Health-care practitioners have just “discovered” the impact of spirituality on health. Healers have always known the power of belief and the mystery of the human body. As medicine has become a field of scientific study and health care has become a menu of pharmacological or technological fixes, health-care providers have come to believe more in their own powers or the powers of science. Most physicians who have practiced for several years have experienced the unexplainable, however. Some of them turned their attention toward the power of prayer and religion and its effect on health and disease. Decades of studies have been reviewed and summarized by recent authors. The findings are rather striking and include:
- People who regularly attend religious services have lower rates of illness and death than do infrequent attenders or nonattenders.
- People who report a religious affiliation have lower rates of heart disease, cancer, and high blood pressure.
- Older adults who participate in private and congregational religious activities have fewer symptoms, less disability, and lower rates of depression, anxiety and dementia.
- Religious participation is the strongest determinant of psychological well-being in African Americans.
- Actively religious people live longer, on average, than the nonreligious.1
What is the link between faith and health? Dr. Harold Koenig, director of the Duke University Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health, has participated in and compiled the results of many studies on this question. Studies have found two ways religion directly benefits health. First, respect for the body is encouraged by a social support system, including a strong marriage and participation in a loving congregation. Second, religious individuals lead healthier lifestyles by avoiding cigarettes and the abuse of drugs and alcohol as well as risky sexual behavior that can result in diseases.2
There are indirect benefits as well. The social and emotional support of being actively involved in a congregation and sharing the bonds of faith buffer the impact of stress and decrease depression and anxiety. The hormonal impact of chronic stress or depression can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and weakening of the immune system that can lead to infections, cancer, heart attacks, and stroke. Studies have shown that religious individuals have less depression and recover from depression more quickly; they are protected from suicide and have lower blood pressures and a lower risk of heart attack.
How do we cultivate an active personal faith that helps to develop faith hardiness? An active faith is not just the acknowledgment that you were “born” Lutheran or Catholic or Baptist or Methodist. You can’t assume that being a pastor or lay leader in a church means that you have an active faith. You can’t even trust that by practicing the outward acts of religious involvement you will become spiritually healthy. On the contrary, studies have shown that extrinsic religion—active involvement in church activities for extrinsic reasons such as social status rather than as a result of a deep personal faith—actually has a negative correlation to measures of health.3
An active personal faith involves living out daily your beliefs through a personal relationship with God. Living in faith means reading, studying, and singing the Word of God. It involves praying silently and aloud, specifically and meditatively, using someone else’s words or your own, in joy and thankfulness or sorrow, pain, or frustration. Living faithfully means sharing your beliefs and your love of God through word and action with family, friends, coworkers, and community. It means trying to use your gifts to honor God and to have a positive and lasting impact on the people and the community around you.
We need to find a way to worship with our hearts, bodies, minds, and souls engaged. Living faithfully is working with and for a community of faith from a deep love of God that cannot be denied. Allow yourself to be moved by the Spirit through music, the Word, works of art, and the power of a community of believers. Although there is comfort in the familiar, one risks being lulled into a rote practice of religion. Think about the words you are singing. Personalize the prayers. Sing from the heart. Appreciate the silence.
Active worship can be compared to healthy physical activity. When physicians ask their patients about physical activity and the response is, “I’m active at work,” we reply, “That doesn’t count.” Repetitive movement at work, although activity, is often more detrimental to health than helpful. Healthy activity involves the whole body, and is done recreationally outside in nature. Just as we need healthy physical activity, we need to experience meaningful worship regularly to maintain our spiritual health—joyful worship with inspiring music that touches the heart, meditation on God’s word bathed in the light and the warmth of the sun’s rays through stained glass, a soaring hopefulness felt with every baptism. Be aware of these sacred moments. Recognize the sustenance we receive from rejoicing, meditating, and praying.
Rest and Renewal
Just as we all need to find a meaningful place of worship, we all need Sabbath time for our health and wellness—especially pastors, whose lives are not their own when needing to be responsive to the needs of others. Certainly God knows the value of rest, renewal, and reflection. The seventh day was created as a day of rest, a day when God could reflect on the “goodness” of creation. We have lost the concept of Sabbath. We feel the need to attend to work issues every day and to meet our family’s needs in any remaining time. We need time for ourselves and for God and for reflection on what that relationship means in our life.
Sabbath practices are also directly related to physical health. One of my professors at Harvard Medical School was Herbert Benson, physician and researcher, who wrote about and studied the relaxation response.4 I recently heard him lecture on the history of his work. For decades he studied the body’s response to practiced relaxation by teaching individuals relaxation exercises and by studying individuals from many faiths who practiced prayerful meditation. One of the discoveries in this research was that the positive impact of chanting on the body was more significant if the words used had religious significance. The rhythmic repetition of deeply meaningful words creates a state of relaxation that has positive effects on physical health. Many of us, if asked, would say that we make a habit of daily prayer, but does that prayer bring us closer to God? As we pray, are the words meaningful to us, and are they an expression of that deep connection through the love of God? Or are they the rushed words of a rote memorized mealtime blessing or bedtime prayer? Are we in true conversation with God?
I hope that as adults we have not lost that childlike expectation that our prayers, spoken, whispered, or thought, are heard and answered by God. For spiritual health, we need the reassurance that God is listening to our daily needs and thoughts and is there to help us with the strength and wisdom to bring others to understand the love of God.
Making It Real
Prayer as ritual can become pure recitation rather than meaningful conversation, an event rather than a relationship. In the same way, Scripture can be seen as meaningful stories, and good works can be regarded as part of the mission of a congregation. Living a faithful Christian life means living out the story of the gospel daily—in our work, family, or congregation. Our spiritual practice should not be saved for Sunday, bedtime, meals, or holidays. E
very day in every way we need to walk in the Word, listen for Christ, and see the Holy Spirit at work in the world.
As adults with life experience, emotional maturity, and spiritual grounding, we can read the gospel and make it real in our daily lives. We are able to feed the hungry and to care for those who are homeless or unemployed. We can work with others to address the injustices of Americans without health care or children without safe homes. We need to forgive those who have sinned against us and reach out to those who need love. Making the time for and developing the practices of daily prayer, devotional meditation, joyful hymn-singing, meditational walks, or communing with each other and with God are essential for good health. The sense of peace, the warmth of shared love and faith, the appreciation of the immensity of the gifts received, and the emotional cleansing of raising voice in song bring healing benefits that last throughout each day and week.
1. Jeff Levin, God, Faith, and Health: Exploring the Spirituality-Healing Connection (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2001).
2. Harold G. Koenig, The Healing Power of Faith: Science Explores Medicine’s Last Great Frontier (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), 266-270.
3. Levin, God, Faith, and Health, 168-169.
4. Herbert Benson, The Relaxation Response (New York: HarperCollins, 1975).
Excerpted from Clergy, Retirement, and Wholeness: Looking Forward to the Third Age , copyright © 2005 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce, go toour permissions form.
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