How Religious Commitment and Worship Impact Health

  Monday, October 11, 2021
Contributed by Kailey Lentsch, MSW

Trigger Warning: this article discusses mental health struggles including depression, anxiety, suicide, and substance abuse.

The Bible tells us to “rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16), to have peace (John 16:33), and not to worry (Matthew 6:25-34); but for those who struggle with mental illness, is this really possible? Can someone in the depths of depression rejoice? Is it possible for someone with crippling anxiety to feel peace? Is there truly healing to be found for those suffering with mental illness? 

According to God’s Word, the answer is yes: 

“But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’” Matthew 19:26

“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3

“Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved, for you are my praise.” Jeremiah 17:14

But what may be surprising to know, is that according to research, the answer is yes. Several studies have shown that religious commitment and worship have a positive impact on both physical and mental health. People who are actively involved in church and worship benefit from community and a lifestyle that results in better physical and mental health. Furthermore, science has shown there are actual physical changes that happen in the brain when we engage in worship that make God’s commands to be joyful, have faith, and love others possible.

Before we go any further, I want to define religious commitment and worship. Religious commitment refers to how active a person is in their religion/faith/spirituality. This includes being present at worship gatherings, serving the church, praying, reading scripture, and any other “religious” activity on a regular basis. Note that when religious commitment is mentioned throughout this article, that it can be assumed the more committed a person is, the more likely they are to experience the outcomes described. 

Worship is not merely praying and singing during a church service; it is a posture or state of being. It is more about what is in our hearts than how that is outwardly expressed. Worship does include prayer, singing songs, and reading scripture; but it also includes confession, repentance, forgiveness, praise, and thanksgiving. It can also include sacrificing, whether that is in terms of finances and material things, time and energy, or submission to God’s will. When worship is referenced through this article, it is referring to daily acts of worship, not just weekly corporate worship. 

Community

One way that religious commitment and worship impacts mental health is through community. We are able to draw support and encouragement from others in our church family, from scripture, and from being in community with God Himself. Community also gives us reassurance that we are not alone in our plight. We can look to people in the church or in the Bible who have gone through similar experiences and find comfort knowing we are not the only ones going through something difficult. 

The Church

“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” James 5:16

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Hebrews 10:24-25

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Matthew 18:20

When we regularly attend worship services we have the opportunity to build social connections, feel a sense of belonging, and have a safe place for social interaction (Greenstein). All of this helps protect us from feelings of isolation which often leads to depression. It also gives us a space to truly be known by others where we can confess sin, seek forgiveness and reconciliation, and ask for encouragement. According to psychologist, James W. Pennebaker, “any type of open and truthful disclosure reduces stress and helps individuals to come to terms with their behavior.” When struggling with sin or difficult circumstances in our lives, we can turn to our church community for encouragement and prayer. Studies have found that worship and prayer have a positive effect on both the person engaged in prayer and worship, and the person being prayed for (Galton). So, even as the person doing the praying and encouraging, we can benefit from engaging in this type of worship with others. 

Scripture

Beyond the community found within the church, God provides a community in His Word. The Bible has several examples of people who struggled with various mental health issues such as depression, despair, anxiety, and more. Below are just a few examples: 

  • Jeremiah was known as the “weeping prophet”. “Oh that my head were water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” (Jeremiah 9:1) 
  • Elijah and Jonah wished themselves dead. “But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.’” (1 Kings 19:4) “Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:3)
  • Job and David expressed many moments of despair. “I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest, but trouble comes.” (Job 3:26) “For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.” (Psalm 38:4)
  • Martha was anxious and burdened by trying to make things perfect for everyone else. “But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.’” (Luke 10:40-42)

 

Studying these examples in the Bible reminds us that when we are struggling with our own feelings of despair, we are not alone. Others have gone before us with the same feelings and struggles and relied on God for their solace. More importantly, it reminds us that we can cry out to God with our struggles just like so many people in the Bible did. These examples, especially those found throughout the Psalms, show us it is possible to worship even when life is hard (Huyser-Honig). It also shows us that it is ok if our worship is not only praise and thanksgiving. God is big enough and compassionate enough to handle all our emotions, even the negative ones. 

God

“and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.” 2 Corinthians 6:18

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Hebrews 4:15

“Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Romans 8:26

As Christians, we have the ultimate community with a triune God. God the Father is a good, loving Father who cares for us and never leaves us. He listens when we call out to Him, and He is faithful to keep all His promises. Jesus, the Son, is the one who is able to sympathize with all our weaknesses and gives us hope because He has overcome them all. He knew what it was like to be poor, hungry, tired, frustrated, rejected, lonely, and grieved. Finally, the Holy Spirit dwells within us as believers and is a helper, interceder, and comfort to us in times of need. 

Lifestyle

When we are committed to religion and worship, we are more likely to live by a code of conduct or morals that influence our lifestyle and the choices we make. Many of these lifestyle choices, such as rhythms of rest, upholding morals, and abiding by the teachings in the Scriptures, lead to healthier lives for us, both physically and mentally. As our Creator, God knows exactly what our minds and bodies need, and He has graciously laid it all out for us through His commandments and Christ’s teachings. These are not just a list of rules to make us “good” people, they are His design to keep us healthy because He knows what is best for us. 

Rest

“So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.” Hebrews 4:9-11

“Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.” Deuteronomy 5:12

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matthew 11:29

Regular rhythms of rest are built into the Christian faith. After creating the world and everything in it, God rested on the seventh day. He didn’t do this because He was so exhausted and unable to work, He did it as an example to us. When His work was done, God rested (Genesis 2:1-3). This shows us that God’s perfect design for work was to include periods of rest. We were not made to continually work. He created our bodies to need physical, mental, and spiritual rest, so it only makes sense that He would give a command that provides us with exactly what we need. The way we find spiritual rest is through worship. When we set time aside each week to meet with other believers or when we take time during our day to meditate on His Word and talk to God in prayer, our souls find rest. Taking a time out from the busyness of life give us the rejuvenation and reset that we need. 

Morals

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain and wait there, that I may give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.’” Exodus 24:12

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” Romans 13:8-10

“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Galatians 5:19-21

Our religion gives us guidelines to live by, and while there are some gray areas and disagreements on what this looks like, when we are committed, we will adhere to some sort of code of conduct. Matthews, et al. found that people who are committed to their faith are “less likely to use alcohol and other drugs and, even if they do so, are less likely to engage in heavy use and suffer its clinical and social consequences.” Another study found that people who regularly attended church services were less likely to be involved in relationships that perpetrated domestic violence. When we are living our lives to please God instead of please ourselves or other people, we are more likely to surround ourselves with people who have similar morals and values. This makes us less likely to find ourselves in relationships that are unhealthy or unsafe. 

Teachings

“and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Matthew 6:12

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” Colossians 3:12

When we are active in our faith, we are likely to abide by the teachings of the Scriptures. Many of these teachings, like practicing forgiveness, gratitude, and kindness, have great health benefits. According to an article by John Hopkins, studies have found that forgiveness can lower the risk of heart attack, improve cholesterol, improve sleep, and reduce pain, blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and stress. When we practice gratitude, we are more likely to focus on what is good in our lives rather than what is wrong. We are also more likely to feel more content and less focused on what we don’t have. This all contributes to better mental health and better physical health (Nationwide Children’s). According to the Mayo Clinic, “kindness has been shown to increase self-esteem, empathy and compassion, and improve mood. It can decrease blood pressure and cortisol, a stress hormone, which directly impacts stress levels.” 

Impact on Physical Health

“A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” Proverbs 17:22

“There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin.” Psalm 38:3

“My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments, for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you.” Proverbs 3:1-2

Most of us have experienced the physical symptoms of stress (increased heart rate, rapid breathing, nausea, pain, fatigue, problems sleeping, etc.) and we know that mental and physical health are intertwined and impact one another. It is likely that the correlation between worship and better physical health is due to the way worship impacts our mental health. Nonetheless, when we are regularly engaging in worship, we are more likely to be healthier physically. Several studies have shown that people who frequently attend worship services are less likely to suffer from chronic diseases from cancer to cardiovascular disease, have lower blood pressure, and have quicker and better recoveries from illness. Additionally, “devout religious commitment may promote greater peace, self-confidence, and purpose, all of which characterize the “type B” behavior pattern that seems to protect against coronary heart disease.” (Matthews, et al.).

Impact on Mental Health

Coping Strategies

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” John 14:27

“Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.” Psalm 55:22

“Casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:7

When we are religiously committed, we are more likely to have better coping skills because we can draw on the teachings of peace, faith, and trust. This also goes back to community and having a group of people to walk through the trials of life with us. We are able to better cope with illness, injury, and diagnoses which leads us to be less likely to develop major depression and anxiety. In addition to protecting against depression, it protects against the most devastating consequence of depression, suicide. People who do not attend church are four times more likely to commit suicide than those who regularly attend church services. Overall, the more you attend worship services and engage in daily personal worship, the less likely you are to experience adverse psychiatric consequences of stress (Matthews, et al.).

Brain Changes

It was previously believed that the brain would not continue to grow in adulthood, however this has been proven to be untrue. Andrew Newberg studied the effects of prayer on the brain by having participants commit to twelve minutes a day in prayer and a control group who did nothing. His study found that those who prayed daily had actual increases in volume and metabolic activity in two structures of the brain. 

Cingulate Cortex

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” John 13:34

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Matthew 5:44

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” Matthew 25:35

Consistent, active worship causes an increase in the volume of our cingulate cortex. This increases our ability to practice empathy, which allows us to be more forgiving, kinder, more generous, and more trusting (Liedke). This means that the more we engage in worship, the more likely we are to obey and live out Jesus’ command to love others and to serve others willingly and generously. It even makes loving our enemies and “turning the other cheek” possible. 

Amygdala

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” 1 John 4:18

“for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” 2 Timothy 1:7

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9

Worship also causes physical changes in the amygdala which controls our fight or flight response. Basically, the more we worship, the calmer we are. Our fight or flight instinct still kicks in when it needs to, but it isn’t in overdrive and responding to every little stressor. This in turn causes a decrease in heartrate, blood pressure, blood glucose levels, and serum markers of inflammation (Liedke). The physical changes that happen in the amygdala can also cause a decrease in depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder. The amygdala also controls dopamine pathways and when those pathways are affected, it results in increases in self-control, discipline, and reactionary responses. 

Conclusion

We have seen over and over that the commands God gives us that seem impossible to us, are quite possible when we turn to Him for help and are committed to actively engaging in worship. God, in His great design, made healing, relief, and freedom possible, even in a broken world, for those who follow after His commands. He knows the ins and outs of our brains and has given us the gift of community and guidelines for a lifestyle that will lead us to greater physical, mental, and spiritual health. 

Worship is not just how we respond to the good things in our lives, it is how we respond to God for who He is and what He has done. It is how we celebrate the good and how we cope with the bad. It is how we give thanks for what we have been given and how we fall to our knees to ask for what we need. It is how we overcome sin and how we humbly seek forgiveness and repentance. It is how we receive encouragement and support and how we generously give to others. Whether it is in response to the good or the bad, worship is exactly what we need to bring healing in our lives. 

JournalOwl Resources

Find a Counselor or Coach

A Biblical Approach to Managing Anxiety Article by Kailey Lentsch

Anxiety Articles

Depression Articles 

Gain Gratitude Journal Challenge

Gain Faith Journal Challenge 

Gain Calmness Journal Challenge

Coming soon: Prayer Journaling Journal Challenge, Confessing Sin Therapy Course, Creating a Life Plan Article and Therapy Course

Other Helpful Resources

Get Out of Your Head Book by Jennie Allen 

Made for This Podcast with Jennie Allen

Neurophysiological Benefits of Worship Article by Michael Liedke D.N.P.

The Impact of Spirituality on Mental Health Literature Review by the Mental Health Foundation

What is Worship? Interview with John Piper

Mental Illness and Christian Worship Article by Joan Huyser-Honig

The Faith and Mental Wellness Podcast with Brittney Moses

And the Church Said… Podcast with Dr. Monique Smith Gadson

The Other Half of Church Book and Podcast by Jim Wilder

The Center for Being Known (Curt Thompson)

The Being Known Podcast with Curt Thompson

About Kailey Lentsch, MSW

Kailey Lentsch is the Chief Editor of JournalOwl. Her goal is to incorporate her knowledge of mental health and evidence-based techniques with sound biblical theology to provide readers with well-rounded, Christ-centered information and advice.

Prior to becoming a writer, Kailey worked as a community social worker providing counseling and case management for clients. She also taught special education in the autism unit for two years. Kailey stepped away from the classroom to focus on her growing family and to better serve her church and community through volunteer work.

Kailey is a graduate of The University of Central Florida with a master’s degree in Social Work and a certification in Children’s Services. She currently is enrolled in theology courses to expand her Bible knowledge and follow 2 Peter 3:18 by growing “in the grace and knowledge” of Christ.

Kailey and her husband are Florida natives and enjoy spending time with their three kids. They love being outdoors or doing anything sports related.

Health Disclaimer

JournalOwl is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, medication, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptoms or conditions. JournalOwl is not authorized to make recommendations about medication or serve as a substitute for professional advice. You should never disregard professional psychological or medical advice, or delay in seeking treatment, based on anything you read on JournalOwl’s website or platform.

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