The Correlates of Spiritual Struggle during the College Years

By Bryant, Alyssa N.; Astin, Helen S. | Journal of Higher Education, January-February 2008 | Go to article overview

The Correlates of Spiritual Struggle during the College Years


Bryant, Alyssa N., Astin, Helen S., Journal of Higher Education


  I have a hard time believing in God or a higher power because you see
  so much suffering everywhere. You wonder if someone is in charge or
  why would He or She do this to other people. Why are some people
  suffering while other people have all the riches in the world?
  --A college student's reflection in a focus group, 2003

Spiritual struggle is an experience familiar to many students whose college years are marked by reflections on faith, purpose, and life meaning and by efforts to understand the preponderance of suffering, evil, and death in the world. From a clinical standpoint, there is growing concern regarding the numbers of individuals suffering psychologically from religious or spiritual problems. Increased attention to these maladies led to the creation of a new category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1994. Problems of a religious or spiritual nature have come to include such experiences as losing or questioning one's faith, religious conversion, and questioning spiritual values (Lukoff, Lu, & Turner, 1998).

The present study defined "spiritual struggle," a scale derived through factor analysis, as intrapsychic concerns about matters of faith, purpose, and meaning in life. The scale was comprised of five items dealing with questioning one's religious/spiritual beliefs; feeling unsettled about spiritual and religious matters; struggling to understand evil, suffering, and death; feeling angry at God; and feeling disillusioned with one's religious upbringing. The study is driven by questions regarding the factors that predispose students to spiritual struggles and the experiences through college that might lead to them. Further, it asks whether there are potential consequences of such struggles for students' self-rated physical well-being, self-esteem, and levels of psychological distress and whether spiritual struggles relate to growth in religiousness, spirituality, and acceptance of people with different religious/spiritual views. (1) In the sections that follow, we review the relevant literature in an attempt to summarize what is currently known about both the causes and consequences of spiritual struggle, identifying as well how this study will add to that body of work. Although the correlational nature of the studies reviewed precludes concluding with absolute confidence that certain variables are precursors to or outcomes of spiritual struggle, all studies were conducted within an implied causal framework, and we have organized the next section to reflect this distinction between causes and consequences.

Background and Conceptual Framework

Causes of Spiritual Struggle

Spiritual struggles may be rooted in numerous causes, but they are most notably linked to difficult life circumstances (Pargament, Murray-Swank, Magyar, & Ano, 2005) and to what Smucker referred to as "breaking the web of life" (1996, p. 84), or encountering events that unexpectedly threaten to shatter one's customary state of being. In a study of nearly 5,550 students attending 39 colleges and universities across the country, Johnson and Hayes (2003) revealed that fully 44% of their sample experienced at least "a little bit" of distress related to religious or spiritual concerns, and approximately one quarter felt considerable distress surrounding these issues. Moreover, the authors reported that the following were significant correlates of religious/spiritual concerns: confusion about beliefs and values, loss of a relationship, sexual assault, homesickness, and suicidal thoughts and feelings. Clearly, it is difficult to determine the direction of causation in these relationships, but at the same time, we can see how each of these experiences is logically connected to spiritual struggle, regardless of whether they occur in tandem with the struggle or precede it.

Personal characteristics and propensities are yet another set of factors that can lead to spiritual struggle. …

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