Struggles related to spirituality and religion are commonly experienced in the face of suffering, according to new research published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Interestingly, this is particularly true among those with high religious engagement.
“I’ve worked in the area of religion and mental health my whole career and have often addressed questions about subjective perceptions of God,” said study author Blake Victor Kent, an assistant professor of sociology at Westmont College.
“I’m interested in the experience of one’s relationship with God, not just doctrines or beliefs about God. This study offered a new angle on that question by using a new measure on suffering to explore feelings of doubt, abandonment, and fear. I’m motivated to understand these kinds of things better so I can shed light on issues that are considered a little ‘out of bounds’ in some religious communities.”
The researchers examined data from a prospective longitudinal study that sought to examined how COVID-19 had impacted psychological and spiritual outcomes among adults with chronic disease. The study aimed to recruit a sample of individuals from the United States who were at least 18 years old, had at least one chronic illness, and matched the general U.S. population’s demographics on factors such as geographic region, gender, racial/ethnic status, and religious affiliation. Participants were recruited through Qualtrics Panels and completed a web-based survey up to five times.
For the current study, only the first three surveys were used, which were collected in September 2019 (T1), December 2019 (T2), and February 2020 (T3). All surveys contained the same set of measures, except that the T1 survey included various sociodemographic items. At T1, there were 1,036 participants in the sample. However, by T3, 734 participants had been lost to follow-up.
After conducting a statistical analysis of the collected data, Kent and his colleagues observed a positive association between suffering and religious/spiritual struggles 3 months later. In other words, those who agreed more strongly with statements such as “The intensity of what I have been experiencing feels intolerable” became more likely to feel like they had been punished by God, questioned God’s love, decided the devil was to blame, and/or questioned the power of God.
In addition, the association between suffering and subsequent religious/spiritual struggles was stronger among those with greater religious commitment and spiritual fortitude.
The results suggest that being more religiously committed (“My religious beliefs lie behind my whole approach to life”) and spiritually strong (“My faith helps push me to overcome difficult tasks in life”) could actually amplify the association between suffering and subsequent religious/spiritual struggles.
The findings came as a surprise, Kent said.
“I thought those who are the most religious would doubt the least when facing struggle because they would have developed a confidence that God will carry them through,” he told PsyPost. “These study participants were older and had a chronic illness, and I imagined they might have had time to forge a kind of confidence or religious grit. But it doesn’t actually look that way.”
However, Kent said the findings suggest that these kinds of struggles are commonplace among the faithful, and can even be a sign of spiritual growth.
“Religious believers sometimes hear messages about doubt and spiritual struggle being signals of weak faith,” Kent told PsyPost. “There’s this notion that people who are really religious and highly involved in faith activities will be able to weather challenging experiences with little to no struggle with doubt. But our study says pretty much the opposite: people who invest the most in God and religious activities struggle the most with faith when they experience suffering.”
“I’d like to see us normalize doubt and uncertainty, recognizing that these struggles are quite common in the face of suffering and hardship. Struggling spiritually is not bad or wrong.”
The researchers controlled for demographic factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious status, marital status, education, household income, geographic region, number of chronic health conditions along with psychological factors such as lifetime trauma exposure and depression. But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“The biggest thing for me is that this study isn’t able to assess the quality of respondents’ relationships with God. We analyzed questions about investment in religious activities and self-assessment of ability to grow through trials, but neither of those variables tells us whether or not people think God likes them, or is on their side, or is trustworthy,” Kent said.
“A lot of my research outside of this study is in attachment to God, which assesses the degree to which people perceive God as available, loving, and worthy of trust. I do wonder whether we’d see a difference if we could compare those who are securely versus insecurely attached to God.”
The study, “Do Religious/Spiritual Resources Moderate the Association Between Suffering and Religious/Spiritual Struggles? A Three-Wave Longitudinal Study of US Adults with Chronic Illness“, was authored by Blake Victor Kent, Richard G. Cowden, Victor Counted, Edward B. Davis, Sandra Y. Rueger, and Everett L. Worthington Jr.