Some time ago, one of my jobs was to ghostwrite for the company’s CEO—an authentic character of a man with a thick Buffalo and the patience of pitbull. I’d compose newsletters, emails, columns, even journal articles and book chapters, as him, usually from scratch. At first, I might spend as much as 15 minutes with him for a three-paragraph letter or the idea for an article. He’d brain-dump, and I’d record as much of his language as I possibly could before he decided the meeting was over. I’d cut and paste it, edit it, rearrange it and fill in the gaps. Then the drafts would go back and forth until I’d gotten his voice right.
Eventually, though, as I spent time with him, his thick Buffalo accent took root in my ear. I got the sound of it, and I developed the sense of what he would or wouldn’t say. It got to be that I could simply start at my desk with an idea I’d think he’d like and imagine him launching from one of his distinctive -isms into a few hundred words that I would only write if I were him. If anything sounded like me, I’d stop typing immediately, retrigger his voice in my ear, and start again Occasionally, I’d lose his “voice,” and I’d be absolutely stuck until I could swing by his office for 30 seconds to chat about anything at all, and I’d be good for another thousand words I may never have heard him say in my life.
I don’t know how much I’ve ever “heard” the voice of God—I feel it. It resonates in me. It sounds right. It sounds like the voice I read in red letters in the gospels, like it would it be spoken by the God of Israel who wrote poetry through the prophets, like it’s in harmony with the love that I’ve been taught and the kindness (sometimes brutal, corrective kindness) God has shown me throughout my life and all the more clearly as I’ve let him come closer to my wounds. It sounds like “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden” (which I’ve read written in the Gospel) and “Know me, and I will put my love in you” (which I’ve read written on my heart in prayer).
As a spiritual director, I’ve seen people agonize over whether words they’ve felt spoken to them are really God’s speech or their imagination. What I ask them is the same thing I ask them when the voice is obviously not something Jesus would ever say: “Who does it sound like?” “How does that voice seem to you? Describe it.” “Who does it remind you of?” When the message is critical, discouraging, impatient, condemning, we find it’s often the voice of a family member or some other person, including themselves. When we agree that the message sounds like the Jesus of the Bible or a Jesus they’ve experienced being loved by—when it increases faith, hope and love in them, even if it’s not sweet to the tongue—I try not to resolve the question for them but rather let the question dissolve. It’s the wrong one. God is always speaking—and sometimes God speaks.
I imagine Jesus speaking to me often. I don’t know whether any of those words are his own, though the conversation flows better when I’ve read the gospels recently. Sometimes I feel more strongly about it—they seem to be so original apart from my own thread of thoughts, like an interruption of another character’s dialogue, in its own “voice.” Sometimes, I let them simply be the lines of a truthful fictionalization or facsimile in my head, like ghostwriting to which Jesus would sign his own hand. Did the Holy Spirit say, at 10:14 a.m. on January 19, 2020, “Brian, you know why I’ve made your heart, and I have put everything in it. What do you want to do with it”? I don’t know that I believe so—but I believe God would ratify it to say, “Yes. Same question.”
Allow yourself to place yourself before God who gazes on you adoringly, who is making you moment-to-moment to enjoy God’s love passing into and out of you through the world. Imagine now Jesus, the full and complete image of this God, sitting beside you and seeing you (imagine what it feels like to be truly seen by someone). Imagine he calls you by name, the way a dear friend calls your name, and says, “I will always love you. I will put my love in you, and you will be filled with my love.” Then you will hear the voice of God.