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I spent my morning today reflecting on sin, guilt, and meaning in life. Light topics for an early morning at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia!

I am helping conduct a secondary analysis on data collected from a group of young mothers that looks at spirituality and stress.  We know that stress has many deleterious effects in people’s lives – from mental health problems, to increases in domestic violence, to connections with heart disease and blood pressure, to difficulties parenting and behavior problems in children, to poor educational outcomes. I could go on and on.  We also know that for many people, spirituality and religiosity is protective. Having a strong connection to God, faith, and a religious community significantly reduces stress. There is lots of research in the area of spirituality and its benefits. This is great news for faithful Christians trying to live out their faith in their professional lives, especially those of us in service professions who want to integrate faith with evidence based practices.

But of course the picture wouldn’t be that simple. In my analysis, the population surveyed is a group of extremely impoverished young women, many didn’t finish high school, many are not married, many are struggling with other stressors in their lives, but many of them report a strong connection to their religion and faith.

Some of the questions in the survey deal with how often these mothers feel like God judges them for their sins and how often they try to make sense of their life without turning to a higher power. In a quite unexpected turn of events, these were the only measures of spirituality and faith that had any statistically significant association with stress. And it was not a good association. If a young mother feels that God is punishing her for her sins or tries to make sense of her life without turning to a higher power, she is between 2 and 6 times more likely to feel significantly stressed.

Now it could be that these are two separate constructs. And it is true God’s judgment and not turning to a higher power are not the same thing. Yet trying to not turn to a higher power could be a surrogate marker for having a lack of meaning or purpose in life. Viktor Frankel in his amazing book Man’s Search for Meaning documents the multiple problems that arise from a lack of meaning and purpose (if you haven’t read it, go find a copy right now). Certainly that is a possibility, and provides many avenues for intervention and support.

As for God judging young mothers for their sins, this is a harder one. These young women feel so beaten down by fear and judgment. Judged for their sins, but what sins? Sure there are all of the regular sins we think about from the Decalogue on down. And there are other things that may be weighing them down as well, feeling they are being judged for their poverty, or their skin color, or their lack of education, or that they have children. Or it could be that those things are the judgments. I don’t know; those questions were not in the survey.

I don’t know what they may have done or not, and frankly I am not sure I really care that much. I also don’t know what to do with this data. I started to publish some tired cliches about God is love and how we need to bear witness to the mercy of God, but it didn’t feel right. It wasn’t the whole story. So, keep checking back, in my next post I will reflect on this area a bit more. For now I’ll leave you with a prayer for mercy and justice. It is all I have too…

Almighty God, who hast created us in thine own image: Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP 1979)