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In my last post I wrote about my study of spirituality and stress in young urban mothers. You can read it here Impoverished Adolescent Mothers.

If you remember: we found that trying to make decisions without relying on a higher power and feeling like God was punishing you for your sins were both strongly associated with increased stress in young impoverished mothers in Philadelphia.

Today I want to delve into the implications of what we found.

Before we begin, a couple of caveats are in order. First, all we found were associations; we could not establish causal relationships. In other words, we don’t know which comes first—the stress or the spirituality. Second, and even more important, to be completely upfront and honest, I have no answers. I am still wrestling with this data, and I find it very challenging.

The first finding, that trying to live life and make decisions without relying on God or a higher power is associated with stress, immediately raises some big questions that our data (stupid quantitative data) can’t answer. What does it mean to these young mothers to try to make sense of life without turning to a higher power? Is it just, as one professor suggested, simply a matter that the mothers who answered this way have less resilience? In this population, is trying to live life on your own really a marker for having no vision or purpose beyond right now, having a lack of meaning in life? Does it mean that they don’t believe in God, suggesting that impoverished atheist mothers are more likely to be stressed? If, however, they do believe in God (or a higher power), why are they actively trying to live life on their own? And, presuming the belief in God, is this an active form of running away from God that leads to worsening stress? Or is it a turning away from an organized religion?

So many questions.

The second finding, that feelings of being punished by God are associated with stress, challenges me even more than the first. I believe in a loving God, whose character is always to show mercy, and I believe the trajectory of Scripture is one of redemption, mercy, peace, and hope – culminating in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ and our engraftment into His body the Church. But, I also get confronted by a God who killed the Egyptian children and had the non-Israelite wives and children cast out of Israel (Ezra). I am confronted by proof-text after proof-text about a warring God who brings judgment and vengeance on His enemies, on the sinners, on the non-elect, about fiery swords, raining brimstone, and eternal damnation. And I have had Christian pastors tell me in the past that if this is something I struggle with, it is only because I don’t have enough faith or a big enough view of God.

Maybe so.

But I still believe, and I still struggle.

And apparently so do many young mothers. This is what I think is going on with this data: Their struggle is with feeling the overwhelming weight of guilt and sin. These young mothers believe in God, and they believe in the warring God who brings judgment, and not just any judgment but judgment on them and on their children to the third and fourth generation. They are cognizant of their manifold sins and wickedness and they know that God is punishing them.

And they suffer. And there is no mercy for them.

This I blame on us, the Church. Christ calls us to relieve suffering where we can, and when we can’t to bear witness to His power to transform it. Apparently, instead we take those who are suffering the most, the most marginalized, in our society and tell them  not only are the problems they are facing their fault, but these problems are divinely ordained punishments. If the suffering is a divinely ordained punishment, far be it from us to work toward alleviating it – that would be working against the will of God! (I’ve heard this from Christian pastors too.) In essence we tell these mothers, “You deserve to suffer.”

There is no relief of suffering; there is no witness to the transforming power of Christ. There is only the repeated refrain, “You are sinners in the hands of an angry God!”

I sat down last week with Pastor Dave at the shelter where I work to talk about this study. Pastor Dave, “Daddy Dave” as the kids call him, is an amazing and wise man who navigates the intersection of spiritual and practical guidance with young people from varied faith backgrounds who make their way to Covenant House, a homeless youth shelter. He reminded me of another layer to the problem. He reminded me that these young people have been racially and economically marginalized and oppressed on a daily basis. They have internalized this oppression since they were children, and this has occurred for generations. All authority figures become agents of oppression. They are always beaten down, judged and punished. And this is the world view young people hold as they come to God.

The Church reaching out with the love of Christ

It comes back to us, the Church. We must bear witness that Christ’s redemptive work means that here and now oppression is to end, and we are to be the agents of peace and freedom. We must bear witness that our Redeemer is strong and mighty and has come not with punishment but with hope. We must bear witness that judgment has been turned into adoption.

How does this data affect you? How is your view of God shaped by judgment and mercy? I look forward to hearing your thoughts about what this data means!