If religious faith could be packaged in a pill, the stock price of drug companies would soar. Religion, not merely spirituality, is a profound predictor of health. Spiritual practices can reduce blood pressure, strengthen the immune system and help stave off some effects of mental illness about as well as many drugs on the market. In fact, the lack of religiosity is about as unhealthy as 40 years of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. If you care about your health, you might want to start going to church and praying regularly.
Consider these five ways that faith is really good for you.
Faith Encourages Healthy Behavior
“Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t chew, and don’t go with girls who do.” Even the fundamentalist Christian high school I attended considered that line outdated. Nevertheless, the effect of behavioral change due to religion literally reduces your chances of dying. Your faith community may not encourage you to eat organic, non-GMO, plant-based, local and slow foods, but it probably still exercises some healthy influence on the habits you form and the activities you undertake.
I discovered a stark example visiting the work of a Christian microfinance agency in Cambodia. Microfinance aims to help people out of poverty by giving small loans to start small businesses. But the loan client I met, a fisherman, told me that what really helped him was learning discipline through the small group of loan clients he regularly met with. Many of them were Christians, so he became one too. They helped him stop drinking, which ended the damaging home environment for his wife and children. Religion didn’t fix his life and help him out of poverty. But through regular exposure to a group with healthier lifestyles and habits, faith created an environment to make that happen in his own life.
Faith Reduces Stress
Stress has a direct negative effect on your immune system, reducing the ability of cells to attack disease inside the body. Studies have shown that religion reduces stress in a number of ways. Prayer, in particular, can reduce high blood pressure that is due to stress. The anxieties and stresses of modern life tend to encourage the body’s fight or flight response. Prayer, worship and other spiritual activities can balance out this stress response by enhancing the body’s relaxation response.
In addition, people who are religious tend to think in ways that are healthy. Faith gives people a sense of meaning and purpose in life, which is linked to better health. The brain controls every aspect of our bodies, so how we think affects how our bodies work. In a similar way, religious people tend to be affected less by depression. Of course, real, faith-filled Christians still suffer from depression and other forms of mental illness. But while faith is certainly no cure for any mental illness, it does seem to offer an additional buffer against its worst effects.
Community Improves Emotional Health
Having friends is good for you. Having religious friends is even better. In fact, one study found that “church membership was the only type of social involvement that predicted greater life satisfaction and happiness,” according to Harold Koenig, the Director of the Center for Spirituality at Duke University. (He writes about all these studies in his book, Medicine, Religion, and Health.)
Another study found the same effects from informal social interactions with church friends—but not other friendships. Another study among older adults in Iowa found that frequent church attenders where 68 percent less likely to die over a 12 year period. The bonds we form as Christ-followers provide us with more than just a social calendar. They are a vital web that sustains our health through rich relationships that improve both psychological and emotional wellbeing.
Helping Others Improves Life Satisfaction
Faith makes you healthier by providing you a community more willing to help you when life is difficult. Christians created the world’s first hospitals, and professional health care has long been essential to missions and ministry to the poor. But if you don’t find yourself seated among nurses or doctors in the pew, never fear. Faith’s greater health benefit comes to those who help. People who tithe, or give away 10 percent of their income, are on average 10 percentage points more likely to be very happy with their lives, according to sociologist Christian Smith.
One study sought to determine which of two different methods would better help people who suffer from multiple sclerosis, but they found that MS sufferers who were providing help, not just receiving it, were actually the ones to benefit the most. Since religious people are more likely to give money to charity and to volunteer, they are also more likely to experience the health benefits of helping others.
Space for the Miraculous
We need not doubt the fact that God heals, sometimes in miraculous ways. More than three quarters of Americans believe that prayer can heal people from injury or illnesses. In a survey, the same number of doctors said that they believe in miraculous healings. In many cases, the truth of Christianity has been put to the test of its miraculous effects and found to be genuine. This was true in 9th century Egypt when one monk claimed that he knew of no one who had become a Christian “except for proofs which they have witnessed, signs which they have known, and miracles which they have recognized, which compelled them to submit to it and practice it.”
Today the same is true in many places. In China, 80 to 90 percent of converts claim to have converted due to divine healing. In Brazil, more Pentecostal Christians claim to have experienced healing than to have spoken in tongues. Whether through prayer, laying on of hands, or some other miraculous intervention, those who claim faith can find in God health for both body and soul.
Some have suggested that miraculous healings are actually a sign of a “placebo effect” in which Christian belief motivates the body to faster healing—and, it’s true, many studies have shown a positive correlation between optimistic outlook and effective recovery. But whether through placebo effect, divine intervention or, perhaps, some combination we do not entirely understand, the truth remains: there are health benefits to believing that God has control over your health.
We need to exercise caution when trumpeting the benefits of faith, as faith was never intended to be a pill and the Bible is not an exercise pamphlet. Faithful, believing Christians get sick and lead lives plagued by disease or physical ailments (many scholars believe the apostle Paul himself spent his life battling some sort of physical handicap). But if we believe that God’s authority stretches to the physical as well as the spiritual, then we can accept that He can manifest that authority in our physical health as well as our spiritual health.
Rob Moll is an award-winning journalist, currently serving as communications officer to the president at World Vision. He has written extensively on health and health care issues, investing and personal finance and religion. His book, What Your Body Knows About God, is now available from InterVarsity Press. You can find him on twitter @mollrob.