6 Ways to Deal with Challenging Religious and Spiritual Issues

Dealing with intense spiritual and religious challenges is crucial for maintaining overall well-being.

In the 2023 hit song "God Must Hate Me," Catie Turner expresses:

"Have you ever seen someone and thought, 'Wow, it feels like I'm not favored by fate'? They seem so perfect, while I feel overlooked."

Got more than enough mental health character flaws

While their main flaw seems to be that they have none at all…

I don't know what I believe

But it's easier to assume

He made a mistake with me."

Have you ever experienced something similar? Although religion and spirituality can offer support, they can also be sources of stress or even trauma. This highlights the significant impact of what psychologists refer to as "religious and spiritual challenges."

What Are Religious or Spiritual Challenges?

A religious or spiritual challenge involves tension or conflict an individual may experience regarding what they hold sacred. For instance, as in the song lyrics above, a person may feel angry, sad, abandoned, or rejected by God. Someone might struggle with their beliefs or the ultimate meaning of their lives. Someone might feel upset by their experiences in religious or spiritual groups or be offended by teachings of a particular faith.

The Effects of Struggling With Religion and Spirituality

Research conducted across various settings and groups consistently reveals how religious and spiritual struggles predict poorer mental and physical health. For example, individuals who report more religious and spiritual struggles also tend to report more anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide as well as lower satisfaction with life and overall well-being.

Experiencing religious and spiritual struggles may also underlie why many people disaffiliate from a religion, an increasingly common occurrence. For example, people might distance themselves from a faith if they feel negative emotions towards the divine, akin to the words at the beginning of this article. As another example, individuals may distance themselves from religion if they encounter judgment from others or conflict about policy issues in their religious community or when they feel discord about belonging to a group they perceive has perpetrated prejudice or violence.

Given this, what could help individuals cope with stress and trauma related to religion and spirituality? Below are six suggestions informed by research on this topic.

6 Ways of Coping With Religious and Spiritual Challenges

1. Recognize you're not alone. Experiencing religious and spiritual struggles appears quite common. In one study, for example, when a national sample of adults were asked to identify a specific religious or spiritual challenge they experienced in the past few months, about 40% could do so. Additionally, numerous religious figures, such as Job, Jesus, and Mother Teresa in the Judeo-Christian tradition, faced challenges regarding sacred matters. Understanding this may help to reduce the sense of guilt, shame, or moral inadequacy you may feel.

2. Reflect on your experience. Sure! Can you identify what's causing your challenges? Is it possible to interpret this in a more optimistic way? For instance, is God truly the source of the stress and trauma in your life? Does your distress simply reveal that God is bad and against you? Might it instead be, in reality, that God loves you, that God is with you, and that other factors may be responsible for causing your distress? A deeper dive into philosophies of suffering may help you grow religiously and spiritually through this struggle.

3. Reframe struggle as a sign of strength. If you're experiencing a religious or spiritual struggle, you likely deeply contemplate what's true and meaningful about the nature of life, and that's a good thing. You care enough to genuinely grapple with your beliefs and values.

4. Recognize this may be temporary. Like other types of struggles, religious and spiritual struggles may pass. And like other types of struggles, they don't necessarily need to be resolved immediately. Take care of yourself and give this time to see how you feel later. Allow yourself the opportunity to gain insight and perspective, and you may find a peaceful resolution awaits.

5. Seek support from someone you trust. Avoiding or minimizing your struggles won't help. Find someone who can empathize with you as you are and help you through this time without making you feel guilty or ashamed. Professional help is also an option for dealing with these struggles.

6. Embrace ambiguity and uncertainty. Many people find religious and spiritual matters mysterious and challenging to understand. And as much as we might desire resolution of our concerns, sometimes that's not possible. As the writer Anne Lamott expresses, "the opposite of faith is not doubt; it's certainty."

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