Faith as Therapy?


Why would I as an evangelical Christian who professes the uniqueness of Christ agree with Dan Buettner when he writes, “It doesn’t matter if you are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, or Hindi.”

For those who know me, hearing that I concur with a statement such as this would be shocking. Some would think I had lost my faith. Yet, I do agree with Buettner on this statement because of the context in which he writes it.

Dan Buettner is the author of The Blue Zones, a New York Times Bestseller. The Blue Zones is a book providing “lessons for living longer from the people who’ve lived the longest.” The research is conducted among four groups of the people who have a significantly higher percentage of inhabitants living to be centenarians, (100 years of age or older). The four Blue Zone communities are found in the Barbagia region of Sardinia in Italy, Okinawa in Japan, Loma Linda, California in the United States, and on the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica.

Studies have shown that only about 25% of how long we live is dictated by genes—the other 75% is determined by our lifestyle and choices. Buettner and his team paid close attention to the lifestyle similarities of these four Blue Zones and developed nine lessons to work into our lives if we desire to live longer and better.

Several of the lessons are very familiar to those of us who have a penchant for health. It is no surprise that staying active was a common and shared trait for longevity. A healthy diet also certainly made the list. However, within the list were some lessons not often communicated in wellness forums.

Lesson Seven

I am not going to give away the full list as I recommend you read the book. However, there was one surprising finding: Lesson Seven. Here Buettner says the lesson is “Belong: Participate in a spiritual community.”

From what I can gather from Buettner’s writing and the few Twitter messages we have exchanged after I shared with him my appreciation for his writings, he and I do not share similar religious beliefs. Yet, he makes one of the most compelling reasons for why I as a Christian should apply foundational teachings of the Christian faith. Therefore, I ask the question again, why would I agree with him when he writes, “It doesn’t matter if you are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, or Hindi.”

Buettner is not attempting to answer questions related to the validity of one religion over another. He is not suggesting any one particular religion points someone to faith in the one true God. He is not debating theology or doctrinal beliefs. Rather, he is affirming his research which shows the healthy centenarians everywhere have faith. It’s not the object of their faith, simply that they have faith. The objects of faith varied among the groups. The Sardinians and Nicoyans are mostly Catholic. Okinawans have a blended religion that included ancestor worship. The Loma Linda community is Seventh-day Adventists.

As Buettner expands his thinking on Lesson Seven he provides ample support for the value in participating in a religious community. He writes, “It appears that people who pay attention to their spiritual side have lower rates of cardiovascular disease, depression, stress, and suicide, and their immune systems seem to work better.” He shares research indicating that people who attend church are less likely to engage in harmful behaviors and more likely to engage in healthier activities. Other benefits he shared that come from belonging to a spiritual community included larger social networks and higher self esteem. However, there was one finding that seemed to stand out.

In each of his studies of the Blue Zone centenarians, Buettner found they had means of dealing with stress.  He writes,

To a certain extent, adherence to a religion allows them to relinquish the stresses of everyday life to a higher power. A code of behavior is clearly laid out before them. If you follow it, you have the peace of mind that you’re engaging in right living. If today goes well, perhaps you deserve it. If today goes poorly, it’s out of your hands.

I found this striking. I also found it supportive of common and basic Biblical teaching.  Trusting God when “it’s out of your hands” is illustrative of resting in the sovereignty of God. The Bible, in I Peter 5:7, reads, “Cast all your anxiety on [God] because he cares for you.” The Apostle Paul penned these words “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:6-7).

Buettner is not a Richard Foster, but he provides an incredibly potent admonition to us as Christians to practice the fundamentals of our faith. He writes of meditation, gathering with like-minded spiritual seekers and trusting in a higher power. (For Christians, this higher power is “God” revealed to us through creation and his son, Jesus Christ.) Buettner focuses on the benefits of the stress-relief that comes through religious activity and faith.

What does this mean for those of us who are Christians? I have long contended anyone who practices the disciplines of the Christian faith, regardless of their religious preference, will reap benefits. I urge my evangelical friends to hang with me for a moment. In addition to the spiritual world, God has created a natural world with natural laws. He has created our bodies and minds to respond and react to natural stimuli and actions.

Two Levels to the Benefits of Faith

For the Christian, there are two levels of benefit we gain when we trust God through prayer by “casting our cares upon Him.”

Benefit #1: A Spiritual Benefit

First,there is a spiritual benefit that comes to us through worship, prayer and obedience. Prayer is an avenue for inviting God to work in our world beyond nature and beyond what can be explained or seen. As Christians we know that God breaks into the world and answers prayer and intervenes in life. When this happens we refer to it as the “supernatural” work of God. And this is a benefit of prayer and placing our trust in God.

We are naive if we think only Christianity has elements of the supernatural. The Bible clearly states “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms,” (Ephesians 6:12). Therefore, we don’t claim a uniqueness based on the supernatural. Rather, where we would differ is in our conviction that the God of the Bible, as revealed in Jesus Christ, is the only One who works supernaturally solely from a point of holiness and righteousness.

Benefit #2: A Therapeutic Benefit

In addition to the supernatural working of God in life, however, there is also a “natural” benefit that comes through the religious exercise of trusting God—or, what Buettner calls the “relinquishing of the stresses of everyday life to a higher power.” Spiritual disciplines can be therapeutic.

There, I said it! I will say it again: Spiritual disciplines can be therapeutic. Anyone, of any religion has access to this benefit from the spiritual disciplines that belong to the Christian faith. Meditation, regardless of one’s spiritual beliefs, can, in itself, provide natural benefit. Worship of any god can bring a sense of contentment. Believing that some higher power has control over the situations of life can help alleviate everyday anxiety and guilt. These are therapeutic and natural outcomes resulting from religious expressions.

This latter benefit of spiritual disciplines is what Buettner discovered among sincere religious people of various religions, leading him to conclude it doesn’t matter what religion you choose to follow. While I align with the words of Jesus that He—Jesus—is the way, the truth and the life, Buettner’s admonition is to pick one and follow it so you can find relief from stress which will help you live a longer and healthier life.

What are the lessons for Christians?

As I contemplated this question I came up with three answers which have awakened my mind to needed changes in my life. Perhaps you will find the three answers helpful too.

  1. In addition to the supernatural benefits of prayer and faith, spiritual disciplines play a significant therapeutic role in our lives, including the reduction of stress. I use the word “reduction” carefully as the Bible is abundantly clear that the Christian life is not a stress-free life of ease. Yet, I know if I truly “give to God” my cares and circumstances then my mind will find a lot more rest.
  2. Some non-Christians are better at applying the spiritual disciplines found in the Bible and, therefore, are enjoying the natural benefits of longer and healthier lives. We err if we believe it is God’s will for each of us to live to be centenarians—Jesus died in his 30s. Yet, many of us who profess a love for God and a trust in Him, often lack the day-to-day trust in God and the result is that our worry wears on our minds and bodies and shorten our lives and steals our vitality and health.
  3. We can learn from believers in other religions on how to engage our minds in the spiritual disciplines of faith, prayer and meditation. Having professed faith in Jesus Christ for as long as I can remember, I know the reality of how we can go through the motions of spiritual disciplines without ever bringing along our minds to our spiritual activity. We can close our eyes in prayer without focusing on the God who hears. We can attempt to meditate on God’s Word while allowing our mind to drift. We can say the right words that exemplify faith, but refuse to let go of the worry.

I found it odd that a book such as The Blue Zones would provide a deep exhortation to deepen my trust in God. What I discovered is that my reactions to burdens I face often reveal a lack of faith and trust. For, as Buettner discovers, real faith will often provide a healing balm, not only to our spiritual life, but also to our physical life.

A Final Note: Centenarians Die Too.

In the closing paragraphs of The Blue Zones, Buettner states the obvious: Centenarians die too. He writes that our bones will soften and our arteries will harden. Vision begins to fade and our hearing becomes dull. We slow down and “finally our bodies will fail altogether, and we’ll die.”  We all know it to be true. Even the longest living people one day die. Their lives may have been extended, but as the Bible says “people are destined to die,” (Hebrews 9:27). And when that day comes, whether we are 32 or 102, it WILL matter which God we chose in life to place our trust.

______________________

Bible Verses quoted from the New International Version (NIV) Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®

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3 responses to this post.

  1. I also found this book to be a great tool to lift my faith and devotional level

    Reply

  2. Posted by flogan on November 4, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    Sardinians are some of the most secularist population in europe, i don’t realise the relation between religion and longevity.

    Reply

    • Posted by jackwbruce on November 4, 2012 at 2:58 pm

      Flogan, Thanks for the comment and for reading the post. Buettner shares how dealing with stress was a common trait among the centenarians and that religion played a role in managing stress. I can’t speak to the religious beliefs of the Sardinians other than what Buettner writes in Blue Zones. The only mention of religion in regards to the Sardinians (that I could find) is that they are “mostly Catholic.” It does appear that he doesn’t reference their religious practices as much as he does the other groups in the study. -jack

      Reply

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