Joy to the world: Spending private time with God linked to benevolent love

It is one of the most intense experiences in the lives of individuals, but a major new research project indicates spending quality time with God also may hold a key to benevolent love for all of humanity.

The Godly Love National Survey, led by researchers at the University of Akron and the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, found people who most often reported feeling God’s love were more than twice as likely as the average American to give time to those in need more than once a week.

In addition to being generous with their time, talent and treasure, people who experienced God’s love most frequently also were far more likely to strongly agree all people share an unbreakable bond of humanity, a strong predictor of benevolence. Scholars Matthew Lee, Margaret Poloma and Stephen Post share the survey findings, along with related research, in their new book, “The Heart of Religion.”

So it seems to be an especially good practice that so many Americans spend a great deal of time in prayer and other devotions, according to findings from the U.S. Congregational Life Survey.

About half of U.S. worshippers said they spend time in private devotional activities such as prayer, meditation or reading the Bible alone every day or most days. Two-thirds said they engaged in devotional activities at least a few times a week.

We pray most often for ourselves and our families, according to a random sample of 846 Christian adults asked about their prayer practices as part of the 2008-2009 survey.

Three-quarters of respondents, including 81 percent of conservative Protestants and two-thirds of mainline Protestants, said they personally pray for themselves and their closest loved ones every day or most days.

But we also pray for more universal concerns. Consider these findings:

  • More than half of respondents, including two-thirds of Catholics, said they pray at least once a week for world peace or an end to war.
  • About half of respondents, including 59 percent of Catholics and 52 percent of mainline Protestants, reported praying at least weekly for an end to world hunger or poverty.
  • Some four in 10 respondents, including 42 percent of conservative Protestants, said they prayed a great deal or quite a bit more often than in the past because of world and national events in the
    past five years.

The idea that communion with God leads to love of neighbor is deeply rooted within the Christian theological tradition.

What the latest research appears to affirm is that the stronger the connection individuals have with the divine, the more likely they are to move beyond caring for loved ones to embrace the world.

“As you come to know the depths of God’s love, it’s easier to give that love away,” Poloma said in an interview.

More good news: Getting closer to God is also a win-win proposition, researchers found. Individuals who reported experiencing God’s love more than once a day were far more likely to say they have a strong meaning and purpose in life and to both find “great joy” in helping others and to recognize the “great kindness” other people have shown to them, researchers found.

As we enter 2013, many of us may want to consider having one of our resolutions be to work on our spiritual lives. You, your loved ones and your neighbors near and far may all be better off.