Monday, January 26, 2009

Spiritual Health

What is spiritual health? I have long thought about this question, especially since my profession’s concern is with ‘health’. Spiritual health is certainly important for physical health. Many scientific articles have shown that things like church attendance and belief have measurable positive effects on physical health (one study showed that church attendance lowered mortality so significantly that a lifelong churchgoer would live seven additional years compared to the non-attendee). My first thought was, “Great! Everybody should go to church!” but this suggestion was vehemently opposed by those who are deathly allergic to religion (most of my classmates and professors). Even I, upon reflection, concluded that an Atheist who took my advice and went to church hating every last Sunday morning would likely not live seven years longer.

What then can I do? My job is to share whatever of God’s love and healing as I can with my patients, even those who are unwilling to go to church. Are there benefits of spiritual practice which are sharable with non-Christians? Or is it Divine intervention that gives churchgoers their extended lives? Though I can’t completely rule out God’s favor (I am, after all, a rational person who does not come to conclusions without evidence), it seems likely to me that if there were such an effect, it would at least be coupled with a natural one. That is, there is probably some positive psycho-socio-physical effect that could indeed be transferred to the heathen (גוי – literally “non-Jews”; figuratively “not God’s people”... no offense to the heathen).

And so I must return to my original question: what is spiritual health? For a long time, my thoughts on this question were informed (and limited) by the traditional Christian answer: fellowship, prayer, service/evangelism and Bible study. These have certainly laid the foundations for my own spiritual health. But can these be generalized? Is there some part of the benefit of prayer which a Hindu could get by meditation (or conversely, what of spiritual health are Christians missing by ignoring God’s command to “be still and know that I am God”)?

In considering my own spiritual life, I identified seven areas which I believe are important for spiritual health (and I didn’t make it be seven on purpose… that’s something I’m liable to do but I didn’t). They are 1. Relationship with family 2. Relationship with friends 3. Sleep and rest 4. Spiritual exercise 5. Private spiritual expression 6. Confidential spiritual expression 7. Public spiritual expression. I’ll describe how I have seen the church engage these seven points, and then how it may be generalized.

1. Relationship with Family
A Christian is encouraged to have a good relationship with her literal family. Many places command respect for parents, love of wife/husband, and care for kids. My church in Temecula places a strong emphasis on this point.

Family and family responsibility is a large part of being human. From a crude biological sense, reproduction and child-rearing is our only important role. And the sensibilities of most people today and those throughout history have placed a special significance on having a good relationship with our families. Indeed marriage has been shown to extend lifespan (and my guess is that a good marriage does so more than a bad one).

2. Relationship with Friends
A Christian is encouraged to have friends to whom she can go. These are developed in ‘Small Groups’ or via Discipling (mentoring) relationships. There are many emphatic commands to love one another, and many incredible examples of such relationships in the New Testament.

Friendship and community is one of the most universally accepted human goods. It is certainly not the exclusive domain of the church (though the Church has often been the friend to the friendless historically). Psychological studies have started mapping this as a variable that is linked to mental health.

3. Sleep and Rest
God is quite concerned about rest. He talks about the Sabbath a whole lot more than Christians are comfortable with and themes of Rest are throughout the Bible. Christian generally rest at least 1½ hours on Sunday morning.

Rest is really important. We all know this. And even the idea of intentionally not working is important. I’ve heard an apocryphal story of the USSR switching to a 6 day work week because of productivity declines after they tried a 7 day work week. We need rest and we need sleep, be we Christian or Atheist.

4. Spiritual Exercise
There are lots of exercises we’re supposed to do: bible reading, fasting and service are a few, and the Bible is full of expositions on these. Widows and orphans, justice, and evangelism are things that God would like for us to care about (and the Church generally does care).

Many of these expressions are directly translatable (service), some of them are not (Evangelism), and I think the traditional Christian picture omits some important things. My most recent thinking on the spiritual aspect of a thing is: “that part of an experience which remains after subtracting its rational and emotional aspects.” Serving others, going to church, getting married, going to a funeral all have large spiritual components. But so do hiking and stargazing, art museums and drama performances. These experiences have something about them which is sublime. And I’m inclined to call it spiritual. Even if an Atheist doesn’t go to church, I bet he’d be a spiritually healthier person by stargazing. I don’t know of any studies that link these practices to health, but I think that’s because nobody’s ever looked. This category deserves more thinking, but for the moment is broad enough to be accommodating to everyone.

5-7. Private, confidential and public spiritual expression
A Christian ought to expresses her love for Christ, her hopes and fears, her praise and thankfulness, her sorrow and joy, she confesses her guilt and asks for forgiveness. And she has opportunity to do it through prayer (privately), in small group or accountability (confidential), and at the church building (publicly).

These expression of the human heart, mind and soul cannot only be the turf of the Church. I think the Church has worked out a very convenient way to regularly express them, but the need (and opportunity) is universal. A person may quietly reflect on his guilt without asking forgiveness from God; part of the benefit of prayerful confession will be maintained. Mentees can express their hope for the future just as well as disciple-ees. Joy can be expressed at a Dave Matthews Band concert as well as at one by Switchfoot.

What is spiritual health? I’m not sure entirely. But I think the traditional Christian framework, refined by two thousand years of spiritually health people and generalized, is an excellent way to think about spiritual health. I am very interested in further refinements and improvement, but I think even in its early stage, if a person made efforts to improve in these seven areas, he’d be better off. And that goes for Christians and non-Christians alike.

In a first step to help people improve their spiritual health, I have designed a Spiritual Health Self Assessment. It takes about 20-30 minutes and encourages participants to reflect on their spiritual health and includes a section for planning for self-improvement. The next step is to recruit and train Spiritual Healthcare Providers (SPHs). But more about that later.

I would love for you, my reader, to participate and improve your own spiritual health (and give me feedback, so I can better heal the spirit):

Take it once a week for better health, (future) Doctor’s orders.

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