Templeton.org is in English. Only a few pages are translated into other languages.


Usted está viendo Templeton.org en español. Tenga en cuenta que solamente hemos traducido algunas páginas a su idioma. El resto permanecen en inglés.


Você está vendo Templeton.org em Português. Apenas algumas páginas do site são traduzidas para o seu idioma. As páginas restantes são apenas em Inglês.


أنت تشاهد Templeton.org باللغة العربية. تتم ترجمة بعض صفحات الموقع فقط إلى لغتك. الصفحات المتبقية هي باللغة الإنجليزية فقط.

Skip to main content
Back to Templeton Ideas

Sacred and spiritual beliefs are the foundation on which people build their lives. They help orient and guide us whether or not these beliefs are religious in nature. Because of the centrality of sacred beliefs, spiritual struggles can shake us to the core.

Researchers who explore this realm define spiritual struggles as “experiences of tension, conflict, or strain that center on whatever people view as sacred.” This kind of tension has three domains: supernatural (wrestling with higher powers, whether divine or demonic); intrapsychic (wrestling with oneself over moral issues or questions about meaning); and interpersonal (wrestling with others over spiritual issues). 

A cancer diagnosis, emotional disorientation, or a lack of perceived purpose can bring on spiritual struggle — as can a host of other factors. The common thread between individuals’ sacred struggles is that experiencing this kind of tension is, well, common. A survey conducted among U.S. college students, cited in our recent research review on spiritual struggle, found that approximately 75 percent experienced a spiritual conflict at some time in their lives. Another national study, published in 2016 by Carmen Oemig Dworsky, found that 62 percent of adults reported experiencing occasional anger at God.

St. John of the Cross

The infamous “dark night of the soul,” a phrase attributed to 16th century mystic Saint John of the Cross, sounds like something to be avoided at all costs. But along with its adverse effects, psychological research also points to the importance of struggle for human development. So does spiritual struggle really lead to growth? The answer is: it depends.

Three kinds of potential growth

Growth can — but is in no way guaranteed to — result from spiritual struggles. When it does occur, transformation through struggle typically takes three forms: cognitive, personal, or spiritual.

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget wrote about the necessity of struggle for cognitive growth in children. Tension, he argued, was necessary for development. When a child’s lived experience surpassed her former understanding of the world, this frustration caused her to develop “more sophisticated cognitive schemas for thinking about and responding to the environment.” Later, psychologists would introduce the concept of “posttraumatic growth” to explain how positive transformation can result from trauma. But growth is not guaranteed; as psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun explain, “It is the individual’s struggle with the new reality in the aftermath of trauma that is crucial in determining the extent to which posttraumatic growth occurs.”

In spirituality, struggle can be an essential ingredient to building a healthy, mature faith — one that accommodates new ways of viewing the world. Theologian James W. Fowler compared stages of faith to human development and argued that disruptions and challenges bring about “changes in our ways of seeing and being in faith.” These kinds of disruptions, he noted, are what theologians refer to as “revelation.”

Outside of recent study, religious narratives also support the idea that spiritual struggle leads to transformation. In Buddhism, Siddhartha is tempted toward rage, lust, and pride by the devil Mara before he can reach enlightenment. In Christianity, Jesus begins his ministry only after spending forty days fasting in the wilderness and wrestling with the devil. 

Siddartha’s victory over the devil, Mara

The perils of avoidance 

What factors influence growth — or its absence? The previously cited survey published by Dworsky and her research team examined the relationship between experiential avoidance and mental health. Among a sample of over 300 American adults undergoing spiritual struggle, experiential avoidance — any effort to escape unwanted internal experience — was consistently linked to poorer mental health. In fact, skirting the tension at root in their lives actually heightened adverse symptoms among participants. In other words, avoiding spiritual tension only makes it worse. 

On the flip side, emerging research suggests that there are positive factors that also influence whether a person grows through sacred struggle. These indicators can be summed up under the umbrella of wholeness. A person’s ability to grow from struggle depends on how well they are able to synthesize and pull together the pieces of their life cohesively. Those who can organize their winding path into a coherent, purposeful journey experience greater levels of cohesiveness — of wholeness. Similarly, a person who can see and accept life in its fullness, welcoming both dark and light, suffering and joy, is practicing wholeness. 

An affirming approach to life is also an indicator of wholeness. Life affirmation doesn’t mean denying suffering, but it does assert that suffering does not get the final word. A 2017 study of Muslims and Christians found that individuals who reframed their spiritual struggles as an opportunity to grow closer to God — in other words, who affirmed the potential within the conflict — were more likely to perceive spiritual growth and less likely to report depression. 

A more nuanced framework

It’s important to note that transformation can grow from rocky spiritual soil, but there’s no guarantee that struggle will result in positive change. Dark nights of the soul can also bring about devastating effects. In the case of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, those who struggled with sacred issues showed a greater tendency toward suicide. Spiritual struggles have been associated with adverse effects ranging from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to physical pain. Perhaps because a lack of hope leads people to take poorer care of their well-being, this type of conflict has even been associated with a greater risk of mortality.

Like any form of adversity, the response to spiritual struggle is mixed. While some people — likely those who possess greater levels of wholeness — experience growth and transformation after struggle, others are crushed by it. Ultimately, research cautions against romanticizing spiritual suffering. A more accurate and nuanced understanding acknowledges that spiritual struggles can lead to both growth and decline, depending on an individual’s response.

Spiritual struggles appear to be pivotal experiences that can shape the trajectory of our lives; they may lead to wholeness and growth, brokenness and decline, or sometimes — perhaps most likely of all — some combination of the two.

Annelise Jolley is a journalist and essayist who writes about place, food, ecology, and faith for outlets such as National Geographic, The Atavist, The Rumpus, and The Millions. Find her at annelisejolley.com.