Psychological Development & Meaningful Faith: When Faith Works

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Other evidence also places the degree of psychological stability during the middle years upon the quality of one’s social context and resources such as educational and employment options. Thus, the implications for prevention are to encourage individuals to work through, or wrestle with, issues of identity younger (late teens through early adulthood), rather than later. Relative to matters of religious belief and faith, it is better to wrestle with doubts, fears when one is developmentally ready, versus pushing the doubts, fears aside, and hoping they do not resurface. An indication of the quality of faith as a coping mechanism, has to do with how much a person has wrestled with, explored, and come to a place of owning one’s beliefs related to various contexts of their lives.

Certainly, the process of emotional and psychological wrestling with foundational issues such as faith is often not an easy or comfortable experience, and can be the source of psychological turmoil. However, regardless of how difficult the actual process may be, the process is essential. Lewis (1947) describes such wrestling as a consistent pattern of God interacting with us on the way to forming a mature relationship with Him.  He describes a pattern of descent and reascent, as a sort of developmental fingerprint of God. This pattern is obvious in plant life when the seed, belittled and small, falls into the ground in a deathlike period of existence. The descent is necessary before it can sprout into new life and reascend- “go down to go up – … the highroad nearly always lies on the other side” of this pattern (p. 180). This pattern is also evident in the Christian view of in the incarnation. A sense of dying to self and identifying with the death of Christ on the cross is an essential part of new life in God. So too, according to Lewis, is the development of moral and emotional maturity. Erikson’s (1968) emphasis on the importance of a sense of crisis being required on the way to successful negotiation of each life stage (Engler, 1999) is an obvious parallel. As mentioned, this is a foundational goal within many theories of psychotherapy – coming alongside the client at a time of ‘descent’ into crisis and assisting the individual as they ‘reascend’.

Identity Status & Integration

The usefulness of one’s present religious commitment then is dependent on the current level of identity maturity, as well as the maturity level of the person when they made their religious commitment in the first place.  A practical knowledge of Erik Erikson’s and James Marcia’s work, presented earlier, is especially helpful in counseling and mentoring relationships, and understanding the psychology and of Lewis’ reascention.7 For example, a commitment to a religious creed made during the status of foreclosure (identity based on parent’s/role model’s beliefs), may be more of an expression of his/her cultural life style, rather than a worked out part of one’s identity as an adult.

In an attempt to apply theory to practice, it is important to know how old an individual was at the time of a religious conversion or a decision to follow a particular religious creed. Such a chronology provides some evidence of the level of integration of faith with other areas of life.  As mentioned above if this commitment took place during a later period of moratorium questioning and discovery, the level of maturity may possess more depth than if it was from an earlier age of foreclosure, when commitments tend to be more simplistic and less well thought out. Following Erik Erikson’s (1968) logic, since identity achievement is the major psychosocial task associated with adolescence, a significant conversion or spiritual awakening occurring during the later teen and early adult years would be more likely to develop as part of one’s identity as an adult. This later experience would be different for the individual whose significant spiritual experience happens in mid-childhood contributing more to the stage of foreclosure.

Developmental sufficiency is a phrase I have found helpful in thinking about this concept.  That is, the degree to which an experience or series of experiences occurs in concert with a developmental stage of readiness aids in the process of maturity.  For example, being ‘in love’ at 22 or 25 years of age has the potential to impact an individual’s ability to function in an intimate relationship as an adult, more than would ‘being in love’, or strongly liking someone at 10 years of age. Alternatively, within the context of faith development, the process of spiritual conversion, or significant re-commitment at 20 or 23 years of age would have a much broader impact on an individual’s sense of identity than at the age of 10 or 11.

The work of Benson, Donahue and Erickson (1993) confirms this important point: that ” . . . both cognitive readiness and experience are required for an individual to be able display the behaviors associated with a mature faith: taking the perspective of others, integrating disparate belief and action factors, and seeking the common good.” (p. 14)


I have attempted to present a way of understanding faith as a contributing factor in coping with stress and trauma. Within an integrated developmental model of faith and psychology, consideration should be given to the intensity of the risk factors, the quality of the coping factors, and the severity of the threat or trauma.