How perceptions of God help determine self-esteem, mental health

How would you feel if a loving God took a personal interest in you?

Pretty darn good, according to a growing body of research revealing the mental health benefits of having a close personal relationship with a caring divinity.

In one of the latest national studies, the more participants reported feeling God’s love, presence and guidance, the more likely they were to agree they are a person of worth.

Frequency of prayer, or even being “born again,” were not of themselves significantly related to higher self-esteem.

But worship attendance, prayer and the specific act of committing their lives to Christ all were related to higher self-esteem when individuals reported a close relationship with a divine being who cared about them.

Having what some sociologists have called “the ultimate friend” on their side appears to make a big difference when it comes to self-respect and self-worth, study authors indicated.

“First and foremost, we demonstrate that a sense of divine support is a robust predictor of self-esteem,” researchers from the University of Toronto, the University of Calgary and the University of Texas, San Antonio, reported in the latest issue of the Review of Religious Research.

Getting personal

The study on self-esteem is part of a larger body of research that goes beyond measurements such as worship attendance to delve deeper into how people’s personal relationship with the divine relates to their health and well-being.

Primarily viewing God as distant and disengaged from earthly affairs or emphasizing the fear of divine judgment may have little effect on well-being or may be associated with negative outcomes.

In contrast, individuals who believe in a loving God who takes a personal interest in them appear more likely to reap a host of mental health benefits.

They range from being less likely to be anxious or depressed to having a greater sense of optimism and hope even while facing stressful situations.

And the benefits accrue to people of all ages.

In a study of more than 450 Christian undergraduates, “the perception of a close, positive relationship with God” was a critical factor in predicting personal growth in response to religious-spiritual struggles.

“One clear take-home point from this study is that for Christians, growth is related not only to human-initiated actions …. It is also related to a perception that God initiates actions to help and encourage those who are struggling,” researchers concluded.

In a separate study of 1,500 adults 65 and older, prayer was associated with increases in self-esteem, optimism and increased life satisfaction for participants who reported a close, loving, supportive attachment to God.

“As life draws to close, older adults want to make things right and gain resolution in their personal lives,” the study authors noted. “We would argue this also occurs in the relationship with God. In fact, a loving and supportive God who is also omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient may provide considerable comfort, assurance, and resilience to believers who are approaching the end of their lives.”

In the University of Toronto study, researchers analyzed data from the 2004 General Social Survey, which included measures on self-esteem and divine support.

Prayer, worship attendance and being born-again were found to be positively related to self-esteem, but only when accompanied by relatively high levels of belief in divine support.

“Religious involvement appears to benefit self-esteem only to the extent that it fosters beliefs in a supportive relationship with a higher power,” the researchers concluded.

Images of God

Fewer people than you might imagine see God primarily as a divinity who is mainly a force for good in the world and actively involved in the lives of individuals.

Just over one in four U.S. adults fell into that category, according to the 2017 Baylor Religion Survey.

Catholics were the only group most likely to believe in a benevolent God, according to the survey, which measured images of God through a series of questions.

Among Christian groups, only mainline Protestants had a plurality of respondents who indicated they believe in what researchers called a distant God — a cosmic force that sets the laws of nature in motion, but does not get involved in day-to-day events or movements.

Evangelical and black Protestants were most likely to indicate belief in an authoritative God, one engaged as a positive force in the world and as a judge of the behaviors of humankind.

How can an improved understanding of this area be of benefit? Among other things, many researchers have suggested that awareness of spiritual beliefs of patients may help therapists to both understand their patients’ issues and offer avenues for effective treatment.

In particular, spiritual counselors may be able to help address fears and anxieties by focusing on aspects of faith professing God’s love and mercy.

It is not easy to maintain self-esteem in an age where divisive politics and a wave of new forms of social media allow for mean-spirited instant judgments.

Love may not even be all you need.

But the latest research suggests feelings of affection and support from God can be a powerful force in developing a healthy sense of personal worth and dignity.

Image by Tiago Cassol Schvarstzhaupt, via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]
Image by {Salt of the Earth}, via Flickr [CC BY-ND 2.0]

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