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By David Briggs
Want to be lifted up a little higher in experiencing the mystical connection between the divine and human beings?
Just listen to Mahalia Jackson lift her soul-stirring voice in praise in the song “Without God, I could do nothing."
It is an attitude of gratitude for feeling immersed in the embrace of a loving God that is a central part of religious life. In churches, the desire to hallow the name of God is expressed throughout services, from popular hymns such as “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow” to Scripture readings from the Psalms.
But is the message getting across, and are prayers of thanksgiving effective even in those times when individuals are coping with serious illnesses or other events that could challenge their beliefs in a caring God who looks after them?
The answers appear to be yes and yes, research indicates.
Worshipers not only are being given the opportunity to offer praise, but express overwhelming appreciation for God’s role in their lives.
Consider these findings from the U.S. Congregational Life Survey:
- Four in five worshipers say services often give them a chance to thank God.
- Nearly nine in 10 people in the pews strongly agreed with the statement, “I am grateful for all God has done for me.”
- More than four in five respondents similarly affirmed the statement, “If I were to make a list of all the things God has done for me, it would be a very long list.”
- Ninety-eight percent of worshipers said that as they look back on their lives, they feel they have been richly blessed by God.
And the good news does not end there. As researchers delve more deeply into the effects of prayer, some are finding focusing on the divine appears to free individuals up from obsessing over their individual concerns, and provide a sense of assurance that God is with them in times of trouble.
In one study examining different prayer types, prayers expressing gratitude to God were found to the most consistently associated with subjective well-being. Prayers of thanksgiving were significant predictors of subjective well-being, self-esteem and optimism, researchers from Eastern Illinois University reported in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.
The online survey of 430 participants also found prayers of adoration had positive effects on optimism and a sense of greater meaning in life. Prayers of reception, a contemplative form open to receiving divine wisdom, also had positive effects on self-esteem, optimism and meaning in life.
Prayers asking God for a specific outcome, however, were found to have a negative association with perceived well-being.
Praying for one’s own health also was not associated with greater well-being in a separate study of 179 adults with cancer. In contrast, prayers of thanksgiving and adoration were significantly associated with lower levels of depressive symptoms in patients.
“Cancer patients who focus on what they are thankful for in life may spend less time ruminating over their illness,” researchers reported in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine.
While this is an emerging field of research, other studies also have also suggested that the spiritual values inherent in prayers of thanksgiving and adoration – belief in a divinity who both transcends human capabilities and cares personally for the person praying – may promote qualities such as optimism, hope and acceptance.
For example, in a study of lifetime trauma and prayer, older adults who believe that only God knows when it is best to answer a prayer and believe that only God knows the best way to answer it appeared to be better able to cope with the pernicious effects of childhood trauma. Researcher Neal Krause of the University of Michigan reported the findings in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.
The temptation may be to use prayer solely as a one-way conversation with a list of demands to be met, and problems to be shared. But individuals desiring a deeper experience of God’s love may want to share the line, the research suggests.
Studies aside, perhaps the best example of the power of prayers of praise and surrender to offer comfort for those times when the journey is long, and people are tired and full of sorrow, still goes back to the voice of Mahalia Jackson, known as “the mother of gospel music.”
She was a balm to the mourners at the funeral of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with her rendition of the classic, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” And listeners today can still sense the intimate connection possible between a human being and God as she sings:
Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand.
I'm tired, I’m weak, Lord I’m worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.”