“Prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer has become impossible and your heart has turned to stone. If you have never had any distractions you don’t know how to pray. For the secret of prayer is a hunger for God and for the vision of God, a hunger that lies far deeper than the level of language or affection.” Thomas Merton
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 Even the fundamentalist Christian high school I attended considered that line outdated.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.
The mercy of God is one of the most precious realities in the world, one of the most revealing themes in all the Bible, and one of the most tragically misunderstood truths about God. If you want to know who God really is, if you want to peek into his heart, it is not the display of his just wrath and cosmic power to which you should look. Rather, set your eye on his mercy, without minimizing the fullness of his might, and take in the life-changing panorama.
Many of us today are prone, by nature and nurture, to see God’s mercy as peripheral or incidental to who he is. We suspect that perhaps he shows mercy by accident or weakness. But if we let the Scriptures have their say, we will see that when God shows his mercy, he does so with utter intentionality and strength, and we as his creatures get our deepest glimpse of who he is not just in his sovereignty but his goodness. Not simply in his greatness but his gentleness. Not only in his towering might but also in his surprising tenderness.
“God does not show mercy by accident or weakness, but always with utter intentionality and strength.”
But God’s mercy not only shows us who he is, but also tells us something essential about ourselves. That we have been shown mercy means not only that we didn’t deserve his favor, but that we deserved his righteous hammer against the anvil of justice. Our cry for mercy admits to our ill-deserving, not just undeserving. By rights, we should be under his impending wrath, like all mankind (Ephesians 2:3) — but for the “the tender mercy of our God” (Luke 1:78).
But we are not the first to peer into his heart and catch a glimpse of his fatherly posture toward us. God has made the world to turn again and again on fresh revelations of his mercy.
Moses Saw Mercy
The first great glimpse of God’s mercy came to Moses. In one of the most important passages in all the Bible, after Moses has asked God to show him his glory, God answers, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Exodus 33:19).
When asked to show his glory, God puts his goodness in grace and mercy on display — and his utter freedom in showing his mercy to whomever he chooses. Israel may not be all that more righteous than Pharaoh and the Egyptians, but God’s mercy on Israel is not based on Israel’s efforts and earning. Rather, God, as God, is utterly free to show mercy to whom he will — and he has chosen to be merciful to his people.
Just a few verses later, as he passes Moses by, God proclaims,
“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6–7)
God is not unjust; by no means will he clear the guilty and sweep sin under the rug. But the leading revelation of his glory is his mercy. The first and greatest truth for his people to know about him is he is “a God merciful and gracious.” His grace and mercy shine as the apex of his glory. He is “slow to anger” — he will show wrath, and justly so. It would be unloving to his people if he did not get angry when they were threatened and assaulted. And yet even in such justice, he is slow to anger. Wrath is his righteous response to evil, but it is not his heart. Justice is the stem; mercy is the flower.
David Fell on Mercy
Moses’s glimpse of the merciful God rightly became the leading revelation in Israel. It would be remembered, even as his people turned their backs to him, “the Lord your God is gracious and merciful and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him” (2 Chronicles 30:9). The prophets celebrated him as “gracious and merciful” (Isaiah 30:18; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2), but the Psalms in particular basked in his mercy (see Psalm 86:5; 103:8; 111:4; 116:5; and 145:8–9, among others).
It should be no surprise, then, that Israel’s great psalmist-king, David, would cast himself utterly on the mercy of God. He began his great song of confession, Psalm 51, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions” (Psalm 51:1).
“Wrath is God’s righteous response to evil, but it is not his heart. Justice is the stem; mercy is the flower.”
Later, when David recognized his sin against God by numbering the people, the prophet Gad gave him three options for God’s discipline: “Shall three years of famine come to you in your land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days’ pestilence in your land?” (2 Samuel 24:13). David had glimpsed the heart of God, and he knew where to fall: “Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man” (2 Samuel 24:14).
Jeremiah Wept for Mercy
In the generations after David, Israel fell into a spiral of moral decline. Eventually came the bleak moment Moses had foreseen as inevitable in the hard and wandering hearts of the people. In 587 BC the Babylonians besieged, conquered, and decimated Jerusalem. It was the most tragic and horrific moment in all the Old Testament. The city was so famished and desperate that women boiled and ate their own babies (Lamentations 4:10).
Into these blackest of times, the prophet Jeremiah penned the darkest and most despairing verses in all the Bible: the book of Lamentations. Chapter 3 is the heart of his lament, where the pain is most exposed, and hope seems almost lost. Yet even here, faith shines forth as the prophet gets a glimpse into the heart of God through his mercy.
Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” (Lamentations 3:19–24)
In the very time and the very place where God’s people would be most tempted to abandon hope, the prophet points to the mercies of God, never ceasing and new every day.
Paul Marveled at Mercy
Then, in the fullness of time, God sent his own Son not simply to dispense his mercy, but to embody it. Jesus is the Mercy of God made human. He didn’t just teach his people to echo God’s mercy in their lives (Matthew 5:7; 18:33; Luke 6:36; Luke 10:37), but he himself was, and is, the mercy of God to us. Fittingly, the most prominent request made of Jesus in the Gospels is, “Have mercy on me!” (Matthew 9:27; 15:22; 17:15; 20:30–31; Mark 10:47–48; Luke 16:24; 17:13; 18:13, 38–39), which is precisely what he did in his perfect life, sacrificial death, and triumphant resurrection — extending God’s mercy not just to Israel, but to all the nations by faith.
The apostle Paul, who received his ministry because of God’s mercy (1 Corinthians 7:25; 2 Corinthians 4:1; 1 Timothy 1:13, 16), became the instrument of the decisive revelation. What Moses first saw, and David fell on, and Jeremiah wept for, Paul saw on the other side of Christ, and he marveled. In all the Bible, Paul gives us the clearest vantage into, as Romans 9:16 says, the God “who has mercy” — literally, the mercy-having God. In other words, God’s mercy expresses his heart, as Paul will show, in a way that the demonstration of his wrath and the display of his power do not.
Romans 9:22–23 gives us the deepest glimpse into God’s heart, and what we find at bottom is mercy. This is perhaps as deep as the Bible goes in explaining to us why God governs his creation as he does. Paul puts it in the form of a question, not because he’s unsure of the truth, but for rhetorical effect, because it is awesome and sobering to contemplate.
What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory?
“Our God is not just powerful. He is not simply a God of uncompromising justice. He is the mercy-having God.”
Make no mistake, God does make known his omnipotence. And he does show his righteous wrath. He is holy. To not demonstrate wrath in a world of sin and rebellion against him would be untrue to himself and unloving to his people. God is phenomenally powerful, beyond our human capacity to comprehend it. And such an almighty God does indeed show wrath at the trampling of his glory and the harming of his people. But wrath is not his heart. Severity in God always serves his heart of mercy — to make known the riches of his glory to his people, who are the vessels of his mercy.
Entrust Yourself to Mercy
Our God is not simply sovereign, wonderful as it is to celebrate. And he is not only a God of uncompromising justice, thankful as we are that he is. He is the mercy-having God who invites us to look not only at his awesome authority and sovereign strength, but to set our eyes on his mercy and see into his very heart.
Entrust yourself to the God who has mercy.
10 Beautiful Buddhist Prayers To Meditate On
1. Being Peace
If we are peaceful,
If we are happy,
We can smile and blossom like a flower.
And everyone in our family,
Our entire society,
From our peace.
– Thich Nhat Hanh
2. With Every Breath
With every breath I take today,
I vow to be awake;
And every step I take,
I vow to take with a grateful heart.
So I may see with eyes of love
Into the hearts of all I meet,
To ease their burden when I can
And touch them with a smile of peace.
3. Bodhisattva Prayer For Humanity*
May I be a guard for those who need protection,
A guide for those on the path,
A boat, a raft, a bridge for those who wish to cross the flood.
May I be a lamp in the darkness,
A resting place for the weary,
A healing medicine for all who are sick
A vase of plenty, a tree of miracles.
And for the boundless multitudes of living beings
May I bring sustenance and awakening,
Enduring like the earth and sky
Until all beings are freed from sorrow
And all are awakened.
*performed daily by the Dalai Lama
4. Offering The Mandala
Here is the great Earth,
Filled with the smell of incense,
Covered with a blanket of flowers,
The Great Mountain, the Four Continents,
Wearing a jewel of the Sun and Moon.
In my mind I make them the Paradise of a Buddha,
And offer it all to You.
By this deed, may every living being
Experience the Pure World.
– Tibetan Prayer
5. Sky Is Free
Sky is free.
Ocean is blissful.
Trees are divine.
Rocks are enlightened.
So are we.
Who is still searching….
– Anam Thubten Rinpoche
6. Prayer For Youth
May the children of the world grow constantly
In spiritual awareness and peace consciousness.
May more and more young people each day
Find the wisdom of simply being and awakening.
May we all find the alert stillness of our Buddha natures.
7. Giving To Those In Need
May I become at all times, both now and forever
A protector for those without protection
A guide for those who have lost their way
A ship for those with oceans to cross
A bridge for those with rivers to cross
A sanctuary for those in danger
A lamp for those without light
A place of refuge for those who lack shelter
And a servant to all in need.
– Tenzin Gyatso
We reverently pray for eternal harmony in the universe.
May the weather be seasonable,
May the harvest be fruitful,
May countries exist in harmony,
And may all people enjoy happiness.
9. Walking Meditation
My mind can go in a thousand directions.
Now I walk in peace.
Each step creates a warm breeze.
With each step, a lotus blooms.
– Andrew Weiss
Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water.
The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken.
Although its light is wide and great,
The moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide.
The whole moon and the entire sky
Are reflected in one dewdrop on the grass.