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The Psychology of Spiritual Struggle

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Cover image of a research review about the psychology of spiritual struggleTo struggle is one of the great inevitabilities of the human experience. We struggle with many things, from mundane inconveniences to the great, character-defining obstacles that shape our lives. For many people, spiritual struggles are among the deepest and more core-shaking of all conflicts. Moments of spiritual struggle cut to the very heart of our beliefs, values, and practices, raising questions that challenge the essence of our identities: Who am I? Why am I here? Am I a good person?

Spirituality can serve as a beacon of hope and a source of comfort for many people over the course of their lives. However, during periods of strife, spirituality may add to the confusion, serving as a source of tension or struggle rather than a safe harbor. Scientific study from the past three decades indicates that spiritual struggles appear to be pivotal experiences that can shape the trajectory of our lives — in both positive and negative ways. In this research report, Professors Kenneth Pargament and Julie Exline explore exciting new literature in this field, presenting their research as a structured series of questions and answers related to spiritual struggle. Readers interested in a more extensive discussion of this knowledge base can read Pargament and Exline’s forthcoming book, Working with Spiritual Struggles in Psychotherapy: From Research to Practice.

How do we define and characterize spiritual struggle?

We define spiritual struggles as “experiences of tension, conflict, or strain that center on whatever people view as sacred”. Broadly speaking, we can identify three main categories of spiritual struggle: Supernatural struggles, which involve tension with a higher power; intrapsychic struggles, which manifest through internal conflicts with oneself; and interpersonal struggles, which involve tension with other people or institutions related to spiritual matters. 

How commonplace are spiritual struggles?

Spiritual struggles are not at all unusual. In a large survey of U.S. community and college student samples mentioned in the full research review, one third said that they had encountered a spiritual struggle in the last few months.  A larger percentage of people, approximately 75%, reportedly experienced a spiritual struggle at some time in their lives.

Spiritual struggles have also beset prominent figures throughout history. From the story of Job questioning God in the Hebrew Bible, to Galileo’s great debate with the Catholic Church in the 17th century, to Beatles guitarist George Harrison’s spiritual crisis and transformation in the 1960s — spiritual struggles are an ever-present theme. 

What causes spiritual struggles?

Human beings are intentional creatures, driven to search for purpose and significance in our lives. Spiritual struggles often stem from this search for significance. During the course of our lives, the search for purpose and meaning may become less straightforward than we desire — which can raise serious questions about our beliefs, values, and practices. Overall, this research review identifies three main sources of spiritual struggle: the purposes people seek out of life, their orienting systems, and the life events and transitions they encounter. 

What are the potential consequences of spiritual struggles?

Spiritual struggles are a natural part of life, but they also cause distress and disorientation. Dozens of studies have linked spiritual struggles to depressed affect, anxiety symptoms, negative emotions, and lower sense of well-being.

However, times of struggle can also be fundamental for human development. Spiritual struggles are embedded in the world’s great religious traditions. Though the pain is real and often intense, spiritual struggles are said to lead ultimately to growth and transformation, as we read in the stories of figures like Moses, Jesus, and the Buddha. Moses’ struggles with God, the Pharaoh, and the Hebrew people were essential parts of the story of the liberation of his people from slavery and journey to freedom. The struggle and death of Jesus on the cross set the stage for his resurrection. And the Buddha’s confrontation with the temptations sent to him by Mara propelled him to enlightenment.

Few of us go through life without encountering periods in which we are deeply shaken and our most fundamental beliefs are thrown into question. Periods of such difficulty can lead to very different outcomes based on our individual life experiences. This research review synthesizes a broad scope of recent literature on spiritual struggle to present a nuanced exploration of this field.

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