Thursday’s Wall Street Journal tackles a popular question that medical researchers seem unwilling to conclusively answer:
Is religion good for your health?
The problem lies in the fact that unlike studying other subjects, it’s either unethical or impossible to conduct randomized control trials (RCT) when it comes to the issue. In short, you can’t randomly prohibit people from either praying or attending church services and see how it would affect their health.
At the same time, the Journal piece cites a study previously published back in 2016 that followed 70,000 women across a twenty-year time span.
The research “found that those who attended religious services at least once a week had 33% lower mortality, from any cause, over a 16-year period. In particular, deaths due to cancer or cardiovascular disease were 75% the rate among non-attenders. While religion-associated reductions in smoking and increases in social support explained some of the benefit, the data suggested that religion worked through other, as yet unexplained, avenues too.”
Of course, one of the problems with the question the Wall Street Journal is asking is that there’s a gigantic difference between “being religious” and being a Christian. Going to church, chanting rote prayers, or engaging in “spiritual” exercises doesn’t make you a Christian, though several of those traditions are a meaningful expression of having a saving faith in Jesus Christ.
Yet perhaps the more significant issue with trying to correlate better health with faith is that in a broken world, people get sick and die seemingly prematurely all the time – even devout believers. To be sure, poor health can be a product of poor choices – i.e. smoking, drinking, a gluttonous diet, etc. But how to explain the child who gets cancer or the young adult who drops dead of a congenital heart defect?
The fact is you can’t explain these tragedies satisfactorily for most people beyond a general understanding that bad things happen to everyone. As a Christian, I may not love this aspect of fallen humanity, but it is reality.
We can be a bit more comfortable, though, with suggesting a correlation between faith and a more joyful and even happier life. While happiness may be fleeting and based on circumstances, joy is far more sustainable.
“Joy is not found in circumstances,” said the late pastor Dr. Adrian Rogers. “It’s found in a person. Joy is a characteristic in the fruit of the Spirit, which means it comes supernaturally as we abide in Jesus, the Vine. We do not produce joy, the Lord Jesus Christ does; we simply bear it.”
The Wall Street Journal essay concludes by noting many spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation and deep contemplation are known to “slow breathing and brighten emotional states, with a direct positive impact on the cardiovascular system.” Although we’re subject to sin and illness as a result of the fallen nature of humanity, it would certainly be in God’s nature to provide us with guidance that nevertheless improves the quality of our lives.
The essay only tackled the debate about health and faith, and not the question of whether having “religion” adds years to your life. Of course, death eventually comes to everyone, even the healthiest of people. This brings to mind the old equip, attributable to several people, including Mickey Mantle. The Yankee Hall of Fame centerfielder reflecting on his life, was said to have observed, “If I had known I was going to live so long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”
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