In the Bible, King David wrote, “Take away my sin, and I will be clean. Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Make me hear sounds of joy and gladness; let the bones you crushed be happy again” (Psalm 51:7, 8, NCV). When David penned these words, he was experiencing a moral struggle, according to Kenneth Pargament, a renowned scholar on the integration of spirituality and psychotherapy on the topic of spiritual struggles, in his keynote address at the 2023 Adventist Conference of Family Research and Practice. The same could be said about the apostle Paul, who wrote, “I do not understand the things I do. I do not do what I want to do, and I do the things I hate [Rom. 7:15],” Pargament said.
Pargament, professor emeritus of psychology at Bowling Green State University and adjunct professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry at the Baylor College of Medicine, delivered a second presentation on the second day of the conference. The fully online event was a partnership of the Adventist Church’s General Conference Department of Family Ministries (GCFM) and three entities at Andrews University — the Department of Discipleship in Lifespan Education at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, the School of Social Work, and the Institute for the Prevention of Addiction. In 2023, the event focused on a theme of “Families and Emotional Health: Hope, Heal, and Thrive!”
GCFM director Willie Oliver explained that the purpose of the event is to provide some presentations with scientific basis on topics of importance for the mental health of the family. At the same time, Adventist practitioners were invited to share theological and biblical approaches related to the theme, he said.
Oliver said he was happy to report about the extensive reach of the conference. “There were registrations from 115 countries in every division in the world [church],” he said. “Of the more than 2,000 people who registered, there were about 700 actual participants during the ‘live’ conference. Registrants also knew they would be able to access the presentations — plenaries and breakouts — from ACFRP.org at any time after the conference, so that people in different time zones who were unable to access the conference live can go back and experience the presentations.”
The Roots of Moral Struggles
In his July 21 presentation, Pargament opened by explaining that moral struggles are one particular type of spiritual struggle. “Moral struggles are those tensions, conflicts, and strains around the incongruity between one’s own values or moral standards and one’s own actions,” he said.
Moral struggles stem from the fact that humans are “moral beings motivated to varying degrees by a higher set of values and principles that define what it really means to be a good person,” Pargament explained, “and the fact that we are a container of impulses, appetites, and imperfections that require attention. Both our higher selves and our impulsive selves are a critical part of who we are. Without a sense of higher purpose, many people would experience their lives as empty and meaningless.”
At the same time, he said, we are biological beings “with appetites and drives that have to be attended to if we are to survive. Moral struggles occur when difficulties arise in regulating either or both of these sides of ourselves, reconciling the two with each other.”
He provided a couple of examples of moral struggles. “A wife, unable to reconcile her continuous involvement in an extra-marital affair … [and] health workers on the frontline of treating COVID, who were thrown into the position of playing God, deciding who could have access to … potentially life-saving ventilators,” he said.
Prevalence and Consequences
Moral struggles are commonplace, Pargament said, referencing a 2014 study which found that 57.5 percent of adults said they had experienced a moral struggle in the past few weeks. Among military veterans, moral struggles are the most common of all spiritual struggles, he added. And two thirds of college students who view online pornography report signs of moral struggle.
“Moral struggles raise deeply troubling questions such as, ‘Am I a good person? Am I living up to who I was taught to be? Can I still be loved? Can I be forgiven? Do I have the strength to master my impulses?’ ” Pargament said. “And moral struggles are embedded in psychological problems. For instance, anxiety as fear of moral failure; depression as marked by shame and guilt; moral violations as triggers of marital conflict,” among others.
In many cases, consequences of enduring moral struggles are depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, alcoholism and other addictions, and desire for revenge, Pargament revealed.
Moral struggles, on the other hand, can have some benefits on the person experiencing them. These include self-discipline, prevention of impulsive behaviors, soul searching, and even life transformation. “With help, they may offer a path of benefits and growth,” Pargament said.
He added that, at times, the lack of moral struggles can be a problem, and a mental health practitioner sometimes needs to trigger that struggle in a person to help them desire a change.
The roots of moral struggle are often what Pargament defined as “moral overcontrol — being enslaved by your morality — and impulse under-control — being slave to your impulses.” Both of these can fuel moral struggles, he said.
Dealing with Moral Struggles
There are various ways mental health practitioners can help clients struggling with moral overcontrol. One of them is creating a sustainable moral vision that accepts human frailty and limitations. In the book The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham (1992), the authors suggest that “spirituality helps us … accept the imperfection that lies at the very core of our human being” (p. 2).
Mental health practitioners can also help their clients face their fears of imperfection, including the fear of lost purpose, loss of control, and rejection by others. Finally, Pargament advised, it is important to draw on redemptive resources, which includes, among others, reaching fairer appraisals of responsibility for mishaps and making amends, repentance, and atonement.
Pargament quoted Kurtz and Ketcham again, saying, “ ‘God in heaven holds each person by a string. When you sin, you cut the string. Then God ties it up again, making a knot — and thereby bringing you a little closer to him. Again and again your sins cut the string — and with each further knot God keeps drawing you closer and closer’ ” (p. 29).
Against that background, a mental health practitioner should, among other things, create a context of caring and hope, and help the person identify authentic sacred striving. The latter includes asking a person dealing with a moral struggle such questions as, “What are you striving for in your life? Why is it important that you are here in this world? What legacy would you like to leave behind in your life?” Pargament said.
Where to Find Strength and Deliverance
Toward the end of Pargament’s presentation, several participants shared their takeaways and personal approaches in the chat function that was open to every registered participant. Among them were Willie Oliver and his wife, Elaine, who serves as the GCFM associate director. “Moral struggles are embedded in the human condition,” Willie Oliver wrote. “Let’s go to Jesus to find strength and deliverance every day! It’s called sanctification!”
Elaine Oliver agreed. “There’s power in the name of Jesus,” she wrote. “Even in the midst of our struggles we can turn to Him. He sees and hears us.”