Engaging in a conversation with God can bring comfort during hard times, new research shows.
Building upon other research that showed 75 percent of Americans pray on a weekly basis to manage hard situations like illness, sadness and anger, the new study sought to find why prayer aids in relief for individuals facing emotional pain.
Researcher Shane Sharp, a graduate student in sociology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, interviewed 62 women who were victims of violent relationships with intimate partners. The interviewees were between 19 and 72 years old and represented a wide swath of the United States in geographic, educational and racial terms, with largely Christian backgrounds.
Sharp found that prayer allowed victims a way to vent without fear of a violent reaction, contrary to what they might have experienced if they expressed their anger to their abusive partner.
In the study, published in the December issue of Social Psychology Quarterly, he wrote that the participants "perceived God as a loving parental or friendly figure who was nonjudgmental and forgiving" so they "felt they could express their anger to this other in interaction without fear of judgment or negative retaliation."
Sharp discovered that victims were able to see themselves in a positive light as they prayed, considering God's view of them and not how others perceived them.
He says these positive perceptions "helped raise their senses of self-worth that counteracted their abusers' hurtful words."
One of the participants, Marianne, a white Southern Baptist in her early 50's who had an abusive husband, told Sharp that the thought of how "screwed up" her life was made her want to get drunk, take drugs or kill herself but prayer reminded her of God's presence.
"And just to, to be able to just sit down and think that God wanted to communicate with me and that I'm not a scumbag in front of his eyes no matter what, wow, how cool is that?" she was quoted as saying.
The study also found that prayer helped victims cope with hurtful emotions by acting as a distraction from the immediate situation. Simply folding hands and concentrating on what to say to their partner helped to relieve their anxiety.
Another victim, 45-year-old Nancy, would pray "silently" to distract herself from the hurtful words of her husband.
She described prayer as a "neutral focal point" or a "a place where you can go emotionally and be calm in the midst of no calm."
The experience isn't that much different from a conversation with a close friend or a parent, the study's author suggests.
"I looked at the act of praying, of speaking to God, as the same as a legitimate social interaction," Sharp says. "Instead of a concrete interaction you would have face-to-face with another person, prayer is with an imagined other."
However, the victims reaped the benefits of prayer because they believed God is real, he adds. The same results would not apply to someone who didn't share those beliefs.
"The important point is that they believe God is real, and that has consequences for them emotionally and for their behavior," explains Sharp.
Participants told Sharp that through prayer they learned to forgive their abusive partners or let go of their anger.
But the consequences of prayer can be a "double-edged sword," according to the lead researcher.
"It's good for those who are out of that violent relationship to let go of it to a certain extent," he comments. "But if they're still in their violent relationship, it may postpone their decision to leave, and that can be bad."