Worship, Hearing Voices, and Parting the Red Sea

My friend Daniel Neely is starting the Ph.D. program in Clinical Psychology at Auburn University in just a few days. Fortunately, I’ve managed to steal some of his time before he begins, and he has kindly written the post for this week. I hope you enjoy.

Section Break

I want you to consider two experiences you, or someone you know, may encounter during their lifetime:


The lights dim and the music takes a beautiful, contemplative tone. Her thoughts fall inward to the sin in her life. Genuinely, she feels a passionate desire to be made more like the Christ she now worships. Her voice joins those around her as they call for glory to be given to their Savior and for the Spirit to come move in their hearts. To her surprise, she feels emotion quickly bubbling to the surface of her mind. Grace and forgiveness fill her mind until she can no longer contain what she is feeling. The music reaches a powerful bridge, rising in volume, and begins to repeat a sacred creed taken from the scripture she holds dear. She raises her hands and shouts the words with her fellow worshipers. Tears stream down her cheeks. As the song comes to a close, she embraces her friends and tells them how the Lord has given her peace and mercy.


His knuckles sting as he softens the iron clench of his fists. He is so tired of pretending he doesn’t hear the voices. A small smudge of blood remains on area of his heavy headboard which he struck in desperate frustration. The voices returned and he clenched his sheets as if tearing them might grant his mind some silence. They tell him how little he is worth. They ask him to imagine things he knows would make the most hardened stomach churn. They convince him of the terrible people who are surely coming to do him harm. They lie. At least, right now he thought the things they said were lies. Sometimes it was hard to know what was true and what was false. He knows for certainty, however, that he will never tell another soul what they have to say. 

The Church and secular ideas of psychology and mental health are often discussed as if they are mutually exclusive methods of explaining some of the most powerful and meaningful experiences humans may have. Largely, I believe this comes from the extreme views that result from people clinging to their preferred worldview. Unnecessary conflict arises when one extreme is pitted against the other when they are actually perfectly complementary. I want to try to use my two examples to show why both scientific and spiritual explanations of human experience are useful and often complementary.

(Before I go further with this I want to say that these examples are written to communicate an idea of how to integrate their faith and scientific explanations of their lives. I apologize for any errors or unintentionally poor details that may be given in this description of hypothetical mental health problems. Experiences with mental health problems can vary greatly and serious questions should be directed to a licensed professional.)

Our first short narrative tells of a woman who experiences a powerful time of worship in which she believes the Spirit of God has moved through her. Experiences like this have frequently been used as an example for why we no longer need to believe in God. Science has taught us how beat, verse, and beautiful notes can come together to elicit powerful emotions and pleasure in our brains. We sing a song or listen to some catchy and moving music and suddenly we are experiencing what we interpret as a connection to the supernatural and spiritual. With modern neuroscience we know this seems to be reducible to a collection of neurons firing in a very significant way, so no more religion, right? 

Clearly, if we hang our reasoning for belief in God on the incomplete knowledge of humanity, we open ourselves to many attacks by critics of religion. I want to suggest another way of interpreting the knowledge which neuroscience has given us. If God commands us to worship Him and wishes for the experience to be meaningful and powerful, surely there will be a method to how the experience affects us. Why shouldn’t the fulfillment and emotion we feel in worship come from a source that can be looked at through the lens of neuroscience?


This is not a new or uncommon debate. Another example comes to us from Exodus. In chapter 14 when Moses crosses the Red Sea with the Israelites we read that, “the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.” If a meteorologist were to go back to this moment do you not think that this wind would’ve been observable? The meteorologist could’ve figured out how fast the wind moved, from which direction it blew, and maybe even predict how it would affect the weather as Moses and the Israelites sang to the Lord. The parting of the water could be explained both as an act of God and as wind causing the water to part. It can be both, and neither is wrong. Similarly, a powerful worship experience may be the result of neural firing, but that is only the “wind” by which God shows us something spectacular. (For more about this argument you can find articles like this and see this needless conflict play out.)

You may be wondering why this argument is important. I think it is an important distinction to make for those who are considering becoming a Christian but doubt the more miraculous and “unbelievable” parts of the Christian story. However, even within our own Church understanding, the relationship between how our minds work and how God interacts with us spiritually is important. Many churches now have what amounts to a mental health ministry. Now, I certainly applaud any effort of the church to help those who are suffering, but sometimes this false conflict infects the best intentions. 

Let us look at this second example I gave at the beginning. There are those in some of these ministries who would say that all issues of mental health can be broken down to sin and spiritual deficit. Do you feel depressed, have low self-worth, or struggle with suicidal ideation? You should dwell on the generous blessings given to you by God. Are you suffering from debilitating anxiety? Simply give your worries over to God! Do you hear voices and struggle to even maintain a grasp on reality? Even this must be due to your failing connection with God. 

I want to be very clear in saying that I have great faith in the power of God to heal any type of illness, mental or otherwise. Depression, Anxiety, and even more serious mental illness can be healed through the power of Christ. God can certainly choose to quiet the voices and lies the man in the second story heard. However, we know that God has made us with the ability to look at and understand his creation. When we are given a diagnosis of cancer, we do not solely seek scripture and prayer to remove the tumors from our body. We seek God in prayer, scripture, and medicine. And when the doctor cures us with his scalpel and medicine, we do not scoff at the prayer and scripture as ineffective. We praise God for curing our ailment! 

If you suffer from mental health issues, it is not shameful to find healing from someone who uses psychology to guide you towards peace. The knowledge they have is of the human mind which God created and is learned through the intelligence God gave them. Mental illness can be understood, and treated, from an understanding of spirituality and psychology.

I want to move towards a conclusion by telling a little preacher’s story I heard growing up that I am sure many of you are familiar with:

A very religious man was once caught in rising floodwaters. He climbed onto the roof of his house and trusted God to rescue him. A neighbour came by in a canoe and said, “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll paddle to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”

A short time later the police came by in a boat. “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll take you to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”

A little time later a rescue services helicopter hovered overhead, let down a rope ladder and said. “The waters will soon be above your house. Climb the ladder and we’ll fly you to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”

All this time the floodwaters continued to rise, until soon they reached above the roof and the religious man drowned. When he arrived at heaven he demanded an audience with God. Ushered into God’s throne room he said, “Lord, why am I here in heaven? I prayed for you to save me, I trusted you to save me from that flood.”

“Yes you did my child” replied the Lord. “And I sent you a canoe, a boat and a helicopter. But you never got in.”

Using this story as a metaphor for what we’re discussing, maybe this man’s canoe, boat, and helicopter are the more common, seemingly less miraculous explanations of worship or mental health problems. Maybe God, through science, or another traditionally less religious method, gives us ideas that are powerful and good. 

As you finish reading this you might hear a part of you warn that we must avoid relying on evolution and that science is dangerous because some of those who adopt a strictly scientific or materialistic worldview have aggressively denied the existence of God and sought to destroy religion. To address this I turn to 1 Corinthians 8, where Paul addresses the practice of eating meat sacrificed to false idols. He does not tell them that because the worshipers of these idols have sacrificed the meat they should avoid it at all cost. Rather, he tells them that there is one God, “through whom all things came” (v. 7). All things came from God, including that meat and including the knowledge of how the mind works. If someone chooses to devote psychology or science to atheism or materialism, that does not take it away from us.

Finally, I must note that Paul does not end by pointing out that the Corinthians are allowed to eat this meat. He opens and closes the passage by instructing the readers to treat the issue (and, appropriately, knowledge itself) with grace towards their fellow brothers and sisters. The comparison between these two issues is not perfect. However, we can certainly take away the fact that the same care and love that motivates us to open mental health ministries and to share about our powerful spiritual experiences must motivate us, who know that this knowledge is God’s, to act with love and humility towards all involved: those struggling with mental illness, those among us who disdain science, and those who seek to hinder religion. 


Add yours →

  1. Very proud of you, Daniel, for this exceptional writing. Very well thought out and presented in a way we can all understand. Thank you.


  2. Excellent! Well done, Daniel!


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