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Awareness of God's presence, well-being and responses to spiritual struggle

This study explores how awareness of God's presence in one's life may be linked with perceptions of a religious or spiritual struggle, reactions to and outcomes of the struggle and measures of general well-being.

By Valencia A. Harriott, Julie J. Exline, PhD, Todd W. Hall, PhD, and Kenneth I. Pargament, PhD

Many individuals who believe in God view God as capable of interacting with them on a personal level. People differ in the extent to which they perceive God's presence, whether it be during routine activities or difficult life challenges. In either case, people may encounter struggles around their relationship with God or religious or spiritual faith. For instance, they may face anger or doubt, may struggle with their understanding of morality, or may experience conflict with religious individuals (for a review, see Exline, 2013).

The purpose of this study was to explore how awareness of how God's presence in one's life may be linked with perceptions of a religious or spiritual struggle, reactions to the struggle, outcomes of the struggle, and measures of general well-being. We predicted that, in the wake of a spiritual struggle, a perceived awareness of God in one's life would be associated with positive outcomes, such as the belief that one's spiritual struggle had been resolved, that the struggle had ultimately been meaningful, and that one had experienced spiritual and emotional growth as a result of the struggle. In addition, we predicted that perceived awareness of God's presence would be positively associated with an overall sense of well-being and purpose in life.

To explore these potential associations, we conducted a web-based study at three undergraduate universities. From this overall sample, the subsample was limited to individuals who reported some belief in a personal, relational God and who reported that they had experienced a religious or spiritual struggle during the past few months.

Participants completed a series of measures assessing aspects of their relationship with God and their experience with spiritual struggle. Specifically, awareness of God's presence was measured using the five-item Awareness of God subscale of the Spiritual Transformation Inventory (Hall & Sarazin, 2011). This subscale includes such statements as “I feel God's presence as I go through my days” and “I sense God guiding me through my life.”

Next, the degree to which participants derived meaning from their religious or spiritual struggle was measured using six items developed for a prior study (Exline, Park, Smyth, & Carey, 2011). Participants responded to statements such as “I can think of some reasons that help explain why the struggle occurred” and “I can see some sort of ‘bigger picture' in which the struggle makes sense.” Participants' spiritual growth was assessed using the Growth subscale of Cole et al.'s (2008) Spiritual Transformation Scale. Comparing how they were before the religious or spiritual struggle to how they are now, participants responded to items such as “I have grown spiritually” and “I more often experience life around me as spiritual.”

In addition to this measure of spiritual growth, the extent to which participants believed they experienced a range of other spiritual, emotional, and social changes as a result of the struggle was assessed using the short form of the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 1999). On this scale, participants rated their level of growth on items such as “Developing new interests”, “Having compassion for others”, and “Being able to accept the way things work out.” Finally, the item: “Do you think that your religious/spiritual struggle has been resolved?” assessed the level at which participants considered their struggle to have been resolved. In addition to these measures, participants completed individual-difference measures of well-being (MHC-SF; Keyes, 2009), meaning in life (MLQ; Steger, Frazier, Oishi, & Kaler, 2006), religiosity (Blaine & Crocker, 1995) and perceived closeness to God.

Correlational analyses revealed that participants who reported a greater awareness of God's presence more strongly perceived that their struggle had been resolved and that their struggle had meaning. That is, awareness of God was related to coming out of a spiritual struggle with a greater sense of closure and appreciation for the struggle's purpose. Moreover, greater awareness of God's presence was related to both spiritual and emotional growth. Participants reported feeling stronger in their faith and in their ability to relate well with themselves and others after the struggle. Further, greater awareness of God's presence was positively associated with measures of social and emotional well-being. Finally, as participants reported more awareness of God in their lives, they indicated a clearer understanding of life's purpose. Rather than searching for meaning in life, they more strongly indicated that they had found it.

The significance of all correlations was maintained even after controlling for religiosity and perceived closeness to God, suggesting that these correlations are not merely conflated with religious identity or individual differences in perceived closeness to God. On the whole, sensing God's presence in daily life appears to be associated with favorable social, spiritual, emotional and relational outcomes after a spiritual struggle.


Blaine, B., & Crocker, J. (1995). Religiousness, race, and psychological well-being: Exploring social psychological mediators. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin , 21 (10), 1031-1041.

Calhoun, L. G., & Tedeschi, R. G. (1999). Facilitating posttraumatic growth: A clinician's guide. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Cole, B. S., Hopkins, C. M., Tisak, J., Steel, J. L., & Carr, B. I. (2008). Assessing spiritual growth and spiritual decline following a diagnosis of cancer: Reliability and validity of the Spiritual Transformation Scale. Psycho‐Oncology , 17 (2), 112-121. doi:10.1002/pon.1207.

Exline, J. J. (2013). Religious and spiritual struggles. In K. I. Pargament (Editor-in-Chief), J. J. Exline, & J. W. Jones (Associate Eds.), APA handbook of psychology, religion, and spirituality (Volume 1: Context, theory, and research; pp. 459-475). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Exline, J. J., Park, C. L., Smyth, J. M., & Carey, M. P. (2011). Anger toward God: Social-cognitive predictors, prevalence, and links with adjustment to bereavement and cancer. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 100 (1), 129–148. doi:10.1037/a0021716.

Hall, T. W., & Sarazin, J. (2011). The Spiritual Transformation Inventory (STI): Theoretical and psychometric foundations for a measure of relational spirituality. Unpublished manuscript, Biola University.

Keyes, C. L. M. (2009). Atlanta: Brief description of the mental health continuum short form (MHC-SF). Available: . [Online, retrieved July 17, 2014].

Steger, M. F., Frazier, P., Oishi, S., & Kaler, M. (2006). The Meaning in Life Questionnaire: Assessing the presence of and search for meaning in life. Journal of Counseling Psychology , 53 (1), 80-93. doi: 10.1037/0022-0167.53.1.80


We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the John Templeton Foundation (Grant #36094).

Valencia HarriottValencia Harriott is a second year student in the clinical psychology doctoral program at Case Western Reserve University. She is interested in how religion and spirituality play a role in the way people experience life. Currently, Valencia is exploring people's perceptions of having heard from God and the psychological factors that appear to relate to this perception.