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Study: Regular Bible Readers Experienced More Stress in 2020, But Also More Hope

In times of trials, Scripture strengthened and encouraged.
Study: Regular Bible Readers Experienced More Stress in 2020, But Also More Hope

Ainslee Moss felt the full weight of 2020.

For her, the year included juggling the responsibilities of running several nonprofit thrift stores in York County, South Carolina, directing a women’s shelter ministry, coordinating drop-offs for new mothers and seniors unable to leave their home in the pandemic, and traveling back and forth to the hospital with her elderly father who was fighting heart problems and esophageal cancer.

Her father, David Gentry, died at the end of the year, on December 27.

“Definitely one of the most challenging years I think I’ve ever been through,” Moss said. “I had my days that I had my good cries, but I think one of the things that kept me sane in those times was knowing that God has our days numbered.”

At the worst moments in 2020, she said, she turned to Psalm 34:1: “I will bless the Lord at all times” (ESV).

According to data from the State of the Bible survey by the American Bible Society (ABS), Moss’s experiences over the past year are in line with many Christians in America.

People who are “Bible engaged”—which the society defines as people who read Scripture multiple times per week and cite its impact on their daily lives as a key way they relate to God—struggled in 2020. They reported stress and anxiety at slightly higher rates than the rest of the population. But they also had more hope.

“Jesus said, ‘In this world you will have trouble, but take heart I have overcome the world,’” John Farquhar Plake, lead researcher at ABS, told CT. “We see that played out in the lives of real people in the data.”

The survey found that one-quarter of Americans are experiencing moderate levels of stress and 10 percent are experiencing extremely high levels.

Nearly half of respondents said they had trouble sleeping, 44 percent reported feeling tense, 44 percent said they were lonely and cut off from others, and 37 percent said they felt numb or detached.

Every measure of anxiety increased a bit between June 2020 and January 2021 in the study.

Christians who regularly turn to the Bible were not immune. In fact, the opposite was true.

“We actually found that more Scripture-engaged people experience more stress and often higher levels of trauma,” Plake said.

According to the study, “A strong relationship to the Bible often coexists with—and could even be compelled by—the hardships of life.”

Plake said the correlation could be explained by the fact that people turn to the Bible more when they’re in trouble than when everything in their lives is going well. From what the data shows, the Scripture gives people hope. Bible-engaged people scored 71 out of 100 on a hope agency test, rating the truth of statements such as “If I were in trouble, I know I could get out,” and “I can think of many ways to reach my goals.” Bible-disengaged respondents in the ABS study scored about 14 points lower.

Plake says the findings should encourage churches and ministries as they respond to the needs of people such as Moss, who have been through a lot in the past 12 months. The study affirms the Bible is a source of hope and encouragement.

Marlaina Centeno, a pastor and church partnership associate with the American Bible Society’s Trauma Healing Institute, said that women and minorities are statistically more likely to experience trauma—in general and perhaps even more in the difficulties of the pandemic.

“There are so many stresses that have happened in the past year on top of COVID, it compounded,” she said.

While trauma can create a barrier for some people when it comes to forming a relationship with God, Centeno said the data indicates that people in times of pain and suffering are strengthened by reading the Bible.

She suspects the impact is even greater when the Bible is read in groups, as relationships are also a source of comfort and encouragement. When people come together and form relationships and study the Bible together, they come away strengthened.

Centeno said while she’s seen a lot of hurt over the past year, she’s also seen a lot of healing.

“I’ve done in-person groups. I’ve done online groups throughout this entire year with COVID and it’s amazing what happens,” she said, “from the first session of people coming in so incredibly heavy and having a lot of stress and a lot of pain and then six weeks later or six sessions later seeing some bring their pain to the cross and being able to see that light.”

Plake said church leaders should take away two lessons from the State of the Bible report: First, people are hurting, whether they show it or not. And second, the Bible offers hope.

“It’s wild to realize that what was true 2,000 years ago is still true in the 21st century,” he said. “Just as God changed people’s lives, as it’s recorded in the Book of Acts and the Pauline Epistles, we see those same kinds of things in the data of 21st century Americans. The Bible is not out of date. It’s still relevant and God’s still at work.”

For Moss, it was in the pages of Scripture that she found the hope and strength to return to work at Tender Hearts Ministries soon after her dad died.

“I’m going to see him again one day because that’s what Scripture promises,” she said.

She also knows her dad would want her to continue doing what God called her to. As she counsels those who are at rock bottom, she points them to the same source of stability she goes to—the Bible.

“We are giving them hope,” she said.

[ This article is also available in español. ]

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