How does spirituality help during difficulty?
Evidence from a study of youth in El Salvador
For the last three years, I’ve been a Fellow at the Thrive Center as I pursue a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. My connection with Thrive began as a student researcher, as I have interests in studying religion and spirituality as they relate to thriving and positive development for youth. Through the Thrive Center, I was invited by Dr. Pam King to participate in ongoing research and offered opportunities to explore further interests as well. As part of my Thrive Fellowship, I was involved in a research study of Compassion International’s (CI) program in El Salvador. CI is a faith-based organization that sponsors youth development programs around the globe. For this study, we were particularly interested in understanding how faith-based support helped youth in the most difficult life circumstances.
Qualitative interviews were conducted with 18 Salvadoran youth in the CI program who were nominated as thriving spiritual exemplars. These youth are featured in the quotes below. Along with the Thrive team, I coded and identified important themes that emerged across the interviews that highlighted the process and function of spirituality for these youth1. We used a model of spiritual development that was found in previous research2 to guide our coding. We examined particular themes specific to the CI program in El Salvador, and found that the development of spirituality appears to help young people thrive in spite of circumstances.
Particularly we found:
- Adolescents develop virtues related to their faith when involved in these programs and these virtues help them contribute to their communities. Through spirituality, youth develop narratives that clarify their beliefs and values.1,3
- These narratives help youth adapt to their environments as they develop skills aligned with their faith.1,3
- Faith based support helps youth cultivate coherent and purpose filled lives.1,3
This study had several notable findings, and direct quotes are included here for clarity and illumination. First, the exemplars identified that the systems of support provided by CI mattered in creating awareness and connection to things beyond themselves and the exploration of meaning in their lives. Our understanding of spiritual development identifies awareness and connection as experiences of transcendence.
For example, the exemplars mentioned ways they felt the love of God through their spiritual experiences:
“I feel incredible because we all know that God loves us all. For my part, I feel very grateful. I feel it is a privilege to be loved by God.”
Other exemplars mentioned the vastness of God’s love and wanting to respond to the love of God:
“If God loves me then I have to love others, too. The Lord is loving me… if he loves me, I have to love others… if the Lord loves us all, I have to love everyone.”
Second, in response to experiences of transcendence, exemplars identified how their beliefs, values, and sense of purpose changed through deep commitment or fidelity to their faith.
For example, Clara felt a closeness to God that in turn shaped her sense of calling and purpose:
“I know that I am like an instrument for Him, that He is my potter, I am clay, and He can mold me… God already has a purpose. He knows what is going to happen with me. Though the only thing missing is for me to fulfill it.”
Third, the spiritual lives not only included experiences of transcendence, clarified beliefs, values, and purpose, but also a beyond-the-self motivation, and exemplars took action through mentoring other youth and helping others in ministry, or evangelizing.
One exemplar stated that he helps contribute by taking care of and mentoring younger children in the program:
“I help the smaller children. A lot of them believe that because they are small, they are less than those of us who are older. And it is the opposite, we have to take care of the little ones.”
In addition to the themes of transcendence, fidelity, and action, additional themes were found throughout the interviews. Many of the exemplars discussed obstacles they faced within family relationships, safety in the community, and spiritual trials. In the face of these difficult challenges, exemplars identified ways that their faith offered ways to spiritually cope.
For example, one exemplar discussed an unwavering trust in God in the midst of difficulties:
“In everything, it is having faith and the hope that you – you can overcome despite whichever obstacles appear[s]. Although you see a big problem, for God, nothing is impossible.”
Another talked about how prayer connects them with God during times of trial:
“when a test/trial has been difficult, it motivates you to pray that you trust in God.”
We found evidence that CI’s support of faith development helped youth grow through the ups and downs of their circumstances.4 A particularly valuable component of spiritual development involved the transcendent experiences that helped inform youth’s beliefs and actions. Based upon this research we understand spiritual development to be a powerful resource for youth, and youth programs should encourage opportunities for encountering the transcendent. This study provides support for youth’s receptivity of experiencing transcendence, which in turn helps clarify their beliefs, actions, and sense of purpose. In addition, CI is able to support these youth through having caring adult relationships that provide mentoring, opportunities for youth to experience God’s love through others, and having purposeful things for these youth to do that helps them contribute to community, live purposefully, and remain resilient through life obstacles. Youth programs beyond CI may consider ways they also encourage transcendent experience for youth, whether it be through adult mentoring, offering space and practice for youth to open themselves to transcendent experience, and providing opportunities for youth to align purpose with actions. These experiences can support the development of beyond-the-self narratives and bring awareness of God’s love, help, and presence, which can be valuable assets for youth thriving even in profound difficulties.
Noe, S. A., & King, P. E. (2022). Spirituality in the lives of Salvadoran youth exemplars. (Unpublished master’s thesis). Fuller School of Psychology and Marriage and Family Therapy.
King, P. E., & Boyatzis, C. J. (2015). Religious and spiritual development. In M. E. Lamb & R. M. Lerner (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology and developmental science: Socioemotional processes., Vol. 3, 7th ed. (pp. 975–1021). John Wiley & Sons, Inc. https://doi-org.fuller.idm.oclc.org/10.1002/9781118963418.childpsy323
Schnitker, S. A., King, P. E., & Houltberg, B. (2019). Religion, spirituality, and thriving: Transcendent narrative, virtue, and telos. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 29(2), 276–290. https://doi-org.fuller.idm.oclc.org/10.1111/jora.12443
Tirrell, J. M., Geldhof, G. J., King, P. E., Dowling, E. M., Sim, A. T., Williams, K., Iraheta, G., Lerner, J. V., & Lerner, R. M. (2018). Measuring spirituality, hope, and thriving among Salvadoran youth: Initial findings from the Compassion International Study of Positive Youth Development. Child & Youth Care Forum, 48(2), 241–268. doi.org/10.1007/s10566-018-9454-1