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People uncertain about their relationship with God more likely to suffer mental distress: study

Praying woman
Unsplash/Ben White

In the first chapter of the book of James in the Bible, Jesus’ brother warns against approaching God with unsteady faith because of the instability that comes with being “double minded.” Now, a new study suggests that people who are uncertain about their relationship with God are more likely to experience mental distress than other believers. 

“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed,” James declares in Scripture. “For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord. A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.”

In “Attachment to God and Psychological Distress: Evidence of a Curvilinear Relationship” published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion last month, researchers W. Matthew Henderson of Union University and Blake Kent of Westmont College conclude that “anxiety or a lack of certainty about one’s relationship with the divine represents a threat to psychological well-being.”

The study used national data from the 2010 Baylor Religion Survey, including more than 1,600 Americans who believe in God. The study wasn’t limited to just Christians but respondents were predominantly Christian. 

While earlier research has shown that religious practices like prayer and religious service attendance are “pretty protective of people’s mental health,” Henderson, an assistant professor of sociology at Union University in Tennessee, told The Christian Post that not much data was available about how “people’s specific religious beliefs” affect their mental health outcomes.

“We thought that was a pretty glaring weakness because belief is such an important part of religious practice,” he said. “And we were especially interested in beliefs about God.”

So using a concept called Attachment Theory, the researchers set out to examine how people’s specific ideas about God and their relationship with the divine impact their mental health.

“Attachment theory examines child-caretaker bonding as a central motivator of human behavior and a primer for future interpersonal relationships. Young children engage in proximity-seeking behavior, drawing close to primary caregivers to feel emotionally comforted, supported, and safe. In this capacity, caregivers provide infants with a ‘secure base’ from which to explore the world,” the researchers noted. “The style of attachment a child develops with the caregiver serves as an ‘internal working model’…, a collection of neurological, biological, emotional, and social stimuli that coalesce to prime expectations for future relationships.”

Attachment Theory, which has been used to provide insight into the dynamics of many relational contexts, proposes that internal working models influence the nature of an individual’s relationships throughout childhood and into adulthood. Researchers have also used it to examine the relationships between secure attachment style and measures of depression, distress, coping, psychological functioning, and other mental health outcomes.

“Attachment to God summarily is a way to measure people’s dispositions like emotional dispositions towards God. So if you feel like God is consistent and responsive, usually we call that a secure attachment to God. If you feel like God is aloof and distant and you can’t really rely on Him, that is an avoidant attachment style. And if you’re just not really sure, that’s kind of an anxious attachment,” Henderson explained.

“What we found with the curvilinear relationship was higher levels of psychological distress were predicted for people who were in the middle of this avoidance-secure measure.”

However, people who had a more secure or confident relationship with God and those who had a more distant relationship with the divine experienced much lower levels of stress.

“That’s not really what would be expected based on previous attachment to God research,” Henderson said. “The highest levels of psychological distress were people who were kind of in the middle there, and that’s where you get this kind of curvilinear hump.”

Henderson added that if people who are uncertain about their relationship with God have access to the support of a healthy church, it could help alleviate some of their distress.

“If people are uncertain or they’re going through a bit of crisis personally in their lives, and if that crisis tends to also intermingle with their view about God, the more they are doing that in isolation, the more I think that their beliefs are going to lead to anxiety,” he said. “But if they can do it in a healthy congregation, it’s probably going to lead to greater stability in the face of hard, stressful moments in their lives.”

The scholar contends that the study’s findings reveal the sheer complexity of belief in God and its impact on mental health.

“What I first encountered looking at the research was that you had to believe that God was a certain way [for it to] correlate to good mental health, that there was this way to believe in God that was healthier than others,” Henderson stated. “And I just don’t think we’re necessarily seeing that. You can believe a lot of different things about God, and it can correlate to pretty good mental health.”

Henderson pointed to something he called the Westboro effect, based on the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. The congregation is a controversial family-run church that describes itself as an “Old School Baptist Church” adhering “to the teachings of the Bible.” The church preaches against all forms of sin.

The fundamentalist ministry founded by Fred Phelps, who died in 2014, was branded by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America.” The church’s slogan, “God Hates Fags,” is the name of its main website.

“They’ve got really aggressive views about God, and [that] God is very angry and hateful and judgmental,” he said. “And presumably their beliefs about God, I think in popular parlance, would assume they are probably not healthy mentally. If you believe God is that angry, that might lead to a lot of stress on you. I have no data to back this up, but my suspicion is that mentally, they might actually be doing OK because if you believe God is super angry but doesn’t hate you, you’re good.”

“We were more convicted that based on the findings, beliefs about God are best understood contingent to the social situations that they’re in to the way they help people make sense of their social settings,” Henderson added. “People’s relationships with God, the way they perceive God, those change over time, especially as they run into these stressful life events, which are inevitable.”

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