the task (“I have never been eloquent … I am slow of speech and slow of tongue”).

I am not comparing myself to these great religious leaders, but all of us in our lives face moments when we have to decide whether to respond to a certain call—be it the call of duty or service or simply, as Joseph Campbell puts it, to “follow your bliss”—rather than continue a more conventional or comfortable course. If I had to live with one worst-case scenario or the other, I could live with being a fool, if that’s what it came to, but I could not live with having refused God’s call.

Making a decision to believe is not quite the same as accepting that belief in your bones. It is more like the first step toward believing. My philosophy still had no place for God—especially for a God who talks to me. Outside the Bible, who talks to God?

Another notable book by William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, helped answer this question. The founder of pragmatism, the only distinctively American school of philosophy, James also taught physiology and psychology. He was a man of science but, for him, empiricism did not mean restricting our understanding to what science registers. He looked without prejudice at all kinds of human experience. He talks about famous people such as George Fox as well as ordinary people who have received answers to prayer or psychic intuitions or visitations from recently-departed family members.

Many people have had moments of divine or non-natural awareness, probably more than feel comfortable talking about them publicly. Duke English professor Reynolds Price writes about his own battle with cancer. During the course of his treatment, he had an encounter with Jesus in a vision or, as it seemed to him, in another dimension. After he published his story, he received letters from many people with similar experiences—experiences that they had never told anyone. My experience was not as out-of-line as I had thought.
I decided to follow the voice and see where it would lead me.

Illuminations

 

 

 

 

Ask yourself what I am looking for.

One day I learned more about God’s story when I asked simply, “Where should I begin today, Lord?”

Ask yourself what I am looking for.

“Love?”

Well, yes, but what is that love?

“Interaction, communication, understanding?”

YesI long to be recognized, to be understood, and then to be taken in.

I wondered why a great being like God would need to be loved by mere mortals.  “Why does that matter to You, Lord?  You’ve got it all, just being God.”

That is silly.  This is what I am.  I am like a function looking for a variable.  I am only half the equation.

I looked for a humbler analogy.  “Like cement looking for bricks to hold together?”

Okay.

“Is that connection only what You need or is it also what the world needs?”

Both, obviously.  In your analogy, the world is like the bricks that need to be held together.

“But, Lord, I sense that Your yearning is not just a factual incompleteness, like needing a pair of gloves.”

Yes, it is a deep internal dynamic that drives Me forward to do the things I do.  I unfurl the world and call forth life and send signals to people.  Listen, and feel.

“The feeling that comes to me is Your desire to call into being a corresponding being.  It seems a lot like the dialectic of self and other in Hegel.  Subjectivity desires to objectify itself, as it does in artifacts, and to subjectivize the surrounding world, as it does in interpretation, and, even higher, to encounter another subjectivity.”

I am a Person, searching for …

“That’s what I wonder, Lord.  I can’t quite imagine what You are searching for.  Just interaction?  That seems too limited and, in a sense, too easy.”

It is not just looking for company.  Perhaps speaking of loneliness is misleading.  Why does a human being look for love?  It is not just for company.  That is companionship, not love.  You want to pour yourself, your concern, your destiny into another person.  And you want them to respond in kind, to understand and recognize and sympathize with and care about you, (and) to share your life story, so that I becomes we.  And the result is not just good feelings or good times; it is ontological, it is virtually molecular.  You know that, because you have experienced it.  Imagine how puny your love is (not to belittle it, but just for comparison) compared to Mine.  What is barely ontological or molecular in your case is fully so in Mine.  The constitution of the universe is altered by My love and My being loved.  You can’t just say “God so loved the world …”  Love is a two-way street.  Anything unilateral is merely an effort at love, not its fulfillment, not its achievement.

You could tell My story, one version of it at least, through the history of love.  What has love meant and been over time?  From Abraham’s love for his wife and his son and his God, through the Ramayana and the compassionate Buddha and Jesus and Plato’s philosophy as eros toward wisdom, to Christian chivalry and Buber’s I-Thou—these are stages that reflect My development and My interaction with human beings. 

New Video – How To Pray

Author Jerry L. Martin, whose prayers God often answers in words, explains how he prays and gives tips to newcomers to prayer.

 

“I want you to enter My heart”

It all seemed intolerably bizarre. I thought I should talk it over with the wisest people I knew. One, a distinguished medical ethicist, responded, “First of all, this is not weird.” Nothing he could have said would have been a greater relief to me! Another, a well-known author, said, first, “That’s great—now you know there is a God,” and then added, “You have had a Kierkegaard moment,” recalling that philosopher’s question, “If you encountered Jesus on the streets of Copenhagen, would you follow him?” A prominent lay theologian said he was “touched” by my story and suggested some reading while I waited for my “big” assignment.

While there were also cautionary responses, no one seemed to think I was crazy or a fool to take the voice seriously.

Still, I was not prepared for the next experience.

I want you to enter My heart.

Enter God’s heart? This is weird, Lord, and scary, like out-of-body travel.”

I will protect you.

For moral support I asked, “Lord, first give me Your love.”

Let Abigail love you. You will feel My love through her.

“Then strengthen me, be with me, for this.”

I will.

He took my hand, as it were, and led me into the “heart of God.” I had expected it to be an overpowering, perhaps terrifying experience. But it was more like the eye of a hurricane. I was at the center of something vast and powerful, but here it was quiet, calm, and peaceful. I surveyed the things I feared—the end of my career, loss of reputation, financial insecurity, and a book that went nowhere. In that calm that is God, each concern disappeared.

I reveal things to people all the time.

“Lord, it sounds as if You want to announce a new revelation.  In this day and age?”

There is nothing surprising or shocking in further revelations.  I reveal things to people all the time in many different ways—in prayer, inspiration, intuition, ethical insight, even aesthetic response.