Psychological Development & Meaningful Faith: When Faith Works

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Faith plays an important role in establishing a sense of meaning necessary for coping with life’s stressors and traumas. This is especially true for those events that lie beyond our expected and normal experiences.  This paper asserts that the context of psychological and emotional development, which forms in concert with our faith, is necessary in understanding how faith develops as a coping strategy. Cited writings include those of C.S. Lewis, Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, and James Marcia.


“When outward strength is broken, faith rests on the promises. In the midst of sorrow, faith draws the sting out of . . . trouble, and takes out the bitterness from . . . affliction (Cecil, 1955).” Richard Cecil, the eighteenth century Anglican clergyman asserted that faith establishes a context through which we understand and deal with the troubling and traumatic situations that arise in the course of life’s journey. Current day observations, anecdotal accounts, and ongoing research continue to cite faith as one of several mechanisms used in successful coping (Pargament, 1997; Spilka, Hood, Hunsberger, and Gorsuch, 2003). The past 35 years of my career in psychology, religion, and faith have seen recurring discussions of particular interest relative to psychology and faith:  to many individuals, faith has played a significant role in helping them cope with especially difficult and traumatic events. However, others seem to have found their faith no more meaningful than other coping strategies including membership in a social support community. Still others find their religion or faith to be of little help at all and turn away from it altogether. Inherent in these general discussions are assumptions that faith always should help us cope with various stressors by giving meaning to life, or it is never useful. Rather than take one or the other of these polar opposite positions, it is my assertion that the usefulness of faith is more dependent upon how faith is developed, as opposed to seeing faith in itself as either useful or not. This raises the obvious question: What makes faith helpful only for some, less helpful for others, and even useless for still others?

Within the field of psychology, there is growing interest in how the majority of individuals make healthy adaptations to major traumas and life stress. Following a normal period of confusion, questioning, and distress, sixty-five percent of people living in New York City displayed psychologically resilient adaptations six months following the September eleventh terrorists attack (Bonanno, Galea, Bucciarelli & Valhov, 2006). Even a gradual recovery from trauma (six months), displayed by some individuals is consistent with a pattern of adequate coping. Yet, thirty five percent of individuals did not fully recover.  What determines the difference between people who display psychological resilience, and those who do not? Research on resilience, recovery, and/or the absence of PTSD following a traumatic event is limited.  It has been observed, that individuals who deal effectively with stress and trauma do so with a variety and combination of coping techniques. Possession of a strong personal faith is one such strategy and viewed as providing meaning to life, thereby helping to cope with suffering (Pargament, 1997). To casual observers, many individuals who appear to possess similar levels of faith have different reactions to stress – some display psychological resilience and others are diagnosed with psychological disorders such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) 1.

Development of a complex combination of strategies, which contribute to an individual’s ability to cope with stress and trauma, is accomplished through a variety of life experiences. However, merely adding the total number of coping mechanisms to get a sense of how well someone is apt to cope is too simplistic. In the presence of what appears to be adequate patterns of coping strategies and life experiences, questions remain as to why one adult survives in a comparatively healthy manner, and another with essentially the same profile, fails to thrive. The purpose of this paper is twofold. First, to offer a conceptual and integrated framework for understanding how human beings develop effective styles of coping with complex issues related to trauma. Such a framework will in turn assist in understanding the role of faith as an expression of self within the context of stressful and traumatic events. Secondly, that adequate understanding of how faith develops as a coping mechanism is enhanced through the context of psychological development.

Psychological Development

Foundational work in developmental psychology is relevant to this discussion.  This includes thinking by theorists such as Erik Erikson – psychosocial development (Erikson, 1968), Jean Piaget (Cobb, 2004) and Lev Vygotsky (Vygotsky, 1978) – cognitive development, and James Marcia – Identity Statuses (Arnett, 2007).  These theorists and others have concluded that adolescence is the period of time when the development of a significant portion of one’s identity takes place. Continued growth, fine-tuning, and adjustment of our psychological selves continues through our twenties and into our thirties. Significant events that take place during the adolescent years often become associated/paired with one’s internalized sense of identity. For example, one teenager who is praised by important adults and peers for participation in athletics, or accomplishments in the high school science laboratory is likely to view her/his self worth and identity in roles similar to these activities. Similarly, a second teenager whose family may be going through particularly stressful times may be praised and given attention for being ultra responsible, or nurturing. Another one for his/her striking good looks.