A renowned scholar on the integration of spirituality and psychotherapy, in speaking on the topic of spiritual struggle, shared ways to assess one’s moments of questioning and doubt to help oneself and others who may be experiencing similar challenges. Kenneth Pargament, listed as one of the 50 most influential psychologists in the world, was the first keynote speaker during the opening night of the 2023 Adventist Conference of Family Research and Practice on July 20.
Pargament is professor emeritus of psychology at Bowling Green State University and an adjunct professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Baylor College of Medicine.
“Spiritual struggles are not uncommon,” Pargament said. He referenced studies in which 70 percent of people acknowledged going through such struggles at least once in their lifetime. “Spiritual struggles affect all faiths and demographic groups. But they are not a sign of a weak faith. They are a natural part of life.”
The fully online three-day conference is a partnership of the General Conference Department of Family Ministries (GCFM), the Department of Discipleship in Lifespan Education at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, the School of Social Work, and the Institute for the Prevention of Addiction at Andrews University. This year, the event focused on families and emotional health under the motto “Hope, Heal, and Thrive!”
GCFM director Willie Oliver welcomed participants, noting that more than 2,000 people had registered for the event from all over the world. “It’s almost 50 years that this conference has run continuously,” he said, explaining that it began in 1975 on the Andrews University campus thanks to John and Millie Youngberg, professors of Religious Education at that time who were passionate about the need for healthy families in the church. “Since 2020, because of COVID, we are having virtual events, but next year it will be in person at Andrews University again,” he announced.
The goal of the event this year, Oliver said, was to “learn what we can do as families to find emotional health and help families we work with to find emotional health.”
In a recorded welcoming message, GC president Ted N. C. Wilson gave a similar statement.
“Families are the building blocks of society. God wants your family to be a witness to others,” he said. In taking care of one’s family, they will be “ready to be a source of hope and healing,” Wilson said.
On Spiritual Struggles
The topic of spiritual struggles — those experiences of tension, strain, and conflict about sacred matters — is a very complex area, Pargament acknowledged at the beginning of his presentation.
“Spirituality is a tremendous resource for many people,” he said. “In difficult times, people often look to their faith for help in coping, and that coping can be very effective in their lives.”
A statement such as this includes a significant “but” clause, Pargament explained. “When we find internal or external stressors, they shake us to our core. The ground we stand on is no longer secure. And at those times, we can experience spiritual struggles.”
In that sense, he acknowledged, “Religion has two sides: It can provide comfort, but also be a source of conflict, struggle, and serious problems.”
Pargament, who, together with other researchers, has been studying the topic for years, mentioned various types of spiritual struggles, including divine struggles (i.e., feeling angry at God or that God is punishing you), moral struggles (i.e., difficulty to follow moral or spiritual principles), and ultimate meaning struggles (i.e., questioning whether life really matters). He also listed doubt struggles (i.e., feeling confused about one’s religious beliefs), interpersonal religious struggles (i.e., conflict with other people over religious matters), and demonic struggles (i.e., feeling worried that everyday events in one’s life are the work of the devil or evil spirits).
Profound Health Implications
Pargament explained that clinical psychologists usually work with people facing injury, accidents, or disease. “But we often overlook their spiritual struggles,” he said, adding, “We can’t help them if we ignore the spiritual dimension of their struggles.”
One of the reasons for this, Pargament explained, is that spiritual struggles have profound implications for health and wellbeing.
Studies on spirituality and health reveal that spiritual struggles are tied to every form of psychological symptoms, including anxiety, depression, compulsive behavior, and somatization, Pargament shared.
“In a landmark study on spirituality and health, all types of religious struggles were tied to greater depression, greater anxiety, less life satisfaction, and less happiness,” he reported. “In a study of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, spiritual struggles were the only significant predictor of suicidality, that is to say, of the likelihood of future suicide attempts.”
Can Spiritual Struggles Lead to Growth?
At first sight, it seems that spiritual struggles might lead to growth, Pargament said. “We think of struggles as a way toward growth and transformation. But is it so?”
He explained that it is true that spiritual struggles “can lead to a change in life priorities, the discovery of personal strength, finding a new life path, or experiencing a greater sense of closeness with others and God.” As regards divine struggles, for instance, “an honest expression of negative feelings may increase a sense of intimacy with God or challenge simple ideas about Him. Doubt struggles, on the other hand, can help cultivate critical thinking or clarify what we truly believe versus what we’ve simply been told to believe,” he said.
At the same time, Pargament acknowledged, empirical research has not shown a consistent link between spiritual struggles and growth. “Do not sentimentalize spiritual struggles!” he asked, adding, “Pain does not always end in gain; suffering does not always build character.”
The key approach, Pargament said, is to see spiritual struggles as a fork in the road to growth and/or decline. In this regard, he emphasized it is key to assess spiritual struggles.
Pargament called on mental health practitioners and others to explore the nature of spiritual struggles in themselves and their clients by assessing what a person is going through. Through a series of questions, health practitioners can help their clients put their struggles into words, leading to a better understanding of a person’s specific situation, he said.
One of those methods includes explicitly asking, “Have your problems affected you religiously or spiritually? How?”
Pargament has developed a series of questions for practitioners to ask, including, “What are the deepest questions your situation has raised for you?” and, “How has this situation shaken your faith?”
“The key is encouraging conversation about spiritual struggles — listen, listen, listen,” he said. It is also important to encourage acceptance rather than avoidance to normalize spiritual struggles, he stated.
At the same time, Pargament emphasized, it is essential to foster greater wholeness by avoiding getting stuck in the struggle and pursuing deeper meaning and purpose instead. Some activities recommended to people going through spiritual struggles include writing and sharing a spiritual autobiography, sharing your spiritual struggles, and visualizing the ideal older spiritual self.
“Beyond talk therapy, families and religious institutions can anticipate spiritual struggles,” Pargament said. “Parents shouldn’t be afraid of discussing the topic of spiritual struggles at the dinner table.”