Our extensive research study on Spiritual life in mainstream interfaith congregations contained both quantitative and qualitative questions about spiritual life. The results of our analysis of the quantitative data revealed three critical findings:

  1. People have experiences of the Presence of Action of God in their lives which they recognize and describe as examples of  “spiritual healing”:  a time when God became “real” in their lives.
  2. People rarely share those experiences for fear of being seen as weird, crazy or too religious.
  3. But people never forget their God experiences. They are indelibly placed in memory with the affect of the experience preserved and available.

Two qualitative questions, describing these experiences of the Presence or Action of God in my life, were also presented in the questionnaire:

  1. Generally speaking, has your understanding of who you are (your self-identity) changed since your experience of the presence or action of God in your life? If yes, please describe the changes.
  2. Generally speaking, has the experience of the Presence or Action of God in your life changed the way you live? If yes, please describe the changes.

At the very beginning of our journey to find our answers, we (my husband and I) had an unexpected experience that spoke to both those questions:

We were traveling on Interstate 95 between Philadelphia and Baltimore and stopped to get a map of Baltimore. When I asked the ‘map man’ for the map, he replied, “What for?” A bit stunned by his answer, I said, with some impatience,“because we’re taking a spiritual healing project to two churches in Baltimore- wanting to add something like “so there!”. Our map man replied immediately. “Spiritual Healing happens all the time and it’s happening right now while we’re talking, and I feel better!” 

Surprised by his enthusiastic response we continued our journey to learn what happened to people’s lives when God became “real” to them. But we never forgot the map man who felt “better”.  

Two years later, when our study was completed, we had real evidence of the presence and action of God in people’s lives with resulting changes that were powerful and permanent. Our two qualitative questions were answered with personal stories of the unexpected and transforming presence of God in people’s lives.

In general, people described the experienced changes in their lives in four ways:

  1. God has become more real to me.
  2. I am less angry.
  3. I am living more in the present and less in the past or the future.
  4. I feel “better”. 

When we examined the issue of “self-identity” in each of our religious groups, the similarity of responses was powerful:

“Generally speaking, has your understanding of your self-identity, who you are, changed since your experience of the presence or action of God in your life?”

Episcopal: “I believe that God loves me and that I am created in God’s Image. I am more compassionate, less judgmental, calmer, more centered, more aware of my precious fragility”.

Catholic:  I know I am a child of God, loved by God, one of God’s beloved. I am more loving and patient; more relaxed and gentle; definitely less fearful.”

United Church of Christ: “I am more loving, confident, accepting, more relaxed, less fearful about the future.”

Reform Jewish:  I’ve learned to appreciate the “now” of my life; to value the present, not what was or will be. I am more aware of myself as a spiritual being: More peaceful, more sensitive to others.

The question of whether this experience of the Presence or Action of God in your life has changed the way you live was similarly answered by each of our four groups:

“Generally speaking, has your spiritual healing changed your life?”

Episcopal: “God is a major influence in everything I do.”

Catholic: “The essence of life is simple: To pray more; to thank God more, and to try to help others.”

United Church of Christ: “I am less fearful; more energetic; less afraid of being honest; more empathic, a better listener; more open.”

Reform Jewish: “I have a sense of wholeness and a better sense of how I fit into the universe.”

When God becomes “real” life changes.

After the study was complete, I shared these exciting results with an audience of laypeople, adding that I couldn’t guarantee that if someone had come to the lecture with a headache that the headache would magically go away. But a man in the audience interrupted me immediately: “But Dr. McKay, my headache did go away and I do feel better”. 

And I smiled and silently thanked my map man who had already given me the outcome of my study before it actually began!