Effects of faith
Does your faith impact not only your thinking, but also your mental and physical health? Several studies have examined the question, how faith influences our health. Professor Harold Koenig is leading the Centre for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health in Durham, North-Carolina. In a meta-study he and his team collected more than 1.200 scientific articles that were published after 1871 and that analysed the connection between faith and health*. 80% of the studies dealt with the question how faith afflicts the soul. He found out, that in most cases believers had a better psychological health compared to none-believers. The majority of believers could handle disappointments better, had a higher self-esteem and more confidence, and were more optimistic. To trust in a higher power can relieve the soul. Even if a person was affected by psychological illnesses, faith in God helped to deal with the situation. 70% of 444 studies showed, that faith can ease depression and can provide help for anxiety-disorders. In addition, believers were more likely to succeed in overcoming addictions than non-believers. With God at their side it was easier for patients to become free from alcohol than without him. So far the vast majority of the studies showed the positive effects of Christian faith on mental health. But Koenig also found out, that believers have advantages concerning their physical health. People who were believers had a lower blood-pressure, a better immune system, less heart diseases and – they lived longer. This was shown in over 82 studies! So this huge meta-study of 1200 studies showed significant positive effects of faith on human health – mental and physical health.
So even from a “worldly perspective” it is beneficial to believe in an almighty, loving God who is in control of our life. And beyond that, how much more hope and confidence brings the thought about God‘s promise to be with us and to provide a new heaven and a new earth for us.
But you may say “Wait a minute” – didn‘t Herold Koenig just speak of the effects of faith in general, no matter what you believe in? Does it matter, what I believe in?
The nature of faith
Nowadays many people think, that it doesn‘t matter what you believe, as long as you believe something. But is this really true? Let me give you an illustration: Imagine you are standing at the shore of a frozen lake and you want to cross the lake to get to the other side. The ice is only very thin, but your faith is very big! You have no doubt, that you can cross that lake and you feel very good about it! You are 100% sure, that you will make it and so you start running across the thin ice – but you don’t get very far until you crash through the ice and sink into the water. Now imagine you are standing at the shore of a frozen lake one more time, but this time it had been colder and the ice is two meters thick. But you are very fearful. You have only little faith. You don’t know if the ice will carry you. You can’t imagine how in the world you shall cross this lake. With trembling knees you put one foot in front of the other and you are sweating and praying to reach the other side. It almost seems like a miracle to you, that you finally crossed the lake and reached the other shore. – But the truth is: The ice was so thick, you could have crossed the lake in an 70 tons Abrams M1A2-battle-tank without any problem! So we see, that it does make a difference, what we trust in. It is important to build our faith on the truth and that is why Jesus said, that if we study his teachings, we will discover the truth and the truth will set us free. So faith and truth must be united. Jesus said, he is the one who shows the truth and he is the truth.
So, how does Jesus describe the essence of faith that he asks us to have?
At one point, when his disciples were struggling with disappointment and discouragement, Jesus told them very plainly: “I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Mt 18:4)
So Jesus said, if you have faith, nothing that you ask will be impossible for you. If it is God‘s will, he can even move mountains for us! So biblical faith is believing in the utter power of God and his possibility to act in our lives! But what is special about the faith Jesus wants us to have? You have to believe in something, that you can’t see right now. The mountain is there. It is as big and as steady as before, but you believe that God can move this mountain. Additionally, you haven’t ever heard of something like this before! You believe in something, you can’t see now. The book of Hebrews gives us a definition of faith that expresses this fact. Hebrews 11:1 says: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” And in verse 6 it says: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe, that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
So the nature of faith is, that we put our trust in the promises of God, although we cannot see their fulfilling today! It is like walking with your eyes closed, but hand in hand with a person that you trust. Even though you can’t see the way that is ahead of you, you trust in your companion, and that he is leading you right as he is telling you where to go. As we look back on our experiences with God and on how we took little steps of faith, we can win confidence for the future, although it may be unclear to us. But God has promised, that he will lead us to the end. In Hebrews it also says very clearly, “that anyone who comes to God, must believe, that he exists and that he will reward the ones, who earnestly seek him.” Of course, it only makes sense to believe, if we are sure, that God exists, but the text says, that it is equally important, that we believe in a God who is good and who will reward the ones that seek him. Many people are not sure, if God is good or not, but it is essential to believe in a gracious and loving God! We have the promise, that if we seek, we will find him (Mt 7:7). If we search for truth with all our heart, we will find it! Jesus said, God is like a father who is waiting for us to come home and for this reason he was willing to give his most precious gift for us.
But what does this faith in God‘s promises look like? How does it influence our lives?
I am so glad, that there are many examples of people in the bible that show us how to grow in faith. We can read many exciting stories, that tell us the experiences, the fortitude and the weaknesses of men and women of faith, and that show how gracious God was with those people and how he led them in their lives. We will notice, that their challenges were in essence oftentimes very similar to ours and that they gave us an example from which we can learn many lessons for our own lives.
One of those examples is Joseph. First he was sold as a slave to Egypt and then he was put into prison because of his loyalty to God and to his master. Surely, it wouldn‘t have been easy for me, if I had been in his position. But the real test came, when the cupbearer in prison promised Joseph to help him to get out of prison as soon as he was free – but then nothing happened. Joseph had to wait in prison for two more years. I‘m sure, that this was a very hard test of faith. Probably Joseph was tempted to give up. I would have asked myself: Why does nothing happen? But Joseph didn’t lose his faith! And God rewarded his loyalty. After many years of endurance, none other than the pharaoh himself called him out of prison and Joseph found himself to become the second most powerful man in Egypt! We also see, that Joseph‘s character changed throughout his life for the good through endurance and trust in God’s guidance, and that God prepared him through all the years for the work he wanted him to do. There are many other examples of faith in the bible: David, who was fighting Goliath, the giant, with just a slingshot and five stones. Or Daniel‘s three friends, who were rather willing to be thrown into the oven, than to worship the golden image of Nebukadnezar. But in the fire Jesus was with them and only their chains burned up. I‘m sure most of you will remember a person in the bible, that is a shining example of faith for you personally.
One outstanding example for me is the widow, that was willing to give her last bread to the prophet Elijah, although she and her son had nothing left for themselves. And even though she only knew very little about God, God rewarded her faith and worked a miracle: bread and oil in her house multiplied from that day on and God provided for her needs. But before this happened, she was tested whether she was willing to give the last thing she had to God. For me this is a good example of living faith. God can only put something into our hands, if we are willing to let go and open our hands first. Only then God can refill them. If the widow hadn’t given Elijah her last bread, probably no miracle would have taken place. If the disciples hadn’t decided to follow Jesus and leave their work and family, they wouldn’t have changed like they did. I think faith always requires to put our life into God’s hand no matter what and to take the risk to obey him.
The greatest example of such faith is found in the life of Jesus. His whole life was a ministry for God and mankind. I am especially astonished by the scene in Gethsemane, when Jesus prayed three times: “My father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Mt 26:39). Jesus was terrified when he thought of the sacrifice that he was about to bring, especially that the sin of the whole world should be laid upon him. But he was putting the will of his father first, entrusting his own life entirely to him! Even though his feelings were totally contrary, he was willing to do his father‘s will and to trust him, that his way is the best. I think this simple prayer shows what faith in summary is like – submitting our will to God‘s will: “Father your will be done!” A modern author puts it this way: “Faith means, to lay our plans into God‘s hands” (EGW). – Are we willing to do that today?
We have been looking at the benefits of faith for body and soul at the beginning of this article. As I write I can even feel the benefit of thinking about the principles of biblical faith. It is encouraging to see, that the people in the bible also started with little steps of faith and that their faith grew through persistence, despite of the personal weaknesses they had. And so it is with us: by acting out faith it will grow and show its positive effects in our lives today.
* Harold G. Koenig, “Religion, Spirituality, and Health: The Research and Clinical Implications”, ISRN Psychiatry Volume 2012, Article ID 278730, 33 pages